In any long running series there often seems to be the “odd one out.” The one that doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the series. The controversial one. Well buckle up and grab your orbments because today we are going to tackle Trails in the Sky the 3rd, the most unique and experimental game in the series who’s legacy has only gotten more interesting as the series has gone on. This game is a departure from the norms of the series in terms of design and structure and is probably the most likely to become a “love it or hate it” game if you are playing through the series. So join me as I attempt to explore what makes this game different from the rest of the Trails series.
Trails in the Sky the 3rd came out for windows in 2007 but did not see an English release until 2017. While the previous titles focused on Estelle and Joshua’s more upbeat story, Sky the 3rd serves simultaneously as an epilogue, spin off, and prologue to the rest of the series that lays the earliest story ground work for what would become the true “saga” that is to come. Partially due to the English release being so delayed, I actually played Cold Steel I and II before coming back to Sky the 3rd, as they received English localizations before it did despite being 3 games away. This made for quite the interesting experience.
Once again I am going to attempt to do this without spoilers. For this game in particular that is going to be a unique challenge. On the plus side this write up might be shorter because of that? The only real thing I have to spoil going in is that for the first time in the series there has been a change in protagonist. While this game is very much still a part of the Sky trilogy, Estelle is no longer the main character, though she does appear. Instead you are controlling Kevin Graham, a character introduced in the opening of Sky SC who then plays a prominent role throughout the game. He is a traveling priest of the Septium Church and to learn more about him you should play the games. You should definitely learn more about him.
Sky the 3rd shifts our perspective to Kevin and his childhood friend turned squire, Ries. Throughout this game you will certainly get a lot of Kevin’s backstory but that is honestly just a part of what makes up this game. If you want to go into this game knowing absolutely nothing else then stop here. I am going to use my usual vagueness and broad strokes but I will have to talk about the core of the game and therefore what makes it so different and unique when compared to the rest of the series.
Sky the 3rd opens with one of my favorite sequences in the entire series. You essentially control Kevin through a James Bond-esque secret agent style mission that really establishes the type of tasks and duties Kevin must routinely take on. You get a real sense of his hyper competency beneath his playful and flirtatious exterior. After these events you are quickly joined by Ries in a very long cutscene that sets up the real events of the game.
I am giving another warning for spoilers ahead. If you want to stop and play these games knowing nothing then stop here and re-join these write ups in the next one. No hard feelings. I am only going to spoil the very basic location of this game. Nothing I’m going to say is any further than about 2 hours but I still want to give the warning. Thank you for reading even this much if you don’t continue.
So. In the process of the opening Kevin and Ries are taking possession of an artifact, which in the Trails world is ancient technology that have strange effects and powers. This artifact essentially transports Kevin and Ries to a new location or realm outside of normal space time. This new location is referred to as Phantasma. Much of the game will be spent figuring out what Phantasma is and how to escape from it. It turns out many other characters connected to Kevin have also been pulled in but are trapped in orbs that you will awaken them from as you progress. It is impossible to miss anyone as the characters are all found and brought back in set story sequences.
In addition to collecting your party, which will be the largest of any Trails game so far, and working to escape from Phantasma, Sky the 3rd features “memory doors” scattered throughout the planes of Phantasma. These doors often require having specific party members with you or a certain item, and usually involve clearly a simple battle trial in order to open. This is the heart of Trails in the Sky the 3rd.
Once any particular door is opened they gift you with memory fragments. Every door essentially contains a cutscene or side story. All of these provide scenes that serve as either character or event backstory. The doors essentially lead to a list of side scenes, story, and lore episodes. There are 3 types of memory doors in the game. Sun, Moon, and Star. Star Doors consist of shorter scenes or episodes or just straight up lore dumps. Sun Doors consist of minigames to play that occasionally include a bit of story. Finally Moon Doors are much longer and substantial scenes that often include more involved gameplay segments. In total, there are 5 Sun Doors, 5 Moon Doors, and 15 Star Doors for a total of 25. There very much is a “main story” to play through, but these memory doors and side stories are most of the real content of this game. Without them this would be a very short game by Trails standards.
