Trails to Azure

Ao No Kiseki finally breaks the second-game curse that plagued all other Trails arcs! I was mentally prepared to be disappointed again and totally expected that Azure would be worse than the first game, but it totally lived up to all the hype. Well, it’s a Trails game, so hype is a strong word maybe… but anyway — Trails To Azure is probably the best game in the entire series.

I think that to a big extent Ao is so good because it feels like a standalone game, even though it’s a direct sequel to Zero, and Falcom are second to none at writing the first part of a story, the part that is building up the suspense. The finale can be a miss, but the beginning of any story they write, oh man, it’s usually so good. Initially all you see is a shadow of some conspiracy, a bunch of seemingly random events and it’s just so fascinating to see how the grand scheme of things is slowly being revealed. I had known who the villains were before I inserted the disc into the console, I had known what’s going to happen and it was still interesting to just play through the story. It also helps that more than half of its playtime Ao No Kiseki is focused on politics and, let’s say, real Zemurian events as opposite to dealing mostly with Ouroboros and supernatural. The trade conference and the attack on Crossbell are clearly the highest points of the game, these episodes are powerful and make you truly feel for the citizens of the city-state. Osborne has always been a great character and despite having only a few minutes of screen time in Ao the conversation with him may be one of the most memorable moments in the game. However after 4 games of Sen no Kiseki I already knew, more or less, what to expect from Blood and Iron Chancellor. With Dieter Crois Falcom surprised me though, I didn’t expect that they’d manage to write a compelling antagonist. I mean, yeah, we have Ian Grimwood and Mariabell but their motivation is too vague, as it often happens with the bad guys. “We’re going to get the power to shape the world as we like”. Hear, hear. So I’d say that Dieter is the villain of this game and the fact that in the end he’s pretty much out-villained and betrayed by his own daughter lifts the mayor of Crossbell even more as a character.

Speaking of characters — one of the minor gripes I have with Trails to Azure is that because the game is more story-focused (and oh boy, for once I don’t want to complain about the plot itself, it’s pretty good!) and because we already had Zero to show the relationships between the characters — there are not so many memorable interactions and dialogues between them. Randy and Rixia are the ones who got additional time in the spotlight, for obvious reasons: Red Constellation plays a big role in all of the events occurring in Crossbell, and Rixia’s story simply had to have some closure. It’s kind of weird that everybody just sort of moved on from the fact that she had killed quite a few people but… she’s hot and likeable, so that’s understandable I guess? Ah, Wazy also got his fair share of screen time, but for the second game in a row I couldn’t find any reason to care about him ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I wish Rixia was more useful gameplay-wise though, I really wanted to use her in the last chapter when she finally joins the party, but except for her S-Craft which hits everyone on the screen she doesn’t have any advantages over, say, Randy or Lloyd. Randy is a stronger physical attacker and Lloyd is a better evasion tank. Wazy at least has a craft impeding in a large radius, that is helpful sometimes in the last dungeon. That’s a shame because Rixia kind of grew on me after I bought her figure =) Hopefully she’s more useful in Hajimari.

After Azure I can say positively that Lloyd is the worst protagonist in Kiseki games and I’m not sorry for this statement. He’s just so bland! Everything about him screams “I’m your stereotypical anime/JRPG main character.” I spent what, 160-180 hours on Zero and Ao, and can’t recall Lloyd doing or saying anything non-standard. At the same time he’s showered with praise by everyone, something I hated in Persona 5 for example. However, in terms of gameplay Lloyd is pretty much an irreplaceable member of the team. I said before that I couldn’t find a role for him in Zero, but in Ao he has to be an evasion tank. It’s very easy to build 100% evasion for him and that will make your life much, much, much easier in this game. I played on hard this time and some of the bosses were challenging even with them hitting (and missing) Lloyd 50% of time. It was fun though! If I had to pick the best boss fight it’d be a tie between Mariabell and the second form of the final boss. The former was a bit gimmicky and I wasn’t well prepared for it — the monsters Bell summons don’t allow your party to move freely and eat up so many turns! My poor Tio was KOd like 10 times during this fight. The final boss fight is very long, it hits really hard and can dispel Tio’s Zero Field *annoyed_face.jpg* It was very satisfying to defeat it though =) The last dungeon itself… oh boy, it was a long one. The final chapter was intense, with varied activities (you’re breaking from the prison, then looking for friends, then finally fighting the big guns like Arianrhod etc. etc), it managed to replicate that sense of urgency that should be there and then… you spend 4 or 5 hours climbing the Azure Tree.

