Trails into Reverie Continues the Most Ambitious Epic in Games

Games Features Trails
Trails into Reverie Continues the Most Ambitious Epic in Games

The Legend of Heroes: Trails into Reverie is the 10th mainline game in Nihon Falcom’s Trails’ subseries. The first of these titles, Trails in the Sky, released in Japan 19 years ago for Windows and kicked off a trilogy of titles, the third of which might have at first seemed like a cash-in on the popularity of the previous two entries, but has since only become more central to understanding the franchise as a whole. This trilogy was followed by a duology—Trails from Zero and Trails into Azure, which comprise the “Crossbell Arc” centered in that city-state—which includes characters and factions and politics from the original trilogy, with plenty new from all of the above included, as well. Those were followed up by the Trails of Cold Steel quadrilogy, which featured characters, factions, and politics from all five of the prior games, with plenty new in those arenas once again. Trails into Reverie is meant to put a bow on all that came before, in one single game, while also leading into what’s next (and already available in Japan, but still coming soon elsewhere) for the series. 

Not to give away the game, but that introductory paragraph was intentionally exhausting. It is all, frankly, a lot. In some ways, it’s a house of cards that could topple at any time, given how self-referential it all is, how large the foundations the series have built upon are in anticipation of how much weight they’re going to have to carry. There’s a common refrain found in reviews of new Trails games, which is sometimes used just to point out the facts of things, and sometimes as a demerit: they are increasingly not only unwelcoming to newcomers, but basically impenetrable for them. They aren’t downright hostile—newer Trails games are written in a way that tries very much to let you know you should play the previous games first so you know what you’re missing out on in this moment you’re confusedly witnessing—but you are not only aware that you’re missing out, but also unsure of what even you’re missing out on with any kind of detail.

There’s no shortage of background information in these games, but it’s all for the game you’re currently playing, in the place it’s set in. Trails from Zero feels like a fresh start because it is, but at the same time, it’s not a fresh start at all. It’s merely an introduction to a new setting within the world you should already be aware of, which will, in time, fully be a part of that world, in terms of the people populating it, their problems, their politics, their beliefs, and the evils that plague it. By the time you get to Trails of Cold Steel, which is set in the empire of Erebonia, you’re already ridiculously familiar with said empire and its place in the world: after all, they played an enormous role in the conflicts of both Trails in the Sky and the Crossbell duology. 

Of course, if you played Trails of Cold Steel and its three sequels before the Crossbell games were released in North America—localization of these key narrative pieces was skipped over to get right to the Cold Steel games, and it’s only in the last year that this was corrected—then you wouldn’t have the same level of familiarity, not just with Erebonia, but with most of the characters and settings and context for them all that appear in the four Cold Steel games. It made for some awkwardness, too, as there are situations where, say, a villain you battle in one of the Cold Steel games actually has their turn to villainy revealed in one of the Crossbell games, or, because these series actually happen concurrently in the continent of Zemuria’s timeline, you’re aware of certain Crossbell-related events before you even get to experience them in the games in which they actually took place. 

That awkwardness has intensified with the release of Trails into Reverie, however. The series has gone from the “hey, remember this guy?” to instead just assuming that you do remember them, and will react appropriately from there. It’s no wonder that the decision was made to finally, officially release Trails from Zero and Trails into Azure in North America, because otherwise, huge chunks of Reverie would be incomprehensible. And they still are, for people who see a videogame without a number attached to it, and think that maybe this is a separate or “new” release like a Tales or Final Fantasy that they can just pick up and play.

You could! But I don’t recommend it. If you think all of this is meant to be a criticism of Trails’ structure, by the way, it isn’t. I have nothing against making games approachable for a larger audience, and this despite being raised on shoot ‘em ups, Metroid, and a general “Ultra-Violence” over “I’m Too Young To Die” outlook on games difficulty in general. What shouldn’t be sacrificed for approachability, however, is the current project Falcom is working on, which is to take most of three decades’ time to tell one incredibly lengthy and complex story about the goings on of one continent in a fantasy world. This is not a normal use for the medium, as it’s something that has historically fit more in books, but Falcom wanted to do something different, and they certainly have by doing things like, for instance, not even revealing the voice of a character who was referenced again and again and again as maybe the big bad of the series until they were already many games in, never mind their face or identity. You’ll know all of that when you need to, and not before.

The Trails games manage to be incredibly in-depth and detailed on both macro and micro levels. You know more about some NPCs in Trails games than you do about playable characters in other games, and I don’t just mean their likes and dislikes. Their hopes, fears, motivations, the kinds of places you’re likely to find them, the kind of people they aspire to be, the kind of people they want nothing to do with: stick with NPCs long enough, and they’re as recognizable as your party members. And those party members [whistles]. Do you know all about them, or what? Over time, they’re all invariably given a chance to either open up or have the game open them up for you, and you learn about what drives them, what compels them forward, or what’s needed so that they once again feel compelled to keep going—shocking that, in a place where horrific things keep happening, where victories always seem short-lived, where moral dubs are sometimes all you’ve got to grasp on to, some characters might lose hope or motivation. 

That’s the micro stuff, though. The macro… that’s why each -ology of the Trails series focuses so heavily on a specific region: so that you learn about the day to day lives, customs, beliefs, history, about a specific country and its people. And this isn’t all codex stuff you can choose to ignore or read at your leisure: it’s a vital part of the games, this understanding of where you are and who and what you’re fighting for and against. 

