Title (JP): Eiyuu Densetsu: Kuro no Kiseki (英雄伝説 黎の軌跡)
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: Nihon Falcom
Release date: 30 Sep 2021
Official website: https://www.falcom.co.jp/kuro/
Kuro no Kiseki is the eleventh game in Nihon Falcom’s long-running Trails series, and the first of a new sub-series, featuring its own story arc, locales, and characters.
Kuro no Kiseki takes place in the Republic of Calvard, a large country to the east of the locales previously seen in previous Trails games. Though Calvard was a monarchy up till roughly a century ago, the royal family was overthrown in a revolution lead by a Joan of Arc-like figure, and replaced with democratic rule. The country’s location and size also mean that it acts as a receptacle for immigrants and refugees from further east – namely regions themed after the Middle East and Asia. Taking place a year after Trails into Reverie, technology in the Trails world has continued advancing, and automobiles, computers, movie theatres, and even smartphones are commonplace in Calvard.
Kuro’s main character Van Arkride is a “Spriggan” – a “grey zone” job which combines the roles of a detective, bounty hunter, and fixer – based in Calvard’s capital city of Edith. The story begins with heroine Agnes Claudel approaching him with a job to look for seven missing mementos belonging to her great-grandfather, the famed professor Epstein, whose research led to the current technological revolution. Things happen, which result in Agnes working for Van part-time as an assistant, and other jobs which take them around the country result in meeting new allies (and recruiting new assistants, who become party members), clashing with a terrorist mafia group, and coming to terms with Van’s past.
Unlike many previous games in the series (the only real exception being the third Sky game) where the player is typically given the perspective of a main character who does not know much about the secrets of the world, Van already knows a significant deal about the secret societies, conspiracies, paranormal activity and other underworkings of the world hidden from everyday life, and is so well-connected that he is already acquainted with Ouroboros enforcers and church agents.
At the same time, other party members, such as Agnes, provide players with the usual perspective, learning about everything for the first time, and Van’s secretive stance (wanting to protect his young assistants) means that they learn about things at a slow pace. This results in both old and new players getting a perspective they can identify with.
Van’s occupation as a Spriggan also means that some of the quests the player takes on differ greatly from what was seen in previous games: Van is willing to take on quests that are not entirely legal, such as smuggling medal supplies for a unlicensed doctor. Story-wise, he also takes jobs from seedier groups. This is not to say that all the quests in the game are new- A great many feel like more of the same: Collecting bounty on monsters, finding lost possessions, and hunting for lost pets. Additionally, Van does draw a moralistic line on what jobs he takes, so while he may take jobs that might not be legal, he never takes any that are outright evil.
One new thing that quests in the game do feature, is how they influence the new “L.G.C. Alignment” system. Many quests have the player choose an outcome, and depending on what option is chosen, the player gains points in one or more of the three alignments: Law (for law-abiding decisions), chaos (for decisions that go against the letter of the law), and “gray” (for decisions that thread the needle between law and chaos).
An example would be a quest which has Van apprehend a racist agitator who has been harassing people: When cornered, the culprit says that handing him over to the police is useless, as he has friends in high places who can easily get him out of trouble. With the police eliminated as an option, the player can choose to hand him over to the Bracer Guild and leave it to them to see that he faces justice, or give him to the Chinese mafia and leave him to an uncertain fate.
While the alignment system does not affect the main flow of the story or anything important like the ending, what it does do is unlock options that allow the player to ally with certain factions at one point in the game, which do yield some unique events and dialogue.
Exploring towns is mostly unchanged from what one might expect from modern Falcom games, with the biggest difference being how the new engine allows for much larger areas, with the interiors of buildings being part of the same map, eliminating the need for load time or transition screens when entering or exiting one.
The story follows a chapter format seen in many other recent Falcom games such as Tokyo Xanadu, Ys IX, or the Cold Steel games: Each chapter sees the player spend a day in the “home base” city of Edith, where they are free to bond with named characters and do side quests, and then the story sends them to a different locale where the plot moves along while introducing a new party member. Due to size of Edith, only a small part of the city is open to the player at the beginning, and more of it opens up as the game progresses.
Edith’s sheer size means that players who want to see all of the NPC dialogue are in for some bad pacing: The downtime between things actually happening can get very long. Kuro does, however, do away with most of the “collection” type features that required completionists to go through this in previous games: “Secret” quests are clearly marked on the map, books are only purchased from stores, and there is absolutely nothing to gain from NPC dialogue aside from the satisfaction of reading said dialogue.
Aside from the “collection” features, there are also no minigames at all: There is no card game, no fishing, and even poker is gone despite there being a casino in one of the cities visited. This is not to say that the player is not left wanting for content: This reviewer took over 100 hours to clear the game, clocking in at longer than Trails into Reverie.
