When I was nine, my friend Bobby invited me over to see this new game: Grandia. In it, there was a guy who piloted a flying ship and called someone “bastard.” I’ve been a JRPG fan ever since. When I let myself fall into their familiar rhythms — the soothing repetition of combat, stories about the triumphs of plucky adventurers, and vast fantasy worlds — it’s like applying noise-canceling headphones to my childhood anxieties.
It helps that I grew up in the SNES and PlayStation era, when you regularly received classics like Chrono Trigger and Suikoden 2, alongside bold experiments like EarthBound and Xenogears. But recently, I feel like my beloved genre has slowed down quite a bit. Yes, we get the occasional gem like Persona 5 or Dragon Quest XI, but most of the major JRPG series from the 80s and 90s only publish once a console generation — if at all.
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Enter Nihon Falcom’s Trails series. Starting with 2004’s The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky — originally part of the long-running Legend of Heroes series, but now its own thing — Falcom has released nine Trials games since. They feel like lost treasures from the golden era of JRPGs.
To add to their mystique, the size of the games’ scripts (often over one million Japanese characters) kept them from being translated for years. Trails in the Sky wasn’t published in English until 2011, seven years after its Japanese launch. Trails of Cold Steel 3, the eighth game in the series and sixth to be published in English, is out on Oct. 22, 2019.
I’ve been playing through the Trails games this year in order to catch up for Cold Steel 3. And, well, I’ve become a bit obsessed. To spread my obsession, and because my friends no longer listen when I talk about Trails, I’ve composed a list of seven reasons every JRPG fan should give these lesser-known games a shot.
1. It’s Video Game Storytelling With a Generational Scope
The Trails series is uniquely massive. Within the larger series there’s one trilogy (Trails in the Sky), one duology (Trails from Zero followed Trails to Azure, which are currently untranslated), and a tetralogy (Trails of Cold Steel). Each set of games focuses on a different country in the war-torn continent of Zemuria and a different group of lead characters. As the games progress, events and characters from older games continue to appear and impact current events — across entire console generations and more than a decade of real time.
Think of Trails as the Song of Ice and Fire (more like the books than the TV series) of JRPGs. The serial nature of the games allows for sprawling political conflicts to play out slowly and have consequences, while the per-game focus on single countries and groups of protagonists allows you to understand the individuals affected by the larger conflicts.
2. The Characters Have Space to Develop
Trails’ main storytelling influence is anime, so you’ll find your fair share of trope-y villains and heroes, but the degree to which these games invest in their characters means that easy solutions and uncomplicated characters are rare.
Conversations in the Trails games are long. Characters often pause between the action to discuss what’s happening, how they feel, and what they should do at length. Repeatedly. This pace can take a moment to get used to, but it helps the emotional beats, climaxes, and reveals to hit particularly hard.
3. The Music… The Music is Just Fantastic
Every entry in the Trails series is stuffed from end to end with delightful earworms. The JRPG genre has a high bar for music, but Trails meets it with eclectic soundtracks that aren’t shy about bringing in jazz, electronic, and rock influences. In a series that encourages you to build familiarity by revisiting a lot of key locations, the catchy music gives a strong identity to each area, and acts as a potent nostalgia enhancer on every return visit.
4. No Random Battles & Secretly Some of the Best Combat in the Genre
Most JRPGs involve a lot of combat, so a good battle system needs to stay engaging across the genre-standard 50+ hours of runtime. Falcom made several smart choices that keep battling in Trails convenient — like allowing you to see every monster on a map before you fight, and discouraging grinding by controlling experience. That way you can never be too over- or under-leveled.
The battles themselves are all about manipulating space and turn order. All your attacks have a range and area of effect, so it pays to group enemies in clusters or lines. On the left-hand side, you’ll see a list of turns with attached bonuses (critical hit, HP restoration, etc.). Characters have powerful, but expensive skills (called S-Crafts) they can use to interrupt turn order and actually steal those bonuses. This constant balance keeps every battle tactical and rewarding, without being overwhelming.
5. The Translations Are Excellent
The Trails games live and die on the strength of their large casts and dense lore. A bad translation would render their charms inert. To add to this risk, the history of English JRPG translation is mixed at best. Luckily, the translators put in a lot of time and effort to create flavorful localizations that pick up on nuance and do justice to all the unique personalities in each game.
6. There Are Multiple Entry Points, Depending on Which Era of JRPG You Prefer
I know it’s exhausting to read about a huge series when you’ve got your own, un-played backlog of games weighing heavy on your mind. But even though the Trails games are connected, and you get a lot of value out of playing them in order, you don’t have to play all nine games to enjoy the series.
If you yearn for the PlayStation era of JRPGs to return, or you’re just obstinate about starting at the beginning of a series, try Trails in the Sky. It looks only slightly better than a PlayStation game, but it’s got one of the best stories and casts in the whole series. You can play the whole trilogy on Steam.
If you’re not into games with older graphical styles, but love Persona and/or dating sims, give Trails of Cold Steel a try. Even though it’s the fifth game, Falcom built it to be a good starting point for folks new to the series. It’s got relationship building mechanics (similar to Persona and Fire Emblem) and a lot of modern game design conveniences that the Trails in the Sky games do not. The first two Trails of Cold Steel games are also on Steam, as well as PlayStation Vita, PS3, and PS4.
If you just want to dip a toe into the newest version possible, check out Trails of Cold Steel 3 when it comes out later this month. This is the first game in the series that Falcom built for current gen systems. Although it’s a PS4 exclusive for now. You’ll want some context from the other Trails of Cold Steel games, but there’s a helpful and detailed summary built right in, as well.
7. It’s the Only Consistently Good JRPG Series Regularly Releasing Games
As I mentioned above, the long wait between good games means it’s rough out there for a JRPG fan. So when I first discovered that Falcom had released nine good-to-excellent Trails games over the last 15 years, it sounded like a miracle. I’ve found different, better ways to handle my anxiety as an adult, but the world of the Trails games provides a unique calm I still can’t get anywhere else. If you give them a shot, I hope they bring you some comfort, too!