Breaking the Pantheon
In a genre as perceivably niche as Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPG’s for short), even those who are mostly oblivious to the latest hype inducing title in the subsect will be aware of it’s key players. No doubt for decades, a Pantheon of JRPG developers have acted as the forefront for those who wish to enter the hallowed halls of rich story-telling and fantastical worlds. You’d be hard pressed not to have heard the names Square Enix, Atlus or Bandai Namco in the modern era of video games. However, if somehow you are unaware of the source, then there’s a good chance you’ll at least have heard of their crowning achievements like Final Fantasy, Persona or the Tales Series.
Though JRPG’s as a whole may not attract the wide audiences that more contemporary triple AAA titles boast, it’s clear that the bracket not only has a loyal foundation, but has been drawing in more and more interested parties as they take their first curious steps in to worlds dreamt from the most imaginative of minds. And it goes far beyond just embarking on an epic journey, as many players find deep and complex characters inhabiting the lands. They witness the growth and chemistry of these individuals, and over the course of countless hours, they fall in love with them. It wouldn’t be amiss to say that players find reflections of themselves within these games, transforming the once enigmatic pixel on screen in to a dear friend who they root for all the way to the story’s climax.
JRPG’s live and die by their worlds, they are judged and subsequently loved by the stories they weave. And with that knowledge in mind, it’s no wonder that a seemingly minor yet respected player among the juggernauts has started to break in to the Pantheon. With little more than 60 passionate employees, and nearly 40 years of experience in the genre, it’s time to introduce Nihon Falcom.
Established in 1981, Nihon Falcom are lauded as a hidden gem among the plethora of more popular Japanese developers, and are even regarded as the pioneers of the modern Action Role Playing Game due to their 1984 title, Dragon Slayer. Introducing innovative mechanics like in game maps, inventory management and real time action-oriented combat, it laid the foundation for some of the most beloved series ever conceived, a good example being Nintendo’s ‘The Legend of Zelda’. Due to its success, it’s no wonder that the game spawned successors, and these sequels would go on to become mainstay series of their own, with Dragon Slayer II Xanadu being a good example. However, it was the 6th game in the Dragon Slayer Series that spawned something truly special, a flagship of Nihon Falcom’s library to this day, the excellent Legend of Heroes Series.
Starting off as Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes, it was quickly followed by a sequel that also maintained the Dragon Slayer name, until the 3rd, 4th and 5th entries dropped the name altogether, but maintained the Legend of Heroes identity. These 3 games were known as the Gagharv Trilogy, a trio of games that took place on the same land, and this concept in of itself would act as the blueprint for the next step. Once Gagharv was concluded, Falcom sought to maintain the same ideal for the 6th entry in the Legend of Heroes, that being the creation of an interconnected world spanning several arcs. And thus they begun what can only be described as a wondrous undertaking, an effort that has been ongoing for over 15 years. In 2004, they gave life to the critically acclaimed Trails Series, with the development of Eiyuu Densetsu: Sora no Kiseki, known in English as The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky.
Building a Dynasty
Now boasting 10 games in it’s arsenal, the Trails Series is split in to 3 ‘arcs’ that all take place around the same time. Chronologically, the Series begins with the Sky arc (Trails in the Sky FC, SC, and the Third), which is then followed by the Crossbell Arc (Zero and Ao no Kiseki), and the Cold Steel Arc (Cold Steel I, II, III and IV) which take place concurrently with each other up to Cold Steel III. The latest title, Hajimari no Kiseki, recently released in August 2020 for Japan and other Asian markets, with no Western release in sight as of yet.
Though the Trails games may not demonstrate the same graphical prowess of their peers, the series more than makes up for it with it’s excellent world-building and interconnectivity. The game’s take place on the same fictional continent of Zemuria, a geopolitical superstate comprising a number of different countries with their own governmental systems and monarchies. There are also various cultures, monetary systems and technologies that are present, and each land brings a certain air of uniqueness to the table, providing the perfect backdrop for the subsequent tales that unfold.
Though each arc has a unique story, there is also an overarching narrative that is being forged as we speak, a chronicle that spans the entirety of Zemuria. and it’s here where the Series truly shines. Due to the nature of the story, it’s not uncommon for mainstays from separate arcs to cross paths with one another. Player’s will witness the struggles of these characters through their own stories, and suddenly will meet them once again as side characters in another arc, breeding a familiarity and bond between the two.
It also helps that the stories themselves are expertly written, employing fantasy elements along with complex politics and underlying grand schemes that in themselves form the bedrock for this rich narrative. The interconnectivity and worldbuilding of Trails is truly a marvel to behold, something that will likely never be replicated, and it’s this facet that makes the world feel ‘alive’.
And arguably, it’s in the latest Western releases of Cold Steel III, and the soon approaching Cold Steel IV, where these elements truly come to the fore. Characters familiar to longtime fans will return and attempt to once again save Zemuria from a grim fate, and though I have already played the title in Japanese thanks to some dedicated individuals, I think I speak for many when I say we cannot wait to witness the end of this particular grand tale.
End of an Era
However regrettably, Western fans cannot have it all their own way, and due to the size of Falcom as a company, they don’t have the resources like other larger developers to simultaneously release their titles worldwide. As such, they have to rely on the services of external localisers who will buy the rights to translate and release the game in their respective regions. Though XSeed took up the mantle for the Sky arc and Cold Steel I and II, it’s now NIS America who hold the keys to the treasure trove, wasting no time in localizing Trails of Cold Steel III. This would release in late 2019 for PS4, followed by 2020 releases for Switch and PC to wide levels of acclaim.
And NISA weren’t content to stop there, as in a master-stroke of marketing, they announced the localization of Cold Steel IV on April 1st of all days. Needless to say, it threw the fandom (including myself!) in to a frenzy at the time. But this was no joke, NISA announced a release date of October 27th soon after for PS4, followed by early 2021 releases for PC and Switch, thus marking the coming end of the Cold Steel arc in the West. For those who have been around since the Sky arc and have in some cases waited years for English releases of these titles, you can oft hear them exclaim to the heavens in joy that ‘it’s never been so good for the Trails Series’.
It’s now early October, and as of the time of writing we are just over 4 weeks from release day. Limited Editions are selling out, and people are getting their consoles dusted off for that fateful date. If there was any doubt that Nihon Falcom were merely a niche developer of a niche genre, then that perception is slowly fading away as Trails continually gains more traction. It’s not uncommon to go in to a JRPG forum and hear the Trails Series praised a number of times, and as the Series progresses in to it’s final 35 to 40%, there’s no doubt that many new fans will also jump on for this wild ride.
Many fans begun this series in their late teens or early twenties, they likely will finish it in their mid-forties, a truly unbelievable thought. It capitalizes on the key elements that make JRPG’s as a genre so intoxicating to sink hour upon hour in to, and it’s no wonder that the series has slowly but surely started to gain more devoted fans who are hungry for more. What Nihon Falcom are doing is truly a once in a lifetime undertaking, and they should be applauded for continually delivering legendary and stellar titles in this magnificent series.
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