Seize the Truth-Trails to Azure Review

Trails to Azure is one of the most over the top entries in the series and yet may be the one I have the least to actually say about. Even after the events of Sky SC and 3rd notably upped the ante in terms of mystical jrpg bullshit, Azure feels like it finds another level. I mentioned in my Zero write up that Zero seemed to connect backwards with Sky, some of its characters, and story. Azure is moving the other direction, and pulls us forward into the next era. The events of Azure will continue resonating for the rest of the (currently released) series and a lot of the ideas here will be important for the next 4 games, the Cold Steel era. Well actually, due to the way the timeline works, Azure will be most obviously connected to Cold Steel III and IV as opposed to I and II. I think I’ve said this a few times in these write ups but this all makes sense I swear.

Trails to Azure (Ao no Kiseki) was released for the PSP in 2011 in Japan and received a PC port in China. Similar to Zero, Azure has been re-released in Japan but has never received an official English localization. Also like Zero, the fan translation team known as The Geofront will be assisting with the official release coming in… *sigh* 2023. I have played the game twice now. Once with an older translation and then again with the improved Geofront translation.

Azure opens with a prologue section where the player takes control of Lloyd again. However, his old teammates in the SSS are nowhere to be found in this opening. Loose ends from Zero are being tied up and Lloyd is part of a team made up of the various forces of Crossbell that are literally chasing down one of those loose ends. The faces on this team will be familiar if you played Zero and in fact an even older face makes an appearance that hints at things to come. The Crossbell games are a noticeable outlier in the Trails series in that their duology did not involve a cliffhanger ending of the first game to be picked up immediately in the next. Rather, the events of Azure pick up a few months after the end of Zero.

Since the events of Zero, the SSS has suspended operations to split up and work on their own goals. Post prologue the player takes Lloyd Bannings back over on their first day of resuming operations. This time however, rather than Randy, Tio, and Elie (for now), Lloyd is joined by fresh faces to the SSS, though they are not fresh faces to Crossbell. Because you will meet them in Zero before they join in Azure I don’t actually want to spoil it but suffice to say they are great characters who slot right into the SSS and feel like they could have been there all along. They have some solid stories and surprises of their own up their sleeves.

Everything in Azure is cranked up a notch. There are larger stakes and consequences everywhere and while some would no doubt argue this, I feel like this is a major tipping point of the series where things go full blown anime. There was certainly some crazy jrpg nonsense occurring before but to me Azure feels like the Trails series leaning fully into the magical side of things, as well as the beginning of certain tropes in the series that we’ll get to. Let’s get into the gameplay changes as usual because there’s actually some big ones.

Gameplay

So, fun fact. This is the last Trails game in the original engine and the last game that takes place from the top down “2d” perspective. This is the last game in the series where battles use the square grid layout as well. As such this is the last time I get to say that those aspects are still the same but well, they’re still the same for now. Azure probably has 2 main new features in terms of gameplay. One of them is exclusive to Azure and never re-appears in the series. The other fundamentally changes the way characters work from here on out and begins a hard shift in the way the entire magic system works in the series.

I’m avoiding spoiler images when I can but wanted to say that they really push this engine hard for its last ride.

Lets start with the easy one. A new function called Burst has been added in Azure that is only available during certain story segments. A Burst Gauge will appear at the top right of the screen that can be filled by landing attacks in battle. It will also be reduced when you get attacked yourself. Once full you will have the option to use Burst in battle. Activating Burst will immediately cure all status ailments, heal character HP, and give everyone more rapid CP gains. It also strengthens crafts and lets arts be cast instantly. Until the Burst Gauge depletes the party basically gets free turns to hit as hard as they can as fast as they can. Be careful with your timing as once the Gauge is filled you only get a few turns to activate Burst before the Gauge depletes a little (it barely goes down, just save it for hard/boss fights).

The other addition will much more fundamentally change Trails moving forward. The introduction of Master Quartz. Master Quartz are basically a powerful quartz that will serve as the base of a character’s orbment set up moving forward. They essentially serve as the “starter” for each character and will actually level up and get stronger the more you use them. Because they provide different stats and bonuses and can be swapped out they can be thought of as almost a class or job system though it will be fairly obvious what style of Master Quartz each character prefers. In Azure, Master Quartz provide a certain “sepith value” right off the bat which serves to kick start each orbment line and provide access to certain arts. For example, at level 2 the “Force” Master Quartz will give 4 fire and 2 earth sepith to each line. It also provides bonus stats as well as the bonus effect of the user starting the battle with 3 turns of strength up (plus 25% strength).

