Today we have a personal essay on the Trails series by my pal Lapis! I picked the cover, which you can tell because it's Laura. Enjoy!
Things will make a lot more sense if you know up front that I’m autistic. I don’t know if you can have “gaming” as a Special Interest, but I have had a lot of games as Special Interests. The Earthbound / Mother series and the EXA_PICO universe (that’s the Ar Tonelico series and Surge Concerto series for the rest of you) are some of the most notable for still having a hold on me. I am writing this while listening to video game music by the way.
I’m not gonna tell you I came out of the womb playing games, but it’s pretty close to the truth. As the youngest sibling, my brother would read various Final Fantasys to me. I’m pretty sure this is true of Earthbound as well. I was also subject to the trick of taking a single-player game and giving your annoying sibling the second controller, telling them they control the monsters. I’m not bitter or anything, no!
Honestly, for the sake of this article, let’s consider Special Interests to be a romance. You spend your time pining for more of the SI, learning about it, interacting with it. And then one day, it just doesn’t work anymore. Maybe no one’s at fault. Maybe you’re at fault. But the relationship is broken. Maybe you can look back fondly on your ex-Special Interests. I usually can, except for one I’m still subjected to: the fucking Trails series.
While all Trails games will be referenced (maybe not Nayuta though) I will only spoil the ones that are out in English at the time of writing this (December 2020). So if you can’t stand the thought of learning anything in the slightest about Crossbell, get out! Also, while I hope my usage will be clear, I will be switching between Japanese titles and English titles.
How my Romance with Trails Started
Before I inform you Trails is bad, let’s try the “fondly-looking back stage.” Around 2008 or ‘09, I can’t remember the time, I was spending a summer with my brother, and he was telling me about this cool series, called The Legend of Heroes: Sora no Kiseki. Now if you know like, 20 words in Japanese but know only the kanji that make up the days of the week, I will inform you, your instinct is to translate this as “The Miracle in the Sky”. And that is incorrect! It also means “Trails” or “Locus”. But you can read Jisho dot org yourself. He had told me a couple of things about Estelle, Joshua, and Kevin, and I somehow mixed it up in my mind as “Joshua is Estelle’s adopted brother who is also a priest”. Clearly incorrect! But one day he decided that I needed to play these games. As such, our audience of one Let’s Play FC started.
There are three things you need to know for this part. One, “FC” stands for “First Chapter”. Secondly, my brother was only moderately okay at Japanese at this point. He’s great now, but greatness takes time, you know? So my 30-40 hour sink into a plot about a coming-of-age-coup started. And here’s the worst part. He found a “translation” guide for SC (Second Chapter). He didn’t look inside. It was just some terms for stuff you should know, maybe how to unlock some quests. But he thought he had stumbled upon a script-translation for SC, so he just left me to it when I demanded we start SC that day, because Three: Like “First Chapter” may imply, the first game ends on a cliffhanger. I beat SC without any context for what was going on. All I knew was to get Joshua back. And then my brother wanted to come back to help me with the 3rd, which I didn’t give a shit about, because you know, I didn’t know what happened in SC. So we put that on hold.
Around the time I start college, Trails in the Sky (FC) releases for PSP. I got the limited edition, which came with official lyrics for a lot of the songs (except my favorite, the opening, fittingly called Trails in the Sky, which wasn’t officially a vocal track until the Vita remake). Now, as I said, it ends on a cliffhanger. I also get the impression that this being a PSP game, it sold like garbage.
I waited those years for SC officially, my depression getting worse, and needing a support system and actual medical help beyond “See my psychiatrist when I’m in town on school break”. We’re not here to talk about that, but it’s gonna keep coming up, so you may as well be aware. One consolation I had after I started ECT-treatment is that my brother would tell me the plot bits I forgot about. That of course, only works if you’re interested in the same things. Speaking of depression, we don’t need to talk about how both FC and SC nearly killed people translating it. I’m sure you’ve read that article. If you haven’t, you really should! So I played FC on PC this time. And then SC came out and I finally understood what the fuss was about. While FC was a solid game, plot-wise, it hardly seems worthy of all the fuss besides ending on a cliffhanger that took more than 5 years to resolve in English.
