The second and final game in the 'Crossbell' saga, Trails to Azure executes on everything that Trails from Zero meticulously built up. It immediately goes without saying that you simply must play Zero before jumping into this direct sequel — but don't let the daunting prospect of playing two 60-hour RPGs put you off. When viewed as two parts of one big story, Zero and Azure make for a brilliantly engrossing experience.
We'd go as far to claim that this is a near perfect sequel. While Azure does reuse a lot of Zero's assets — there are only a handful of new environments to explore, for example — the storytelling hits some incredible highs here, taking plot points and character-driven developments from the first game and running with them. The narrative payoff is genuinely outstanding at times.
Once again, you fill the well-worn shoes of the Special Support Section (SSS for short) — a ragtag team of not-quite-rookie cops. Following on from the events of Zero, the SSS find themselves in high demand, but their newfound fame hasn't changed the way that they operate. Protagonist Lloyd Bannings and his buddies are still fully committed to safeguarding their beloved Crossbell — a technologically advanced city-state that's sandwiched between two supremely powerful nations.
Political tensions are at an all-time high throughout Azure, and the game does an amazing job of setting the scene. It gives you glimpses of the wider world from Crossbell's unique perspective, and with an all-important trade conference scheduled to soon take place on Crossbell soil, you just know that the city's relative peace isn't going to last.
Despite the looming threats, the SSS are still on hand to solve local issues. From slaying pesky monsters to investigating missing people, the game retains the typical Trails structure. Each chapter starts with an introduction to upcoming story beats, before letting you crack on with optional missions. Some of these side quests do lean into somewhat tedious territory, but everything that you decide to engage with helps further establish the title's already impressive world building. You'll get to know a huge cast of secondary characters through your optional excursions, and that feeds right back into all of the political and societal themes of the main plot.
But as alluded, it's the segments of core story that push Azure above and beyond. Particularly in the game's latter half, the plot's impactful pacing is superb. From individual moments of character development to seismic events that help shape Trails lore, it's some of the property's absolute best storytelling — and that's high praise.
Even better is that Zero and Azure add so much context to the Trails of Cold Steel series. While it's perfectly possible to play and enjoy that four-part saga without having touched the Crossbell duology — as many Western fans already know — actually seeing how things unfold for Lloyd and the gang enriches the finer details of Cold Steel's equally dramatic events. Sometimes we think developer Falcom must be mad for creating such an intertwined narrative that stretches across so many different games, but the emotional impact of the larger story arcs simply can't be denied.
In terms of gameplay, Azure doesn't do a whole lot to differentiate itself from Zero. The turn-based combat system remains largely unchanged in terms of mechanics, but it does feel better balanced overall. For instance, late-game enemies aren't quite as spongy, and boss battles tend to be better designed with some surprisingly unique mechanics adding a welcome layer of strategy.
That said, the system as a whole does still feel like a step back from what the Cold Steel games have to offer. Completely understandable, given that the original Crossbell titles predate the adventures of Rean Schwarzer by a few years, but for fans here in the West, who might be much more familiar with the 'modern' Trails games, combat can seem a bit basic.
But there's still a rewarding sense of tactical tinkering in Azure. An expanded selection of quartz — stat-boosting and ability-granting items — means that you can customise your party in loads of different ways. Finding effective quartz combinations is always great fun, and coming dangerously close to breaking the balance of combat — a Trails staple at this point — is something that'll keep you invested.
Throw stuff like super strong optional bosses and long, demanding dungeons into the mix, and there's much more room for strategic expression here than there ever was in Zero. This is kind of like Crossbell's combat system unchained, and we're certainly not complaining.
We should probably complain about Azure's visuals, however. For those who may not know, both Crossbell titles originated on the PSP over a decade ago, and boy does it show. Despite being a 'remaster', some of the graphical quality on display here is woeful — and it's a real shame that, like Zero's PS4 re-release, Azure doesn't boast the visual upgrades that the newly ported Nintendo Switch and PC versions do. Still, graphics shouldn't make or break a compelling RPG, and we'd be lying if we said that inferior visuals on PS4 did much to detract from our overall enjoyment.
Trails to Azure is an amazing sequel. Alongside an expanded combat system, it takes every storyline that Trails from Zero cultivated and delivers a series of incredible conclusions, both for individual characters and the franchise's overarching narratives. In terms of impactful plot points, Azure is up there with the finest of Trails titles — a twisting, turning, gripping RPG that should really be considered a classic.