The Trails series of RPGs is somewhat niche with a reputation for having an intimidating amount of worldbuilding spanning multiple games and arcs, but don’t let that keep you from playing Trails from Zero. This game is a joyous Japanese RPG experience that deserves more attention. To get new players up to speed, I’ll explain what exactly the Trails saga is. Each game is more or less a sequel to the last, although one can start from the beginning of an arc fresh without much knowledge of the series. Trails from Zero is actually the 2nd arc in the series after the Trails in the Sky trilogy. Though this game is only the 4th game in the series, it’s the most recent one to release outside of Japan, not counting the Geofront mod. The thing about Trails is it’s easy to get lost in the weeds, so I’ll get to the point in this review now: Trails from Zero is a great place to begin for newcomers. The more recent Trails of Cold Steel has the benefit of fully 3D environments and full English voice acting. However, it comes after 5 games filled with returning characters and lore and is the conclusion to the first two arcs. Perhaps the best reason to start here with Trails from Zero, though, is that it’s arguably the best single game in the saga yet.
Trails from Zero has the gravitas of an RPG epic. It’s about as long as any of the Cold Steel games, sure, but it uses its time to masterfully weave a story that is both self-contained and integral to the rest of the saga. This game simply has it all; it’s got mystery, action, pathos, political corruption, and even some Animal Crossing vibes, if you can believe it. I’ve played every Trails game released in the West except Trails of Cold Steel 4. Trails from Zero is the only one that feels like a JRPG classic in a similar vein to Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VII, or Grandia. That being said, some small issues here and there prevent it from being quite on that level, but it’s surprisingly close. Let’s explore what makes this entry in the Trails series so great.
Playing an RPG like Trails from Zero is a different experience from reading a novel or watching a movie because you can walk around the city at your own pace and choose who to interact with and when. This sounds very basic in video game terms, but it’s something this series does incredibly well. Interacting with townsfolk is one of the hallmarks of Trails games. Zero exemplifies this in spades with hundreds of NPC characters that update dialogue every time you progress the plot. If you want to play a game where you primarily talk to townpeople with their own communal lives, like Animal Crossing, you get that peppered throughout this game. The town chef and the troupe dancer may sometimes give you idle gossip and small-talk akin to, “My, it sure is starting to get cold here in Crossbell.” The many side characters will also comment on things they’ve seen or heard that relate to the worldbuilding or facilitate your investigations as a detective. The NPC dialogue isn’t always profoundly interesting, though; as someone who tried to see as much text as possible, I certainly read a lot of tangential, some would say boring, dialogue. There’s plenty of dialogue that’s the exact opposite of boring, too, such as the joke comments from the numerous treasure chests in the game. The self-awareness in these chest messages is laugh-out-loud funny and one of the highlights of this game’s sense of humor.
My favorite aspect of the NPC dialogue is the stories these side characters experience throughout the game. In the beginning, you may encounter a family on the city’s outskirts arguing about whether to live on a farm or inside the bustling capital. As you return to their tiny abode throughout the game, you’ll find that they’ve reached a consensus about where they want to live due to their kid making new friends in the countryside. Plenty of NPC stories like this develop as the main cast’s story and plot do. Hundreds of these ever-evolving NPCs live their own lives around every corner of the game. Having such a large number of NPCs with their own lives to keep track of brings some negatives. A problem in almost every Trails game is empty or repetitive text; some NPCs will comment on the most mundane things or repeat stuff the player already knows. A game with this much dialogue to sift through can get pretty annoying and time-consuming. If you’re not very fond of heavy reading in games, Trails from Zero is probably not for you because there’s novels’ worth of text in this game. Some stuff is there to create the city’s flavor and make it feel like a living, breathing place. Every Trails game has this level of NPC worldbuilding, but Trails from Zero is the only one that takes place primarily in one city. Trails in the Sky had the player running around the country of Liberl, going from city to city with that same level of NPC worldbuilding. Here in Zero, things are more localized and intimate. I initially thought basing an entire game in just one city would be more boring and repetitive than exploring the entirety of Liberl or Cold Steel’s Erebonia, but you do explore sights and sounds outside of Crossbell City, such as the mining village of Mainz or the hospital campus of St. Ursula. Revisiting the numerous familiar characters and seeing the city evolve as your adventure goes on gives more intimacy than any of the other Trails games, which I appreciated greatly by the end of the game.
The key thing, though, is that talking to NPCs is optional and only necessary when given support request assignments to complete. You can skip most of these side-character conversations and B-line it through the main plot if you desire. If you don’t want to enter every single house for new dialogue, you don’t have to, though it is encouraged and logical in-universe to do so. In Trails from Zero, it’s expected that you’ll be questioning citizens and building contacts throughout the city because you play a detective in the police force. This is beside the point in a review, but this level of contextual logic isn’t discussed enough regarding the RPG lineage Trails hails from. The Crossbell police don’t just question citizens and eat donuts all day; there’s plenty of fighting to be had as well.
