JP title: 英雄伝説 零の軌跡
Phew, finally. I’ve been wanting to write this post for the longest time now, but you guys know how it is, 80-hour JRPGs don’t exactly finish themselves overnight. Anyway, Zero no Kiseki is the first game in the Crossbell arc (the second one being Ao no Kiseki) and its story takes place about half a year after the events of Sora no Kiseki the 3rd. However, it moves away from Liberl, introducing a whole new location with a new set of main and side characters, so no more Estelle and Joshua. Well, okay, so there’s a little bit of Estelle and Joshua, actually. A teeny-tiny bit, if you will. But ultimately, it doesn’t really matter, because Zero manages to be a fantastic Kiseki game even in their absence. In fact, I dare say it might even surpass its predecessors in certain ways.
Zero no Kiseki begins its story not entirely unlike Resident Evil 0 — on a train. But, uh, without the flesh-eating zombies. I bet you didn’t see that comparison coming, but hey, why not. Anyway, protagonist Lloyd Bannings is on his way back to Crossbell after a few years of police training, ready to finally put his skills to the test as part of the Crossbell police force. Which is actually a bit like the beginning of Resident Evil 2 as well. Man, I’m on a roll today with these references. Anyway, he arrives in Crossbell, meets his soon-to-be partners and the four of them begin their work to rid the streets of Crossbell of crime and corruption, ultimately uncovering the truth behind the darkness that envelops the whole of the city.
The plot mostly unfolds in the usual Kiseki fashion: it starts slow, with plenty of sidequests and occasionally menial tasks to complete, but things eventually begin to escalate and by the final chapter, shit gets real. In fact, it gets real-er than in FC, with Zero’s main story being quite a bit darker / creepier by comparison, at least towards the end when a certain plot point comes into play (you’ll know when it happens because the game starts using this creepy-ass BGM). In fact, if we’re to compare FC to Zero, I think I *might* actually prefer the latter. Btw, those of you still traumatized by FC’s cliffhanger ending will be happy to hear that Zero is more conclusive with its finale. It does, however, leave a mystery or two unsolved just to make you curious about what the sequel will bring.
Another notable difference is that the game takes place in the city of Crossbell plus a few towns and settlements littering its close vicinity, so instead of embarking on a huge adventure spanning a whole continent (like you did in Sora), you’re either running around Crossbell or making short trips to a nearby town to solve some kind of problem, then it’s back to HQ by sundown. You’re basically doing the good ol’ 9 to 5, which gives the game a slightly different feel, but at the same time, it’s sort of nice to have a “home” to return to after a day of investigation and crime-fighting. I kinda liked that, honestly. If you’re worried this could make the game duller, don’t be — there are numerous villages, dungeons and outdoor locations to explore, so you’re not going to spend all your time in Crossbell. In fact, the dungeons themselves felt more varied and aesthetically pleasing compared to Sora, which, if you remember, had those repetitive towers in every region. Ugh.
Playing the Sora no Kiseki trilogy before jumping into Zero is probably a good idea so you can pick up on references and have a full appreciation for certain character moments. For example, I have a feeling Renne’s storyline and (minor) involvement in Zero will be completely lost on people who haven’t played SC and 3rd and you might not get why her final scene at the end of Zero is such an important emotional moment and why Estelle and Joshua are so hell-bent on catching up to her. Though overall the game still works as a standalone title.
In terms of structure, you’re still dealing with a Kiseki game, so in each chapter, you’ll have a main story objective to follow, as well as several timed sidequests to dabble in. Just like in Sora, the sidequests are optional, but very highly recommended, as the vast majority of them have some kind of story to tell, with their own cutscenes, character moments (both for the main cast and the numerous NPCs/supporting characters), amusing banter and whatnot. You know the drill. Honestly, you might as well consider them part of the main storyline, as the world- and character-building present in said sidequests is half the charm of Kiseki games in general. The sidequests themselves are very much similar to the Bracer’s work from the previous installments, although the game also tries to reinforce the whole “police investigation” feel through dialogue choices where Lloyd uses his investigative know-how and intellect to deduce stuff. Sora had some choices as well, as far as I recall (where picking the right option gave you more bonus points), but they felt slightly more prevalent here in Zero due to the main characters actually being cops. Overall, Zero delivers what you would expect from a Kiseki game: likable characters, an awesome world and several moments that will either melt your heart or make you go “fuck yeah”. Oh, and speaking of fuck yeah, the music is great as usual. Here’s the Evo version of the same track if you’re interested.