We were also aware of these Sen no Kiseki games, but my brother had not purchased them in Japanese because he was hoping for a voiced edition (not knowing how much voiced dialogue the games contained) like the Crossbell Vita versions. So we got a Vita TV and worked on Zero no Kiseki Evolution. This being years later, my brother was much better at Japanese.
The first thing I’m gonna mention is, if you played the first Trails of Cold Steel Game (and the 3rd one for that matter) you may be familiar with the concept of an “In Media Res that hides characters that will join later”. Zero started that. And it made sense, 200 hours later. Admittedly we have not beaten Hajimari no Kiseki, but if there’s an explanation for either of Cold Steel’s In Media Res like that, it hasn’t happened… 500 some hours later? I’m being generous, I’m sure it’s higher. Admittedly the PS4 is a bit awkward about counting time you’ve spent on games when you just put it in suspend, but I’m positive I’ve spent closer to a combined 1000 hours on this fucking series.
Zero no Kiseki and Ao no Kiseki star the Special Support Section, which is basically “sorry you went to Police School, but you’re actually pseudo-Bracers.” I’m sure that surprised exactly zero people who have played beyond Trails in the Sky. And it’s nice. Knowing All Cops Are Bastards / Assigned Cop at Birth, I can forgive Zero and Ao no Kiseki for letting me get attached to a cop-tagonist, because he’s actually a Bracer. I liked Lloyd.
This is notable, aside from possibly Nayuta no Kiseki, as the last time I fully liked the Trails series. Other feelings would soon permeate the works. Lloyd was an adorable, hard-ass dork-one notable thing being early in Zero when someone they need to talk to wants to do it over lunch, and Lloyd is opposed until the others convince him, ending with “Fine, but no alcohol.”
So I enjoyed my 200-300 hours with the Special Support Section. One thing you have to know about Ao no Kiseki is that it ends with stuff you know from the Cold Steel series, like something I would sum up as “The Chancellor of Erebonia was shot, a civil war started, and then it was revealed he was actually alive”. I’m not here to debate that particular instance of someone not being dead, because at least we knew it was happening. It’s also a shot of Lloyd speaking from the future, basically saying that Crossbell would not know peace for another 2 (or maybe 2.5) years. Also Lloyd had grown a dreadful mullet. But I want to be fair to people who haven’t played it, and I’m shutting up.
It’s clear at this point the Trails series is a Special Interest to me because I spend time thinking about its world, and speculating about plot or minor details. I love doing that. Give me a wiki for a game I care about and I’m pretty happy. For a while, Christmas surprises were usually character collections I couldn’t read for Trails games. I remember being miffed once because my brother didn’t believe me that Olivier was bisexual, just eccentric. Hello, he flirted with Joshua in FC! Just because he flirts with Mueller to fuck with him doesn’t mean he does that with every person, come on!
Then, since it wasn’t out in English yet, we embarked on Sen no Kiseki I. One, I hated this version of the master quartz system (Ao came up with a better version). It’s like, yeah, I get not wanting to look at the spell guide while you’re equipping someone, but I enjoyed mixing quartz to come up with devastating spells. They had effectively given us materia instead. And for the first time in the series, you wanted to be a striker instead of a caster. It gave me a lot of bad feelings. But worst of all, Rean was fucking boring. If you think he’s boring in English, you have no goddamn idea, he’s even more boring in Japanese. XSeed (And I presume NIS) punched up his dialogue because he is the blandest guy? After spending 4 games with Rean, I can only tell you two things: that he’s heterosexual and that he uses the Eight Leaves One Blade style for no reason that makes any sense, as his father has his own sword style that Rean just… didn’t learn? Anyway, As you may know, Cold Steel I ends with Crow shooting the Chancellor and also there are robots. Oh no what will our cast do! Also what will I do, I very much wanted the one character I particularly liked (Besides Dorothee) to smooch Rean, and he’s clearly not gonna be in the party in II!
