The Legend of Heroes series is quite expansive and can be overwhelming for someone just getting into the games. For Japanese fans the games have been around since the 80s and have been a staple in their JRPG libraries along with Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, but for many western fans the games just seemed to pop out of nowhere over the past few years. For the most part, the games interconnect and characters move from one country to another to appear in multiple games as main characters, important NPCs or for just a cameo. Because the series is so large I’m going to break this up into multiple parts as to not overwhelm you and here I will be focusing on the origins of the series with Dragon Slayer and the Gagharv Trilogy. Trails in the Sky and Trails of Cold Steel overviews will follow in future articles.
All the Legend of Heroes games are developed by Falcom corporation and had their origins in the Dragon Slayer games which is the progenerator for action RPGs and JRPGs as we know them today. The original Dragon Slayer was released in 1984 and met with great success, it introduced dungeon crawling, item management, and puzzles that influenced The Legend of Zelda as well as Dragon Quest a few years later. Falcom continued with the series by creating many more titles throughout the 80s but by and large, they all used the action RPG formula. Many of these games were released in America, but under different monikers such as Sorcerian, Faxanadu and Legacy of the Wizard. In 1989 the company decided to change that by releasing an experimental game to compete with the success of Dragon Quest, a turn based RPG titled Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes.
As the first Legend of Heroes game it is quite basic, but a lot of fun to play and thankfully two years after its Japanese release it got translated, along with voice acting, to the ill fated, unsuccessful, and overpriced TurboGrafx 16. Although it didn’t reach a large audience at the time, due to it not being released on the much more popular SNES, the game is quite solid, featuring NPCs who change their dialogue based upon the story, and stat customization upon leveling up. To put this in perspective, the other notable RPG releases in 1991 were Dragon Warrior III, for the NES, and Final Fantasy IV, for the SNES. The story follows Logan, the prince of Farlalyne Castle and his friends who journey across the world to avenge his father’s death and reclaim his rightful throne. While nothing groundbreaking, it does set the tone for other Legend of Heroes games to follow, such as NPCs with their own unique stories to tell, monsters appearing on screen, and the chapter system that all future games would use, and that Dragon Quest IV would copy.
Three years later following the success of the first Legend of Heroes game Falcom decided to release a sequel, this time following Prince Logan’s son, Atlas, who goes off on an adventure after spotting men in spacesuits outside the city. This established yet another trend in the Legend of Heroes series, namely, sequels that follow and feature characters from previous games. Unfortunately, this game never saw the light of day in the west and there’s no active translation effort either, this may be because it’s widely regarded as the black sheep of the series.
During the 90s Falcom decided to let the Legend of Heroes series flourish on its own by dropping the Dragon Slayer name and releasing three more games in the series, to be known as the Gagharv trilogy. These games are completely independent of the Dragon Slayer: Legend of Heroes games and make no nods or references to them, they completely stand alone. Unfortunately, none of those would be released in the west and there would be a 15 year wait between English releases in the underrated series. Compounded with the hiatus, the games were botched beyond all recognition, in game-play, release order and translation, further isolating the games and severely retarding the growth of any possible fanbase.
The Gagharv games all take place in the same world but their inhabitants are isolated from each other because of a giant cleft in the Earth, the Gagharv, as well as an impenetrable mountain range, the Backbone of the Serpent that splits the world into thirds and separates the three main regions from one another. No one can pass through, or around the Gagharv and the inhabitants of each world wonder what lies beyond it. It’s a great concept for the trilogy and works very well by having each game take place in one of the three respective regions around the Gagharv, but before I delve too deep into the games I need to allievate any confusion, because there is a lot, in regards to the timeline of the games. The original Japanese release order was Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch, followed by Tear of Vermillion then Song of the Ocean, but Namco screwed this up by switching the original release order, first releasing Tear of Vermilion, then Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch. To compound this, the game’s timeline begins with A Tear of Vermillion, followed by Song of the Ocean and then finally Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch.
To make a long story short, for an optimal playthrough of the trilogy just play Moonlight Witch first, then Vermillion and finally Song of the Ocean in order to experience the games the way the developers intended.
