In the Crossbell criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important, groups: the police, who everyone hates, and the government, who are more corrupt than a backwoods southern lawyer. These are their stories.
Crossbell is in something of a bind. After years of fighting between the Imperial and Republic factions for control of this vital piece of land in Zemuria, the state established itself as independent many years ago and has enjoyed a boom of economic prosperity that is transforming the city into a thriving metropolis. Orbal energy is powering the progress as several big organizations and corporations work in tandem to see this state thrive.
But just beneath the glossy exterior, there is a rot that cannot be ignored. The politicians of this supposedly independent state are merely puppets for the surrounding territories that once waged war over this land. And the police of Crossbell City have been neutered in their ability to tackle the rampant organized crime that all but controls the city. Cleaning up these streets will require a different way of thinking and a different type of police officer. Enter Lloyd Bannings and the Special Support Section.
In The Legend of Heroes: Trails from Zero, you take control of Lloyd and his crew of sorta-cops as they investigate a series of cases around Crossbell City and the surrounding countryside, doing battle with street gangs, monsters, the mafia, and a host of curious and corrupt characters. Initially, the Special Support Section is nothing more than a PR stunt for the department meant to generate some goodwill. For whatever reason, 911 is a joke in this town as the public has grown apathetic to law enforcement. An international mercenary group known as the Bracers is where most people go for their problems. Nobody really expects anything significant out of these SSS, but with low expectations comes the freedom to pursue cases on their own terms.
The game’s narrative is broken up into chapters, each of which plays out like episodes from an old police serial. You’ll get a case from your superior officer, search for clues, interrogate witnesses, and then try to put all the facts together for the big reveal at the end of each chapter. Sometimes there’s even a twist thrown in for good measure. Breaking up the narrative in this fashion is an exceptionally smart decision as it kept me fully engaged with the story even when I was stuck in one of the many dialogue-heavy cutscenes. And believe me, this game is a dialogue glutton.
Know your strengths and weaknesses
Most of the cases you take up, whether it’s the central investigation for the chapter or one of the many side-cases local citizens ask you to look into, will ask you to fight the many monsters that roam the land and the sewers beneath the city. Trails from Zero utilizes an excellent grid-based, turn-based combat system where character position is of the utmost importance. Each Special Support Section member has their own abilities and weapons in battle that should affect how you utilize them. Lloyd is a close-quarters brawler with a limited range of movement. Randy Orlando also needs to be up close to hit his enemies, but he can travel a far greater distance to beat up his foes. Elie MacDowell is armed with a pistol that can take enemies out from afar while the science staff wielding Tio Plato can stand a few paces back from Lloyd or Randy while still hitting her opponents.
Positioning is key here for several reasons. For starters, if Lloyd or Tio is too far away from a foe and you select their standard attack, they’ll only move to the closest spot available, leaving them open for damage. Several of the monsters you face have self-destruct deaths that can dramatically injure any character around them. When you use a standard attack on an enemy, there is the possibility they’ll be knocked back a few spaces. While this means the enemy will have to travel a greater distance to strike back against your team, doing so could push them out of the attack zone of your team’s arts and crafts.
Arts are this game’s magic system, and the type of arts that are available for each character is determined by which quartz pieces you decide to assign them. As you battle enemies and search through chests—which always have a funny little note written inside—you’ll earn seven different flavors of septium. You can sell this for money to buy new weapons and armor, or you can have it refined into quartz that can be slotted in each character’s weapon. The quartz will give your party members access to elemental arts, and the more of a certain elemental type of quartz you have assigned to a character, the stronger their available arts will be. Unlike your standard attacks, arts generally don’t require your team to move for them to be of use, which is perfect when fighting the more explodey monsters in the world.
Crafts, another type of attack at your disposal, are character specific and are unlocked as you level up your team. Characters earn craft points in battle that can be spent on smaller-scale craft attacks and assists or saved up for large-scale, tide-turning S-Break Crafts. As you advance through the story, you’ll unlock Combo Crafts that require two party members to have at least 100 craft points saved up. This isn’t that hard to do as Trails from Zero is pretty generous with those craft points.
High-Speed Mode is a must
What it’s not generous with are experience points. Throughout the game, I found the level of XP earned pretty inconsistent. I’d fight a mid-boss that’d give me barely anything, only to fight some grunts a few minutes later that shower my team with experience. It makes grinding a bit difficult, but with the high-speed mode and some questionably frequent Team Rush attacks, you can clear areas in a flash and buoy your party for that final extensive chapter.
And Trails from Zero really is worth seeing through to the end. Outside of the few typos and instances of untranslated dialogue, this is an exceptionally well-written and well-localized game with themes that are quite prevalent today. One of the threads running throughout the story is the concept of justice versus the application of justice, which might just be the most pressing topic of 2022. I found myself nodding along in agreement multiple times as characters conversed about broken systems and flailing of faith. Sure, I’ve probably outgrown some of the characterizations here, like Randy Orlando’s horndog persona, but beyond that, I didn’t expect the story of a long-lost PSP title to resonate so much with the world of today.
Speaking of the PSP, this game wears its origins on its sleeve. Not only do its menus feel like they were designed for a piece of hardware with fewer buttons on the controls, but graphically, Trails of Zero doesn’t really look like it’s seen that many improvements with the jump to the PS4. It’s a bit embarrassing too because there are several moments where characters will stop to take in the majesty of the world around them. But with so many low-resolution textures, it just doesn’t impress. It’s hard to be captivated by a field full of flowers if you can’t even tell those are flowers in the field. Not helping matters is a color palette that lacks the vibrancy this world deserves.
Switch|PC > PS4
Now, I only had access to the PS4 version (mistakenly thinking it would be the visually superior option of the three platforms available), but apparently, if you want the best-looking version of this game, go for Switch or PC. The folks over at The Mako Reactor put together a great article explaining the differences between versions. It’s hard not to think PS4 players are getting the shaft here when looking at everything listed.
I’ve never played a Legend of Heroes title before despite buying a few of them years ago on the PlayStation Vita, but I’m really happy I finally made the jump into the series with this game. Trails from Zero is an exciting and welcoming RPG with a cast of characters I fell head over heels for. If you’re a longtime Trails fan, this and its 2023 sequel Trails to Azure will help fill the gap between Trails in the Sky and Trails of Cold Steel. For anybody curious about this niche series, I don’t think you can find a better entry point than right here with Trails from Zero.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]