One of the problems the “introduce a new character each chapter” format had in previous Falcom games such as Tokyo Xanadu and Ys IX was it turning out that characters introduced later simply had less attention: Story-wise, gameplay-wise, or both. Kuro manages to successfully circumvent this by giving the second-last addition ample attention before they actually join, and while the last party member does get the least amount of screentime, their position in the story makes it so that the player does understand why this is the case.
The soundtrack features more of Falcom’s usual Trails music, and while most of it does not feel particularly impressive, and many are even forgettable, there are a few tracks that go against this trend and really stand out, particularly the track which is used on the title screen and in multiple memorable spots in the story.
Combat is where the game differs most from its predecessors, featuring a completely revamped system. Combat is split into two modes: “Field battles”, which are Ys-like realtime action battles, and “AT battles”, which have the traditional turn-based Trails combat (though with many changes).
While one can certainly choose to use one mode over the other, the game encourages the player to use both modes: Hitting an enemy enough times in a field battle will result in them being stunned, at which point the player can transition to an AT battle with bonuses- Damage and delayed turns for all enemies- In addition to the stun. Conversely, doing badly in a field battle can result in the enemy initiating an AT battle with the player at a disadvantage. Bosses, however, are fought only in AT mode.
Many of the changes to the turn-based battles draw from how the Orbment system has also been completely revamped: Each character’s can now equip a Hollow Core, an Arts Driver, multiple Plug-Ins, and the usual Quartzes.
- The Hollow Core is Kuro’s equivalent of the Master Quartz of previous games, but they do not determine what Arts (magic) the character can use: Rather, they provide different stat bonuses, and each has a special “Shard Boost” which provides additional effects when used in battle (more on this further down).
- The Arts Driver is something equipped on an Orbment which provides the character with a set of Arts, and a few empty slots (which have to be unlocked with septium gems) for equipping Plug-Ins for additional Arts (one each).
- Each Orbment now has four lines for equipping Quartzes, with differing slots in each line depending on the character. The system used up to Azure where each Quartz is worth a number of points returns, but instead of unlocking new Arts, the points go towards unlocking Shard Skills: Potent passive abilities with all sorts of effects ranging from buffs, an auto-revive, healing after battles, and even a special attack that automatically triggers and finishes off enemies at low health. Each line has a different assortment of possible skills, activated with different combinations of Quartzes. Quartzes themselves of course have their own effects, and so the player has to find the right balance between Shard Skills and Quartz effects.
The Shard Boost system, linked with the Hollow Cores and Shard Skills, also makes a huge difference: Performing actions slowly builds up bars in the S-Boost gauge, of which three can be stored. Pressing L1 on a character’s turn uses on bar to activate the Shard Boost for that character, which gives them the effects linked to their Hollow Core, and also boosts the chances of Shard Skills triggering, for two turns. Pressing L1 again activates “Full Boost” mode which extends this state for another turn (making it three turns), further boosts the chances of Shard Skills triggering, and also unlocks S-Crafts for the character.
The Shard Boost system also changes how S-Crafts work: Simply having 100 CP is no longer enough. A character has to be in Full Boost to use their S-Craft, as does activating an S-Break (if the character is not already in Full Boost, two S-Boost bars in addition to 100 CP need to be available). Additionally, S-Crafts now always use 100 CP- There are no boosted version costing 200, and if a character uses their’s at 150 CP then they are left with 50 CP after using it. Finally, whenever a player uses one, the S-Boost gauge is given another empty bar that can be filled up allowing the player to use more S-Boosts and S-Crafts in succession as the battle goes on.
One change that can be said to be a purely positive one is how, in turn-based combat, the player can now freely position a character on the battlefield before performing an action. When combined with how several Crafts now deal bonus damage when used against enemies from the side or behind, and the support system which has allies within a certain range perform follow-up attacks, strategic positioning becomes far more important.
As shown in promotional materials, Van also transforms into a powered up “Grendel” form in the story, which is also playable in certain boss battles. This form basically changes Van into a completely different character, who can move multiple times in one turn and use powerful Crafts, but cannot use items or Arts. Battles where using the Grendel form is mandatory have no turn limits on how long it stays active, but the ability to use it at the player’s discretion (but only in certain boss fights) is unlocked later in the game: Here, it functions more like the Spirit Unification ability in the Cold Steel games, where it costs 100 CP and only lasts a few turns before being disabled.
Kuro no Kiseki is an extremely ambitious game, at least for the Trails series: No other one game in the series has been so different from the one that came before it. It is thus quite unfortunate that it misses the mark in several ways.
One of the big sells of Kuro no Kiseki is the new engine, but what difference it makes is questionable. The graphics are not significantly different from those of the last three games in the series, and this is not at all helped by how there are still many stiff-looking model animations from as far back as Cold Steel I being reused.