Okay, now it’s time for random ramblings. As I said the attack on Crossbell was one of the most powerful moments in the game and it was kind of touching to visit the hospital in the last chapter to check on people who suffered during the attack. Ilya’s injury and her resolve to get back on stage against all odds is one thing, but for some reason it felt really heartwarming to see inspector Donovan there — who is a minor character! — and who saved other police officers that day. The best side-quest, no doubts, was the one where Tio was forced to take the next step into adulthood. Hmm, hold on, that doesn’t sound right. Where she had to face the bitter truth about Mishy? “Actor? Costume? Stomachache?” Yeah, our precious Tio knows what pain is. Azure added a couple of new things comparing to Zero in terms of gameplay: now there are Master Quartz, which behave slightly differently comparing to Cold Steel games but generally the idea is the same, and there’s a Burst gauge which activates at some particular points of the story and is super useful to spam arts like there’s no tomorrow (I think CSII has the same but my memory is a bit hazy). I got most of the trophies which could be obtained during the first playthrough (missed a couple of treasure chests, didn’t see any of the final bonding events except for the one with Ellie), so in theory could go for the second run on Nightmare to get the platinum, but it feels like an overkill to play a story- and dialogue-heavy game two times in a row. Maybe one day. Kind of sucks that you are forced to play the game twice to get 100% completion for no other reason but to get entries in the combat notebook for the monsters available only in NG+, curious if Hajimari is like this — I think I’m experienced enough at this point to at least try playing on Nightmare from the beginning, so who knows, maybe will aim for my first Trails platinum trophy!

Oh man, it took me two years but I caught up with all the Trails games and I’m super happy that back in 2020 I gave Cold Steel 3 a chance. Ao was fantastic and now I’m weirdly excited for Hajimari no Kiseki. I know that it’s going to be a pretty different game comparing to others, but I remember looking at the cover art and screenshots in the internet when it just came out in Japan and fidgeting in anticipation — and in a couple of months I will finally be able to lay my dirty hands on it. Hajimari is also going to be the first limited edition game I’ve ever owned and now I kind of regret not getting LEs of Zero and Azure considering how much I enjoyed them. Regrets, I have a few. It’s kind of fun how in a couple of years I transformed from someone who didn’t want to play Kiseki games because there were too many of them into a guy who is obsessed with all things Trails =) I can only hope that I won’t go the same route with Neptunia, the game that I’m playing currently (and, oh horror, liking it so far!) — I will go bankrupt just trying to buy all of the figures based on it =)

It’s always a good day when something is delivered from amiami. Just look at this gorgeous Rixia!

I’m totally not an expert when it comes to anime figures, but in my opinion Kotobukya did a great job with her. The downside is that I’m gonna have to be super careful with all these small details like ribbons, wasn’t really a problem with Altina =) As a bonus I also bought an Urusei Yatsura calendar (yeah, in April).

Trails of Cold Steel — Northern War

TOCS — Northern War is legit the worst anime I’ve ever watched and completed. For the longest time this questionable honor belonged to Tsukuyomi Moon Phase, but let me be honest — I don’t think that it was objectively bad, just I probably watched it at a wrong time and maybe should give it another try. On the other hand, this Trails anime is objectively awful. It’s bad through and through — its animation is terrible, the plot is incoherent, the cast of characters is laughably unmemorable. This should not have been released at all and I regret that I spent about 2.5 hours of my life watching this mess (I got so sick and tired of it by the 8th episode so just scrolled through the last few to get the gist of what’s going on.) The anime was probably supposed to make the franchise more recognizable and attract new people, but I have a feeling that Falcom hurt Kiseki with this half-assed effort more than helped.

