Review – The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure

Overview

Developer Nihon Falcom
Publisher NIS America
Genre JRPG
Platforms PS4/5, PC, Switch
Release Date March 14, 2023

After the incredible Trails from Zero was finally released last fall, 12 years after its original Japanese release, NIS America has kept the Trails flowing. The first of three (!) Trails games intended for 2023, Trails to Azure is the direct sequel to Zero, and the final bridge between the Trails in the Sky trilogy and the Trails of Cold Steel quadrilogy. No more Crossbell-shaped hole in our English Trails releases! This is a huge moment for Trails fans, but how does the game stack up to the rest of the series? Let’s find out!

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Content Guide 

Let me open this section with three comments. First, I don’t know how to avoid SPOILERS! here, so if you don’t want any, SKIP down to the “Review” header.  I don’t think I spoil much of Azure, but you shouldn’t even be looking at this review if you don’t want Trails from Zero spoiled. Second, if you’ve played the Trails series, this stuff isn’t too far from the norm,  although I think some of the stupider content issues begin right here. Third, I’ve beaten the main quest before and am going off that; as of right now I have not finished every side quest. 

Violence: The game is definitely violent in that you will fight human enemies in combat, and you will see the occasional bit of blood. A key part of the story involves the unsolved murder of the main protagonist’s brother, and so… I’ll leave it at that. 

Language: There are no f-bombs, but other language is present. The most problematic language isn’t specific cuss words, but what follows in the next section of this content guide. 

Sexual Content: While I don’t think this game has any worse specific scenes than other games in the series as far as the extremity of the content, and it’s not too far off the other titles overall, it sets some unfortunate downward trends that stick throughout the Cold Steel arc. In Azure, you can decide who to “bond” with at the end of the game, which is for the most part “pick your waifu” type stuff, although you can choose a male character and have Lloyd “bond” with them platonically. (Lloyd is not homosexual, but one female NPC is, and one male player character pretends…? to be homosexual to tease Lloyd.) Bonding scenes are an unfortunate story change but not a huge problem content-wise, except that it goes hand-in-hand with a scene at a water park where 9 female characters basically put on a bikini fashion show for only 3 male characters. Male entitlement at its worst. 

Likewise, early on there is a scene where a new (female, homosexual) NPC grabs the breasts (over clothing) of a female player character and then runs away. Afterwards, the player character is traumatized, while the other characters basically try to play it off. “It’s not that big of a deal, is it?” “Doesn’t your other friend do stuff like that to you?” I started to type “these scenes haven’t aged very well,” but I think I would have had just as much of a problem with them in 2010. Again, it’s not about these scenes being explicit, it’s about the way the characters interact in the scenes. 

Separately: KeA is a 500-year-old “magical girl” but basically a 10 year old girl for all intents and purposes. Some promotional material shows her isolated, from the shoulders up, presumably naked. It pops up on Steam Deck just before you load the game.There is a scene later in the game where KeA is abducted and forced to use her powers against her will, but she’s clothed. I don’t remember the scene being shown from the game, unless it’s meant to be a flashback from her time 500 years ago in a scene that I’ve forgotten. In any case, it’s stupid for the art to exist at all, let alone to use for game promotion, and I wish I could remove it from my Deck. 

Drugs/Alcohol: Smoking and drinking continue to be present onscreen quite a bit, although they are not necessarily embraced as a huge positive. 

Other Mature Content: I should have mentioned this in the Zero review as well, but gambling at the Casino plays a nontrivial role in the story and in the life of Crossbell.

Early on, we get a brief peek at Calvard.

Review

Like Trails from Zero, Trails to Azure was originally developed for the PlayStation Portable. As the direct sequel, it reuses the same graphical and audio assets, and the game systems have changed only marginally, with the introduction of Master Quartz (which are then included in every Trails of Cold Steel game). This means I don’t have a lot to say about these aspects, because all of the praise has already been given. Azure looks incredible on Steam Deck for a game this old, as good as any modern 2D-HD title. The classic, addictive combat is there, along with all the standard extracurriculars (fishing, cooking, scanning enemies). And this is likely the last game with chest messages; may those wonderful puns rest in peace. 

Of course, it comes with the same complaints, too. There’s no English voice acting. The achievements are the same as before, and while they are not as egregious as a specific achievement from Zero, they still require two playthroughs, constant use of a guide, and a long battery life (“Play for 100 hours”). These are not enough for me to really knock the game, but it’s worth mentioning. Also worth mentioning is my understanding that like with Zero, the PS4/5 version of the game is missing certain improvements to the game that were included on Steam and Switch, such as the incredibly important chat log. 

Trails continues to have the best turn-based combat system around.

While I had played through the Geofront localization of Zero before it was officially released, this is my first time playing through the Geofront version of Azure. Stylistically, it’s just as incredible, but it can’t save Azure from the story problems that begin to plague the series at exactly this moment.

I don’t know how to look into Falcom’s staff history, but I have to think that some writing staff must have changed over there right around this time. While the whole Trails series is excellent overall, there are two downward trends that begin here, and I’m not sure which one is worse. The first is that we have moved from a focused, narratively-integrated love story in the Sky trilogy to full on harem anime. The writers shoot themselves in the foot twice with this; by Cold Steel IV they are forced to make a canonical choice about the Zero/Azure cast anyway, and they likewise end up unable to stick part of the Cold Steel landing because they think players would rather feel like pimps than enjoy a heartfelt story. The problem starts right here at Mishelam Wonderland, and never goes away.

Home sweet home.

The other problem is a lot like the Star Wars sequel trilogy or the back half of LOST, although typing that made me die a little inside, since I love Trails so much. After the Sky trilogy and Zero hint so seductively at the broader mysteries of the series, Trails to Azure begins the descent into mythological goulash. By Cold Steel IV, witches are using magic spells to hack computers encrypted by ancient alchemists, which is an intentionally erroneous statement, but that’s what it feels like. The character moments are still great, but somewhere along the way the series literally loses the plot, and that somewhere is the back half of Trails to Azure. 

While those are large complaints, it’s like saying that a sirloin from Texas Roadhouse isn’t one from Ruth’s Chris. It’s still a fantastic steak, and you can have as many over-buttered rolls as you want. In particular, I think the Zero/Azure cast might be my favorite of the three groups we’ve seen so far, and we do get some really wonderful resolution of Crossbell-specific mysteries that were threads left hanging after Zero. 

Lloyd continues to remain clueless despite being a detective.

If this review sounds negative, it’s because I have high standards for such a beloved series, and I was too quick to gloss over the positives that are still present. This is probably the best turn-based combat system of any JRPG ever made. The graphics and audio are wonderful. The localization is so good that other companies should be taking notes. It’s not Trails from Zero, but it does give a satisfying conclusion to some things leftover from Zero (and others are less satisfying). By the time you’ve finished Zero, you should be so enthralled that you have no choice but to tackle Azure, and for the most part you’ll be satisfied, even if the desserts at Texas Roadhouse are kind of bland.

The Bottom Line

 

Despite setting some downward trends for the future, Trails to Azure brings a satisfying conclusion to the Crossbell arc.

 

8

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Derek Thompson

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