While the large environments do help portray a sense of scale, this is not really a significant change, and actually even results in some significant load times when transitioning to a new area. This might not feel as bad in normal gameplay, as it just means trading out several load screens for a single slightly longer one, but there are cutscenes in the story which switch between multiple locales in a short period of time (some of which are getting mere seconds of screentime), and each of these locales coming with its own load time can really ruin the mood of the story.
Furthermore, the game seems to simply just not run as well as previous entries in the series: On a PS4, NPCs and objects will frequently not even load into an area for up to a minute, or even longer in some of the more populated areas, with the player having to stand around and wait for them to pop into existence. The game will also on occasion just freeze for a couple of seconds. There is also significant slowdown when certain enemies which have effects on them appear, and it feels like the game is dying when several of that enemy type appear at the same time.
While the new battle system seems to the biggest feature of the game, with developers indicating in interviews that they are extremely optimistic over how it turned out, this reviewer was unable to share that sentiment. While the seamless transition between realtime and turn-based combat might sound impressive on paper, the actual realtime combat is a simplistic and repetitive affair: It is probably for the better that bosses can only be fought in turn-based battles.
And while some of the features (like the way Orbments work) are certainly a positive for the turn-based battles, the whole Shard Boost system, combined with the Chain Hit system, which gives damage buffs for attacking an enemy uninterrupted, results in far too much emphasis on using S-Crafts. The end result is boss battles that consist of nothing but the player trying to use as many S-Crafts in a row as possible, an experience that is made all the more worse by how the new engine omits the function to skip attack animations that was available in previous games. Watching the same S-Craft animation six times in a row does not make for an entertaining experience. The new AT bar is also needlessly hard to understand. (Note: The ability to skip S-Craft and certain Arts animations was added in a patch after the publication of this review)
That being said, most of the Trails series’ popularity comes from its story, characters, and worldbuilding, and Kuro no Kiseki thankfully does not disappoint there. Kuro does a great job of depicting an new country that exists as part of the Trails world, going into detail about its history, culture, and politics. For example, while the game doesn’t quite go into his tax policies, the first newspaper you can buy in the game describes how the current president of Calvard implemented low interest rates and encouraged free market competition, resulting in a 30% boost to the country’s GDP over the past two years.
The characters are as usual great, with Van as a very welcome addition to the series’ cast as an adult protagonist. This reviewer found Agnes to be a real dark horse here: Though the player is given Van’s perspective far more than hers, Agnes functions particularly well both as a heroine and as the deuteragonist. The other characters- Party members and supporting characters alike- Are also a varied and colorful lot, coming from all sorts of backgrounds and contributing to the story in their own ways. This unfortunately does not really apply to the main villain group of the game, however: Though each member is fleshed out with their own (often tragic) backstory, they come off as rather shallow, with their leader quite possibly the least interesting villain in the Trails series.
Finally, it should be noted that, unlike many of the other “part one” entries in the Trails series, Kuro no Kiseki does not end on a cliffhanger. While many questions are left unanswered (which is standard for the series), and there are clear hooks left for a sequel, the main story is in fact concluded.
Overall, the Trails series’ transition to a new phase with Kuro no Kiseki is a very rough one. While the game is certainly a step forward, gameplay and system-wise it is a step wrought with issues that need to be ironed out. Thankfully, none of the issues are game-ruining, and Falcom has had a good track record with making improvements, and so the sequel (which is already being worked on) will almost certainly do a better job. As for the story, Kuro is a great new entry in the series, introducing a fascinating new country while also building on numerous older plot threads from previous games. The story having two differing perspectives- That of Van, who knows about most of things from previous games, and of his assistants, who do not- Also means that both series fans and new players can enjoy the story equally.
Update (8 Nov 2021): Several post-release patches to the game (currently at version 1.10 as of this update) have fixed a few of the issues with the game: Animations for the player’s S-Crafts (but not enemy’s) and the strongest Arts can now be skipped, loading and other performance issues have been approved, and many bugs have been fixed. Many cutscenes and battle animations have also gotten improvements to change how they are presented.
The player can also now choose between a fixed 30 or variable (up to 60) FPS rate, and there have been several minor quality of life improvements such as being able to display a Shard Skill chart in the Orbment menu.
The score below has been adjusted to consider these updates.
The Good: A great story, fantastic worldbuilding, and interesting characters.
The Bad: The battle system has a fair number of issues and just does not feel as polished as the previous games’. The game also suffers from performance issues likewise not present in previous games (alleviated to some degree by post-release patches).
Conclusion: Kuro no Kiseki is a great new addition to the Trails series, and also a good potential starting point for new players.
This review was written based on the Japanese release of the game and originally published on 26 October 2021, then updated on 8 November 2021, and may not reflect changes made to versions released in other regions or in later updates
Trails Series Sequel Kuro no Kiseki: Producer Interview (Part 1/3)