It’s a cliche but I have no idea who the target audience of this garbage should’ve been. Those who haven’t played the game will not find anything appealing in this show, they have zero reasons to watch it past the first few minutes. The fans… I for example was silently throwing up in my mouth during most of the scenes. I know that people like to complain about Trails in the Sky OVA but at least it was a purely fan-service product. “Liked our game? There you go, a two-episode long OVA featuring some of the scenes from them”. I actually didn’t even find it to be that bad for a straight-to-DVD show. However, Northern War doesn’t just retell the plot of the game. It is supposed to fill the gap between CS 2 and 3 and show the conflict we only read about in the game. As you can guess it does it poorly. Nothing even remotely interesting happens for 11 episodes and the war itself, the war that was an important and difficult event in Rean’s life, compactly fits into 10 to 12 minutes of the last episode and makes me wish they didn’t show it at all.

One more thing to mention. Erebonian Empire can’t really be called the good guys in the Kiseki universe. They are not shy to use their military power and they annex their neighbors left and right. In this anime we are probably supposed to cheer for North Ambria and hope that they’ll preserve their independence but… everyone from this country who shows up in this show is so unlikable that it’s really much easier to root for Osborne. We know the guy, we know people who work for him or with him, and we are not given a single reason to care about the characters on the other side.

It’s truly a shame that this series of games that have amazing characters, well-written dialogues and detailed lore got such a pathetic adaptation. Ironically, this winter A-1 released another anime based on a game, and the difference in quality comparing to Northern War is like day and night. I didn’t watch Nier Automata 1.1 entirely yet, but the first 4 episodes were basically flawless. Oh well… I’m happy for Nier fans and that makes me wish again this Trails anime didn’t exist.

I usually don’t write anything about ongoing anime until the season is over but this time I simply have to vent. Trails of Cold Steel anime is bad. Yeah, we’re only 5 episodes in but I can’t imagine that all of a sudden this show will become better. It has no budget, the animation is atrocious, the way it’s directed you’d assume that it was made by a school anime club, the dialogues are poorly written, the plot is not there yet and the new cast of characters is so unlikeable that it’s simply insulting to any Kiseki fan (yeah Falcom spoiled us). Lavi is a watered down version of Fie who doesn’t have an ounce of Fie’s charm and the rest of the group doesn’t belong to anything with “Trails” in the name. I’m going to continue watching this… product only because I hope we’ll get a minute with the original characters here and there and pray to Aidios that their dialogue lines will be written by different writers.

And trust me, I had to work hard to capture a half-decently looking screenshot =(

Kotobukiya wants me to go bankrupt, I can’t find another reason why it decided to release a new Kiseki figure every 3 months. Just pre-ordered this Renne, curious who’s going to be next — hopefully Tio. Or Alisa. Or Juna. Or Laura. Or Sarah. Or… Who am I lying to — I’m going to order a figure based on pretty much any girl in this series except maybe Millium and Angelica =)

Trails From Zero

Finally, a new Trails game, hooray! Well, “new” is a bit of a stretch here — Zero no Kiseki came out in Japan on the PSP in 2010 — but only now we finally got the official English release, thanks to NISA and the Geofront. Not gonna lie, this is the first time I’ve heard of a fan-group translation used in an official release, that’s pretty cool.

The Crossbell duology is usually highly praised and I read multiple times that these two games might be the peak Falcom, the best ones the studio has ever released. However, I also read similar claims about Sora SC and wouldn’t say that game was better even than First Chapter, not to mention my personal favorite, Cold Steel III. This time around though I have to agree — Zero No Kiseki is a fantastic game. Not sure if it’s truly the number 1 in entire Kiseki series but I had great time with it and liked almost everything it has to offer.

Let me get my list of complaints and things that could’ve made me enjoy the game even more off my chest first, it’s going to be pretty short. Zero was released after Trails In the Sky and it uses a similar orbment and combat system. Sora games difficulty was kind of hit and miss, so based on my previous experience I picked normal difficulty. Unfortunately, turned out that Trails From Zero is on the easier side comparing to the Sky trilogy, I think I would’ve had more fun if the game was harder. Oh well, Nightmare for the second playthrough maybe? =) And now (haha) let’s address my main (haha) complaint about this game (haha). Or should’ve I said “barrier” instead of “haha”? Lloyd Bannings is a surprisingly boring main character. Yeah, more boring than our overprotective big brother Rean Schwarzer. I didn’t actively dislike Lloyd but oh boy does he have a personality of a friendly potato. It’s truly a shame considering that the rest of the cast is so, so good.