The above is what makes Sky the 3rd so unique. In a series that sometimes feels like a more contained Kingdom Hearts this entry is the most “Kingdom Hearts.” Throughout the game, the strange world of Phantasma itself, plus its strange versions of previously visited locations, serve to mix things up nicely after spending 2 games moving through the same spaces. The structure of the game is entirely different to anything that has come before or since in the series (until Hajimari which just released in Japan recently). To me, Sky the 3rd is also the darkest in content and tone by a significant margin. It is also widely considered to be the most difficult game in the the Sky trilogy and most likely the entire series. Which segues nicely into…
As you might expect by now, the core gameplay remains largely unchanged. Movement is still the same, battles are the same, orbments, lines, and arts still work the same way. Though there are some very powerful new quartz that require slot upgrades to level 3 now. The more mysterious nature of Phantasma does lead to new AT bonus effects appearing, such as “Rush” which lets you immediately take 2 turns. Learning this and adjusting accordingly should be intuitive at this point in the series. In addition, there are some new arts available and the enemies have more of an emphasis on being weak to the “higher elements” of time, space, and mirage rather than the 4 basic elements. This truly is the most difficult Trails game and there are going to be some very challenging fights ahead. Every Trails game provides a “lower difficult and retry” option for bigger battles and you may find yourself making more use of it in this entry.
At this point you should be a veteran of the gameplay but Sky the 3rd has a way of forcing out some new strategies from the player in addition to whatever had become your bread and butter for FC and SC. You will have more characters available than ever before with almost no limits on switching them aside from certain story sections. (As an aside, it took a lot of willpower to not just post the spoiler filled party selection screen). With this newfound cast size and freedom comes an additional challenge. Managing the 16 characters in terms of orbment set ups and gear can be time consuming and expensive. Just pay attention to what each character wants to do and set up accordingly. On a first playthrough make careful use of your resources and maybe find a core party you want to keep equipped. There are some very strong tools in terms of equipment and items to make use of as well.
After a certain point in the story, one character can be assigned in a support spot through the hub area. They have different effects depending on which character you put there. Some increase one of your party’s stats at the cost of another for example. I found the most useful ones to be those that increased the amount of sepith or experienced gained.
The structure and layout of Sky the 3rd is completely different to previous games given that its not taking place in the “real” world. You will be exploring the various “planes” of Phantasma trying to find your way through for the most part (“find” in a story sense not an in game maze sense). There is an area that serves as a base of operations called the Hermit’s Garden which allows you to set up characters, buy gear, and talk to everyone before setting out again. There are no sidequests in Sky the 3rd. Everything is focused on either the main plot or the memory doors scenes. There are actually a lot of fast travel options available throughout the game, which I believe is a first for the series. You can travel to various spots in the planes at will. Importantly, you can travel to any memory doors that you have located, which helps a lot because you will find many of them before you can actually open them. This gives a lot of freedom in coming back to base and adjusting your party as you go.
As I am writing this piece, only the just released in Japan Hajimari no Kiseki seems to rival the structure of Trails in the Sky the 3rd. Many are calling it a spiritual successor to Sky the 3rd. Whether this a good or bad thing will depend drastically on the player, their response to 3rd, and what they are playing the series for. Even after seeing all of the memory doors the game is one of the shortest in the series, with only Sky FC being shorter for me personally. I was just short of 40 hours and Howlongtobeat has the range at 32-47 for main-main+extras. It is worth mentioning here that Sky the 3rd probably has the least “gameplay” in the series. There are always long sections of just pressing A or X in jrpgs, but the dialogue cutscenes here are the longest in the series and even approach some Metal Gear Solid levels. Consider this fair warning going in. Save often and never try to do “just one more door.”
While you can still gather recipes if you are so inclined, the collection style minigames are mostly absent here. Ingredients for recipes can be bought from the tree in the Hermit’s Garden. There are no NPCs in this game to collect books from but the Garden does have a library that will update over time. Finally the fishing minigame is gone, or rather replaced with a Sun Door dedicated to fishing.
