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Why Nihon Falcom's 'Trails' series has never cracked the West

If 'Final Fantasy' can do it, what's the problem?

Role-playing games are a story-heavy genre by nature, but for all 16 Final Fantasy games, five Suikodens, and 11 Dragon Quests, few series weave together continuous narratives. Nihon Falcom sought to change that with its Legend of Heroes: Kiseki series, or Trails in English.

Conceived as part of a goal to create the grandest RPG epic of all, the Trails series tells a weighty tale of political intrigue, personal drama, and social unrest spread across 10 games, with more on the way. Yet, for all its narrative ambition, the series remains largely unknown outside Japan. Publishing delays and the series’ own density account for some of that. However, in the past six years, Falcom and its publishing partners have been working to raise awareness of the series worldwide.

It’s something fans have been waiting decades for. Kirsten Miller runs Esterior.net, one of the premier Falcom fan sites in the West. She fell in love with Falcom after trying the Ys series in the late ‘90s, then became a committed fan in the early 2000s. It was a difficult time to be a Falcom fan, though.

“Being a fan of Falcom, in general, was kind of wild in the 2000’s,” she said. “There was always a feeling of ‘this would never be localized’ with their PC games, while I would gnaw at the bit for any sign of English speaking gamers to get the chance to play the games. It wasn’t until Falcom started publishing for PSP when I started to get some hope for it.”

In 2004, Falcom was shifting its decades-old Legend of Heroes series to the Kiseki sub-series under The Legend of Heroes name. “It was when Falcom released the trailer for The Legend of Heroes VI: Sora no Kiseki [Trails in the Sky First Chapter] in late 2003 when I got my interest and jumped into the game at launch in 2004,” Miller said.

Localization expert Derek Hemsbergen also found his love for the series with the Sky games and even started his career in localization because of them. “I spent most of my twenties writing for RPGFan.com,” he said. “Although the particulars are fuzzy now, it must’ve been in the course of my reporting work for RPGFan that I first heard about Trails in the Sky [for PSP]. Having always been drawn to whimsical tales of adventure à la Grandia, Skies of Arcadia, and the like, Trails slotted [in] quite organically.”

“Having always been drawn to whimsical tales of adventure à la ‘Grandia,’ ‘Skies of Arcadia,’ and the like, ‘Trails’ slotted [in] quite organically.”

Former fan-turned-staff-member (and current company president) Toshihiro Kondo had big plans for the Trails series and dreamed of making the grandest, most ambitious story ever told in RPGs. Trails in the Sky FC was the series’ inaugural project and one of Kondo’s first writing credits with Falcom. Yet it’s also the one Kondo looks back on with the most regret.

Trails in the Sky FC follows several narrative beats from an earlier game, The Legend of Heroes: White Witch (later called Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch), including the central idea of two love interests traveling around a kingdom to become knights and save their home. Kondo said he wishes he’d challenged the senior writers and staff members who wanted to stick to what was familiar.

For one, it prioritized one thing Kondo loved most about White Witch: detail. The Trails series is known for presenting characters as familiar tropes before gradually adding nuance to make them more realistic. Sky FC also started the Trails’ series long-running tradition of NPC stories, where every NPC has a story that plays out as the main narrative develops. That’s before even getting to the multiple in-game novel series and novel series that all contribute to the main plot in some form.

😏Nihon Falcom

Trails moves away from medieval tropes so common in RPGs and early The Legend of Heroes games in favor of a post-industrial setting on the continent of Zemuria. 1,200 years after The Great Collapse, a catastrophe with as-yet unknown causes, three scientists started what was known as the Orbal Revolution. They harnessed elemental energy and put it to all manner of uses, from powering commercial airships and war machines, to creating a Zemurian version of the internet, and, of course, the Orbments people use in combat.

Tropes and modern industrial setting aside, what makes it special to Hemsbergen is how full of life the series is. “Trails is filled to the brim with characters, relationships, sub-stories, historical data, and lore unlike nearly any other RPG series in existence,” Kondo said. “It’s got unparalleled world-building, in other words. This allows its players to court an evolving understanding of its narrative that only continues to grow richer as the series continues on, long in the tooth as some of its dangling threads may be.”

Even still, Falcom didn’t know whether the first game would sell enough where they could develop the second Sky game, Sky SC, let alone the entire saga they dreamed of. Demand was high both on PC and, later, handheld consoles, giving Falcom the freedom to move forward.

