Trails to Azure Proves No Other RPG Series Does Worldbuilding Better
The gold standard.
Twelve years after its original release, fans in the West finally get to experience Trails to Azure, the lost chapter in the ever-expanding series that includes the three Trails in the Sky and four Trails of Cold Steel games.
The franchise has built its reputation on having twist ambitious narratives as well as deep customizable combat systems, but there’s one aspect that often gets overlooked. Trails has impeccable world-building, not just in every single game but in the overarching narrative of the franchise at large. While you can easily play each sub-series separately, putting everything together weaves a rich tapestry of a fascinating world, one that puts most other RPGs to shame.
The entire Trails series takes place on the continent of Zemuria which is split up into a number of nations, including Liberl from Trails in the Sky, Crossbell from Zero and Azure, and Erebonia from Trails of Cold Steel. While most modern games are obsessed with attracting new players, even with sequels, one of the most fascinating aspects of Trails is that the series tells one continuous story.
Yes, events in each sub-series are largely self-contained, but there’s an overarching narrative that sees an insidious organization called Ouroboros slowly hatching a plan for complete world domination. The protagonists of the Sky games, Joshua and Estelle, are the first ones to go up against Ouroborus, and because of that the duo, and their allies, pop up multiple times in the Crossbell and Cold Steel games.
Trails games impeccably weave stories and events through multiple sub-series, and oftentimes events are happening concurrently. For example, in the first Cold Steel, your class takes action when a terrorist group tries to take control of the railway cannons, with the intent of attacking an economic summit called the West Zemuria Trade Conference.
Meanwhile, in Trails to Azure, the Special Support Section is actually at the Trade Conference, letting players see the leaders of each country vying for power. Seeing Crossbell’s politics and bid for independence in Zero and Azure gives you a better understanding of how that affects the Erebeonian Empire, and why it suddenly becomes much more militaristic.
Crucially, none of the main characters of each Trails game is the definitive world-saving hero, but a cog in a larger machine that plays into the overall narrative. Falcom puts great effort into fleshing out the world of Zemuria, teaching you about the politics of each nation. On top of this, there are literal in-game history books and newspapers that players can read if they so choose, and there are dozens of NPCs that can help give you a better understanding of locations and culture.
It’s absolutely incredible how connected everything in the Trails franchise feels, and my personal favorite example of this lies in an unsuspecting NPC named Anton. While Anton is a sweet and quirky character, he has the unfortunate habit of being a hopeless romantic.
You first meet Anton in the Royal City in Trails in the Sky, where he’s hopelessly obsessed with a girl named Marsha. You can follow his little plotline across the game and its sequel, and Anton is eventually rejected, leaving his buddy Ricky to try and cheer him up.
Wouldn’t you know, however, that Anton and Ricky would pop back up in Trails From Zero, with the pair taking a trip to help Anton get over his “depression.” He soon gets back up to his usual shenanigans and falls head over heels for Noel Seeker, one of the major characters. Rejected once again, Anton and Ricky travel to Erebonia, where the pair ends up lost and separated.
Cold Steel protagonist Rean Schwarzer ends up reuniting the pair, and eventually, Anton meets the maid of the Reinford family, Sharon Kreuger. As you can probably guess by this point, yes, he falls madly in love again, but here’s where things get fun.
Anton gifts Sharon a tea set, which makes a big impression, and across Trails of Cold Steel III and IV you can hear little details about the two exchanging letters. When the party takes a break at Mishelam Wonderland in Cold Steel IV who should show up but Anton, and you can see he’s finally found love. Better still, there are hints Sharon has started to reciprocate his feelings. Anton even works as a minor plot point to help Sharon reclaim a bit of her humanity, and realize she deserves and can find happiness. It’s an incredibly cute moment that’s made even better if players have been following Anton across the eight games it's taken to get here.
Anton might be the most prominent NPC to pop up in multiple games, but he’s not nearly the only one. Trails rewards players for getting invested in its world and narrative, to a degree that no other RPG franchise can match. In many ways, Trails feels like the antithesis of modern games, and that’s exactly what makes it work so well. Admittedly, truly investing in Trails can potentially take hundreds of hours, but it’s an investment that has some of the best emotional payoff you’ll find in all of video games.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure launches on March 14 for PS4, Nintendo Switch, and PC.