There is actually a semi-optional dungeon type area near the end of the game that is meant to let you grind up for anything you might need before the final dungeon. This is meant to help you outfit all 16 characters as you will be using every single one for the final push. I always clearly it once for story purposes (a very important memory door is at the bottom). Then I would rotate my team and keep moving through to get everyone quickly leveled up for the final dungeon. On PC where there is a turbo mode, and with Trails‘ typical generous experience yield, this did not take very long. I would often bring an already powerful character to make sure I could clear everything easily while letting the other party members reap the exp rewards. You don’t actually have to do this at all, but I do recommend it and cannot emphasize enough that you should see the memory door at the bottom.
So, so many. Trails in the Sky the 3rd is a game that truly begins to encompass just how batshit the scope of what Falcom is doing with these games is. Between the main Kevin plot, Phantasma, and the memory doors, Sky the 3rd serves as its own story, backstory of past events, extra story fan service, character histories, lore, worldbuilding, an epilogue to Sky FC and SC, AND sets up both of the 2 next arcs. It hints not just where the next game is going but where the entire next 2 sub-series of games are going. Despite being one of the “smaller” games in the series it might be the most ambitious. Does it work? Sort of.
Look. There is a lot of balancing going on here. The reality is your enjoyment of this game is going to directly depend on how invested you are in each of these characters and the lore of the world itself. This is true for the overall game but also for each individual memory door. If you don’t care about a character that a given door is focusing on this could turn into a slog through cut scenes you don’t care about.
Personally, I’m a sucker for all things Trails and even I think this game can be a bit much. Supposedly even more was actually cut from the game as well. Honestly that goes to show just how deeply Falcom thinks about this series and the character and history contained within it. However there is substantial time in this game dedicated to just reading about events that took place in the world. If you are not hyper invested on that level though this particular game won’t click the same way it will for someone who is.
There is a bit of a disconnect between seeing all the memory doors and the main plot with Kevin. I like Kevin a lot. I liked seeing his backstory. I liked getting to know Ries. I liked figuring out what was going on with Phatasma. If its not working for you, or is too weird or disconnected from previous games, then this could be a tougher time. Kevin and his plot is the vehicle through which the memory doors and their stories become available. I’m a big fan of both separately, but they are indeed separate. Because the main plot of Sky the 3rd focuses on a side character and because of the memory door system this game is somehow completely essential and yet totally skippable. There is a reason there is a meme in the fandom about skipping this game. The events of Sky the 3rd are the least referenced going forward. Prior to Cold Steel IV (which forced me to rewrite this), Phantasma was only referenced in 2 or 3 sentences for the entire rest of the series (and even Cold Steel IV’s is more “wow this sure is reminding me of that time”). I think different players are going to take different things from this one whether they like the main plot and Kevin, the memory doors, both, or neither.
And yet! All of this had made Sky the 3rd age very, very interestingly within the series. So many of the extra scenes are setting up the future and are rewarding to go back and revisit. Replays become quite interesting after you have already seen how future events play out. Because of the way the doors work, with some real standouts, it also makes the game sit in my memory in a certain way. Remembering the 5 best memory doors is great. Playing through the rest of them can be more mixed. Is it too much? The truth is I don’t know. for me its not but I have spoken to people for whom this game really doesn’t work. Your mileage may vary.
The pacing of this game is weird. When I play this game, I see all the memory doors as I am able to but you could actually wait until nearly the end of the game to do all 25. Some of the doors are quite long. I think they made a poor choice with the first door as it is supposed to be the tutorial to show how they work but also happens to be one of, if not the, longest door. The longer Moon Doors can be 40 minutes to an hour long. That’s long enough that you can forget what you were supposed to be doing by the time you come out. This leads to some situations where you will be moving along with main plot, come upon a new door, then go through a 30 minute scene that has nothing to do with what you were doing.
