Getting Over the Barrier-Trails to Zero Review

Trails as a series is unique in its structure because it essentially consists of arcs within a larger overall narrative. Trails from Zero marks the first time that this manifests within the series. Zero kicks off the “Crossbell Arc” of the Trails series as we shift location and party for the first time. For many, Crossbell is the peak of the series. For me, it is possibly the best example of what the Trails series is truly capable of. To me the Crossbell arc is defined by how it bridges the gap between the two “larger” arcs in the series. Zero introduces its own characters and story while managing to connect a lot with Estelle and Joshua’s unfinished business from Sky. Azure, the next game, feels like it brings us forward into the next era of Trails in a lot of ways I’ll get to later. Remarkably, this does not come at the expense of the new characters and story which is why I feel like the Crossbell games encapsulate what is only possible in Trails. They truly connect both backward and forward rather than just making vague references to other games. Crossbell in particular will become immensely important to the overall series going forward.

Sounds great right? Any catches? Well lets get into it. Usual minor spoilers ahead.

As I said, Trails from Zero begins the Crossbell arc which takes place in the mega city-state of Crossbell that is situated between the Erebonian Empire and The Republic of Calvard. Trails from Zero, or more accurately, Zero no Kiseki, was released in 2010 for the PSP in Japan and was ported to PC for a Chinese release. That PC port was then brought back for a Japanese PC release in 2013. It, along with its sequel, were re-released in Japan in 2020 as Zero no Kiseki Kai (and Ao no Kiseki Kai). It will finally be receiving an official English release next year which puts me in a bit of an awkward spot talking about it. (and not just because I had to re write this entire section).

See, because the Crossbell games had never gotten official releases, I, and many other players, simply played the Cold Steel games which were available. I have talked many times about how the series builds on itself so missing the middle section in English is a rather noticeable gap. In practice the games don’t rely on each other in quite this way (I’ll explain the timeline more when I get to Cold Steel) but if you do play them in order the through line is much more evident not just in terms of story but in the systems and style of the game itself. If you are paying attention it is possible to really feel the shift from one half of the series to the other with, and perhaps perfectly between, Zero and Azure.

The exciting news is that not only are those official English releases coming but they are actually officially partnered with a team of fan translators who already translated both Zero and Azure and released patches for the games themselves. These patches made by The Geofront team are how I played Zero and my second play through of Azure (I used a different translation the first time). The team did incredible work and they are truly full localizations and optimizations rather than just translations. Serious credit goes to Falcom for choosing to work with these fans rather than simply shutting them down and I will be supporting the official releases as well. For now, as I have already played them, I will continue as normal.

Trails from Zero introduces a new protagonist in the form of Lloyd Bannings. Lloyd is from Crossbell but has lived abroad for a few years. He is now returning to join the Crossbell Police Department after passing his training and detective exam. Upon arriving in Crossbell Lloyd quickly realizes that things are not what he expected as he has been assigned to a newly created unit, the Special Support Section (SSS). He is joined by other rookies who interestingly do not have police backgrounds themselves. In contrast to Sky, the entire party is introduced almost immediately and will not be dropping in and out as the game goes on. Lloyd will be joined by Elie MacDowell, Randy Orlando, and Tio Plato and you will of course learn plenty about them throughout the Crossbell arc. Zero also features the occasional guest character who will team up with the squad for a brief length of time. In typical Trails fashion there will also be a host of side characters to get to know who will all serve to really bring Crossbell to life.

Gameplay

Trails from Zero brings back all of the core facets of the Trails gameplay and engine yet again. You still navigate the world the same way and battles are still fought using the same “AT bar” turn based system on a small grid. Player options are the same as before. Moving, attacking, crafts, arts, items, S-crafts and S-breaks to interrupt turn order. You will eventually gain the ability to use combination crafts, which are like combined S-crafts performed by 2 characters. These cannot be used as S-breaks but can offer strong combo attacks from 2 characters at once.

The arts system remains intact as it was in Sky, with orbments, lines, slots, quartz, and sepith values being how available arts are determined. If you have played Sky you will find minor changes in what arts are available however. Many have been changed, renamed, or added but their overall functions remain the same. The differences in arts are actually justified in universe by saying it is a different orbment device which doesn’t really matter in any meaningful way but does lead to my favorite “blink and you’ll miss it” Easter egg of sorts later in Azure.

