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The Legend of Heroes: Kuro no Kiseki (PS4)

By Thomas Froehlicher 05th Sep 2022 | 10,155 views 

A superb new chapter in The Legend of Heroes series, although the pacing suffers at times.

After dragging the Trails of Cold Steel sub-series on for no less than seven years, Falcom finally decided that the time was ripe to open up a full new chapter in its flagship RPG series The Legend of Heroes. Beyond the fresh faces and new approach to battles, what is at stake is how close the series can get to rivalling big names like Tales of.

In The Legend of Heroes, a new story means a whole new country. Kuro no Kiseki takes place in the Calvard Republic, a rival power to the Erebonian Empire. Located East of the latter, Calvard is an advanced democracy made rich by its automotive industry, booming trade, large entertainment sector, and high levels of cultural diversity. While Trails of Cold Steel was a fascinating parallel of wartime Europe, Kuro no Kiseki is an amazing dive into a sort of post-war America, full of interesting places and characters.

The protagonist, Van Arkride, illustrates the change of atmosphere Falcom wanted to give to The Legend of Heroes; a fresh start after a sort of routine imposed on the series by the numerous Trails of Cold Steel installments. Van is a jack-of-all-trades, a type of private detective who takes cases from people who can't talk to established authorities. That leads him, and thus the player, to face the dark side of the Republic; murders, mafias, corruption, strange experiments, nationwide threats, and of course occult legends coming true. Kuro no Kiseki thus conveys a more serious and less naive tone than that found in the over-extended narrative of Trails of Cold Steel. The greater, darker, and more coherent storyline is the first example of progress over Trails of Cold Steel IV (and Trails into Reverie), even if some old Falcom habits remain.

Kuro no Kiseki has far more convincing antagonists than the two most recent Trails of Cold Steel titles too. This helped keeping me interested in the story, whereas Trails of Cold Steel IV and Trails into Reverie felt flat for most part. The shady mafia seeking to overthrow the Republic consists of cruel people capable of toying with lives - typically the sort of bad guys you'd be eager to fight against. Unfortunately the story on the whole is still very uneven. The Basel College chapter is absolutely stunning in terms of suspense and emotions, for example, while the Oracion chapter considerably lowers the stakes. In that particular sequence, all the characters are drawn into a kind of battle royale, but it's very boring. Just as in most of Trails of Cold Steel IV, it felt like it was being done for sport, rather than to defuse a very real terrorist threat. Towards the end of the game you can sense the story clearly stalling, and much to my regret the conclusion doesn't feel very special.

Furthermore, there are still a lot too many sub-quests. These are key to the enjoyment of all the different character interactions, but they considerably slow down the progression of the main narrative. I spent a little over 100 hours playing the game before I saw the end credits, but I reckon it could have been condensed to 60-70 hours had it been more focussed. This is actually an ongoing issue for The Legend of Heroes - I think Falcom could cut back on superfluous content, refocus on battles and characters, and still leave some room for the development of another game in the same year. 

So in summary, Kuro no Kiseki definitely improves a lot on the last couple of Trails of Cold Steel games in terms of narrative, but I sense that Falcom is still reluctant to take risks that would further spice up the story. 

Like the Trails of Cold Steel games before it, Kuro no Kiseki impresses with its vast and compelling world. The cities are amazing for the many little details you'll come across, like little shops with their own signs, unique landmarks, funny inhabitants, and complex architecture. Visually it's quite a big jump in quality too, and it instantly feels more beautiful and livelier than anything I've experienced in the series before. Each main city has its own theme and atmosphere: Edith and Oracion have that "old town" charm that lives up to the tradition of JRPGs, Tharbad is a sort of eccentric Las Vegas where Middle East and modern influences meet, Basel is a modern academic city, and so on. You'll also find some additional activities in them, like the night club and the movie theater. There's even a mini-quest that has you going to the movies at certain points in the game. 

Although they can't be really counted as mini-games, the story regularly introduces little challenges like poker, a car race, and memory puzzles. These are quite useful at keeping Kuro no Kiseki interactive during long conversations between characters. Because yes, like any The Legend of Heroes game, you should indeed expect lots of dialogue.

The dungeons are also better, mainly because they're much less generic than the ones found in the Trails of Cold Steel series. One particular dungeon is inspired by Gunkanjima (an old mining island town near Nagasaki) and has this unique feeling of grandeur that makes it unforgettable. The music there is absolutely terrific, but is no less charming in other parts of the game either. Generally speaking, it looks as though more meticulous care has been taken with every possible aspect of in-game design, such that I kept being delighted by what I saw from start to finish. Even the character's Xipha (phones, by which they use magic) are neatly made and you can customize them with fancy covers.

Falcom has decided to premiere a strange hybrid battle system with Kuro no Kiseki - it's both an action-RPG and a turn-based RPG! But how can the developers unite two opposing styles that trigger such frantic reactions from fans with every JRPG announcement? The answer is actually simple, and the turn-based element is still the most essential by far. In Kuro no Kiseki, you actually roam and fight like in a Ys game, with direct strikes and sidesteps, until the moment when you decide to deploy what is called the Shard, a tactical zone where the battle shifts to turn-based control. The present system isn't really a choice between Ys gameplay and The Legend of Heroes gameplay, but rather a convenient proposal where the action side has a double advantage. Firstly it diversifies the combat sensations, and secondly it's a brilliant idea to save time. If you're skilled enough, you can remove a third or half of the enemy's HP in a few seconds before entering the turn-based phase, which makes the average battle time shorter and the overall sense of progression smoother. So I consider it a worthy innovation, even though it's not on a Ys-level of action greatness.