Although the games were first released in Japan for the PC then remade for both the Saturn and the PlayStation, western gamers never got to experience the originals or the charming remakes. Our only taste of the series comes in a series of botched ports released for the PSP in the mid 2000s. Because all three games were ported to the PSP around the same time and handled by Namco they all use the same engine so their gameplay and graphics are pretty much identical from one to the next. For the Gagharv trilogy Falcom decided to move away from the traditional Dragon Quest type battle system to a more tactical, but still pretty basic, system which was further refined in future releases. There are no random encounters and all enemies now appear on the area maps and it’s pretty easy to avoid them since most of them run away from you once you reach the recommended level. Also, the games use a Suikoden type leveling system where the lower level you are, the more experience monsters reward you with, this streamlines the game and allows you to reach the recommended level with minimal effort. This is great because in all three games combat takes a backseat to the story, where the real meat of the game lies.
While Dragon Slayer: Legend of Heroes had a serviceable story with many NPCs and voice acting, it wasn’t anything to write home about. Falcom decided to really up their game with the story, world building, NPCs and lore in the Gargharv games. The story is where these games shined, especially with Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch, but we wouldn’t know that because of the atrocious English translations. In all three games the majority of the dialogue reads as if it was put through a machine translation with little to no editing or polishing afterwards. It’s readable, and somewhat comical to go through, but much of the nuance of the story is lost on us.
Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch, the first game released in the trilogy, but the last chronologically, is a coming of age story that follows the pilgrimage of two teenagers, Jurio and Chris, as they journey around the world to visit five magic mirrors as everyone in their small, rural village has done for years previously. Their journey follows that of the Moonlight Witch, who first made the pilgrimage years ago and when she peered into the magic mirrors she was able to glimpse the future and help those she encountered. However, upon completing her pilgrimage she mysteriously vanished. Following in her footsteps through the land of Tirasweel Jurio and Chris also have visions of the future and they try their best to help each village while trying to uncover the mystery of the disappearance of the Moonlight Witch and what the visions they see in the mirrors really mean.
A Tear of Vermillion takes place 56 years prior to the events of Moonlight Witch, across the Gagharv in El Phildin. This land is home to two warring factions, representing two Gods, Bardus of the Light and Octum of the Dark. Our Hero Avin is caught in the middle of these powerful forces when, at a young age, his home was attacked and his sister spirited away. Ten years later he takes off on a journey with his best friend Mile to reunite with her and uncover the secrets of the Bardus church and Octum’s Apostles. Arguably the best story in the series, Vermillion does a lot of things right, there’s much more exploration, treasure hunting and party members who come and go though out your journey. There are many times when you will have to traverse the entire land of El Phildin and revisit areas where you can see noticeable changes in towns and NPCs as a direct result of your actions. Also the bracer guild is first introduced here, which is greatly expanded upon in the Trails in the Sky games.
The final game in the trilogy, but the second chronologically, Song of the Ocean centers around a small musical troupe’s journey of discovery and their secret quest to gather all of mysterious Resonance Stones. McBain, the heroes grandfather, finds a magic map showing the location of these stones and he takes his grandchild Forte, along with his best friend and love interest Una on a quest around Weltluna to find them all. These stones work almost like Materia where when you equip them on a character they teach new magic and effect stat as well, which allows for customization not previously seen in the series, it’s a precursor to the Orbment system prevalent in the Trails series. In many ways, Song of the Ocean channels much of the adventurous spirit of Moonlight Witch. Both are journeys of self-discovery, and both involve trailing in the shadows of a past adventurer, here portrayed as the composer Leone Richter. It also acts to tie together the whole Gagarhv Trilogy. Song of the Ocean takes place a little bit after Tear of Vermillion but still long before Moonlight Witch. the game also pays homage to the past by giving us access to previous protagonists such as Avin and Mile, allowing us to finally find the Moonlight Witch, and to put a stop to the evil throughout the land once and for all.
With that, we’ve covered the first 5 games in the series, but there’s still a lot more, so stay tuned soon for part 2 where I will endeavor to cover the vast and expansive Trails in the Sky series.