Trails from Zero - Review

Trails from Zero is a game that has had a complicated history. Originally Japanese exclusive, the “Crossbell Arc” in the Trails series has been missing from the West for quite some time. The first entry “Trails in the Sky FC” released in early 2011 on PSP, yet it’s sequel Trails in the Sky SC didn’t get an English version until 2015 — after the release of the first Trails of Cold Steel. Trails of Cold Steel was the 6th entry in the series, with everything else before it being skipped. Eventually we did get Trails in the Sky SC, it’s follow up Trails in the Sky 3rd, and we also received Cold Steel 2, 3, and 4. This was great and all, but it presented one major issue… Trials from Zero and its sequel Trails to Azure that made up the “Crossbell Arc” remained missing.

This presented a problem.

While Trails in the Sky FC and SC were a complete story, Sky 3rd acted as a bridge that setup the series’ future, and introduced new themes and ideas that would become important going forward. This setup, and these new plot points are directly continued in Zero and Azure. Without these games being localized, players who jumped into Cold Steel were greeted with gaping holes in the plot, and nonstop references that were simply lost to them. Well, things have finally changed!

Thanks to a fan group called Geofront, both Zero and Azure received translations, and NIS America officially hired them to apply their translation to an official release. Not only that, but they were also given the go ahead to touch up the PC and Switch versions of the games, to enhance the textures, and add extra features such as a dialogue backlog. (Unfortunately they didn’t have the rights to apply these changes to the PlayStation release). So now, after all these years, we finally have the complete story.

With all of that being said, now the question is “was it worth the wait?” And “is this a game only for fans, or can even newcomers play it?” To answer those questions, it’s pretty easy to just say “yes” to both; however, it’s also not quite that simple. Trails from Zero is a pretty unique game, and it for sure if something that should be given a chance if you are interested in RPGs. It’s just the game is understandably not for everyone, and long time fans will have a different experience playing compared to newcomers. Due to the game’s unique placement in the timeline as well, even those who played Trails of Cold Steel prior to this one, will see the game in different light.

Anyway, we’ve got quite a bit to cover here, so let’s get started!

The Story of Crossbell:

Trails from Zero opens up with our young hero named Lloyd returning to his childhood home of Crossbell city. Crossbell is a city state that is located between the empire of Erebonia and the republic of Calvard, and because of that, it finds itself in a unique situation. The city is a major trade city that is also rich in natural resources, and houses major corporations that impact all of the continent. Because of its placement and what the city offers, both Erebonia and Calvard want to take control of it and keep it for themselves. Of course the people of Crossbell don’t like the idea, and would rather remain the independent city state they are today. The people of Crossbell love their city, and would do anything to protect it… So what about Lloyd? Well… He’s in a tough situation.

Although Lloyd loves his city, he left home when he was younger and has spent the last years living in Calvard attending a police academy. Lloyd hopes to follow in the footsteps of his late brother Guy, and after being accepted as the newest member of the force, he finally heads back home to do just that. Of course what Lloyd doesn’t know is that he’s going to be put into a special program, and not just a member of one of the usual divisions. Lloyd is going to be the “leader” of the SSS — the Special Support Section.

Upon arriving in Crossbell, Lloyd meets the other members of his would be team, and they are each presented with the option of accepting their position at the SSS or turning it down to join one of the other divisions. After some debate, and an early story incident, they all of course agree and they begin their new lives in Crossbell.

Of course not everything is as it seems.

Being a police officer means investigating crimes and ensuring the safety of the city’s citizens, but what the SSS doesn’t realize is that Crossbell is more than meets the eye. Crossbell holds a dark secret, and the SSS are about to be at the center of what’s to come.

The People of Crossbell:

One of the most unique aspects of Trails from Zero is something that the entire Trails series is known for. Fans of the series already know how towns people/NPCs work in general here, but Trails from Zero takes it to whole other level. The thing is, every single “random” person walking around in this world is actually a named unique character, and their stories evolve as the main plot progressed. What this means is — the moment you progress the plot at all, then every single character in the world has moved on with their lives as well.

Each chapter in the game typically follows the same structure. You have an early morning part of the day, time advances as you continue the main story objectives, sometimes there is an afternoon phase, and there are times where it will become night. At each point in time throughout the day, NPCs will have new things to say, and travel around the city. Talking to them each time time advances will reveal something new about them, and their stories will develop just from natural communication. 

With each chapter typically containing multiple days, you are given plenty of chances to follow these character’s stories, and by the end of the game you’ll know everyone in the world better than you know some main characters in other JRPGs. It’s a very unique system, and if you take the time to fully explore it, then the payoff becomes much sweeter.

