For the longest time, we thought that this review would never happen. Originally a 2010 title for the PSP, Trails from Zero never left Japan, despite plenty of campaigning by Western fans. Demand for Zero only grew following the Trails boom a few years back, when sequel series Trails of Cold Steel was localised on PS3, Vita, and later PS4. Given that Falcom’s long-running The Legend of Heroes franchise features overarching storylines that tie all of the games together, it’s easy to understand why invested fans want to get their hands on every instalment.
Thankfully, with NIS America on publishing duty, the dreams of Western enthusiasts are finally coming true. It’s taken a long time to get here — and we’ve still got a long way to go — but Trails from Zero has been worth the wait. This PS4 remaster has some problems, but they’re not enough to distract from what is a fantastic Japanese RPG.
Trails from Zero arrives from an era when Falcom was still working with character sprites and fixed camera angles. If you’re jumping to Zero from the aforementioned Cold Steel games — which are entirely 3D — then you may find the graphical downgrade jarring. But despite its obvious technical limitations, there’s an old school charm to Zero that’s hard to ignore. In its art direction and expressive character portraits, Falcom is able to present an engrossing experience.
You play as Lloyd Bannings, a freshly certified detective who’s moving back to Crossbell, the city-state where he grew up. Lloyd’s goal of becoming a top-class instrument of justice is quickly derailed, however, as he’s not-so-subtly pushed into a newly formed and experimental police division, known as the Special Support Section — or SSS for short.
Trails from Zero’s story is all about the rise of this off-brand organisation. A ragtag group of rookies to begin with, the SSS quickly finds itself at the mercy of Crossbell’s criminal underbelly, as rampant corruption in the police department and government threatens to jeopardise the city-state’s already uncertain future.
As expected of Falcom at this point, the game does an amazing job of establishing the stakes. Overarching exposition is provided gradually over numerous conversations and quests, and it’s hard not to become wholly invested. The Japanese developer’s talent for world building is unquestionable, with Crossbell itself being one of the property’s most memorable settings.
Indeed, the whole of Zero takes place in and around the technologically advanced city. Over the course of this 50-hour adventure, you’ll come to know its streets, shops, and surrounding landmarks like the back of your hand. As is the case with Kamurocho in the Yakuza / Like a Dragon games, Crossbell could almost be considered the star of the show.
But at least for us, it’s the characters that steal the spotlight in Zero. Lloyd is joined at the SSS by three core party members: the prim and proper Elie MacDowell, 14-year-old genius Tio Plato, and laidback badass Randy Orlando. Lloyd himself borders on your classic anime protagonist — righteous and friendly to a fault, and arguably a bit bland — but his allies bring out his best qualities as a leader, and as an effective detective.
The main cast bounce off one another exceptionally well. Compared to what you’ll find in the Cold Steel games, this is a relatively tiny party — but that allows each character to have a meaningful say in every story beat. As such, there’s a nuance to the dialogue writing that perhaps gets lost in Cold Steel’s character cacophony.
And there is a lot of dialogue in Trails from Zero. Nothing new for a Trails title, of course, but again, if you’re coming from the Cold Steel games, the lack of dynamic camera angles during cutscenes does mean that you’re just watching static character sprites spew reams and reams of text for minutes at a time. It can all get a touch monotone, especially when lengthy stretches of investigative policework keep you away from dungeon exploration and combat.
In fact, tedious side quests are probably Zero’s biggest problem. Jobs that have you trekking from one side of Crossbell to the other and back again just to chat to an NPC or collect a specific item are disappointingly common. Quests that task you with revisiting previously cleared dungeons are also an annoyance. These optional objectives start to feel like padding, but if you skip them, you’re going to miss out on unique dialogue, some additional world building, and rare equipment. We’re thankful, then, for the option to speed gameplay up with a push of L2, which certainly makes the backtracking much more bearable.
But when you’re knee-deep in the game’s main story, you’ll forget about those side quest gripes. The plot’s a little stop-start over the first couple of chapters — primarily because the game’s so keen on establishing setting, characters, and in-universe concepts — but it really starts to pick up once the foundations have been laid. The title’s last story arc in particular is a barnstormer, bringing everything together for a frantic finale.
In a similar fashion, Zero’s combat system only gets better as the game goes on. The turn based battles start out rather basic, with Lloyd and the gang only having access to a limited pool of crafts (character specific abilities) and arts (elemental magic spells), but your options quickly expand as you collect increasingly rare quartz (arts-granting equipment) and level up your heroes.
There’s a tactical edge to Trails combat, and Zero’s take is no different. Each craft and art has its own area of effect, and you’re constantly having to think about how to best utilise your attacks, whether it’s to catch multiple foes in one strike, or deal maximum damage to a boss. You’ll also need to consider buffs, debuffs, and status effects, all of which add some much needed spice to a system that would otherwise boil down to hitting enemies harder than they hit you.
Fights are mostly entertaining affairs when your foes present an adequate threat; there’s a satisfaction to be found in defeating them in the most efficient ways possible. But it’s the boss battles that stand out — particularly later on — demanding a more cautious approach, and a heavier reliance on your all-out super crafts, which can be used to even the odds. Engaging stuff, even if it’s not as flashy or as fleshed out as what was to come in the Cold Steel series.