Everything about Trails in the Sky the 3rd is strange. It’s the third game in Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky series, following Trails in the Sky First Chapter and Second Chapter (referred to as FC and SC from here on), but it’s not called “Third Chapter” for a reason. It’s a mostly unrelated story starring a different main character. It’s part of the Trails in the Sky trilogy, I guess, but it’s also its own thing. But it’s not like anyone can jump into 3rd without playing the first two, as most playable characters from the first two chapters are featured in this game, albeit in roles unconnected to the main plot. Anything concerning those characters would mean very little to newcomers.
The structure is also quite different from any other game in the Trails series. Instead of being set in a region of Zemuria, the continent where the Trails games take place, this game is set in a place called Phantasma, a mysterious land in a different dimension. You don’t go to any towns, accept any sidequests, or talk to any NPCs (outside of a couple of brief sections). The gameplay consists of you fighting your way through various planes, half of which are made up of floating platforms suspended over abstract backgrounds, and the other half are repurposed areas from the first two games. Where Trails games usually work more like traditional JPRGs, this game is a dungeon crawler.
But that’s only half of the game – there is also a significant visual novel aspect to 3rd, and that’s where the returning characters come in. All of the planes have doors hidden throughout. When you approach a door with the required character, you get to view a story about that character that either serves to teach you more about them or show you what they’ve been up to since the end of SC. The doors are split between three types: Moon Doors, which are longer vignettes that last 1-3 hours; Star Doors, which are shorter versions of the Moon Doors; and Sun Doors, which contain a minigame. Most of the doors are exceptionally well-written and do a great job of fleshing out the characters and building out the larger world outside of Liberl (the country where the Sky trilogy is set), and a few of them even serve as important setup for future Trails arcs.
Spending half your time dungeon crawling and half your time reading visual novels unrelated to the main character’s story creates a weird balance where it feels like you’re playing two different games. It’s up to you to decide when you’re doing the doors; you can do them as soon as you find them, do them at the end of the chapter, leave them for the end of the game, etc. Or you can ignore them all together, as all beyond the first door are optional (but if you enjoyed the first two games there’s zero reason for you to do that). There will be some play sessions where you’re entirely focused on the main game, others where you just do door after door.
Yet somehow, it all comes together for a really unique and fun experience, especially if you’re a big fan of the Trails series and can’t get enough of its characters and world. This definitely isn’t the best Sky game, but it may be the most fun. The loop of unlocking characters from the past two games, who you find trapped in crystals throughout the planes, and then using them to view whatever door requires them, never gets old. Your hub also gets more populated the more characters you find, and your characters’ positions and dialogue change frequently throughout the game. And the combat is the best in the Sky trilogy by far.
Like the first two games, the combat plays out in a turn-based style on a grid. The turn order is displayed on the left-hand side, allowing you to see how the next 10 or so turns will play out and to manipulate the turn order with a variety of different methods. Turn events such as an HP gain or a guaranteed critical hit are shown next to the corresponding turn. 3rd adds a number of fun new bonuses including imbuing any hit with instant death, allowing a character to act twice, item bonuses, and more. There’s even a new turn event that nullifies all damage on that turn, which means you’ll want to manipulate it to end up on your enemy’s turn. These new events result in you having to pay considerably more attention to the turn order, or you’ll end up regretting it.
Due to the nature of the Trails series not resetting levels in between games, the numbers also get ridiculously huge, which shouldn’t make the game more fun, but it just does. Seeing your same characters that started so low in the first game rise up to around level 140 by the end of 3rd, regularly dealing enough to damage to kill the final boss of the first game in one blow, is satisfying as hell. The sheer number of characters you’re given to play around with also makes combat more engaging. At 16 characters this is the largest cast of the Sky trilogy, and every character is unique and fun to use.
The challenge is raised considerably for this game, which is welcome given the relative cakewalk that FC and SC both are. Boss fights are appropriately challenging and will really test to see if you’re setting up your orbments (devices that give your characters access to arts and buffs) and equipment correctly. There will be many boss fights where you’ll realize whatever setup you’re using just isn’t cutting it, have to back out, rework your party, and try again, which makes it more satisfying when you pull it off. Regular enemy encounters are also made more difficult simply due to the new turn events that can mess you up if you’re not paying attention. If you’re constantly on top of your orbments and equipment you won’t have too hard of a time, but if you’re not, you’ll pay for it.
So who’s this new main character I’ve mentioned a couple of times? His name is Kevin Graham, a priest for the Septian Church (basically the Catholic Church stand-in for the Trails series), who players of the two games will recognize as a side character in SC. In SC Kevin is presented as a happy-go-lucky wandering priest with unusually casual attire complete with spiky green hair and an earring, who was always ready to lend a hand to our protagonists. At the end of that game however Kevin is revealed to be a Dominion, one of twelve warrior priests for the church whose duty consists of tasks that range from retrieving ancient artifacts who have fallen into the hands of the populace to carrying out assassinations. Kevin had ulterior motives for helping the party in SC, and is strongly hinted to have a dark past. This dark past is fully explored in 3rd.
That’s another area where 3rd differs from other Trails games so much: where other games in the series tell grand stories that involve the fate of nations and work to move the series’ overall plot forward, here all that is put on the backburner. 3rd is a deeply personal story that explores Kevin’s backstory, looks into who he is as a person, what’s important to him, and whether he can change. He’s a truly fascinating character and it was a brilliant move to give him center stage. Just the fact that he’s 22-years-old is also such a breath of fresh air for JRPGs; he’s more experienced and mature than your average protagonist, and as such his worldview and way of thinking differ accordingly.
Due to the dungeon crawling nature of this game and the lack of NPCs, 3rd has much less text than the average Trails game, but what is there feels more careful and layered than usual. It’s often a mystery even to the player what Kevin is thinking or what the true meaning behind his words is at any given moment, which again can’t be said for many blank-slate JRPG protagonists. The doors also contain plenty of artful writing that invites players to reread and analyze to parse for hidden meaning. There are a number of doors that contain foreshadowing for future games (even games as-of-yet unreleased 12 years later) that are extra fun to go back and read after playing future games.
The soundtrack is maybe the best in the series, a clear step in quality over the first two Sky games (which already feature great soundtracks). Much of the soundtrack features a distinct, otherworldly flavor due to the abstract nature of the setting. The composers took this opportunity to get appropriately weird and write songs the likes of which you wouldn’t hear in any other Trails game. A particular favorite of mine is the song that plays on the first plane, featured below. The boss music is also incredible and will get your blood pumping every time, and the more somber moments of the game are accentuated by some very pretty tracks.
Trails in the Sky the 3rd is an exceptionally well-written game with an engaging story, and the best combat in the trilogy due to three games of tweaks and improvements to the battle system. On top of telling a beautiful story about its main protagonist, 3rd also serves as an excellent getting-the-band-back-together game, giving these wonderful characters one more well-deserved adventure, while giving each one of them a spotlight in the form of the doors. Whether you should consider Sky the 3rd an extended epilogue, third chapter, standalone title, or something else, it’s a great game and the Trails series as a whole is elevated for its existing.