Recapping all of this each time out so that newcomers feel like they’re caught up would be a drag. The pacing would be off, the games less enjoyable by a considerable margin. Instead, in a move that seems borrowed from long-running fantasy novels rather than the more Hollywood- and film-centric focus many games have, what you might get is a brief recollection of a moment a character who has just shown up on-screen was involved in back in a different game—enough to let you know that there’s more to this story, but not so much that you can actually learn the ins and outs of what that story was without experiencing it yourself. And in Trails into Reverie, sometimes you don’t even get that much.

Spoilers abound in this paragraph for the early hours of Trails into Reverie: Crossbell is about to be officially, formally, an independent nation—something that’s been a point of contention for six games now. The signing ceremony is interrupted by Rufus Albarea, a foe from the previous four games, who is also supposed to be imprisoned and seemed to be atoning for his role in the Cold Steel troubles. Rufus was a member of the Ironbloods, who were basically the loyal-to-the-point-of-self-sacrifice special forces unit that reported directly to Erebonia’s chancellor, a man who had amassed more power and control over the country than the king who was supposed to be in charge. After Rufus’ scenes play out, the game switches to another perspective, where another former Ironblood who was supposed to also be atoning (through work to rebuild, rather than imprisonment) is seen attacking characters you know are absolutely allies, as you controlled them in the previous two Cold Steel games. You are left to believe that this character, Claire Rieveldt, has also turned to the dark side once more to complete the unfinished business of the late chancellor, just like Rufus. The game then pulls an “earlier that day” that leaves you about 90 minutes to two hours from finding the truth of things, and does all of this without actually letting you know who Claire is, why it’s significant that she’s seemingly turned, or that she was an Ironblood herself. You get there eventually by playing, in little bits and pieces that can build up some tension, but for series veterans, this is an instantaneous capital-H Huge moment with major implications early on that plays off the previous shocking scene you had witnessed, that you’re dying to hear an explanation for and see play out. For newcomers? There’s a pretty lady apparently nicknamed the “Icy Maiden” who has a sniper rifle and the high ground. That’s so much less of an experience to have! 

These kinds of “not really bothering to explain things” moments keep on happening. Previous events are referenced regularly, but rather than getting any real detail or backstory, you get a static, sepia-toned still from whichever game or moment is being referenced, and are left to wonder what that was all about. Even in terms of the game’s mechanics, the assumption is that you know what you’re doing here: you get some brief reminders, and new layers of the mechanics are given an explanation as you’d expect, but otherwise, Trails into Reverie starts you out with characters that are already around level 100, who already have battle mechanic upon battle mechanic baked into them, and there’s no time to recount 19 years of innovation just so you can defeat a rando monster. And again, none of this is a criticism: so much happens in each and every Trails game, so much builds on top of the previous one, that to recount it all each and every time would make these games take 500 hours to complete each instead of in total.

While it might sound like too much, there are reasons to not be preemptively exhausted by it all like you might be with some franchises that try to go huge. Assassin’s Creed games, for instance, are probably never going to end unless people stop buying millions and millions of them each time out. Those will go on forever, the story never reaching a satisfying conclusion despite early promises that it would, because there’s too much money involved. Falcom, though, has a specific plan with Trails, one they’re roughly 70 percent of the way finished with—there are two or three arcs left to go, according to Falcom themselves, and they’re unlikely to be as large as Cold Steel’s, considering the remaining regions are nowhere near the size of Erebonia. This is a story with a clear beginning and end, not one that’s planning to make excuses to keep going (if anything, Falcom didn’t actually think they’d get the chance to finish it, that they would have been forced to move on to something else before they could). When Trails is over, Falcom will still have Ys, and whatever else they decide will replace Trails. After all, Trails itself is part of a long lineage of discarded series: its origins are in The Legend of Heroes, which began life as a Dragon Slayer sequel, the series which is also the origin point for Falcom’s Xanadu games. They’ve done this before, is what I’m getting at, even when something was as successful as the Dragon Slayer games were. 

Which all means that, by playing all of these games as intended, you’d be investing time in something that’s going to work towards paying you back for it. Trails is building a complete world, fully realized in its narratives, its people, its history, and there will be an end to it eventually, as there is an end even for decades-spanning series of fantasy novels that sell and sell and sell each time a new one releases.

I love this for Trails because Falcom has a reputation for quality that goes even further back than this series or The Legend of Heroes itself, but it’s not something we need to wish upon every series. That would just increase the likelihood we end up with an actually unwieldy and neverending mess for videogames: what if Assassin’s Creed also included the worst parts of the MCU, hmm, have you ever considered such a stockholder-backed horror? Falcom, though, shouldn’t change what they’ve been up to with Trails as they work toward a very specific goal that is not the norm for the industry. It comes at the expense of newcomers, sure, but each Trails game is now available on one modern platform or another: if you’ve got a Windows machine and an internet connection, or if you’ve got a Steam Deck, you can play all 10 of these titles on it in the order you’re supposed to. And if you love role-playing games, if this hyperfocus on both the big and the small, the personal and the political, sounds even a little intriguing to you, then you should!

Trails is doing its own huge thing in its own little corner, and is welcoming those who want to experience it all to do so without compromising this larger vision by making it a slog for those who were already on board. Asking people to have already played 500 hours of games in order to play the new one might sound a little wild, but would you be comfortable picking up the 10th book in a series of connected novels that all feed into each other like this? Do you start watching a television series for the first time in season 5? Or would you start at the beginning, and work through everything in the order it was meant to be worked through? That’s all Falcom is asking you to do with Trails, and given the rewards for doing so, it’s not asking very much at all.

Marc Normandin covers retro videogames at Retro XP, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon, and can be found on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.

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