Trails to Azure Breaks the Oldest RPG Rule With Spectacular Results
Inverse Score: 9/10
Stepping out into the streets of Crossbell feels like returning home, and I can’t wait to see what all of my friends have been up to.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure is an incredibly strong RPG with phenomenal pacing, characters, and combat, but it also relies so much on the player’s connection to the previous game. I can’t in good conscience say anyone should play Trails to Azure without first playing Trails From Zero, but that’s exactly what makes the experience so special. The duology of Zero and Azure revels in sequential storytelling, building a convincing world filled to the brim with personality and political intrigue.
While you should play Zero first, Trails to Azure is undoubtedly the better game, refining the mechanics and storytelling that worked in its predecessor and making the stakes feel, fittingly, higher.
A Day In the Life
Trails to Azure continues the story of rookie detective Lloyd Bannings and the Special Support Section (SSS) of the Crossbell Police Department. The story picks up just after the end of Trails From Zero, with Lloyd and a few others tracking down remnants of the fanatical D∴G cult from the first game.
The members of the SSS have initially scattered to take on individual tasks and training, but it doesn’t take long for the team to assemble with a few new recruits. Once again, the goal of the SSS is to forge connections with the various people and organizations of Crossbell, using those bonds to reestablish trust between citizens and Crossbell’s organizations, thus finding a way for the city to move forward.
Azure continues directly after Trails From Zero, so it picks up many different plot threads from the previous game, even in side quests. Azure builds on its characters assuming you remember their key developments from Zero, and that’s especially true of the SSS’s new recruit, the smarmy gang leader Wazy Hemisphere and the eager-to-please Guardian Force recruit Noel Seeker. They bring some dynamic new dimensions to the already stellar cast of Trails from Zero, and Wazy’s exaggerated personality plays especially well off the self-serious Lloyd.
Part of Azure’s strength is in its more effective pacing. For better or worse, it spends very little time explaining concepts, organizations, and relationships, instead relying on players’ experience with Trails From Zero. For all intents and purposes, this feels less like a sequel and more like the “second half” of a singular story, and that means the drama and climaxes build up quickly. Azure even features a data carry-over option that changes certain event scenes based on your choices from Zero.
One of the most interesting narrative themes Azure explores is the SSS coming to terms with their previous actions, particularly in dismantling the criminal mafia of Crossbell. Lloyd and the others realize that the mafia kept more insidious organizations in check and that the power vacuum leaves room for all sorts of new threats to emerge. At multiple points, the SSS is forced to reckon with the consequences of their own actions and the role the police at large play in the city.
Crossbell politics also slide into focus more this time around, and that comes to a head with some of the best setpieces from the entire Trails series. Chief among these is the West Zemuria Trade Conference, an economic meeting that brings the leaders of every country in Zemuria to Crossbell, and it helps set the stage for the story of the Trails of Cold Steel series.
Trails to Azure also does a much better job of exploring the fringes and areas around Crossbell, shaking up the setting with new and interesting areas, like the dazzling theme park Michelam Wonderland. Crucially, the sequel doesn’t just retread the ground that Zero established, but expands and embellishes on it.
Two Steps Forward
While Trails to Azure still has some of the typical fetch or hunting side quests, a lot of its side content ties back into the overall narrative in interesting ways. Each chapter is split up into a number of days, and each day the SSS gets a number of “requests” to complete. Most of these requests take the form of helping civilians, offering us snapshots into the everyday life of Crossbell citizens.
While Trails to Azure’s narrative and setting see big additions, the core gameplay remains mostly the same as Trails From Zero. Turn-based combat, equipment, and the elemental Quartz systems remain exactly the same, with a few moderate improvements. The biggest change is the Master Quartz system, letting each character equip a special main quartz that highly boosts specific stats, and levels up as they’re used. For example, one Master Quartz might boost a character's strength and give them a strength boost for the first two turns, while another gives a character a 30 percent chance of causing a status effect.
Back attacks and ambushes have been added into the mix, and a Burst system gives you a new gauge that, when full, puts the party in a heightened state that instantly grants everyone a turn and lets you cast artes without waiting. Outside of combat, the SSS now gets their very own car, which makes getting around Crossbell much easier. Of course, just like Trails From Zero, this release of Azure has a high-speed mode button that proves to be tremendously helpful for both expiration and some of the longer dungeons filled with lots of battles.
Presentation-wise, NIS America has really knocked things out of the park, as Trails From Azure constantly runs at a crips framerate, and I never had any sort of slowdown whatsoever when playing on Nintendo Switch. Trails to Azure was originally released in 2011 on PSP and because of that, it’s certainly showing its age graphically, but Crossbell remains a superbly detailed setting that just oozes personality. It’s also important to point out the phenomenal writing and translation which, just like with Trails From Zero, is based on the work by fan translation group The GeoFront.
Most modern games don’t want to lean too heavily on continuing stories from previous games, for fear of alienating any new players. Even sequels like The Witcher 3 take liberal steps to integrate new players, with mostly vague references to past events. That’s exactly what's so fascinating about Zero and Azure, as these two games feel like halves of the same experience.
I’d argue that you simply can’t play one without the other, but because of that, there’s some incredible world-building and character development that happens. Of course, if you dive even further, you’ll find Crossbell plotlines and details carrying over to the Cold Steel series, and it’s great that Western fans can finally see the origins of those. The Trails series is filled with great RPGs, but Trails to Azure stands tall as the pinnacle of the franchise to date.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure launches on March 14 for PS4, Nintendo Switch, and PC. Inverse reviewed the Nintendo Switch version.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.