And what better location for a cop game than Crossbell, with its heated political climate as an autonomous state vying for independence amidst a constant tug-of-war between neighboring nations. You’ll do your fighting in the context of turn-based combat, with the twist being that it’s on an isometric grid where movement and positioning play a key role.
There’s your typical JRPG stuff like magic (called orbal arts in this setting), physical attacks, support moves, debuffs, etc. But with the added flair of area and line attacks, you can move to take out multiple enemies if they’re lined up correctly. I’ve been a sucker for turn-based positioning tactics since Chrono Trigger, so I’ve really enjoyed this system since the first Trails in the Sky game. There have been some enhancements with the system since Sky, such as combo and team-up attacks (like all-out attacks in Persona), which can make battles fly by when you get a backside advantage outside of battle. And yes, that does mean that enemy encounters aren’t random in this series; they walk around the field maps just as your controllable character does.
In fact, this game has plenty of convenience features that make the turn-based RPG experience quite comfortable. Modern ports of the Trails games, in particular, include a bevy of convenience features that ensure that playing the game is as smooth and quick as possible. You’ve got a fast-forward button that activates 2x speed, fast travel, hot menus, auto attack to closest enemy, auto move to furthest tile, and an intuitive UI and menu system. What I most appreciate about the combat in this game is how it never ends up feeling like a chore to slog through. The grind is basically non-existent in this game. The difficulties lower than Nightmare Mode ensure you’re at the right level to face your adversaries as long as you don’t run from many fights. The leveling curve is very smooth, with no noticeable cliffs out of nowhere too. Perhaps my favorite convenience in this game is the ability to one-shot an enemy on the field without ever entering the battle screen. I can’t tell you how rare it is to see this one-shot encounter advantage in turn-based RPGs. I’ve always loved encountering that lowly level 5 mob in Earthbound and destroying it instantaneously by merely walking up to it, and this game has that! All that convenience makes it seem like Trails from Zero is an easy game that plays itself, but thankfully, that’s not true. Some difficult battles in the boss fights here require skill and strategy to overcome. The sheer scale of the repertoire at your disposal means you rarely run out of strategies and ways to defeat your opponent. Most of the really hard stuff comes in the form of optional bosses, some of which are so difficult I still haven’t overcome them in new game+. Boss battles, in general, will put your arsenal and knowledge to the test and require full usage of this game’s combat systems. So there’s still a lot of meat to be had on top of all the convenience. An aspect of that gameplay meat that I’ve always thought was somewhat dull and uninspired in the Trails series has been dungeon design. Trails from Zero has some of the more interesting dungeons in the series. However, there’s the issue of having to backtrack out of some dungeons once you find what you’re looking for.
But Trails from Zero is more than just turn-based combat and mingling with the citizens of Crossbell; there’s a high-quality story supported by a tremendous amount of worldbuilding and continuity. With its intelligently written plot, this game manages to overcome the generic over-the-top anime stigma that RPGs have become notorious for (perhaps wrongly so). Trails from Zero follows the classic plot structure of intro, inciting incident, series of crises, climax, and ending. It uses its 90-hour playtime to toy with said structure and make it a living and breathing existence. The story isn’t told through fancy CGI cinematics but in-engine dialogue and set pieces. Unfortunately, many of these story sequences can take some time without any break or way to skip dialogue, so I have to ding it for that. Thank God for the fast-forward feature, at least. The plot is paced decently well, with an admittedly slow start and a tremendously engaging finale. The first half is more down-to-earth and low-tier, but subversive forces from the other games emerge and up the stakes later in the story. The finale is where a lot of the meat of the plot resides, and while there is one scene that I didn’t like near the end, the rest is gobsmackingly good. As mentioned earlier, Trails from Zero has that classic RPG blood in its veins, and that’s especially evident in the story.
The themes Trails from Zero expresses are impressively woven and, once again, avoid the anime trope of on-the-nose writing. This game is more nuanced than the usual ‘save the world through friendship’ affair. I especially love the contrast between fighting injustice from the inside as an investigator in the police department and the mercenary Bracer Guild fighting injustice outside the system. This is a clever contrasting bridge between the two factions you’re a part of in the Sky trilogy and the Crossbell duology. Another theme this game presents well is the nature of autonomy as a concept and how easily it can get destroyed because of opposite sides pulling at it. The city of Crossbell is like a Vitruvian man being stretched to its breaking point. Trails from Zero doesn’t just spoon-feed this to the player with cheesy monologues and narration; important themes are often told through the characters and their backstories and development. One such character in your party, Elie, showcases the theme of autonomy beautifully with her backstory as a child of one such political family torn apart due to opposing alliances with neighboring states. If it’s true that a house divided cannot stand, Elie’s family is merely limping along with her hoping to clean the mess eventually. These characters each have their own motivations, which almost always tie into the greater themes of the work, the worldbuilding, and the central plot. The weaving of these story elements is well crafted in this game, even compared to others in the series.