The arts system will look familiar to any players coming from Sky.

The main change is actually the addition of field attacks which allow you to strike monsters or enemies with an attack on the field to gain a further advantage over them as you enter battle compared to just running into them from behind in the previous games. When you field attack an enemy from behind they will be stunned. Upon running into a stunned enemy you will gain a massive advantage state. Not only will you get the standard first and multiple turns to start, but those turns will also always have either the AT critical bonus or the new team rush AT bonus on the bar. When a character gets a turn with the team rush AT bonus, it will prompt the ability to perform a large scale attack in which the entire party rushes and attacks the enemies. Team rush, in my opinion, is pretty broken, and you will be able to cruise through the normal enemies like they are nothing most of the time.

The new field attacks give you massive advantages to start battles.

The shift in location to Crossbell from the multiple regions of Liberl in Sky brings with it a fundamental shift in the structure of the game. Crossbell is (primarily) one large city and you will spend the entire game within it and its closely surrounding areas. While the surrounding areas are varied and your time will be split between them, at the end of the day you will always be operating out of and reporting back to your base of operations within the city. Functionally, you will still be taking on sidequests between more important story events, but now you will be reporting them to the same place in Crossbell rather than to each city’s respective Bracer guild. Luckily, Crossbell and its outskirts are large enough to support an entire game like Liberl’s 5 regions did before it. In combination with the larger city of Crossbell and the massive system of tunnels that runs underneath it, the geofront, you will find plenty of variation. Additionally, Zero brings with it a true fast travel system for the city where you can travel to different districts with just the press of a button.

Zero is broken up into chapters like all Trails games. However Zero further breaks those chapters up into days. So the loop of gameplay will often become checking each day’s sidequests and doing them before whatever main task needs to be done. You earn DP in Zero as opposed to BP for completing quests now (Detective Points not Bracer Points). Nothing too unfamiliar if you have played Trails or another jrpg before. Being in one location for the entire game somewhat changes the experience of talking to NPCs as you will often be talking to the same people as time passes as opposed to new people in a new town like in Sky. Just make the rounds whenever you wish though there are certain characters I would highly recommend keeping up with.

Wazy is simply the best.

There is also hidden system in Zero where you earn bonding points. These are earned per party member depending on who you select for certain story choices or scenes. You also earn points for performing a certain number of combination crafts with them or for purchasing decorations for each character’s room. Near the end of the game you will unlock a final bonding scene between Lloyd and party members with whom you have earned 65 bonding points. It is possible to earn enough points with all 3 members in a single playthrough (use a guide if attempting) but you can only see the final bonding scene one at a time without save scumming. This marks the first introduction of some type of relationship mechanic in the Trails series. A bigger turning point than you may realize at the time if you are playing these games in order. In Zero it is relatively simple but the numbers are kept hidden. Trails would expand on this system, especially in the Cold Steel games where it became a full blown well… harem. If you only want to see one character’s scene you can safely pick them for everything and be fine.

All of the usual Trails trimmings are here. Fishing, book collecting, recipes and cooking. The cooking matters a bit more for the first time in the series as now you choose which character to cook each recipe with. They all have specialties or ones they are bad at and so you can get a “superb” or a “peculiar” dish from cooking each recipe with different characters. There is a quest and a reward you can find in the game for getting all of each. Similarly with fishing there are rewards for catching all the fish in the game. Finally there are small rewards for scanning monsters and reporting to the police department receptionist.

Howlongtobeat? Lists the average length of the game to be about 40 to 60 hours for more completionists. My personal time is listed as 50-60 hours on the in game timer but I used the turbo option liberally which also speeds up the in game timer in the version I play. In real time anywhere between 40-60 hours feels right. As always, talking to every NPC will greatly increase your time and I play with guides and move very quickly for the most part.

Thoughts

Zero might have my favorite world building in the entire series. The reality of the situation Crossbell is in politically, being caught between two super powers, is so incredibly realized and ingrained within it. Lloyd and the rest of the SSS are constantly forced to reckon with this reality. This would become a theme for Crossbell and characters from there moving forward. A super city that values freedom yet is completely trapped and controlled by the whims of greater forces. I have mentioned many times that part of what makes Trails appealing is the way the world feels alive outside of the main characters you are following. Zero, in my opinion, is the game that most takes advantage of what Trails can do as an overall series.