There were a couple other misgivings I had. One was the harem-esque party, (To be clear, you could choose to spend time and hear the plots of other people in Zero and Ao. We went with Rixia, best girl) and the other was how things seemed a bit more harem-anime with accidental groping and such. To be clear, there are a couple groaner scenes like this in Zero and Ao, but none that I recall star Lloyd, and honestly I just didn’t hate them nearly as much as I should have. Two was fucking Elise. Let me put it to you this way. I did the math with the Estelle and Joshua sort-of siblings thing. Westermarck Effect imprinting doesn’t seem to have taken place in the Trails in the Sky timeline. It worked (please do not correct me if I’m wrong. It only digs a grave for that couple), at least plausibly! I could not make the math work for Elise. She just seems unnecessarily thirsty for someone she should recognize as her brother.
Then I played Cold Steel I and II in English. Once again, I want to be clear, the translation is very good. There are some quibbles I have (the Chancellor is called “Ironblood” in Japanese, whether or not you think that’s a good choice, I would not have elected to call his adopted children “Ironbloods” because it’s really confusing when you have to talk about it with someone playing in Japanese) but seriously, the translation is solid. It made Rean have the beginnings of a personality. Also Sean Chiplock contributed a lot to making me not completely hate Rean.
And then Crow died. This obviously upset me a lot. The one character I particularly liked (Besides Dorothee) was gone forever. And then there was an extra dungeon where you could make your characters play dress-up as characters you couldn’t play as, and I head-canoned this as Rean’s grief dreams and trauma at being a soldier. As you may know from Cold Steel II, Rean is the only character in his party that doesn’t transfer out of Thors’, presumably everyone being upset with the fact one of their friends fucking died. It really ends with making his friends look like they suck for abandoning Rean, and you can just expect oodles of trauma from Rean.
Also during this time, I met Mint, the owner of this café, and read his article on why Cold Steel II is bad. You should read it if you haven’t already, because I’m gonna reference it. The part about death not mattering struck me. “But, Loewe died! ...And came back for an Encore. And Weissmann. And (Crossbell plot removed)! And we (the ones who weren’t waiting for English releases) knew Ironblood wasn’t gonna die! And Crow is unfortunately dead!”
My Ugly Breakup and Breakdown
So years pass, with some weird gap between Cold Steel II and III, to the point where a console upgrade happened. To be clear, I don’t know why there was this weird break. But then there’s this promo poster for Cold Steel III and Crow is in the background. Surely, I thought at first, it just means Crow as a metaphorical Shadow in Rean’s lif-- wait his name is Azure Seigfried, dammit. Rean is now a teacher at a satellite school. There’s a new Class VII. And my brother wants to play it with me. I’m starting to actively hate the series at this point.
It repeats the fucking accidental grope scene again, except it’s supposed to be like, poignant because Instructor Rean is reminiscing or whatever? And let me be clear. Rean is a horrible fucking teacher. Sure, Instructor Sara was an alcoholic, but I also feel like if one of her students was clearly fucking depressed she’d interven-- oh wait she left to be a Bracer, never-mind. Anyway, Kurt Vander is the most fucking boring character, and he clearly has depression, so I try not to be mean to him, and think of how much I’d rather have Mueller in the party instead, but honestly, the fact that Rean doesn’t intervene at all, at least in a plot-significant way (we didn’t do Kurt’s events, like I said, he’s boring) is pretty damning of him as a teacher. Maybe he’s not paid enough to care, or he’s too busy trying to smooch his students (I’ll get to that later). Also I don’t want to be mean, but the first two games begin to feel like the prologue in books that a lot of people skip because it’s never relevant. There’s flashbacks to the first two games, and I honestly feel like you could have told the plot of the first two games in flashback and had the series be stronger for it, but you’ve got I and II to waste hundreds of hours with if you want.
Cedric is back, and he’s grown out of his baby-face and while also thirsting for Rean, is a villain now. Angelica, famous lesbian character, is shot and presumed dead. Olivier’s (famous bisexual character) ship blows up. It all seems very dark and fucked up, that only the queer characters (plus Crow and Millium) died. Remember this paragraph because I have a lot more to say about it. Anyway, Rean has a breakdown he’s probably been due for years. I have to wait for Cold Steel IV. My brother comments how it was good writing that Millium died in Altina’s place, because Altina has more ways to grow as a character than if it had been the other way around. I say nothing.