The world of Trails is easily one of the most developed in any form of media, and Trails from Zero simply continues to expand on the massive world that Sky already setup. Being a police officer in Crossbell it is your job to check up on the civilians, and that in return teaches you even more about this world. Sometimes full sub stories open up simply because you are patrolling the city, and other times sub plots play out in the background just because you’ve talked to the people around you. Crossbell is a living city, and Trails from Zero does a very good job of showing that.

And it doesn’t stop there.

Not only did Trails in the Sky setup the world’s base lore and story, but even the future entries loop back around and connect. Although Trails of Cold Steel was released later, the game’s story actually takes place at the exact same time as Trails from Zero, and knowing Cold Steel’s story has an impact on Zero as well. Events that are happening in Erebonia connect to events happening in Crossbell, and characters who appear in both Sky and Cold Steel make an appearance as well. For long time fans, Zero will both answer questions and open up new ones, while newcomers will only see these characters and related events on a surface level — but that’s okay! 

Zero is the SSS’s story, and can serve as a great introduction to the series. The people living in Crossbell are new to the series, while those passing through have stories that continue in other entries in the series. For someone who plays Zero first, this means you can go back or continue their stories as you please. Crossbell and its people will reveal their own secrets over time, and this can provide you with a different outlook when going back to Sky or continuing on to Cold Steel. And that’s just another thing that makes this game and series so unique.

The Gameplay:

Being a JRPG, Trails from Zero has a lot of standards that fans of the genre may have come to expect. The game is split between overworld exploration, which includes exploring towns, dungeons, etc, and turn based battles. 

Typically most chapters in Zero begin with the SSS waking up, and checking their computer to see what job requests have been posted. These job requests both act as the game’s side quests, and also provide you with main story quests that need to be completed to advance the plot. Side stories can range from extra investigations to monster hunting missions, while the main plot missions are constantly changed up throughout the story. There are also side quests that can be triggered by talking to people throughout the town, or just by being in the right place at the right time. Completing these missions will gain you ranking points to advance your police career, and will provide you with rewards as you rank up. Of course these quests also provide extra story to the game, so often they are worth doing simply because of that.

Crossbell itself is made up of multiple districts, and provide you with a wide verity of areas to explore and experience. While most of these areas really only exist to give you people to talk to and places to explore, many of them also have a wide verity of shops that you’ll want to visit as you advance through the game. Some shops provide healing items such as food, others let you buy new weapons or armor, some let you upgrade your equipment, and then you also have the entire orbment system. Of course the shop keepers are also unique characters to talk to, and then you also have places like the fisherman’s guild that unlocks the ability to fish. (And fishing will also unlock extra rewards.) There’s actually a lot going on in the city, and it acts as the main hub for the entire game.

Outside of the city you have paths that connect you to other “towns” and areas, and you also have dungeons to explore. The game will take you to these places naturally, but there are extra areas to explore also. Of course these other towns and areas provide additional shops to visit, but often their main use is, once again, for world and story development. The game also features a cooking system, so sometimes you may visit these towns to buy ingredients as well… But it’s also not required.

(You can see a fishing spot to the right)

Enemies appear on the field walking around, and can be fought by either running into them, or using the action button to directly attack them. Hitting them from behind will stun them and allow you to enter battle with an advantage, but the same can happen to you if you aren’t careful. Eventually weaker enemies can be killed without entering into a battle, while stronger enemies will chase you down if you cross their path.

The Battle System:

Once you are in a battle, there are a few systems at play. The game has a main party of four characters from start to finish, but throughout the game additional guest members do join you. The main party in battle will always be capped out at having four active members, while anyone not active will provide backup support during fights.

On the left side of the screen turn order is displayed. Faster characters will get to act first, and some attacks and battle actions can delay enemy attacks, or make it your turn sooner. Special effects can also occur based on whose turn it is, and this can be used to your advantage when combined with delaying enemies. For example, an “!” will appear next to someone’s turn icon from time to time and this means that their next attack will be a critical hit no matter what. If this appears next to an enemy’s icon, it is possible to delay that enemy and take its turn ensuring you get the critical hit turn instead. Later on in the game “higher element” effects begin impacting battles as well, and often these are threats that need to be dealt with or else you will die. The skull icon means your next attack will be a one hit kill, and if it appears next to an enemy, then you better delay them or else you’re dead. It adds challenge to the battle system, and rewards you for planning your actions.