I knew in advance that Tio and Randy would be my favorites and they didn’t disappoint. Randy’s remarks are pure gold most of the time and Tio, despite being a totally different type, keeps up with him perfectly. The way she treats poor Chief Roberts… =( Elie is a surprisingly okay heroine. She doesn’t have any quirks (weeeell, well-well-well, unless you want to talk about the “dynamic duo”, as Randy once said), her past is not that mysterious, but I wouldn’t say that she’s boring, she’s just… relatable, kind of a normal person in this world. Sergei, Noel, Dudley, Grace, Rixia, Ilya, Arios, Estelle — all the supporting cast is also super likeable (yah, even Dudley). I’m desperately trying to recall any really annoying character or scene and drawing blanks. Okay, maybe Wazy is so-so? The antagonist in Zero is your typical Falcom villain. Funnily enough, in the middle of my playthrough I grabbed my Trails artbook to flip through a few pages (Estelle’s portraits bothered me a little, so I wanted to double-check that I’m not crazy and she looked differently in previous games) and spoiled myself to who the mastermind behind everything was =) Although, to be fair, if in a Trails game you see a pleasant middle-aged scientist, the only one among his colleagues who has a portrait in dialogues, and don’t automatically assume that he’s going to be either an Enforcer or at least a Really Suspicious Guy — that’s on you =) I’m a firm believer that if a game or book is good then a spoiler or two won’t matter much (detective novels are an exception of course). Not only Trails From Zero is good, to me Kiseki games’ main selling points have always been their fantastic characters, dialogues and fun combat, not the plot, so I could only chuckle when I had opened the page with Joachim =) Though the plot in Zero is built competently. What start off as relatively mundane investigations eventually transform into a large-scale operation against an evil cult. Surprisingly, Ouroboros doesn’t actively participate in this game. Yeah, they are around: we have a side quest from Phantom Thief B; Renne is running around the city; I already knew about Mariabell (although I’m not sure if she’s already with the Society in Zero) but they never actually intervene in anything. Even more surprisingly, Zero No Kiseki doesn’t end with a cliffhanger. There are some loose ends, for sure (Who is KeA? When will SSS learn about Rixia? When will Mariabell show her true colors? Will Randy finally go on a date with Cecile?) but by and large this is a finished story.

It was an interesting change of pace to spend the entire game in a single city. In Cold Steel I and III we had the “base” towns of Leeves and Trista, and because you spend quite a bit of time in these places you eventually get to know all the people there, learn what kinds of relationships they have with each other and see how these relationships are changing as the game is progressing. Crossbell offers the same but on a grander scale. I’d been trying to talk to everyone in the city at least once a day (NPCs can change their dialogues after some plot event during the same day) but frankly burned out a little after a few days of the festival chapter. I had already missed a bunch of collectibles anyway (guides are for weaklings), so decided to just speak with the people whose stories seemed to be the most interesting. As a side note I want to express my displeasure with the fact that Juna’s family (and Juna herself) are pretty much missing from this game (her little brother and sister can be seen a couple of times but that’s that).

I was thinking to write something about gameplay as well but, honestly, it’s a case of “if it’s not broken why fix it?” Gameplay-wise Zero is more or less a copy-paste of Trails in the Sky the 3rd. The camera outside of battles is fixed now and in combat we have access to combo-crafts, I think that covers most of the changes =) So instead of some gameplay-related wisdoms here comes just a list of random things from my playthrough.

The party of Lloyd, Randy, Elie and Tio is well balanced and fun to use. Randy is obviously a Crossbell version of Laura, all he needs is love accessories increasing the amount of CP and as many ATK cranking quartz as possible. Elie and Tio are both decent mages and can be used interchangeably. In my opinion Elie has better attacking crafts, so my “primary” mage was Tio (meaning I sped up casting for her as much as possible) but the roles can be reversed for sure. Lloyd is a bit of an oddball, because he doesn’t have a clearly defined “class”, but it’s the fate of all Trails protagonists.

Whereas I said that I don’t remember any really weak scenes there were episodes which were the highlights of the game for me. I liked how Tio and Randy were joking about Lloyd and Elie’s relationships (were they joking though?), the running gag with Cecile having fun at Lloyd’s expense (“Lloyd, I hope today you’ll finally tell me who you’re dating!”) is cute and, well, funny; the same goes to the scene when Noel is interrogating her sister about the “man she loves”: “Is it Lloyd? It’s Lloyd, isn’t it? No, please, no, please don’t tell me it’s Randy!” It was surprisingly touching to see how Renne was learning the truth about her family and their reunion with Estelle and Joshua was equally heartwarming. Goddamn, and I don’t even like Renne!