Let’s actually talk about the stars of the show, though.
Lloyd is the main protagonist this time, an 18-year-old guy fresh out of the police academy who, unlike Estelle at the start of FC, is already quite a competent leader with nice investigative skills and a good head on his shoulders. He’s more serious and focused compared to Estelle’s recklessly happy-go-lucky personality, which ultimately makes me prefer everyone’s favorite twintails tomboy over him in terms of sheer entertainment value, but eh, he’s still pretty alright. His older brother used to be a legendary cop before his untimely death in the line of duty, so Lloyd is primarily driven by his desire to follow in his brother’s footsteps and become as good as he was, all the while solving the mystery of his murder. Overall, he’s a nice enough main character but definitely no Estelle, I guess. Although it’s pretty hilarious how he can say the most embarrassing things (spouting lines straight out of some 青春ドラマ, to quote Elie) with a straight face, even to girls.
Elie MacDowell is the silver-haired refined girl / ojou-sama / whatever you want to call her who used to study with the intention of starting a career in politics but ended up at the Crossbell Police instead. She’s basically a “good girl” type of character with a kind heart and an amusing “I’m silently judging you” facial expression. I kinda-sorta got the impression she was meant to be the main love interest for Lloyd, but romance itself isn’t particularly prevalent in Zero, aside from maybe one short scene I got with Elie in the final chapter that might very well have been optional. I’ve no idea if this changes in Ao, though.
Tio Plato is the blue-haired girl easily identifiable from her visible (though sadly fake) cat ears. Probably my favorite character from the main four. She’s the group’s computer/tech expert and resident dispenser of snarky remarks. She’s generally calm, composed, and serious, which makes it all the more interesting to see her slowly open up and warm up to Lloyd over the course of the game as her past is revealed. I also liked her a lot because despite her looks, she was *not* the token cutesy loli character (looking at you, Tita…), in fact, she’s one of the more level-headed characters in the game. Her backstory also ties into the main storyline which was pretty interesting.
Finally, Randy Orlando is the guy with the fiery red locks and a passion for gambling and girls to match it, whose ideal Friday night no doubt involves the local casino and a host of pretty ladies. I don’t have much to say about him, except that I wished there were more scenes of him bonding with Lloyd, because their bromance was pretty aww in that one scene where it happened.
The occasional guest aside, during the vast majority of the game, your party will only consist of these four main characters, which initially surprised me. I was used to having a bunch of different characters, especially after Sora 3rd which gave me like sixteen, I think. But then I realized why this can actually work. It helps you get to know them better and establishes a sense of camaraderie — basically, these four are “the team”, they stick together through thick and thin, ups and downs. Kinda like the Ninja Turtles. Or something. This is even further reinforced through the plot since the main four are part of a separate branch of the police force that does Bracer-like work, so having a fix party during most of the adventure certainly lends that “we’re in this together” feel to the game. The Zero gang really ended up growing on me to the point where I didn’t even feel the need to have more characters, although I guess I would’ve loved to see more of Noel, personally. Speaking of which, the side characters are also quite nice, with everyone getting their moments to shine in the action-packed, over-the-top finale.
