When it comes to some of the most popular JRPG series, such as Final Fantasy, each iteration takes place in an entirely new universe. Final Fantasy IX is completely disconnected from Final Fantasy X apart from familiar spells, enemies, and even NPCs; the two worlds don't exist alongside each other.
Not every JRPG series follows this formula, though. Persona 4 exists in the same universe as Persona 5, meaning those characters can easily cross over - it just rarely ever happens (unless it's a spin-off game). ATLUS, the developer behind Persona, doesn't take the time to truly connect its games and instead keeps them far apart despite their existence in the same world. The only JRPG I've seen seriously connect its mainline games, and connect them well, is The Legend of Heroes - and it starts with The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky.
What is The Legend of Heroes?
The Legend of Heroes began as a subseries of the Dragonslayer series in the 1980s. Trails (known as Kiseki in Japan) has many games, but the last 10 are all interconnected in a way no JRPG series I've played has been before. In 2003, the story of Trails begins with The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. This game follows Estelle and Joshua Bright as they embark on a journey to become exceptional Bracers. Simple enough, right?
Developers Nihon Falcom created the continent of Zemuria, and for the most part, Trails didn't appear to be much different from a typical JRPG. It follows a cast of characters on a quest, contains typical anime tropes, and doesn't deviate too far from what is expected with JRPG combat. Nothing about it screams "unique" or "distinct" like, say, Persona, does with its flashy art and bumping music. After some time with the series, though, it's apparent that Trails is one-of-a-kind.
Marvel Cinematic Universe of JRPGs
To start, Trails differs from other JRPGs with its immaculate worldbuilding. The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky exists almost entirely to introduce the player to the Liberl Kingdom - which is one of many nations that exist within Zemuria. From here, Trails in the Sky Second Chapter takes the player's understanding of Liberl and continues telling the story of titular protagonists Estelle and Joshua Bright, building atop the foundation that was already laid down.
Future games introduce new arcs, ultimately taking the player outside the borders of Liberl and into the various other nations of the world. Much like the MCU, each Trails game takes place in a shared universe. Characters, plot elements, settings, and more are all shared within the stories to continue the exceptional worldbuilding that Nihon Falcom is crafting for the world of Trails.
A later title, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel, follows a completely different protagonist, Rean Schwarzer, as he studies at Thors Military Academy in the Erebonian Empire. The duology before Cold Steel, Trails from Zero and Trails to Azure, take place in another nation that shares borders on the continent of Zemuria - Crossbell State. While these stories largely exist outside of each other, events that occur in one game can easily have an effect on another. The games don't necessarily take place in chronological order, either - Azure and Cold Steel happen almost alongside each other, with events from both games affecting the plots and characters.
Worldbuilding and storytelling like this are rare within the gaming industry and even rarer for JRPGs. The interconnectedness of Trails is fascinating to witness and a testament to carefully planned, crafted, and executed storytelling. Being part of one event that ripples into other games and directly affects the storyline of a completely disconnected-but-actually-connected plot makes for a truly living world, one I haven't seen replicated by another developer. Writing and worldbuilding like this is nothing short of peak fiction.
Go Play Trails
If you're a fan of JRPGs, I don't think I can recommend The Legend of Heroes enough. Trails in the Sky is most accessible through Steam, where all three games of the trilogy can be found. Trails from Zero is coming out later this year in the west and Trails to Azure will be available in 2023. Finally, the rest of the series (which mostly consists of Trails of Cold Steel) can be found on PlayStation and PC. Beyond that, Nihon Falcom is still developing more Trails peak fiction for its fans to enjoy. I rarely see this series covered in the media, so I'm doing my due diligence as a fan. Go give it your attention!
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