That being said, in combat you do have a wide verity of actions you can perform. Battles take place in an open arena with an invisible grid controlling where your characters stand. Characters have a range that they can attack within, and if enemies are too far away you’ll have to move them closer. Normal attacks will target and hit a single enemy with a physical attack, while special “Craft” skills offer a wide range of abilities to either attack or debuff enemies, of even buff your party. These attacks have unique ranges, and often hit multiple enemies at once if you line them up correctly. This takes even more planning, as sometimes it’s better to move your character into position first, so they can then unleash an attack that hits every enemy at the same time. 

Of course using crafts require the use of a resource called CP, but thankfully CP recharges with every normal attack you use, and each time you get hit. You can have a maximum of 200 CP stored at any time, so having CP to use is never really an issue. However, you can also use 100 CP in one go to unleash an ultimate “S Craft” as well, or you can use 200 CP to unleash an even more effective version of said S Craft. S Crafts can also be used when it’s not your turn, so it’s a perfect way to steal an enemy’s turn, and take advantage of their would be bonuses yourself

On top of crafts, Artes are the magical attacks in the game. They require charge time to use, but offer powerful attacks, buffs, debuffs, and healing abilities. Instead of using CP like crafts, they require EP to use instead, so you don’t have to worry about dividing your CP usage between the two types of abilities. Artes cover a wide verity of elemental attacks as well, and sometimes it’s these elements that become key in defeating your enemies. However, Artes and their elemental attacks aren’t something you just simply learn in this game, and it’s actually up to you to decide what your characters can or can’t do.

Customizing Your Characters:

The Orbment system is what controls your character’s Artes. By using objects known as “Quartz,” you can change what Artes a character can use and control what elements they will specialize in. Orbments themselves have multiple slots for Quartz to be installed in, but you can’t just freely slot in whatever Quartz you want. Some slots can only equip specific elements (thus ensuring each character specializes in at least one element), and stronger Quartz can only be equip in slots you have upgraded. Each Quartz also gives different points towards your elements, and Quartz in the same “line” can combo and unlock unique Artes to use. It sounds complicated, but what it really comes down to is, find/create Quartz, equip them to characters, and then new Artes are unlocked for use. 

As for the Quartz themselves, they all have unique abilities attached to them as well. For example, Attack Up Quartz will increase your attack power but will lower your defense as a trade off. It is fire element so it’ll put points towards unlocking your Fire Artes, but its main benefit is the increased attack. Other Quartz will provide other bonuses, and sometimes these bonuses will help outside of battle as well. One Quartz will allow you to see the location of treasure chests on the map, while another might help keep enemies away from you. Of course these too add points towards your elements to unlock Artes, and often these Artes can be unique as well (especially when equip to lines with other Quartz equip). Again, it’s not as complicated as it seems, but it can also get pretty in depth also. Thankfully there are side quests that help you learn the basics and combos, so it doesn’t just drop you in.

To obtain Quartz there are three main ways to go about it. The first is from finding them in chests, or from getting them as rewards. This happens pretty often, and the Quartz you receive are almost always ones that will get you an advantage in an upcoming fight. You don’t have to use them, but it’s possibly a good idea. The same can be said about accessories, and armor you find right before a big boss fight — they usually give you some sort of advantage or nullify status effects. (Got an anti poison accessory? Chances are the next boss is going to poison you non stop.) 

The second way to get Quartz is by trading sepith which is also found in chests, given as rewards, or gained from fighting enemies. Sepith comes in each element type, and is not only used to buy Quartz of said elements, but also to unlock your slots in your Orbment and upgrade them as well. Sepith can also be also be traded for money at most shops, but you have to be careful and really think about what you are trading in before you do it. 

The third and final way is to use a special shop to combine your Quartz into stronger ones. Again this requires you to get multiple Quartz using the other method, and then giving them up to get something better in return.

Besides Quartz, Zero also has a wide verity of weapons, armor, and accessories to unlock and customize your characters with, and weapons can be upgraded with special material as well. 

A Game for all Skill Levels:

Another thing that makes Trails as a whole unique is the fact that every game is made for all skill levels. When you start the game you’re asked which difficulty you’d like to play on, and the options range from extremely easy, to a full on challenge where you have to really plan and be perfect. Even the normal mode can offer quite a challenge when not played properly, but there’s one little thing that makes this manageable for everyone… You can’t actually lose if you don’t want to.

In most games when you die, or get to a boss fight where you’re under equip, you’re just done. You are sent back to your last save, and you now have to go figure out what you are doing wrong and fix it. Sometimes that’s getting new gear, level grinding, or finding something you missed that makes the fight manageable. In Trails though? That’s not the case. Yes you can reload back to a save point and figure it out, or you can hit retry on the fight and give it another go. OR you can hit the other retry option that is “Lower Difficulty and Retry.” 