Trails games don’t surprised me anymore, that would be an impossible task after I’ve played so many of them, but every time it feels so nice to return to Zemuria and see all these characters again. Can’t wait to play Ao and Hajimari next year! And Kuro of course too… one day =)

P.S. And as a bonus some random screenshots from the game =)

Trails of Cold Steel II

It pains me to be writing such heresy but Trails of Cold Steel 2 is not a very good game. It’s certainly the weakest of 6 Kiseki games I’ve played and unlikely I’ll want to give it another shot any time soon. The pacing, plot, dialogues — sadly everything is below average.

A regular reminder that I’m a pervert and have been playing this saga out of order. Soo… the way Cold Steel II is structured is immediately recognizable by anyone who played the last game of the arc. First we’re looking for friends and allies, then there’s a huge “open-world”-like chapter with a ship as the home base. I didn’t especially enjoy this structure when I was playing CS IV, so take a guess what I was thinking during my CS II playthrough, considering that the last game, being the same under the hood, improved on a lot of things. CS II doesn’t have anything close to the night before the final battle in Mishelam Wonderland, it doesn’t have insane Rean, even the liberation of Trista, which was supposed to be a powerful and inspirational moment doesn’t live up to the scene in CS IV when we get to see Leeves again. Even the most boring Trails games still have moments I’m going to remember for a long time but I have virtually nothing after having finished this one. Oh well, at least Altina is as cute as ever.

Not only the structure and pacing are meh, the plot is not aiming for the stars either. The Chancellor is “dead”, the Noble Alliance and the Imperial Army are at war, Elise and Alfin are kidnapped and Rean with his friends basically go on one very long rescue mission, simultaneously crashing those pesky nobles. Yah, Class VII is declaring every 20 minutes that they’re going to be neutral, that they’re going to be the third force, only to side with Osborne on every step. So much for being an additional side in the conflict. I have to admit though that the epilogue is really, really good. Rean, who’s become The Ashen Chevalier, finally has to participate in actual military operations and what can be more depressing than basically work for people you hate? Then there’s a brief, a little awkward but heartful, reunion with his classmates and, finally, they have to say goodbye to each other, walking away from Thors and trying to find their own paths in life. The ending felt bittersweet, honey and clover-ish, despite the fact that I knew that they all would meet again in CS III =)

However, the epilogue is probably the only things about Cold Steel II story I genuinely enjoyed. Continuing the whipping of the game I have to say that even the dialogues, something that I’d never thought Falcom could fuck up, were bad. Few conversations were interesting to follow, few comments were smart, half of the time I had to read various inspirational speeches about friendship, comradery and that people could be an unstoppable force if they’re working together. “We can do it as Class VII!” The same goes to character development or, I should say, the lack of thereof. This is definitely not the biggest issue because the characters themselves are fine the way they are, but it would be nice if they matured a bit throughout the game. There’s one annoying moment regarding one specific character though. We’re supposed to care about Crow, his death should be another punch in the nuts for Rean — but c’mon! He was someone I never even thought of spending time with in CS I, the backstory about his granddad, explaining how Crow came to hate the Chancellor, belongs to “oh, interesting. Anyway, speaking about Altina…” category and considering that I had already known the “unexpected” twist with his death and resurrection in the next game — it’s easy to see why I had to sign every time another character would start mumbling something about missing “our friend and classmate”. Crow wasn’t a good playable character and he definitely is not a great antagonist.

Again and again I have to praise the decision to begin my Erebonian journey with CS III. CS II is a pretty average JRPG with great combat system (which Trails game doesn’t have it?) but lacking in all other departments. It’s totally possible that I would’ve stopped playing this series after this disappointment and, thus, missed out on the next, brilliant, chapter of the saga. Now it seems that I’m taking a break from Kiseki games until Trails from Zero, which is coming out this fall. I am genuinely looking forward to playing it — I already have a couple of characters I like there (Tio and Randy) and will be more than happy to spend another hundred or two hours with them =)