Master Quartz fundamentally change the way Trails works from here on out.

Master Quartz become the quickest way of setting a character down a path toward whatever role or build the player wants them to have. You will be given a default one for each character and more can be bought or found throughout the game. They are freely swap-able between characters and no character is limited to which ones they can use. Additionally, at level 5 each Master Quartz will unlock a Master Art which is a very powerful attack or effect. The effect can then be extended for additional cost when their turn comes up again. In yet another example of Crossbell serving as the current true middle of the series, the Master Quartz system here serves as a perfect hybrid between the previous orbment system and the much more refined system that will be found in the Cold Steel era, which use Master Quartz to an even greater extent.

The core gameplay loop is still the familiar one of doing sidequests and then main story quests. The game still takes place in Crossbell and there will be a lot of revisiting locations like in every sequel in the Trails series. To assist with this, and this is a minor spoiler I guess, the SSS actually gets given a car to serve as a fast travel option to certain areas of the game. You can find custom paint jobs and parts for the car throughout the game as well.

I always like discussing the structure of these games so I’ll tell everyone that Azure has a prologue chapter, 4 main chapters, an intermission chapter, a “fragment” chapter, a finale chapter that can be a third of the game on its own, and a big final dungeon. In my 2 playthroughs my gameplay timer said 66 hours and 56 hours respectively (but again, I use the turbo function constantly which actually speeds the timer up in Crossbell). Howlongtobeat has it listed as 46-70 hours. I’m going to explain this further below but on that first playthrough I really felt the hours in a way I haven’t experienced with any other Trails game.

This guy.

As always talking to more NPCs will increase your time. There are some interesting characters in Crossbell worth visiting including some characters that fans of the series will recognize and will want to visit whenever they get a chance.

Azure has some ridiculous fights ahead. The hardest few of which can actually be lost and the story will continue. However they can be won for some dialogue changes and bonus DP. Most of the time this means story wise you “lose” the fight either way but the opponent will acknowledge your efforts. This is yet another aspect of the series that will start showing up a lot from now on. I put this here just as a warning that you can lose certain big fights and still continue. Also to let any future players know to prep and find the cheese strats because you will need them.

Thoughts

I’m going to break slightly from my usual format here slightly. When you play and replay a series like I do this one it makes comparisons inevitable between games but also between playthroughs. Trails to Azure stands out to me as the game in the series where my feelings changed the most from my first playthrough to my second. I thought it was worth talking about why and in doing so cover the different reactions players may have to the game.

In my first playthrough of Azure it was easily my least favorite game in the series. I say that confidently despite trying not to really think about how I would “rank” the series. Azure left me with more questions than answers on my first playthrough. The first half of the game consists of some terrific political world building and story work but the second half leaned fully into the supernatural and magical side of the Trails universe and I have made it no secret that I prefer the political and down to earth character side of things. I also felt very strangely about the general tone and style of Azure in a way I truly can’t quite pin down and find very frustrating. My best guess for why is that I was playing an initial fan translation that has since been much improved upon and trying to make it match future games just wasn’t working in my brain when some things literally weren’t matching future games. That may be an unfortunate thing to hold against a game in a vacuum except that I also felt the same way about the plot and story beats of the game. Azure also happens to stand out as having some retcons later on in the series.

I feel the length and pacing of Azure more so than any other Trails game and so far that includes my first playthrough of the behemoth that is Cold Steel IV. The loop in Trails, and basically any jrpg, has always been to do sidequests in between or mixed with story quests. Azure happens to have a section that feels like it particularly overloads the player with sidequests. In fact I checked and during the stretch I am referring to there are more sidequests than in any other section of the entire series. This ends up coupled with the fact that because both Zero and Azure take place only in Crossbell the player tends to end up fast traveling to specific locations to have one conversation only to fast travel somewhere else to have another until the quest is done. Compare this to Sky where you obviously were in same few regions but you do not have free reign to travel between them which served to limit the travel time and grinding feel of churning through the sidequests, at least to me.