This "Lower Difficulty and Retry" option will do just as the name implies, but the lower difficulty only applies to your current fight, and it can be used over and over and over and over and over and over again until you win the fight. In fact, using this method it’s technically possible to even beat the final boss even if you never bought any equipment, leveled up, or just completely skipped the game in general. It’s an option that makes it so you CAN beat all fights, and there’s no shame in using it. 

On the flip side, the game does a very good job at keeping you where you need to be. Skip random enemies and find you are under leveled? You can still beat the boss fights if you are properly equip, and killing said boss will instantly level you up where you need to be. Random enemies also have EXP scaling, so you can also catch up pretty quickly by just killing a few mobs of them. 

It’s not a grindy game at all, and there’s even a challenge/achievement that asks you to beat the game at a lower level… Which it quickly becomes apparent just how hard this really is to do. Not because it’s hard to go through the game at a lower level, but because the EXP scaling keeps you where it wants you, and the only way to avoid reaching the level limit is to ensure specific characters remain dead during the final dungeon. (To prevent them from leveling up during the required fights.) So again, this really is an RPG pretty much anyone can play, and there’s always the actual easy mode option if you really are only in it for the story.

The Light and Dark Side to Crossbell:

Trails from Zero is a different beast compared to other JRPGs, and that’s partly due to the way the series works in general. Putting that aside though, Zero is still a great game in its own right. It has it’s own unique set of main characters, the game is filled with character development and world building, there are multiple mysteries at play, and it is very easy to get sucked into life as a police officer. The game is very dialogue heavy, and a large chunk of it is talking to NPCs (assuming you want to get the most out of this world), and honestly that might not be for everyone. Of course you can skip NPCs and only focus on the side stories and main quest if you like, but doing so really does take away from the world building the series is known for. It’s just one of those things that wont click with everyone, and if it starts to feel like a chore then that will greatly damper your enjoyment of the game.

Putting that aside, the main story is engaging from the get go. Learning about Lloyd and what happened to his brother is interesting from the start, but when you start connecting the dots of what really happened, and what is really happening in the city, it becomes more than you could imagine. One party member in particular has a pretty tragic and shocking story, while another also isn’t quite what you would expect. 

Those who have played the Sky or Cold Steel series might also draw some other connections, and that just makes it even better. Also being a police officer and everything that comes along with that is quite a bit different from other RPGs, and Crossbell itself feels like something like NYC in the 50s. It’s a unique setting that helps the game stand out from others.

Besides the story, the combat system is fun and engaging, and there’s a speed up function and animation skip option for those who want to get through fights a little bit quicker. The retry option makes it so you can never get stuck, and the hard modes along with all the customization options offers those who want a challenge, well, a challenge. There’s a lot to like here, but there’s no denying that it isn’t perfect.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, the PlayStation version didn’t receive the updated textures, models, and other improvements that the Switch and PC release have. This was due to licensing issues that  prevented Geofront from modifying the PS4 release. It’s not a big deal, but there’s no denying that the PlayStation release is the inferior version. There’s also the fact that the game only has a Japanese dub, so there’s that to consider if you were expecting an English option. There are also a few moments in the story where things slow down a bit, but the last half for sure makes up for these moments. Considering the game is roughly 100 hours long if you do everything — a few hours of slow pacing isn’t that much. 

The biggest thing to understand about Trails from Zero though, is the fact that it is part one in a two part series. While Zero does tell a complete story from beginning to end, the ending does not answer all of the questions you might have. The ending reveals new information that hints towards its sequel, and it leaves a few mysteries to give you a reason to continue into Azure. 

Of course by the time you reach the end of Zero you’ll most likely have a strong connection to these characters and world, so continuing on really is a no brainer. Azure also goes full force from the get go, and continues building upon everything Zero started. Even so, there’s no denying that Zero is only the first (and the least exciting) half of the Crossbell Arc, but it sets everything up for something much greater — all while still being a great game on it’s own. (Also there is the fact that both of these games are just one small part of an overall massive story, that continues being built upon with each passing year. There’s a reason the series has become so popular, and has been ongoing for over 20 years.)

With that being said… If any of this sounds interesting to you at all, then Trails from Zero is a game you really don’t want to pass up. Yes, you’ll enjoy it more if you play Sky first (or even Cold Steel 1 and 2), but it’s still a great stand alone story as well that can serve as a great gateway to the rest of the series. The game was worth the wait, and Geofront did the world a great service by finally bringing it to the rest of us. It’s a must have for Trails fans, and JRPG fans in general.

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