"Trails" JRPGs Give Me The Trope-Filled Anime Vibes I Miss From My Youth

The "Legend of Heroes" multi-arc games series are unabashedly archetypical, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

"Trails" JRPGs Give Me The Trope-Filled Anime Vibes I Miss From My Youth
Class VII from Trails of Cold Steel. Source: Let’s Play Archive

It’s probably no surprise given the name of the overall website, but as part of my foray into geekdom at a young age, I was most certainly into anime, manga, and Japanese culture overall. I did that thing a lot of people do when they get super-into a hobby - spend a bunch of time just consuming as much of it as I can, get interested in the secondary elements and cultural influences, and get roped into doing various things related to it. At the height of my love affair with anime, I was trading nth-copied VHS fansubs (yes, I’m that old), running a multi-series anime/manga website, and working for (and eventually, for two years, chairing) anime and manga conventions.

While I basically took in every kind of anime series under the sun to watch, I also managed to get used to the stereotypical tropes of the medium - those archetypes, occurrences, and sometimes-contrived elements that you see in many anime series. “Aw Shucks” Protagonist who gets all the romantic interests? Check. Cold-hearted Former Assassin with a Dark Past? Check. Plucky Optimistic Heroine? Yep, those too.

As I aged, and anime and manga grew exponentially more popular, I drifted away from the medium. Real-life priorities, the number of shows getting so big that you couldn’t easily keep up without giving up hours in a day, the normal churn of my generation’s anime fandom out of being super-passionate about it - these were all factors. So it was that I too ended up just losing touch with most of what’s come out, and frankly, if you asked me today what series were popular, I could only name ones that were out when I was still a fan and which are still, inexplicably, going today (salute to you, One Piece).

Farewell To Class 7 - Trails of Cold Steel 2 Epilogue Ending Shot with all class VII characters
Group shot at the end of Trails of Cold Steel II.

That said, I’ve found that bit of trope-y anime serotonin in playing through pretty much all of the Trails JRPG series of games, otherwise known as the “Legend of Heroes”. The multi-arc, expansive series from Nihon Falcom has a number of games to make it the equivalent of a long-lived, generational anime series -  seventeen as of this writing, to be exact, one which just came out worldwide - and follows the adventures of multiple casts of characters as they work against a shadowy society and the land’s own cursed past to triumph over evil. Most of the time, the foundation of each set of characters’ successes is the syrupy sweet and often meme’d upon "power of friendship”, complete with inspiring speeches, triumph over seemingly long odds, and of course, slaying gods. Unlike the Final Fantasy series, where most games are self-contained entries, Trails connects each arc and its characters together into an overarching story and narrative, much like seasons or series in an anime show.

What I think is great about this, and why I obviously tolerate every moment of rivals-turned-frenemies, shouted ultimate attacks, and more, is that the developers of Trails know what they are. I could think of a few other games out there that won’t really embrace the fact that they are full of tropes or a standard set of characterizations and stereotypes (I’m looking at you, Metal Gear Solid, even though I still enjoy you), but the Trails series is unabashedly, shamelessly blatant about it. From big bads that are actually parts of even bigger bads, to last-minute saves by characters you thought wouldn’t be there, right down to the mini-games and mechanics that scream “I grew up around action anime arcs where the students eventually mature to become or surpass the teachers”, Trails never runs away from what it borrows from in terms of anime lore.

And the weird thing about it is that even though it cribs from a ton of different series out there, it still manages to deliver a fresh story with characters you get to see develop and have their time on (and off) the main character or cast stage. It somehow works, and to me, the inevitable plot twists still feel fun to run through, even when they seem to potentially be quite predictable. The comedy that breaks up these plot twists is, of course, very much on point as well. Where other JRPGs serve these stereotypical moments up in small doses (the “escape the hot springs” mission for Persona 3 FES, one of the most heavy and dark JRPGs I’ve played, still makes me laugh to this day) Trails simply keeps heaping them onto your plate.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III  group shot with students
Trails of Cold Steel III group image.

All this aside, I will say it does take a certain mindset to really enjoy an anime-style JRPG like this one without being annoyed by what it constantly gives you from the gallery of anime tropes. There’s a certain kind of suspension of belief that you won’t see “that scene where the protagonist turns the once-conflicted-villain to their side with dogged idealism” coming around the bend, or that you can’t possibly see that the extremely suspicious behavior of one character doesn’t lead to it being uncovered eventually. If that isn’t your bag, that’s totally fair - but you also should just seek out another JRPG series to float your boat. But if you have any inkling that you might enjoy and nod sagely along as a character masters the blade after being hopelessly outclassed and inept with it early in the arc, then Trails will feed your need for that in spades. In its saturation of tropes, it has a certain degree of charm to it - and I wouldn’t have it any other way.