The Trails series isn’t as niche as it once was, but it’s still pretty niche. Regardless, we have managed to get ten of the twelve mainline entries officially localized. Suffice it to say, for those who have played; it’s been quite a wild ride.
Now, with Trails into Reverie available, it’s the perfect time to reflect and rank the series before we meet a new cast in the region of Calvard. The list focuses on our experiences with each title and how they stand in the overarching narrative.
With that said, let’s begin:
10 — Trails to Azure
Trails to Azure may be a fan favorite, yet in the big scheme of things, it doesn’t feel particularly effective. While it has an enjoyable combat system, its cast, and pacing bring it down more than a few new notches. Lloyd and the rest of the SSS never feel as close as they’re probably intended to, and the constant main story emphasis makes a good chunk of the cast either unmemorable or unlikeable.
There are also events strangely excluded from the narrative, sometimes leaving it more frustrating than anything else. The antagonists are the least interesting in the entire series since their attitudes, actions, and supposed twists make them appear comical, making it difficult to take some crucial scenes seriously. The game ultimately feels like it’s multiple entries that should’ve been split into a third one.
Granted, we enjoyed the time spent with Azure, but compared to the other entries, it feels lacking in character focus and scene priorities.
9 — Trails from Zero
Having both Crossbell entries back to back on the bottom of the list is probably not a good look, but if we’re being honest, Trails from Zero shares similar issues to Azure. There’s a great setup between Lloyd and the rest of the cast that partially fails to be fully realized, although it is memorable.
Further, we can’t deny that the majority of Crossbell’s cast just doesn’t stick the landing during key moments of the narrative. There is that fault of skipping over pivotal scenes, too, yet, it’s not as bad as Azure.
In retrospect, what makes Zero better than Azure is how it feels like there’s a respectable balance between characters and narrative but also stronger chapter subject matters, given the Special Support Section’s underdog nature in the police.
8 — Trails of Cold Steel III
The Cold Steel saga is very, very divisive. However, the most well-liked entry, Cold Steel III, is definitely our least favorite.
There’s nothing in this entry that we particularly loathe; it’s just that there’s a lack of attachment in some places. Rean being an instructor is fantastic, but we didn’t feel as strong of a connection between the members of the Branch Campus as we did back in the main campus in the previous two games.
This mainly applies to the branch Campus members not in the new Class VII, so it isn’t a super massive deal, though it did weigh on the experience at times. It may be due to the difference in atmospheres. The main Thors branch campus was just more compelling than the branch one since the firsthand student perspective in a more crowded and established institution helped better establish stakes and tension.
Other than that, the pacing here felt the most taxing throughout the Cold Steel saga. Still, seeing the growth of the old Class VII, the exemplary handling of the new Class VII, and the equally memorable chapters made this a fantastic experience.
7 – Trails in the Sky SC
We’ll never end with the hot takes because Trails in the Sky SC is another fan-favorite entry. Granted, we enjoyed it immensely since we find the Sky arc to be the best at character and narrative balancing. Still, that is sometimes at the cost of neither avenue excelling.
Sky SC is an admittedly strange entry for me because, ins spite of having gone through it a good number of times, can never remember chunks of what happens in the middle of the plot. The beginning and ending chapters are terrific (mostly), yet some of the middle remains a blur. It’s not significant enough to drastically impede the experience, though. The ending sequences do to varying extents, however, as it’s a case where we found the gameplay and story integration to unnecessarily disrupt the enjoyment of the former.
Regardless, Sky SC still manages to be an exceptional closing. Save for a few exceptions, the antagonists here are remarkable, and the closure and payoff many of them get in the later hours with the main cast makes much of my frustration with the endgame worthwhile.
6 – Trails in the Sky FC
The game that started it all. Sky FC is low on the totem pole for many fans, and we completely understand why. The pacing can be akin to a snail’s crawl, yet that’s part of why we love it. The gradual reveals of Liberl and the continent of Zemuria as a whole are so expertly handled from start to finish while rarely being at the cost of the cast.
Estelle and Joshua are really the heart of this adventure, similar to SC, but we found it just a smidge more effective here since the foundations of their romance are terrific. Even as someone who isn’t necessarily huge on this pairing, the focus it receives is tremendous in making it believable. The story’s relatively small stakes and build-up to far grander threats at the end also resulted in scenes we don’t think we’ll ever forget our first time viewing.
This has the easiest-to-miss sidequests and collectibles of the franchise, though, at least, it feels that way. SC was similar, yet it was initiated here. Between the optional towers and rotating camera with the top-down perspective, as well as the lack of an in-game map for interior locations, the Sky titles were the most grueling to 100 percent.