Alright, so let’s talk gameplay. Zero introduces a number of improvements to polish its battle system even further, while leaving the core basics untouched. The most notable new feature as you start exploring your first dungeon is the ability to perform a field attack: depending on the character you control, you’ll unleash a quick attack that will temporarily stun an enemy monster if you hit them from behind. For the record, my preferred character for this throughout the game was Elie, since she uses a gun and can easily shoot enemies from a safe distance for a quick and easy stun. Now, this doesn’t just serve the purpose of stunning enemies: if you touch the enemy while it’s still in this stunned state, you’ll start the battle with massive bonuses: all your characters start off with criticals *and* you might get a chance for a Team Rush, too.
Team Rush is another new feature in Zero, and it does exactly what you might expect: all four characters rush down enemies with an AoE attack for massive damage. Kinda like an All-out Attack in Persona. Team Rush is effective to the point where, if you manage to pull it off, you might as well consider the battle won, at least on Normal difficulty. Speaking of difficulty, you can expect the usual Kiseki experience if you pick Normal: the vast majority of the game is not particularly difficult, with the only semi-challenging fight being the last form of the final boss (probably the only time in the game where my party got wiped out once), and that’s about it. But even then, the game employs a “retry on a lower difficulty” feature that pops up if you die once in a battle, so there’s really no need to worry that you’ll be stuck on a fight forever.
The combat UI also underwent a much needed redesign, with spells finally being sorted to different categories such as offense, healing, buffs and whatnot, which made life a lot easier. If you remember, in Sora you had to keep scrolling through all your spells to get to the ones you wanted. Well, not anymore. Late into the game, you’ll also have access to combination S-Crafts, which basically use 100 CP from each of the two participating characters to unleash a deadly team attack. These can be pretty useful and a number of them have to be unlocked during some late-game sidequests, so make sure not to miss out on them. Other minor improvements include Counters, which means that when an enemy misses a character in battle, said character will automatically perform a counterattack for some decent damage. Watch out, though, because it works the other way around, too, and monsters will slap you across the face just the same if you miss them.
Another nice addition is something I first encountered in Persona 3: low level monsters won’t aggro you on the field if you’re overwhelmingly more powerful than them, and will instead start to flee, which is super convenient. The list of cool new features doesn’t stop here, though: you can finally fast-forward through cutscenes, which comes in handy in a dialogue heavy game like this. This way, even if you load a previous save for whatever reason and have to watch the same cutscenes again, you can skip them in mere seconds. Oh, and there’s also fast travel now. Thank fuck for that. I guess the one thing I disliked is that Zero employs an escape percentage: if you recall, the Sora games let you flee a battle all the time with a 100% success rate, which was a great feature. Here, though, you start with a default of 50% that starts to crawl up to 60, 70 and so on after each unsuccessful escape attempt (btw if an enemy surprises you from behind, you start from 0%). This design decision is a bit strange if you consider you can buy a relatively cheap item at shops to insta-boost your escape rate to 100%, so… yeah. I dunno.
Minor technical note on the PC version of Zero: it works just fine, but unlike the PC versions of the Sora trilogy, this one’s not running at 60 FPS and is instead locked to 30. Plus it even suffered from the occasional framerate drop (yes, really) when a bigger, effect-heavy spell was cast, at least on my PC (still, I’m pretty sure my PC should’ve been able to handle a game with graphics like this…). Which was just weird, but overall didn’t particularly dampen my enjoyment of the title at all. On the bright side, the graphics are slightly improved with support for higher resolutions like 1080p, so everything looks nice and sharp.
Length-wise, the game is pretty huge. Like, Sora SC kind of huge, which really surprised me because I was expecting something along the lines of FC’s length (50-ish hours). But no, that’s not the case with Zero. You can expect seven chapters in total (a prologue, five regular chapters + a so-called intermission) which all add up to 70-80 hours of gameplay. I personally finished at 78 hours with most sidequests completed. I dare not even imagine how long Ao could be.
Either way, the bottom line is that Zero no Kiseki is awesome and if you enjoyed Sora FC/SC/3rd, you should play it. It offers the series’ trademark world- and character building that made people fall in love with Sora, all the while putting a new spin on things with brand new locales, new characters and a somewhat different atmosphere to prevent it from being just more of the same. Highly recommended.