And then I find out NIS is translating it. It’s not so much that I’m an XSeed stan, because I’m not, I just like farming games, but I associate NIS with the botched and buggy translation of Ar Tonelico II, the only one in that series I’d recommend anyone play, and only if they get the fan-translated patch. So my first thought is, like when I found out they were translating YS: Lacrimosa of Dana, “oh god they’re gonna fuck this up”, as we know they did with Dana. Now, there are some internal politics at work here that I’m not gonna get into, because I don’t care. It’s ultimately meaningless why it changed hands.
Let’s take a break to talk about Capitalism. Not “Capitalism, Ho!” but “Here’s a problem with Capitalism”. I don’t want to be an elitist prick and say only things made out of love and for free can be true art™ because to be clear, that’s not what I’m saying. Please make money on your art if you so choose to. And please pay yourself a fair wage if you can. I know not all artists are in control of this. My problem is realizing things like games are made to be sold as a product. Part of this is why a bunch of games decided to give us a million-hour experience instead of like, 30. And some of those billion-hour-experiences are good. But they aren’t required to be good. I want to play your game, but I also want to play five other games. You can be just 20 hours, if that’s the time it takes to properly tell the story. Trails has become bloated. It’s always been to some extent. That FC and SC thing? That was when Falcom realized they had more plot than space for a game, and found the best place to separate the games. Somewhere along the line, the Trails team decided it’s not a worthwhile experience unless it takes me at least 80 hours to clear. And I hate that. Yes, I love thoughtfully-constructed worlds, but that has gone by the wayside. It’s cool to have your end-theme be a popular theme in the conworld. But then you ruin your credibility by mentioning books that are real on planet Earth, like Daddy-Long-Legs. You cannot have this both ways! If you’re gonna have someone collect 8-10 volumes of a book I can read based on what an NPC is doing for the next 2 minutes, you may as well reference those books. A whole quest that’s a reference to Ar Tonelico (by the way, where’s your Frelia NPC?) is cute, but in this case, it just reminds me of a game series that invented its own form of physics. Don’t reference something doing it better than you.
And somewhere along this realization, I realize something. I don’t give a single shit about the Trails series anymore. My brother doesn’t seem to get it. I don’t know how to explain it to him. I studied Mesoamerica for about 8 years before falling out of love with it and Anthropology. These things can just happen for autistic people, and it can also mean you’ve changed as a person. Basically, he stills plays Trails games “With” me, but I’m looking at my phone (for discord or mastodon) or my Kobo constantly. The spark isn’t coming back.
The games aren’t fun anymore. They’re not cute anymore. Remember Tita’s crush on Agate that everyone teased him about? Well years later she wants to fuck him and it’s clear he’s into her, too. Millium (as a robot ghost) is the only female character besides Duvalie (one of the only characters I like) and Angelica (lesbian) that Rean can’t get with. It’s not because she’s a ghost. It’s because Jusis has been sad about her all of IV and wants to fuck her. This honestly feels like Character Assassination of Jusis, but it’s clear Rean has a third character trait: not getting in the way of his bros. And I want to be clear. When I say “Every female character” I am including Rean’s students, especially goddamn Altina who looks like she’s 12. It’s not a good look.
And then, once more, I remember Mint’s comment on how ultimately nothing matters. Because Cold Steel IV proves that. You’re told the whole game that Zombie Crow is an abomination and sin upon the Goddess and he’s probably gonna be smited if he doesn’t lose his life another way due to the plot. He and Millium are both revived at the end of IV. Some people we don’t give a shit about die. Olivier was never really dead either! Neither was Angelica! Grief effectively has no meaning when you bullshit everyone back to life. I’m pretty sure the only reason Loewe wasn’t permanently brought back was because they didn’t think of a way to bullshit him back to life in time.
Now let’s talk about the queer characters. Hey, none of the queer characters I mentioned actually died, that’s good right? Let’s see. Charlie (or however they elected to localize it) gropes girls. Ilya gropes girls. Olivier is a pervert. Angelica thirsts over all the girls, including KeA who is physically like, 12, and Altina, but we already know that’s a low Falcom reached. You could go the route of “Altina and Millium are actually older than 14, they just happen to look like they’re 14!” Except you can’t. There’s a “gag” in Cold Steel II where Millium can’t drink with the rest of the party because she looks like she’s 14 and only has memories dating back a handful of years. Fair. But how does that make her old enough to consent? Either she’s a 5 million year old dragon that happens to look like a little girl and anime logic says not to worry about it, or she is a little girl who cannot drink or consent. You cannot have it both ways, Falcom! Thirsting over the little girls is beyond uncomfortable and it’s not cute!
