JP title: 英雄伝説 碧の軌跡
So Zero no Kiseki may have wrapped up its own plotline, but it certainly left certain questions unanswered: that’s where the sequel, Ao no Kiseki comes in, serving as the Sora SC equivalent and grand finale of the Crossbell arc. Or should I say, Sora SC on crack. Because holy shit does this game get good. I went into the Zero/Ao duology with tempered expectations, thinking it might be “good but not as good as Sora/Trails in the Sky” and now that I’m done with Ao, I gotta say, not only is the Crossbell story arc good, it’s the very best this series has to offer, surpassing even the already quite superb Liberl trilogy. In my opinion, at least. Hardcore Estelle fans may disagree, haha.
Let me just point out that the above opening is incredible. It’s certainly the kind you can watch over and over again. Let me *also* point out that (much like the opening of Sora SC Evolution) the bleh-tastic opening for Ao Evolution contains late game spoilers, so do *not* watch it. No, I don’t get why they did this either, but stick to the already superior original I posted above.
Where do I even begin? I suppose the beginning could work. So Ao no Kiseki takes place a short while after the events of Zero and actually introduces two new members of Lloyd’s gang right off the bat: charismatic delinquent leader Lazy Hemisphere and resident Jill Valentine impersonator Noel Seeker (both of whom were temporary guest characters in Zero) now officially join Lloyd’s unit as permanent members of the team. During the first few hours of the game, Randy and Tio have some personal business to take care of and will be absent as party members, meaning you’ll get ample time to get used to the two newcomers.
Noel in particular is pretty nice from a gameplay standpoint: her AoE regular attack and useful Crafts combined with a high attack power made her the core damage dealer of my team early on in the game. As a character, she’s… not bad, but I honestly found her a little bland and not that memorable, I guess? Her special kizuna event with Lloyd (more on these later) is pretty cute though and she has her sisterly moments here and there with Fran, but still.
As for Lazy, I only ever used him in the final chapter (excluding the beginning when he’s a mandatory party member), but by that time he became a very capable magic-user and even replaced Elie in my preferred combat party. He’s actually a pretty cool character who gets a decent amount of development and some nice dramatic scenes with the rival gang’s leader whose name I don’t remember at the moment, but I’ll let you discover that for yourself.
I keep saying this but if you’re familiar with the Kiseki series (and chances are you already are by this point), the structure of Ao is going to come as no surprise. You get chapters with a bunch of side quests, most with their own little stories, a plot that starts slow but gets better and better towards the end, reaching a cathartic finale laden with unexpected developments and twists out the ass. Well, at least Ao is like that after a certain chapter. You’ll know which chapter because 1. you’ll shit your pants and 2. you’ll go “is this seriously happening right now”. You know, the kind of stuff that makes a game impossible to put down because you’re dying to find out what happens next. That’s Ao’s later half in a nutshell.
I particularly enjoyed one late game twist that I kinda-sorta expected based on some earlier foreshadowing, but I still thought it was very interesting. Like, we’re talking about a detail that seemed minor and inconsequential to the point I thought it was probably just a video game being a video game (I’m being purposefully vague so as not to spoil it), but it still has been in the back of my mind ever since Zero. Well, turns out there was a huge plot reason for it, and it kinda blew my mind, haha.
Anyway, it’s hard to talk about the plot without spoiling it, so in a nutshell, despite its slow-ish beginnings, Ao is quite the rollercoaster with twists and turns as well as emotional ups and downs — just as Liberl got turned upside down during the whole Ouroboros incident back in Sora SC, Crossbell faces its own crisis here that escalates to truly unexpected heights by the end. As with most Kiseki games, the setting and its characters did grow on me: Zero/Ao definitely reaches the same point as Sora where you feel like Crossbell is genuinely your home and a land worth protecting/fighting for, so when the bad guys start tearing shit up, it’s fucking personal.
As for the cast, Ao takes things to a new level. For one, I’ve come to like Lloyd more compared to my lukewarm reaction in Zero, and found it really cute how he and the rest of the cast basically treated KeA as their own daughter, going full-on 親バカ mode several times.