I said all the above and still haven’t even touched the actual content of the doors or plot. Its clear as I’m writing this that I am focusing a lot on the memory door aspect of the the game but another player might find themselves much more enraptured by Kevin and his story. I don’t want to spoil anything and I feel like I have covered how the doors work well enough. So I’ll just say that on an individual basis I like a lot of them. Playing this game will teach you the “types” of doors even beyond the obvious Sun, Moon, and Star distinction. Some are long, in depth, and require actually playing through, while others are just text based world building. Many provide insight into characters. They might not complete a character’s story, but they often show where they might be going and what they will be doing in the future. On the other hand some focus on a character’s past rather than their post SC future. Most are not earth shattering and truly are just small extra scenes. A few absolutely are earth shattering and one or two left me with my jaw dropped.
That’s enough about the doors. The main plot is also something I enjoyed quite a lot, though it honestly took me a replay to get there. The tone is definitely darker when compared to the more upbeat adventure of Estelle and Joshua. Even in the heavier sections of Sky FC and SC they don’t approach the overall darkness of tone in Sky the 3rd, which trades in trauma and demonology. The music and presentation help sell this as well. The jaunty traveling music is gone in favor of an often slower, more mysterious and moody tracklist that reflects the strange situation our heroes find themselves in. You could argue this is a disconnect as well, as the memory doors (with one exception) do not reflect this darker tone and are often quite happy in “feel” if not in content. Due to the nature of the game, this is actually a more focused plot as it really is about Kevin and his story while still providing some great moments for other characters as well (Richard is a standout here).
Trails in the Sky the 3rd is an ambitious game that might strain under the weight of everything it is attempting to do. I’m not sure I consider it a cap on the trilogy but more of an “extra” game. No other game (except maybe Hajimari) in the series works the way Sky the 3rd does. Personally? I truly love this game and it all works for me. It is a great example of something that is only possible in a series like Trails. The ending with all the characters together leaves me nearly in tears every time.
As always thanks so much for reading. This was one of the most interesting but also most difficult games in the series to write about. I have really been trying to nail down how I want to write about the series. Obviously I am a huge fan but I want to make sure I think about how a newcomer would feel coming in to each game.
Programming note: This took a lot longer because my desktop died which delayed me getting screenshots by about a month. The bigger issue is that the next games, Zero and Ao, did not receive official English releases. What that means is I played them less than legally but as such when my desktop died my saves are going to be much harder to get back. I also need to substantially go through, edit, and re write my Zero and Ao pieces anyway. All that is to say I don’t really have a timeframe for when the next article will be coming unless I shift gears to Cold Steel I and II. I also apologize for the length but “a lot” is kinda the only way I know how to talk or write.
Anyway, spoiler section and some “fun” stuff below. I was originally going to do an entire section behind tags on every memory door but decided that was neither fun to do or read. If you aren’t minding spoiler please check the Trails Needs Moms section below because it will get funnier as we go, you’ll see.
Thanks again for reading and I hope I’m doing justice to my favorite series.
-Kevin’s backstory is rather dark, but a lot of this game is him overcoming trauma that has long affected him while finding allies and friends in the process. I really love him and Ries, who shines despite being new. I also in particular love the way Joshua steps up and insists on being a friend to Kevin by saying he owes Kevin for his actions in Sky SC but clearly also doing so because who would know better than Joshua how hard it is to claw yourself of darkness.
-The finale of this game involves splitting the entire party up into 4 teams and playing a section as each team. This is a fun section especially if you take the time to balance the teams well.
-This also serves as an experiment for the devs. They will come back to this idea of splitting teams quite often in the future. Including turning Hajimari no Kiseki’s entire thing into playing 3 paths with different teams.
-The localization for all the Sky games add messages to the chests you can see after opening them. In the final dungeon of Sky the 3rd all the messages are words of encouragement to keep pushing forward and I think that is a really nice touch.
-The doors actually serve as the major introductions of important characters who will essentially carry the plot going forward. Especially Osborne and Lechter.