Demand was high both on PC and, later, handheld consoles, giving Falcom the freedom to move forward.

Kondo planned to start Trails of Cold Steel immediately after Sky, since the Erebonian saga was the bulk of the story he wanted to tell. However, he believed too much of its plot depended on events they hadn’t covered yet. Falcom turned what was meant as an epilogue for the two Sky games into a full game of its own, Trails in the Sky the 3rd, released in 2007. The 3rd retains most of the previous games’ battle system, but tells its story mostly through disconnected character vignettes between long bouts of dungeon crawling. All this was just a bridge to the next major development, though.

In 2010, it was finally time to release the series’ new chapter, Zero no Kiseki (unofficially called Trails to Zero outside Japan). Zero embodies Kondo’s philosophy of not making new systems just to have something new. Its mechanics are very similar to the Sky games, with barely any changes to the Orbment system or the quest structure. Most fans were happy with that and found Falcom’s improvements to the system more welcome than gratuitous changes.

Zerker, lead editor of The Geofront fan translation project that made the games available in English for the first time, is one of them.

“As someone who enjoys the Sky gameplay system, I can wholeheartedly say that [Zero and Azure] takes those mechanics, builds upon them, and makes it near perfect,” he said. “Crossbell, with its introduction of Support Members, Combo Crafts, and Master Quartz refine the formula that Sky created and makes it fun as hell. The gameplay is snappier and pretty much every addition improves the already great gameplay of their predecessors.”

Falcom did innovate through storytelling and setting, though.

Zero and its sequel Ao (unofficially, Trails of Azure) take place in the vulnerable city-state of Crossbell. Both the Erebonian Empire and Calvard Republic on the other prize Crossbell for its mineral deposits and intellectual capital, with frequent wars fought over the nation in centuries past. A small group of law enforcement officers called the Special Support Section try, and fail to stall military conquest from one of the neighboring superpowers, though that’s just a cursory overview of the main plot.

“Many games have a hub area that you return to following segments of the story, but Crossbell City is more than that. It’s massive and integral to the story,” Zerker said. “It isn’t some place that you simply return to between major story beats. Crossbell City is the main story. It’s where each character has found themselves, and it’s where problem after problem arises and has to be solved. By the end of Zero, you know Crossbell City and its residents. It’s really something special.”

Crossbell City is the main story.”

The Crossbell games also marked an important point where Falcom had to make a choice about moving forward. Sky’s success on portable systems and the shrinking PC market encouraged Falcom to release Zero on the PSP first, bringing the series to younger audiences While leading up to the grand story intended for Cold Steel remained Falcom’s priority, Kondo and his team knew they had to remove barriers and make the series accessible to new audiences.

The first Trails of Cold Steel, released in 2013 for PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 3, became their solution. It intertwines with the Crossbell games’ narrative but remains independent enough for newcomers to enjoy without previous knowledge even of the Sky games.

Kondo wanted the series and Falcom in general to gain more traction outside Japan, though.

Here is some of XSEED’s most recent work. It’s nothing to sneeze at.XSEED

To that end, Falcom secured a contract with Torrance, California, publisher XSEED in 2010 to publish Trails in the Sky FC in the United States. Thus was born what became known as the Curse of Kiseki.

XSEED promised Falcom a speedy turnaround, but that was before realizing the scope of their new contract. Sky FC alone had a script with more than one million Japanese characters to translate, and former XSEED editor Jessica Chavez said it turned the localization process into six months of crunch just to deliver on time. The second game took an additional four years to release thanks to contract issues, Falcom’s lack of confidence in the series’ selling power outside Asia, and a number of other roadblocks.

Chavez’s work and the work of fellow XSEED localizer Brittany Avery is what inspired Hemsbergen and other fans to take a chance on this niche franchise.

“Jess spoke at great length about the struggles of localizing a series with such a massive script, but peppered her cries for help with fascinating factoids and anecdotes,” he said. “I distinctly remember one particular graphic she made touting the game’s features in her wry way. (Do you like RPGs? → No. → UNCLEAN!) Jess, along with her incredibly passionate colleague Brittany Avery (@Hatsuu), humanized localization in a way I’d never seen before.”