Am I forgetting anyone? Cedric clearly wants Rean to fuck him but that’s like the least of anyone’s character flaws in this goddamn series. Also the other problem with Angelica. Crow really doesn’t seem to grasp what a “lesbian” is. I don’t think the word is ever used, but your introduction (as a player) to Angelica is a comment in the first game about how Angelica was having far more success with women than Crow, and Angelica never once shows interest in a man! Crow, you can’t get Angelica and George to get together. Alisa and Angelica, maybe. But your Georgelica ship is not happening! Anyway, the last thing about this. Queerness is treated as an eccentric character trait that comes with sexual harassment that everyone puts up with in the name of friendship. That’s not how relationships work! A relationship based on sexual harassment is fucked up! Even if you put the Sexual Harassment aside (please don’t) queerness is not a character trait that heteros have to endure. That’s not a basis for a relationship! GET BETTER FRIENDS. Possibly in jail, because seriously the groping is not cute and I don’t know how to make this clearer!
I swear I am almost done with these 95 Theses of Trails being Bad. One is something that may not be an issue in English, as I stopped playing the games, two Cold Steels ago! I do not know how it is translated in English, I’m really hoping localization disapproved and changed it. The use of the word “Fuhrer”. At first I heard what sounded like “Yes, My Fuhrer” in the end game of Sen IV. Huh, maybe I heard it wrong, it was auto-progressing text, surely they wouldn’t have said that. Then we started Hajimari no Kiseki. And it’s about a “Fuhrer”. Like, it is using the kanji that if you put into a search engine will get you pictures of Hitler. There have been no ghettos or concentration camps, or other such horrors of Hitler’s in the game yet, but we’re not done, so maybe it will surprise me yet. So I’m fucking baffled the game is using it. Surely they know how bad it is? It was making me so uncomfortable my brother switched to translating it as “Kaiser”, which you know, if you look at German history and need a title for a ruler, you could also use that is, I don’t know, a little less horrible? I’m certainly not about to praise various Kaisers, but I at least don’t associate that word with the Holocaust! It brings to mind Hetalia cosplayers making the Heil Hitler gesture near Holocaust memorials and museums. I mean, I know how bad History education is in the US, that while I do not approve of the salute by any means, I can at least see how you could reach that end result when your school history programs are so bad that goddamn Hetalia is the only way you can be passionate and learn anything about history. But Falcom should really know better!
The last thesis: I hope that NIS brings the Crossbell games over before Hajimari no Kiseki (though as of writing this there’s already word of Hajimari switch and PC ports, so I think I know what decision has been made). At least a 3rd of the game is about Lloyd Bannings and his Crossbell friends, and it’s a 3rd you will not have the remotest chance of giving a shit about unless you played Zero and Ao no Kiseki and want closure for your Crossbell friends. I mean it’s not Falcom’s fault the PSP did horribly in the US, but I highly suspect Falcom are the ones pushing Hajimari instead of the Crossbell PS4 and PC ports.
Learning to Love Again
So if it wasn’t clear, I am still with my horrible exes. All… 10 or so of them, depending on if you count Nayuta. Honestly I don’t know what makes Nayuta no Kiseki a Trails game other than the fact Falcom seems to count it as one. Tokyo Xanadu seemed more like a Trails game than Nayuta, but whatever. I’ve accepted that while my brother has not officially been diagnosed as Autistic, that he probably is, and the Kiseki series remains his Special Interest. It’d be nice if we still shared a SI, but we don’t, and that’s okay.
