Review: From zero to town hero with The Legend of Heroes: Trails from Zero

trails from zero

Sometimes, good things come to those who wait. The Legend of Heroes, one of gaming’s more niche J-RPG franchises around, is a long-running, multi-game spanning series that has spawned a large number of entries. Most of them have fortunately seen the light of day outside of Japan, even if they’ve taken their merry time making the journey over from Japan.

Such is the case of Trails from Zero, a previously Japan-only PSP game released in 2010 by Nihon Falcom, which was just ported over to Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PC by NIS America. As its name suggests, Trails from Zero is considered to be the opening act to the Crossbell arc of the bigger The Legend of Heroes saga. Crossbell will be instantly familiar to those who’ve played Trails of Cold Steel, as it’s a location you get to visit during that particular sub-series in The Legend of Heroes. 

In Japan, Trails from Zero was followed by Trails to Azure, which also came out on the PSP shortly after, and by Trails into Reverie, a PS4 game from 2020. They are still Japan-only releases at the time of this writing, but good news, they’re also set to be released in English at some point in 2023.

Unlike the rest of the games in that umbrella, Trails from Zero is much more contained in scope. While Trails of Cold Steel, for instance, dealt with a raging worldwide conflict that spans over four games, with you taking center stage and helping decide the fate of nations abound, Trails from Zero has you focusing solely on one location, Crossbel City. 

trails from zero
Better get hydrated, Lloyd. You’re going to be talking A LOT in this game!

You take up the role of Lloyd Bannings, a rookie cop who’s back to his hometown after spending a considerable time away. He’s back in order to take up a role in Crossbell PD’s new Special Support Section unit, or simply SSS, along with a band of other youngsters. The team’s main job ends up being to root out the criminal elements that have made Crossbell less than an idyllic little city it seems to be, and while doing so, regain the trust of its citizens in the town’s police department.

Basic progression in Trails from Zero is a lot like the usual The Legend of Heroes game, wherein you pick up a number of sidequests and complete them while tackling the main story, which is split into chapters. Since the nature of gameplay in Trails from Zero is you being part of a team of detectives, most of the missions you’ll end up tackling involve investigating cases and poking your nose into the seedy underbelly of Crossbell. 

And as you can probably guess, lots of turn-based combat and anime antics ensue as a result. But differently from what you’d expect from your typical J-RPG fare, Trails from Zero is far from being a happy-go-lucky game without much of a care in the world. Following up on The Legend of Heroes, there’s a surprising amount of backstory to be found in Trails from Zero, as it’s as mentioned before only part of a much larger and detailed saga. 

And even though it sets its focus on Crossbell and doesn’t really stray from being a less demanding adventure in terms of scope, it doesn’t mean it’s a lesser game compared to the rest. Those coming into the series for the first time needn’t worry as it’s very tightly put together when it comes to its story on its own.

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Combat in Trails from Zero follows the formula of the rest of the series. And it’s great for that!

Players who are initiated in The Legend of Heroes in some capacity, especially the ones who have played through the Trails in the Sky sub-series, will find even more to enjoy in Trails from Zero, as there are a few story adjacent callbacks here and there that can be picked up upon if you have prior knowledge of earlier games in The Legend of Heroes.

Lloyd and co have also popped up in my personal favorite sub-series, Trails of Cold Steel, and play a sizable role in those games, although not the main focus of their larger story. In playing Trails from Zero, it was really neat seeing their humble origin, and seeing how far a lot of the gameplay mechanics found throughout the franchise date back to.

Combat takes place in a grid, which limits your range depending on which character you control. The pacing of the fights is dictated by a timeline on the top of the screen that shows whose turn is coming up next. Randomly, your team might get some bonuses if they use particular types of elemental moves, which can provide them with extra damage when attacking, or even stronger healing when using support skills. There’s also the chance that a large, all-out team combo attack might spring up whenever you manage to sneak onto enemies on the field, which is as satisfying as it sounds.

The orbal system found in The Legend of Heroes is also present in Trails from Zero. With it, you can assign specific elemental gems that bump up your team member’s stats, as well as give them skill arts to use when fighting. As expected, enemies have their own strengths and weaknesses to these elements, and it’s up to you to exploit them in order to get an upper hand in battle. The more you progress in the game and level up, more slots open up in your orb console, allowing you to equip the stronger Quartz you run into during the game, as you continually become stronger.

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Characters in this sure pack a ton of personality.

It’s worth investing in making your characters specialized in specific roles within the team as there isn’t nearly as big of a cast of playable party members in Trails from Zero as there is in other games from the franchise. The four that you get from the start are the same that you’ll play as throughout the entire game. That isn’t as big of a blemish as it sounds, though, since it gives you a much more manageable group, something that admittedly Trails of Cold Steel sometimes went a little overboard with, having multiple characters fill the same archetype, and such. That isn’t the case here.

Trails from Zero without a doubt looks a little dated as a PSP game from over a decade ago. It’s got pre-rendered chibified characters that run around isometric low poly environments, which have been bumped up to as high of resolution as possible in this port. Characters only have a limited amount of actions and expressions they can act out due to the nature of their design, which is somewhat made up by the more anime-inspired portraits in the dialog windows.  

There’s a LOT of voice acting and although it’s only in Japanese, it helps give the game a lot of personality, not only thanks to that, but also to the excellent writing and localization. You spend a big chunk of Trails from Zero engaged in dialog, so it was paramount that the story was well translated, and not only is that the case here, it’s also a great one to boot.

You’ll find plenty to do in Trails from Zero, as per norm to The Legend of Heroes as a whole. There are many quests to partake in, as well as extra incentives in the form of newly introduced achievements that eventually work to unlock special options that come into play when starting a new game+ save after finishing the game.

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For a supposedly backwater town, there’s so much going on in Crossbell during Trails from Zero. And not all of it is at all friendly…

The main story should take you quite a while to get through, and it’s certainly worth it. The added options that were brought in Trails of Cold Steel are also present in Trails from Zero, like the ability to speed up gameplay, along with fast travel from the many points you’ll come across in Crossbell City. It’s also worth noting that you can save your game basically anywhere, as long as you’re not engaged in combat or in dialog, which makes it an incredibly easy game to pop back in and out of.

Trails from Zero isn’t nearly as ambitious of a game as other entries in The Legend of Heroes, but that doesn’t make it any less worth playing. Quite the opposite, in fact. Given that it’s got a much more focused scope, it helps keep things packed tightly, coupled with what the series does so well, providing layer upon layer of character development and story. 

To anyone looking for a starting point to the frankly intimidating saga that The Legend of Heroes might seem at first, Trails from Zero is as entry level as it can be. And it also provides even more of the rich backstory that those already into series are bound to eat up.

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