When the Shard is deployed, Kuro no Kiseki doesn't differ much from battles in Trails of Cold Steel. As in the latter, you have to organize your turns using physical skills or magic in the best possible way in order to hit the opponents' weakness, hit multiple targets at once, buff your team, etc. You can still move the characters on the battle area,  but here it doesn't take a turn to do so. Your strategy can therefore be much more efficient, and the movement animations are greatly enhanced. Here again the visual improvement is fantastic to look at. The skills of the eight party members are quite varied and they have plenty of different effects too. In replace of Rean's Valimar, Kuro no Kiseki has Van turn into a devilish creature called Grendel, which has wider reach and incomparable strength compared to regular party members. That said, Grendel's gameplay is far less elaborate than the mecha battles in Trails of Cold Steel III & IV, since it can only attack with brute force without any real notion of teamplay.

During the adventure, you also collect increasingly powerful quartz that allow you to use magic or raise your stats. Like in the previous sub-series, quartz are sorted by rarity, from common to super rare. Finding the rarest ones by trading or crafting is a highly addictive game within the game that adds more value, although the relatively low number of super rare quartz compared to Trails into Reverie is slightly disappointing. Arranging the quartz pieces in the Xipha is a bigger deal than the corresponding mechanic in Trails of Cold Steel. If you manage to place quartz of a set value of a certain element (water, time, etc.), you unlock automatic passive skills known as Shard Skills. You can gain resistance or attack bonus for a certain element, start the battle with higher speed, defense, etc. Despite Grendel not being especially exciting, the vast array of possibilities here keeps Kuro no Kiseki well above average in terms of turn-based strategy.

Although smaller than in Trails into Reverie, the cast of Kuro no Kiseki leaves  a great impression. With eight main party members and many playable guests, the game has a lot in store for those who like some surprises and want to change up their party. The advantage compared to Trails of Cold Steel is that you get to know a lot of fresh faces, which is all the more enjoyable now since Trails of Cold Steel dragged the previous cast on for far too long. By designing Van as an adult (much against JRPG tradition), Falcom allowed for a different, more mature tone to character interactions as well. You can feel the generation gap in the jokes and the way of talking that go with it. It's really fresh for the series (maybe even in the genre) and makes the abundant conversations often worthwhile.

The average age of the characters is older but there are still some of your typical teen characters, like Agnes, a textbook cute highschooler ready to help Van with any errand, or Aaron, an insolent, reckless youngster ready to defy everyone. Feri is even younger than those two, and she wields a fully loaded P90! My favorite is definitely Judith, an eccentric actress who can change into a phantom thief. Her relationship with Aaron and Van is deeply hilarious. You couldn't dream of a more diverse, original, fun, better-looking cast than this. I did like the characters in the first Trails of Cold Steel when I imported it nine years ago, but for a first game in a new chapter, Kuro no Kiseki is even several leagues ahead of that title in my opinion.

You'll still meet some old faces. Fy has grown up quite nicely, while Rixia hasn't changed much (but has better battle animations). Both are playable at some points in the story, and you get to control other valuable guests regularly. You can even play the entirety of chapter five with new playable allies - an overwhelming privilege that's comparable to the best parts of Trails of Cold Steel III. In order the unlock them, you need to develop Van's inclination towards a Law, Gray, or Chaos type of personality. The side-quests you pick and the choices made during them weight heavily in this, so it's a strongly motivating game mechanic. It so happens that at the very start of the quest system you're given a hint on what to prioritize in order to welcome a certain someone who's mega-popular among fans.

Kuro no Kiseki has lots of charismatic secondary characters too, and there's also a large amount of interaction between Van and them. There are some quite interesting, even touching side stories like the F1 driver asking Van to help him find his former loved one. The very deep character development, even for non playable ones, contributes to a comprehensive, engaging universe where everything is meaningful.

Although it only partially fixes Falcom's woes in terms of story pacing, Kuro no Kiseki is nonetheless a journey full of wonders. The stellar cast is a pure blessing, not to motion the great level of character development and interaction. The renewed universe is incredibly rich for a first game in a new chapter, with compelling battles, diverse guests, and game mechanics that keep the player entertained. And there are clear visual improvements over the Cold Steel series, with a notable leap in the quality of the animations, which are stunning if not glamorous. Kuro no Kiseki represents, at its fullest, that invaluable joy of diving into a new world.

After graduating from a French business school, Thomas felt an irresistible force drawing him to study Japanese, which eventually led him to Japanese Profeciency Test level 1 in 2012. During the day, Thomas is a normal account manager. But at night he becomes Ryuzaki57, an extreme otaku gamer hungry for Japanese games (preferably with pretty girls in the main role). His knowledge now allows him to import games at Japanese release for unthinkable prices, and then tell everyone about them. You may also find him on French video games media. Feel free to contact on twitter at @Ryuz4ki57

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This review is based on a retail copy of The Legend of Heroes: Kuro no Kiseki for the PS4

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