It seems inevitable that there will be at least one person that attempts to play through Trails in the Sky: The 3rd before having even touched the first two games in the series. They undoubtedly will be very confused. For the rest of you, don't even think of reading this review if you haven't already played Trails in the Sky and Trails in the Sky SC. HEAVY spoilers for both those titles will follow simply due to the nature of this game. You have been warned.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky - the 3rd is a hard game to write about. First off, as the above disclaimer points out, you really shouldn't be playing this without having invested 100+ hours into the 2 previous Trails in the Sky titles. Much of what makes The 3rd unique stems from the character interactions and more importantly the character development that wouldn't have nearly as much of an impact if players hadn't already become wholly invested in these characters and their own personal stories. In fact, the barrier for entry for The 3rd is so high that I could easily imagine at least 90% of the players that had played through both the two previous games and had an interest in playing The 3rd have already done so, or are well on their way towards completing the title. So I'm really not sure who to write this review for other than myself, and perhaps other players that just want another take on the game after having finished it themselves.
The other reason that Trails in the Sky - the 3rd is so hard to write about is because of how different it is compared to more or less every other title in the series. Instead of adventuring across the country, completing quests, finding secrets, and following the personal stories of Zemuria's many inhabitants, The 3rd is a much more linear and focused affair. The majority of the game takes place in the alternate dimension of Phantasma, a world that bears striking resemblance to the "true" form of the enigmatic Towers from the two previous games, and as such the game is much more of a dungeon crawler than previous titles. Also, due to the nature of the game world (which I won't spoil here), various areas and dungeons from previous games show up again, albeit in heavily altered states. Needless to say, although I personally didn't have an issue with this - and even felt that this "re-use" fit the narrative as a whole, I can still see the complaints about how the game rehashes some of its content and dungeons. That being said, there are plenty of new dungeons to explore in Phantasma, and some of them make excellent use of the huge party that you quickly grow to have at your disposal.
Unlike the previous Trails in the Sky games, the story doesn't follow Estelle and Joshua Bright. While they make an appearance, and part of their story following the end of Trails in the Sky SC is explained, The 3rd is not their tale. While I'd argue that The 3rd is more of an "epilogue" to Trails in the Sky as well as a "prologue" to Zero/Ao no Kiseki (or, a "Trail to Zero" if you will) in the grand scheme of things, on a personal level the tale revolves around Kevin Graham - a priest of the Septian Church, as well as the Fifth Dominion of the Gralsritter. I won't go in depth about his circumstances in fear of spoiling them, but in my opinion, the tag-team duo of Kevin and his adoptive sister Ries Argent push forward the strongest main narrative of any of the Trails games I've played.
Although The 3rd is Kevin's tale, other characters get plenty of character development themselves through the use of various Memory Doors. Separated into 3 categories - Sun, Moon, and Star... corresponding to minigames, large story scenes, and smaller story scenes respectfully - players view both what happened to characters in the far past, as well as what different characters might've been up to directly following the events of Trails in the Sky SC. Moon Doors are all at least an hour long, but don't let the smaller nature of the Star Doors fool you - although some of them might be short and sweet text dumps detailing phenomenons about the larger Trails world, others can be nearly as long as the Moon Doors. Either way, there is more than enough world-building and other story sequences to make up for the otherwise limited structure that The 3rd brings to the table.
Without spoiling anything, both Kevin's story, as well as some of the stories found within the Memory Doors, tend to be darker on average than anything else I've encountered in the series. I'm not sure if this is because Falcom felt that they could "go there" with the limited audience that a game like The 3rd would draw in, or what, but it's worth mentioning that the game doesn't hold its punches when it really wants to. One Star Door in particular, which contains especially important information for both the series as a whole as well as why one specific character is the person that they are, showcases especially demented information. I feel like just saying that much already alludes to exactly what I'm talking about, so I'll just leave that line of thought there.
Much like how Falcom seems to have crafted the story knowing that players should already be familiar with both the cast of characters as well as their motivations - The 3rd's combat and combat mechanics don't hold back at all, either. To put it bluntly, The 3rd refrains from giving players even the most basic combat tutorials. For the most part the game's combat is the same as Trails in the Sky SC's, but some new turn effects (some of which should be familiar to players that have already gone through Trails of Cold Steel I/II on PS3 or Vita) and a focus on the "higher elements" (Space, Time, and Mirage) round out and "complete" Trails in the Sky's combat system. It should go without saying, but since the game assumes that you've already played the other two in the trilogy, the game's difficulty is decidedly a step up from previous games, even on the Normal difficulty.
All in all, if you weren't already a fan of Trails in the Sky's combat system, chances are your opinion won't be swayed here. Although I've seen plenty of critics of Trails combat over the years, I've always personally been a fan of it - especially with the Quartz system that Trails in the Sky (and by extension, Zero and Ao no Kiseki) employs. If anything might be susceptible to change someone's mind about the game's combat, it would have to be how the title isn't afraid to make you use literally every character that it throws at you. I've previously said that I felt like Trails of Cold Steel focused more on the complexity of the actual battles more so than the preparation for them, with Trails in the Sky tending to lean towards the opposite side of the pendulum. I feel that this has never been clearer than with Trails in the Sky - the 3rd. The game constantly both throws new characters at you, as well as forces you to really learn how to use them. Without spoiling anything, it's definitely in a player's best interest to make sure that EVERY character's equipment is up to snuff by the end. At any rate, one particular moment that takes advantage of this philosophy left such an impression on me, that I'm liable to call it one of my favorite moments from an RPG.
On that last note, and this is coming from a more personal position, Trails in the Sky - the 3rd is both easily my favorite game in the Trails series, as well as possibly my favorite RPG of all time going forward. For a series fan, of course, it's a must play, but some of the emotional payoffs - stemming from events and build-up stemming from as far back as the first game - makes The 3rd a shining example as to why I recommend this series so much. For what it's worth, I can't help but think of The 3rd as both a masterclass in world-building as well as overall story design. I love almost everything about it. From the music to the story, to the combat, and especially to the characters. I won't mince words and try to say that this game is perfect, especially since it has so many flaws that will turn people off from it, but I strongly believe that it's a game that every fan of JRPGs should play at least once in their lives.
I won't try and argue that Trails in the Sky - the 3rd is a perfect game, but I will say that if you're a fan of JRPGs you absolutely need to play this game at least once. The 3rd is both a perfect send-off for Trails in the Sky, as well as a fantastic build-up for the titles to come. Just, hopefully, we'll be able to see ALL of them in English one day.
- Mature, Heartfelt Story
- Fantastic Soundtrack
- Fantastic Worldbuilding
- Rehashed Areas
- Higher Focus on Combat