-The Renne door. This is the door. It requires seeing all the other doors in the game first. It is heavy and sensitive and hits like a truck.
-Renne is a major part of this game and I find it really interesting the way her arc spans different arcs in the series, starting in Sky SC, continuing here, and then mostly finishing in Zero, the first game of the Crossbell arc. It’s an example of the what the series could really do with its characters.
-I love the ending of this game. All the characters slowly saying their goodbyes. Estelle and Joshua connecting with Renne again and making it clear they are going to find her and bring her into their family when she is ready. The entire ending scene really resonates with me and is an emotional farewell to all the characters we have now spent 3 games with.
-In fact as part of that ending, with everyone crying, Renne can’t understand why everyone seems so happy even as they are crying and sad. Estelle and Joshua exlain to her that they will see them all again so they have to see each other off with a smile. Hits me right in the feels.
There are a lot of party members in this game. Some are new. Many are characters you have seen before but who were not playable. Because of that I’m not going to give story spoilers but more of just a hint how to build them if you need it for the end. Some surprises in terms of who is here so be warned.
Kevin-stronger than in SC. Good support crafts still but gets 3 ridiculously strong S-crafts. Okay physical, decent arts. Will serve you quite well in most cases.
Ries-can be a cp battery for others. Okay at physical and arts. Also gets a good S-craft. Solid but more specialized characters will be stronger. You’ll be using her a lot so get used to her.
Estelle-same as before, probably go more physical this time as she hits pretty hard. Still can be a jack of all trades that supports others.
Joshua-still speedy and great. Can do hilarious things in certain fights with CP boosting items. With enough enemies in the battle and cp boosting equipment his S-craft can earn enough CP to immediately S-craft again in some fights. I once pulled it off 3 straight times. Not the top tier of arts user but just under it.
Schera-still kinda an odd one out power wise, go for arts.
Agate-he hit things good, stack that attack.
Kloe-still a monster arts user and healer
Olivier-still one of the best arts users with an okay craft or two.
Tita-stronger in this game than ever before. Her crafts and new orbal gear are good. Strong wide range attacks.
Zin-still a physical tank focused on punching things
Alan Richard-incredible crafts and speed. Give him CP boosting gear and watch no one else get a turn ever again as he just spams crafts endlessly. Better at eliminating single targets than groups.
Mueller-physical fighter, hits like a truck but slow.
Julia-another middling character okay at both physical and arts but will be outclassed by the best at either.
Anelace-can get special weapons specific to her by doing certain story things. If you get her special weapon (bring her to complete the arena Sun door) she can be a physical powerhouse. Without her special weapon she is more middling.
Josette-literally the weakest character in the entire history of the series gameplay wise. Not great at anything. Do your best.
Renne-okay crafts and an absolute arts monster that arrives basically fully kitted orbment wise.
In general you will be aiming for either physical or arts. A lot of times in the Sky trilogy the most efficient strategy is to spam single target arts from the arts users and swing hard with the physical ones. Experiment though and find what works for you.
With the end of the Sky trilogy I want to start a “fun” side section called Trails Needs Moms. It is a common trope in stories but especially in anime and jrpgs to give characters a tragic backstory, often involving parental deaths. I’m going to use this section to track how many party members have parents/family. You’ll get why as we go.
Joshua-dead parents, dead sister, now dead brother figure
Schera-orphan from the streets
Agate-parents not really mentioned, presumed dead when he was little. younger sister died tragically
Olivier-not mentioned yet but he is a prince of Erebonia and the emperor and empress are alive soooo, stay tuned.
Zin-unknown. He’s an older character so they could be dead of natural causes but never mentioned. His master was killed by a fellow student though and that master was also his friend Kilika’s father.
Tita-Two actual living and breathing alive parents and an alive grandfather. Parents did leave her for all of FC and SC though. Fun fact her dad appears to have taken her mom’s last name.
Anelace-unknown, grandad is a major background character that gets mentioned a lot but is yet to appear himself.