I could talk about the themes presented in Trails from Zero all day long, so let’s cut to the chase. The plot has plenty going on without being convoluted or bloated, and it’s presented as if the player is intelligent enough to understand its subtleties and themes. The story starts off low-tier and local, almost sim-like in how you act out your job as a new investigator. As the plot develops and more of the seedy underbelly of Crossbell is revealed to the fresh detectives, higher-tier elements start coming into play. One last observation I had is that some of the strange occurrences throughout the game can be interpreted as either supernatural or as shadow work from secret societies or ancient beings in the setting; there’s plenty to wrap your head around if you’re into any of that. I absolutely loved the game’s finale, though it’s also where some anime tropes rear their head and characters get wordy. It’s still handled respectfully and doesn’t hamper the story for me.
Last but certainly not least, we have the many characters of Trails from Zero. The first JPRG trope broken is that the main protagonist isn’t a silent blank slate like many classic games. Instead, Lloyd is a fully fleshed-out character with a past that gradually gets revealed through the game. You can make a smattering of dialogue choices here and there that flavor the kind of personality you want for Lloyd. Still, overall he’s his own character within the Trails saga. I prefer the main protagonist from Trails in the Sky a bit to Lloyd. Then again, Estelle is one of the best game protagonists I’ve seen, so that’s a pretty high bar. Speaking of Estelle, plenty of returning characters from the Sky trilogy play a part in this game. I was delighted with just how much screen time some of the more critical Sky characters got. But new players won’t be totally clueless with all the returning faces since Trails from Zero does a decent enough job explaining past relationships and giving context. There’s still going to be a lot of stuff that new players will miss out on not having played Sky, but Trails from Zero is newcomer friendly to the best of its ability. Speaking of old and new, the way the returning characters interact with the new cast is wholesome and well done.
“Wholesome” is a word that describes a lot of characters in this game; actually, it’s got some of the most wholesome character interactions I know of in gaming. As just one example, throughout the game, you’ll be visiting the blind child of one of the famous swordsmen in the city. This child doesn’t get to see him often due to his demanding work, so she appreciates it whenever the main party visits her. The game doesn’t shy away from getting really emotional with characters just sitting around a hospital bed crying together, and it’s not done in an overly-dramatic anime kind of way either; it’s usually authentic in its presentation. There’s another key character that joins the main party in the second half of the game that I can’t help but gush about; this character’s dialogue never fails to put a giant grin on my face or get me laughing. It’s simply some of the very best dialogue I’ve ever seen for a child character in a game, something they get consistently right throughout. Randy is another character I ended up really enjoying by the second half. Randy is the relatable, down-to-earth character of the squad who often points out just how ridiculous or stupid some of the tasks and situations are. He also contradicts the anime stereotype of the cocky playboy trope he’s based on in how friendly and authentic he is around people. All in all, I find the characters to be the shining star of the entire game, and there are a LOT of them, almost all realized well. My only gripe, again, is how wordy and repetitive some of the dialogue is, which is something every Trails game struggles with.
Trails from Zero may look like an unassuming, turn-based JRPG, and it did to me at first as well. But after playing its official English release, I consider it a true JRPG classic. The central plot is engaging, the core cast of characters is strong, and the worldbuilding and wider lore are among the very best in gaming. This isn’t just some generic anime game; it ties its themes together in intelligent and sometimes subtle ways – unlike the later Trails of Cold Steel games, I might add. The biggest obstacle for a newcomer getting into the Trails series has been the overarching lore spanning a dozen games at this point. But entries like Trails from Zero, and even Trails in the Sky 1, can easily be enjoyed as a self-contained experience, especially when it’s as good as it is here. Grindy, turn-based gameplay is probably the other obstacle keeping people from considering this title, but this game has an ease of use that contradicts such a notion. Grinding didn’t even occur to me throughout my 90-hour playthrough on normal difficulty. Trails from Zero is incredibly streamlined and easy to pick up and play with its numerous convenience features like fast-forward, on-screen encounters, and so on. There’s just a lot to love about Trails from Zero, but what I take away from it the most are its characters and writing. This is easily the best-written of all the Trails games I’ve played so far, and the new English translation based on the Geofront mod gets a lot of that praise. There’s no doubt you’ll find some small irritations in some of the dialogue and plot points, as I did, but overall, the good vastly outweighs the bad in this JRPG classic. You really owe it to yourself to play it if you’re into story-based games and don’t mind reading a lot of text. If you’re a fan of JRPGs, forward this game to the front of your backlog and play the first 10 hours or so; you’ll likely get pulled in just as much as I did.