5 – Trails of Cold Steel I
We already discussed the first Cold Steel back in our Cold Steel III placement, that being the atmosphere of the main Thors campus, but there’s obviously more to it than that. The more we look back on this specific saga, the more we realize how masterful it is at establishing tension. Due to the cast’s ages and immaturity, they feel the most vulnerable of any cast throughout the series, making several of the later scenes immensely impactful.
Speaking of the characters, we absolutely adore how everyone gets their moments to shine during the Field Studies and how the free time at campus elegantly showcases their multi-faceted characterizations.
For such a large-scale party, it’s handled impressively, as we grew strongly attached to mostly everyone by the end of the game. The final scenes are a few of our favorites in the series, with them still truly shaking us to our core. Our major critique has to do with the removed Sepith Values; it hurt the most here.
4 – Trails of Cold Steel II
Trails of Cold Steel II is, next to Reverie, probably the most impressed we’ve been by one of these games’ story and gameplay structures. The Civil War conflict is strikingly unique since the main cast is still fairly young. So, the way everything is tackled makes the true threats appear way out of their depth, and it kept us on the edge of our seats constantly.
The way NPCs are handled this time around is some of our favorite incorporations in the series, too, because the Thors’ students can be recruited to the cause, making their contributions jaw-droppingly meaningful. This title has some of the best side content we’ve seen in any JRPG, bolstered by the post-game book collecting. We still appreciate that inclusion since it gave sufficient reason to do New Game+, a somewhat rarity in the genre. Plus, New Game+ playthroughs in Trails are always humorously short if you know what you’re doing.
Lastly, everything from the Finale onward is masterful. While Cold Steel I has our favorite ending scenes in the series, Cold Steel II has our favorite endgame. We know many players found it all exhausting and just wanted the game to end at a certain point, but we were entirely on the ride, never wanting it to stop. This is also a significant experience for me since this is one of a handful of titles that had me bawling my eyes out; alongside the cast during a certain event.
3 – Trails in the Sky the 3rd
How can an experience like that be topped? Well, the finale of the Sky saga is still yet to be matched in maturity. Every Trails game tackles dark subject matter to varying extents, and it’s usually pretty skilled at it, but Sky the 3rd is just on a whole other level. Let’s explain why.
In other games, some scenes intended to be traumatic and moving for the cast are not personally effective because of how blatant and non-subtle the events are. NieR:Automata is a perfect case of this. We love this game from an analytical lens and its ties with the Drakengard entries plus the original NieR, but the way in which they shove shock value down your throat makes a lot of the emotional connection somewhat hollow. Everything surrounding 2B and 9S in the latter half of the game just feels too in your face.
Sky the 3rd is the complete opposite. There’s disturbing subtlety that leaves just enough to make the horror of certain revelations all the more prevalent. The Doors are terrific tools for teasing the series’ future and diving into plot points and characters who may not have received enough limelight beforehand. Above all else, though, Kevin’s immaculate characterization is the crux tying it all together.
2 – Trails of Cold Steel IV
Trails of Cold Steel IV takes the tonal mastery seen throughout most of the saga and consistently applies it to the whole experience. There’s an omnipresent ominous ambiance pervading the entire story, bolstered by distinct, memorable Acts, each instilled with their own powerful character moments pushing everything forward.
The NPCs in this entry are by far the best in the franchise, too, alongside genuinely stellar side content. There’s also quite a bit of payoff and homage to previous arcs and games, but its core identity as a Cold Steel entry is never forsaken or muddled in the midst of it all. Next to the number one game on this list, Trails of Cold Steel IV was always enjoyable from start to finish.
And as divisive as they are, we love the way the two endings are handled are presented, as when not even taking Reverie into account, they feel so profound on various spectrums of emotion for those who have grown attached to this particular cast. Further, as one who’s replayed the Trails games countless times, Cold Steel IV is one that genuinely never got old. An addictive and satisfactory gameplay loop was skillfully incorporated here with moving writing.
1 – Trails into Reverie
Trails into Reverie is our number-one pick for the Trails series so far. Despite its massive cast that appears overly bloated, every event and every character just clicks in every specific context so, so well. For a deeper dive into why we love this game so much, check out our review.
The swappable simultaneous stories each have equal staying power, and their interactions are always meaningful. While it could have been easy to drop down to shallow fanservice to appeal to fans on a service level, that isn’t what happens here. There are also exciting teases for what the future of the franchise has in store, and the gameplay loop is marvelous, with a decent chunk of post-game content for dedicated players to pursue.
Trails into Reverie truly feels like the ultimate Trails experience, with enough new characters and story threads uniting every facet together, culminating into a masterpiece—a reunion among reunions, a capstone among capstones.
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