Randy also gets a major role in the events of Ao as part of the storyline concerns him on a very personal level, something that will test his relationship with the team. I thought it was a pretty nice story arc and further established him as a total bro and one of the coolest male characters in the game. Even his semi-theme song is one of the best things on the OST.
To me personally, the other star of the show (and my favorite female character) ended up being Rixia Mao, the dance performer at Arc en Ciel whose secret is revealed very early on in Zero so it’s hardly even a spoiler, I feel. Anyway, I didn’t think much about her back in Zero (I noticed I didn’t even mention her in my review, lol), but the extra scenes and development she gets here (like her relationship with the two other main dancers at Arc en Ciel and the way she feels about her past, present and potential future) turn her into one of the more interesting characters overall. I dunno, maybe it’s just me, but I enjoyed the whole “duty/tradition vs. following your heart” thing she had going on. Really nice kizuna scene with Lloyd, too. She’s also super OP as a playable character, her physical damage output by the end was insane, so she’s definitely someone you’ll want to have in your party at all times, especially paired with Lloyd so they can use their awesome combo S-Craft together.
Oh and yes, Kevin and Ries do make brief cameos in the story (they don’t become playable, though), but it’s really just that — a cameo, along with some references to the 3rd.
So about that kizuna (bond) system I kept mentioning: Zero already had it, but Ao expands upon it a bit. Basically, talking to/interacting with characters throughout the game nets you kizuna points with said characters, and based on how many points you collect with them, you’ll potentially get to see some unique events/dialogue. In Zero, this only applied to Elie, Tio and Randy; in Ao, you can get kizuna points with almost all the major characters, NPCs included. It’s not a tremendously big part of the game and doesn’t influence much in the grand scheme of things, but at least the option is there to focus on whichever character you like the most. I get the feeling the developers still sort of consider Elie as the main love interest for Lloyd (if you watch her kizuna scene compared to others, you’ll see why), but hey, who cares about that, I picked Rixia because of course I did.
Btw, there is no way to track in-game how many points you have with each character, and some conversations/events that net you kizuna points are very easily missable, so just go ahead and use a guide. Actually, that applies to the whole game in general: it’s easy to miss a lot of stuff since many things are only doable in fixed time frames, so this is one of those games where I’d strongly recommend closely following a guide in every single chapter if you want to get the most out of your experience. Hell, there are even hidden side quests.
Ao also introduces some additional gameplay mechanics, such as the addition of Master Quartzes. These are basically special types of Quartzes that grant various stat- and combat bonuses, but you can only equip one per character. Master Quartzes are also special in the sense that they gain XP and level up: the higher level they are, the bigger bonuses they grant, and when they reach max level, the person equipping them gets a super powerful Master Art.
The other big extra feature in battle is Burst Mode. You basically start filling up a Burst gauge by dishing out damage, and when it fills up (*and* you have all four characters with none of them KO’d), you can activate Burst Mode for a limited time. During this time, enemies don’t get a turn, only your characters, and all your spells are cast instantly without having to wait for it. So you can probably see how that can be exploited. Spamming your absolute strongest spells (that would otherwise take ages to cast) at an enemy in rapid succession combined with S-Crafts basically means I killed off late game bosses in like the first or second turn, without even giving them a chance to do anything. So that was kinda funny. Granted, this entire Burst feature is only available during certain points in the story, not throughout the whole game, and I played on Normal, so if you want a bigger challenge, you can always start the game on a higher difficulty.
As a side note (because I’ve no idea where else to put this sentence in the review!), since Ao takes place in the exact same geographical area as Zero, you’ll naturally be visiting the same places, and the game even recycles some dungeons from the previous game (ugh), but it also does its best to offer you plenty of new areas to explore and keep things fresh (yay).
Time for some closing words, I suppose.
Ao no Kiseki, to me, is the crystallization of everything that makes this series so great. Not only do I consider it the best Kiseki game I’ve played so far, it’s also a splendid JRPG on its own; its lovable main and supporting cast, dramatic moments and memorable world entertained me during the 80-ish hours it took me to complete the whole thing. And you know what, I’m kinda sad to see it end. Either way, it’s the perfect sequel to an already good game and I seriously cannot recommend it enough.