While the series’ localization seemed back on track, there was a continuity dilemma. Ao no Kiseki, the second Crossbell game, released four years previously, and Falcom had already released Trails of Cold Steel II in 2014 in Japan. At Falcom’s request, XSEED skipped publishing the Crossbell games and had started work on the Cold Steel games while localization of Sky SC was still ongoing. The first Cold Steel released in 2015 in the U.S., alongside Sky SC, and Cold Steel II followed in 2016. NIS America received the license to publish Cold Steel III and IV, and the Geofront group released their own fan translations of Zero and Azure in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

Cold Steel finally takes players inside the Erebonian Empire and is the biggest visual and mechanical leap forward since the first Sky game, introducing 3D character models and more detailed backgrounds.

“It was exciting to see progress in their technique in storytelling via 3D modeling in each successive Cold Steel game because Falcom’s never been top of the line in graphics,” Miller said. “While it may sound odd, it feels kind of like watching them grow up in that aspect.”

Rean Schwarzer, looking very enthused.Nihon Falcom

It also included a Persona-like bond system. Perhaps in keeping with the series’ younger demographic or perhaps out of necessity given the games’ massive scripts, Rean could grow closer with key characters and learn more about their lives that the main scenario doesn’t show. It had mixed reception in Japan and abroad, though. Longtime fans such as Miller disliked how Falcom locked crucial pieces of character development behind entirely optional scenes, and Falcom suggested it won’t return in the same form for future entries.

Political realism and strife take center stage in the Erebonian saga. Over the course of four games, Falcom weaves a massive, yet intricate, tale of domestic and international imperialism centered around the nation’s burgeoning middle class.

For JRPG enthusiast and streamer TarksGauntlet, the story and the series’ pedigree was enough to make Cold Steel a near-instant classic. “In just keeping up with Vita releases I heard about Cold Steel 1’s imminent release, and so I looked up a review for it,” he said. The review I found was actually for Trails in the Sky, which hailed the series as one of the best "Classic styled JRPGs." I picked it up as soon as it was out.”

“The scope of the world (both places that can be travelled to and places that are referenced with great importance) is bigger than ever,” he continued. “These aren't just random towns either. The world all works together like one cohesive unit. What effects one area may have far reaching sociopolitical ramifications for the rest. Though it starts off feeling contained enough, the four Cold Steel games stand on the shoulders of the five games that came before them more and more as they go along. The balancing act they pull off is nothing short of incredible and I can't imagine another team making this work much better.”

Its sense of style is part of what makes the series so cohesive.Nihon Falcom

If that sounds like a lot for one set of games to tackle, it’s because it was, partly thanks to the new graphics engine Falcom was working with. “I believe that Cold Steel was a bit hung up due to development issues that had happened with the first game, and the rest of the arc had them chasing the results of said issues,” Miller said.

Kondo planned on ending the Cold Steel arc with the third game, but found there was no way to fit every necessary plot point in one game. Even after adding a fourth game, Falcom still had to cut content from Cold Steel III to keep it at a reasonable run time. Tarks said the result was “a bit shaky” sometimes, and Hemsbergen agreed. Much as Trails’ biggest strength is its story, the continuous narrative is also a big weakness.

“Everything since [Sky] The 3rd has been in service towards this grand, ever-escalating tale,” he said. “While I definitely remain invested, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t starting to feel fatigued.

“The ‘Trails’ story is only roughly 70% finished.

Unsurprisingly, Falcom wasn’t able to tell Erebonia’s full story in Cold Steel, and the Trails story is only roughly 70% finished, Kondo said. The next game, Hajimari no Kiseki, also started as an epilogue chapter until Falcom turned it into another pivot game to move the series into its next narrative arc. That next arc begins with Kuro no Kiseki, set for release in fall 2021 in Japan. Kuro will take place in the Calvard Republic as another refresh game designed for newcomers, with an action-based system, older protagonists, and a law-neutral-chaos morality system as well. Fans are excited about what the future holds and the chance for Falcom to re-calibrate its vision for the series.

“Breaks in continuity like this are necessary to create clean entry points for new players,” Hemsbergen said. “Final Fantasy may be up to sixteen numbered entries, but they’re largely independent stories. It’s neat as heck to constantly have something on the horizon to anticipate with Trails, but sooner or later that dangling carrot’s going to rot and fall off if the goalpost is always moving.”

With the new engine and the new experiences and voices that we’ve been seeing Falcom add into the company — Hajimari, for example, had a lot of say from the newer staff members, the cross story system was devised by them, ass well as some major plot beats of the game — We’re going to start seeing some really cool output from them,” Miller said. “It should be an exciting future ahead of us for the next parts of the game.”