I would say my defining character trait is despite being on a gameing instance of Mastodon, I rarely play games. I mean, sure, if you count like Neko Atsume, I play games daily. And I’m fine with counting that for some people, but in my case it would be posts like “Tubbs ate my Bitz again” and “Tubbs isn’t eating my Bitz anymore what’s wrong???” So I am on a gameing instance (though it does say “And Other Delightful Pursuits”) and don’t really post about games. I have nearly 400 hours on Stardew Valley and I haven’t touched 1.5 yet, though I am quite looking forward to it. I was obsessive with Animal Crossing when the Pandemic got started, but other than a few posts about shops and exchanges, I didn’t really publicly play. I bought Zero Time Dilemma when it came out, got frustrated at the Russian Roulette part, and put it down, and I get the impression that was a wise decision. I’ve played the first two Danganronpa games, but I never got obsessive. Honestly, it’s sort of felt like part of my heart fell out and I was too jaded for games. I started the Final Fantasy VII remake, and got to one of the couple lulls it has, and I’ve been told I really need to give it another try, and I will. I will buy the new Yakuza game because I’m pretty sure Mint will find a way to have me killed if I don’t play the JRPG I’ve always wanted about “older” adults. I mean, the closest thing I got to passionate about games other than Trails in my adulthood was Tales of Xillia. And while I certainly loved it (and if they ported it to a new console I would definitely play it again), I didn’t get passionate about it.
But, I have learned to love again. On December 10, 2019, I bought a game and its soundtrack. This is not the story of a year-long love affair. Because while I played a little Hades last December and liked it, I didn’t really get into it until its 1.0 release (when I also finally turned on God Mode, which I deliberately waited until the full release to do). I just played here and there, and learned. And then I put it down until the fall, figuring it was gonna release soon. And started Pyre, which should have been the 3rd copy I owned of it (got a second free one for buying Hades, and it was in the giant Itch bundle). The week after I started Pyre, Hades 1.0 released. Give me some credit, I waited 3 days (because I had an ECT). The 20th of September I restarted Hades, and I gradually fell in love.
I don’t know if it was the Pandemic that put me in the mood for an unending hellscape or what. I can tell you before 1.0 I played with a Keyboard and Mouse and that was one of the worst ideas I had in my history of gameing. So dying repeatedly in Tartarus (without god mode) and a painful control setup probably didn’t help me fall in love. Now, when I switched to a controller, it got a lot better.
At first, I had a lot of “Why is this boss talking like we’re broken up--Oh shit!” And then I just gradually fell more in love, especially when I reached Elysium for the first time. I played here and there, trying to dodge ECTs, so I wouldn’t forget any of the plot, and then sometime in early December, I started playing it much more often. I became so invested, and talked to other people on best control setups (Nintendo Switch Pro Controller, B as confirm and attack, X special, Y dodge, A cast and cancel, use like, minus or something for manual reload), and their feelings about the game. I won’t deny, playing the game when so many people were invested in it certainly helped me fall in love with it. Having people there to tell me “no you can’t spam dodge you have to learn to do it right” was really what helped. Community seems linked to my gameing Special Interests, even if with the majority of them, other than my brother or a couple friends online, I didn’t really talk much about them; not on forums, not on Social Networks™, just IMs and DMs. Fellas, is it gay to talk about things you like 😳? My brain seems to think so. This is not about me joining Mastodon, but I feel like Mastodon was the first time I wasn’t publicly chastised for being sincere and talking about things I like. And it’s been a bit of a Bouldy rolling, my love has accumulated for the game that around half my playtime comes from the last two weeks. And finally, I’m sure the theme and issues of family that it raises speak to me as well, as I am estranged from my mother. There’s this great conversation with Meg where she points out Zagreus can’t give her family advice because his family is more messed-up than hers.
You know that thought a lot of readers have? That they will never read through their To Be Read-pile before they die, because more books will be added, and that’s just life. It’s like that with games too, except I feel we should debate what we put hundreds of hours into. If you enjoy the game, that’s the important thing, but a game being short and sweet and to the point shouldn’t be damning evidence of its failure. At the rate the Trails series is going, assuming I am still alive, I will be in like, a retirement home before it finishes, and it will probably have become an isekai or something, I don’t know. Please do not feel obligated to play the Trails series. Play what you like, and if that’s 10 hours of a visual novel or 500 hours of Stardew Valley, as long as you’re happy, that’s the important thing. Don’t look back.