If Sky FC established Liberl and its workings as a country so that SC could build upon that foundation, Zero sets up Crossbell with even more at stake because of how important Crossbell is in the world and how important its fate is. Crossbell continues to be important not just in Zero and Azure, but in Cold Steel as well. With a lot of emphasis and time spent there in Cold Steel III and IV. Trails into Reverie, the newest Japanese release as of this writing and years away from an English release, is still dealing with Crossbell. Crossbell was first mentioned all the way back in the Sky trilogy, albeit briefly, but it was already hinting at how big a role it would play. It serves as a buffer state in the world and a literal pivot point upon which so much hangs and you will be exploring it at the ground level for the first time here in Zero.

All of this works because of how well established Crossbell is in Zero. You will see how the people of Crossbell, especially your own party, begin to deal with the situation. The people of Crossbell truly love their home and the game looks to show that and foster the same connection for the player. There is some great writing and a genuine understanding of how to create a fascinating geopolitical climate in this world on Falcom’s part here. I can honestly say that the country and world politics, within and between each country in the series is wonderfully woven together. It is so good in fact that one of my main criticisms of the series is that I could do with just those and less of the jrpg magic and “anime bullshit” that comes with it.

The presentation is up to the usual Trails standard of excellence here. The music and themes are still clearly Trails but also bring a bit of a new style for this new era of the series. There have definitely been some more modernized improvements for the menu systems. The game uses the same engine as the Sky games but is clearly pushing it further with a more varied use of landscapes and camera angles. This actually comes at the expense of being able to freely rotate the camera because of how the camera now works but the reward is some rather impressive use of depth and scenery that simply did not exist in the series up to this point.

I have not even mentioned any details about the actual plot because I’m trying not to spoil it. So I’ll just say that if I have a sticking point with Zero here it is. I personally find the plot to be a bit of a mixed bag and I simply do not have the same attachment or feelings toward it that I do the other arcs. That is going to be a hugely subjective thing however which is why I didn’t want to launch into a spoiler filled nit picking thing when at the end of the day I just don’t quite vibe with certain things. There’s parts I really love and find creative, and as a vehicle for learning more about the city and characters everything is fine. I simply do not connect with it on the same level I do the other games in the series. Points for being the only arc opening game in the franchise that doesn’t end on a cliffhanger though.

Overall, Trails from Zero pulls off being a significant step for the series in a number of ways. It is the first proof that the very concept of the overall series can work. It is the first step into a new arc and totally new location. While other countries were mentioned and characters from those countries played a big role in Sky, this is the first time that players get to leave Liberl and start seeing the rest of the world themselves. It is the first time switching to a totally new cast of characters and Zero does not disappoint. I can’t wait for the official localization so that more players will get to experience the series, and Crossbell, as it was meant to be.

Professor Joachim, a chill dude.
Spoilers

  • Not saying, I’m just saying. Pay attention to the very opening where you are clearly playing a later section of the game very briefly.
  • On a related note, Zero begins the trend of Trails games (or at least ones that open an arc) starting in media res. Cold Steel and Cold Steel 3 would continue this.
  • So I find there’s a few more instances of pure exposition in this game. Lloyd just openly musing his own backstory to himself for some reason for example. This game also starts a bit of a trend of Trails doing a cut to black followed by a sudden exclamation by a character in a new scene of with information being revealed. It just feels like the writing started out so sharp and avoided simple things like that but from here on out in the series there is a bit of a steady drop.
  • This comes up more in Ao but Lloyd is kinda the stereotypical dense protagonist. This ties into the more fan service harem type things that occur as Lloyd finds himself surrounded by lovely ladies quite a lot. One of the massive strengths of Sky is how well written Estelle and Joshua were and how their relationship carried the games. With the shift toward more open ended “gamified” relationships from here on out in the series the relationships feel much weaker overall compared to Sky where it was explicitly written from the beginning and woven into the main narrative.
  • Seriously though an ancient cult raising a new god? Oh also they have a super drug that turns people into demons. Oh also they take over most of the city’s minds so you have to hold off Crossbell’s equivalent of armed forces, now mind controlled, and then push through them to get to the cult. Its just a lot that doesn’t quite work for me in-universe. It feels a little too weird and goofy at times. I don’t know it just doesn’t click for me despite, or maybe especially, because I love what had come before dealing with the political and underworld machinations of Crossbell. I’ll see how I feel on replays. The cult is only mentioned like one more time outside of Ao.

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