“See, I got this friend… Wazy, uh, Hemisphere?” “That’s the worst name I ever heard.”
The ever growing “Trails'' series of RPGs from Falcom is about to pick up its fourth Switch entry in North America next week, and it left me in a bit of an uncomfortable position. Due to a combination of factors, I’m two full games behind Trails to Azure if you’re going by Switch release order, and three games behind if you’re going by story chronological order. Is it possible for someone who has a few of the pieces of this monumentally large puzzle to still enjoy this middle game of the series? As it turns out, unquestionably; the core game is still great, and the game supplies those who might be coming in late with enough information to get by.
Azure is the immediate successor to Trails From Zero which launched on Switch last September (here’s Jordan’s review), right down to all of your characters starting at what I understand to be the level cap of 50 from the prior game. A full glossary and story recap is available from first boot, which I made sure to study up before booting into the game. You play once again as Lloyd Bannings, leader of the Special Support Section (SSS) of the police department of the city-state of Crossbell; although the group is usually charged with minor tasks such as pet rescue, they were last seen defeating an apocalyptic cult. Lloyd and his colleagues from Zero - Elle, Randy, and Tico - are joined by two new members in regular-force member Noel and former gang leader / host (in the Japanese “club you might run in a Like a Dragon game” sense) / possible ninja Wazy Hemisphere. And yes, that name sounds as stupid said out loud as it does in text form; at least if I’m playing Earthbound I can rename “Poo”. Stupid nomenclature aside, the SSS has to deal with the fallout of the events from Zero both within the city and from the surrounding regions including a republic and an empire who both have it out for the city in between.
The mission structure for Azure is after the tutorial power tease, the SSS is given a few tasks to complete which can be battles, fetch quests, or chasing felines all over the city. After a couple of days of completed quests, the main plot will kick in to end a chapter. There are four chapters in all plus a few interstitial segments - a quick run with minimal side material would probably run about 40-45 hours, but there are plenty of options for distraction. There’s fish to catch, cooking recipes to find, or just falling into the optional “Pom-Pom” competitive puzzle game that unlocks early on and is essentially Puyo Puyo with the serial numbers filed off. The ending can also be affected by “bond points” earned with various party members during the course of the story. It’s worth diving into every treasure chest you can find, as checking them after getting the item pops up a quip that ranges from funny to confusing to touching.
Trails to Azure’s battle system is a turn-based affair based on simple menus, viewed from a slightly angled overhead perspective. The characters can move around the area, attack, use items, or use either “arts” or “crafts”, each with their own point meter. The arts are roughly equivalent to magic spells in other RPGs, and can be equipped on multiple characters while the “crafts” are character specific and build time each time the character acts or is attacked. An essential super move can be used upon the craft point gauge hitting 100, but holding out for 200 will cause the move to become more powerful (more damage, a wider area of effect, or in the case of a damage blocking shield a second total block). Because of the additional party members, up to two characters (three if a guest character is traveling with the party) have to sit out, though they can occasionally jump in with an attack or buff the active party; these “reserve” characters also get full experience. The turn order is displayed along the left side of the screen and also indicates which buffs can be granted to the attacker; these usually come in the form of health/art/craft point recovery, but can also include options for additional turns (“rush”) or even the auto-win of a “Team Rush”.Since the enemy can also receive the health buffs or rush benefits, it can become necessary to use techniques to delay the opponent’s action to minimize their positive benefits if outright killing the enemy isn’t an option. It’s a familiar, yet fun, battle system that provides additional experience multipliers for certain battle achievements.
The character builds do offer a lot of customization options, but are simple to navigate. Each character equips an accessory that provides some buffs, then gems can be either purchased or synthesized in order to build out the skill sets. Every character aside from Lloyd has a “reserved slot” for one of the game’s seven elements, but aside from that it’s open season for building. Some of the side quests provide essentially dual techniques, where two people with 100 craft points can spend them for an ultra-powerful attack. Certain experience milestones also enhance or modify the craft super moves. And there are plenty of options if you find a build just isn’t working, since the game offers more save slots that any game I’ve ever played at 200.
Azure being an older game - it debuted on the PC in 2011, though the Switch version is adapted from the PlayStation Vita - means it runs smoothly on the Switch, with only brief battle effect slowdown for particularly flashy super moves. Every character stands out in the overworld even with a somewhat shrunken art style, while important characters have impressive character portraits that do adapt to the environment. (This is mostly reserved for a beach episode.) Crossbell and its surrounding county does have a bit of environmental variety, and the addition of a car to the SSS’s tools makes fast travel very easy. Like its immediate predecessor Azure only offers Japanese voice acting - somewhat disappointingly - but it’s still well acted, while the soundtrack has some particularly striking tracks and even offers the Splatoon 3 “show what track is playing” option down to which disc and track number on the official soundtrack is playing. Now if only it were easy to get those soundtracks legally.
It might be tempting to skip Trails to Azure, but even set apart from the exceedingly large franchise it’s still another great RPG for the Switch. I’m looking forward to possibly replaying it with more knowledge of the events and try to take on more of the side content, since I had to take a hard critical path to get the review done. If I don’t decide to fill in some of those Trails story gaps this spring….