These moments are usually short and ephemeral, showing up every once in a while just to remind us that we're enjoying ourselves. As a general rule, the more time we spend thinking "Wow, this is great," the better the game. When something really blows us away, we're aware of it the whole time.
Few JRPGs blow me away nowadays. For a while, I figured this was because I am cranky and cynical. Maybe this genre just isn't for me anymore, I thought to myself. Maybe I'll never enjoy Japanese role-playing games as much as I did when I was growing up. Maybe I'll never reignite that bliss I felt when I first delved into games like Suikoden and Xenogears. Maybe I'm too old.
Then I played The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky.Trails in the Sky, which publisher XSEED Games released earlier this year for the PSP, has been criminally overlooked by the majority of US gamers. Whether it came too late in the PSP's life cycle or it was just too niche for most RPG fans, Trails in the Sky has garnered subpar sales despite widespread critical acclaim.
This is a shame, because The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is one of the best JRPGs to hit the U.S. in the past decade. It's a funny, charming, brilliant experience with a cast of memorable characters that all manage to transcend their anime-cliché shells thanks to XSEED's stunning translation. It's the type of game that will drive you to talk to every NPC and finish every sidequest not to accumulate achievements or boost your gamer score, but because you won't want the experience to end.
You play as Estelle Bright, the peppy, stubborn daughter of a famed hero who disappears one day when the airliner he's riding goes missing. Estelle and her adopted brother Joshua decide to hunt him down, which is a nice little excuse for you to explore the game's world. You'll eventually discover a shadowy government conspiracy, dress up in drag to put on a play, and fight your way through thousands of enemies en route to figuring out just where your father went. It's a long, sprawling adventure that took me 50-something hours to finish entirely. Good thing it's portable.
I can't praise XSEED's localization enough. Every single piece of dialogue in Trails in the Sky is packed with charm and nuance, from villains' cold speeches to NPCs' throwaway lines. In most JRPGs, townspeople are simply accessories, designed to tell you which volcano to visit or how many demons you need to slaughter. In Trails in the Sky, they're people. Every character has a name. Many have their own personalities, their own conflicts, their own minor subplots that you might not see unless you take the time to talk to them between each of your missions.
This is a game with so much attention to detail that every treasure chest has its own secret message, its own quip or poetic comment that you can only see by examining it once it's already been opened. Some are hilarious ("I feel empty inside.") while others are just flat-out weird ("The voices in my lid said you'd be back.")
But even when these moments miss the mark, they channel the kind of passion that we haven't seen in JRPGs since the days of Working Designs (Lunar 2: Eternal Blue Complete). The kind of passion that makes you stop and think, "Wow, this is great." It never goes away.
Jason Schreier is a freelance writer/editor based out of NYC. He's a contributing writer for Wired.com and spits out words for
all sorts of other sites and publications, including the Onion News Network, Kill Screen Magazine, and G4TV. Also he's been thinking about getting a puppy. You can follow him and his hypothetical, eventual puppy on Twitter at @jasonschreier.