I also think Azure is where Trails really leans into some of its more questionable trends. Whereas Sky was carried by Estelle having a fully written story and relationship, the Crossbell games, and especially Azure, lean into the bonding point system and harem trope with Lloyd at the center. This is in addition to an increase in characterization that can feel problematic or gross and some players may just want to quit the series over it. The series really does get much more fan service-y starting here and your tolerance for that is going to determine whether you want to continue. At the same time I’ve come to recognize that many people do genuinely enjoy getting to pick the relationships of player characters and it has certainly given the fan artists and shippers plenty to work with. I personally find that it hurts the characterization and writing of Trails from here on out and doesn’t fit the series like it does say, Mass Effect or other RPGs where you more fully create your own character.

All that being said, my second playthrough went much more smoothly. I found the mix of political and magical world building to flow a lot better and I think a lot of that had to do with having an improved translation in addition to having already seen where it was going in Cold Steel III and IV. I was also able to manage the pacing of the game a lot better thanks to knowing what was coming and not pushing myself through the longer sections. Doing multiple playthroughs of the series has also mellowed me out on the relationship mechanics which get much more intrusive in later games. The reality is that the strengths of Trails are fully present here and some aspects are at their strongest. The characters are great, Crossbell feels alive, the music and presentation is incredible and I’ve already mentioned quite a few times how Zero and Azure feel like they are the most connected to the past and future of the series. I still feel like this is possibly the most over the top plot in the series and even after 2 playthroughs I’m not sure it fully lands for me.

The Crossbell arc of Trails is a fan favorite for many that have played the games. For me the arc is defined by how it fulfills the promise of the interconnected series and sets the tone for the future games. Many trends of the series can be traced back to Crossbell and many of the late era story beats began with the ideas and happenings presented here. At ground level, Trails to Azure is a great follow up to Zero that takes the story and characters to the next level. When you step out and look at the bigger picture, Azure feels like an even larger step into the next era of the franchise.

I’ll see you all in Erebonia!

As a programming note. My pace in writing these has slowed down considerably as I wrangle with an intense job. I still have every intention of finishing writing something for every game in the series and I thank the people that take the time to read my ramblings. I took so many screenshots I decided not to use because this game is just impossibly spoiler filled haha. I look forward to beginning the Cold Steel era with you all when I get around to writing about it sometime next year.

Spoiler/Random Stuff
  • Seriously I’ve played this twice now and I’m still not positive I understand the actual plot haha. When I start thinking of it as set up for Cold Steel III and IV it actually all works a lot better for me. Later they talk about the “Phantasm in the East awakening the Blaze in the West” and like… how?
  • Didn’t mention this in the main body but Combo Crafts are back and are amazing now. Use them.
  • I think the Geofront patch may have actually removed a post credits text scene that spoils Cold Steel I and II and also jumps way ahead in the timeline and got sorta retconned, which to me was a smart move.
  • Seriously this game is batshit. Man made gods re-writing reality, super robots that wipe things from existence, a super tree that seems to….actually I’m not positive what it does. Just super anime nonsense.
  • The coolest thing is the reveal that the in media res opening of Zero was actually a previous reality that KeA used her powers to re-start because it resulted in everyone dying. That’s why Estelle and Joshua weren’t there in the beginning but were at the end of the game. KeA restarted reality from Lloyd returning to Crossbell so that they would get another chance at everything. In the new reality Lloyd became better friends with Joshua and Estelle as well as Renne so they were able to assist.
  • This is the only game in the series that features a boss battle on a real time timer. Not a turn based timer but an actual real time countdown timer which makes very little sense.
  • I didn’t mention it but this is the first game to introduce some type of “tickets” that you use to spend time with characters during the intermission chapter. This has now become a series staple.
Trails Needs Moms

Its time for my favorite segment! Another round of Trails needs moms where we track everyone’s tragic backstory and whether it involves a dead mother/family member!

Lloyd-dead parents, dead older brother that raised him.

Elie-Parents actually alive but divorced and living in different countries.

Randy-mom never mentioned, dad recently died but that may be a positive in this case…

Tio-Oh dear god poor Tio…

Wazy-Only revealed in their final bonding scene but basically yeah lets just say they ain’t seeing their family again.

Noel and Fran-dead dad, mom alive and can be visited actually.

Rixia-Not specifically mentioned but safe to say dead everyone.

Arios-throwing him in here cus hey, tragically lost his wife and his daughter was blinded in the same accident.