Salutations, true believers!
It’s been quite some time since I last bestowed upon you one of my verbose blog posts – almost a year, in fact! Since finishing up work on Story of Seasons, I’ve spent this year working on the sprawling, expansive project that is The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel. It’s been a busy time all the way: this project has taken the full attention of two editors (myself and Young Kris, my star pupil), Brittany the Lord of Kiseki, and assistance from almost everyone else in the office. If it can be said that “it takes a village to raise a child,” then this game is certainly a child that all of XSEED Village pitched in to bring to fruition.
I’d like to take this space to sort of ruminate on some personal thoughts about the game, the experience of working on it, and how I’ve tried to bring you a good localization. Hopefully, in doing so, I’ll enlighten you about some things it took me a while to understand about the game, and offer some insights into the process.
I started work on Trails of Cold Steel almost as soon as I’d returned from Christmas/New Year’s break this year. Tom had laid the groundwork, but the project quickly moved over to me as he started in on localization work for Corpse Party: Blood Drive.
There are two important things to know about me as it pertains to this discussion. First, JRPGs are my favorite genre of game. I grew up with them, sat in thrall to their cool stories and memorable characters, and went on countless adventures from the heyday of the SNES all the way up to the present. The second thing to know is that I’m a huge anime fan, and have been for years (since around 1995, if memory serves me correctly). It’s probably not a stretch to say I watch more anime than I play videogames at this point, but anime and RPGs are perhaps my two dearest hobbies. I’m in for life, as it were, and that should help frame this discussion.
The latter point – my enthusiasm for anime – is probably why my boss decided to put me on Trails of Cold Steel. If you’ve seen any of the game’s artwork at all, you’re well aware that it’s a Very Anime Game. This is also, in my seven years working in localization, the first time I’ve gotten to throw all my sorcerous powers behind a full-featured JRPG epic, and I’d like to think this is the type of game I’m particularly suited for, insofar as all the time I’ve spent with the aforementioned hobbies and writing for videogames prepares one for anything.
Trails of Cold Steel takes place at an elite school – Thors Military Academy. It doesn’t take place exclusively there, as there’s plenty of travel in the story, but it’s the place the cast always returns to. And to be honest, that kind of threw me. I’ve watched enough anime that I feel comfortable in saying that the school setting is, vastly more often than not, a crutch. It’s a structure in which some really bald-faced tropes and rote, paint-by-numbers character interactions thrive. My personal theory is that when a story is set in a high school, it opens up the possibility for the writers to lean too hard on the idea that “everyone can identify with this experience,” and then populate it with characters who feel like they’re pulled from a checklist, having the kinds of interplay that, if you’re a fan of anime or manga, you’ve seen hundreds of times before.
That’s not to say the school setting is bad, per se. Some amazing series have taken that setting and really delivered on the potential therein – a modern favorite of mine being romantic dramedy Toradora. The necessary ingredients for greatness are there – it’s all a matter of how they’re used, and the story the writers are attempting to tell. So going into Trails of Cold Steel, I was especially sensitive to places where it felt like there were elements that were kind of resting on their laurels or content to be “acceptable” when they could be “good.”
For example, let’s look at our protagonist, Rean Schwarzer. He’s a pretty cool guy, overall, and in his best scenes, he exhibits no shortage of personality and character development. But in a day-to-day school setting, he kind of struggled a bit with keeping the clear characterization that was on display in the main scenario. We really didn’t want Rean to come off as some sort of faceless visual novel protagonist, so in writing his more mundane interactions, we localized with an eye toward having him be a bit more expressive – basically, keeping the best of the personality Falcom had given him more consistent throughout all of his scenes. The end result of this is something subtle enough that you won’t notice it unless you’re pretty familiar with the Japanese script, but the aggregate effect will be that Rean feels more multifaceted as a character, and hopefully will end up being someone you’ll enjoy spending time with (and this is a Trails game – you’ll be spending a LOT of time with Rean and friends).
Another example along those lines is Laura, swordswoman extraordinaire and heir to the Arseid school. In the Japanese version of the game, Laura talks in what’s supposed to be a “knightly” manner to represent her upbringing steeped in knightly tradition and lore. However, trying to render that directly in English ended up sounding incredibly stilted – sort of like someone had decided they were going to forego the use of all contractions and occasionally slip words like “shan’t” into their daily conversation. I had a discussion about it with our translator, Dan, where I basically said, “She’s a 17-year-old girl going to high school. It’s going to sound unnatural and call attention to itself every time if she talks in this oddly archaic manner when this is a modern country and literally no one else does this. But at the same time, I want to preserve that particular air of dignity she carries about her, because that’s one of her defining character points. What can we do?” In the end, we came up with what I think is a good, balanced sound for her. She speaks normally enough to fit in at school, but formally enough to also feel set apart and distinct. I think the main change was taking the “formality” component of her dialogue and infusing it into how Laura phrases things, rather than learning on archaic words and starch-stiff delivery. That freed us up to use more casual wording for casual conversations, but still leverage an antiquated term here and there when it fit the situation.
The main characters are, I think, in a pretty good spot. But what about the other characters?
You’ll no doubt be pleased to know that Trails of Cold Steel continues the tradition you loved of town NPCs with in-depth, ever-evolving lives, a la Trails in the Sky FC and SC. That’s a fun thing – going around to people and seeing them react to the latest national news or discovering if that relationship on the rocks managed to weather the storm. We’ve come a long way in the RPG genre from “I’m a farmer!”, and perhaps no JRPG series goes as far to make its townsfolk people you’ll remember as Trails does.
Because of its setting, these same reams of dialogue you can get from talking to NPCs also apply to another very important group of characters: your schoolmates. Indeed, a school is prime territory for Trails’ brand of tertiary character development, and I can tell you right now that all of the named students have surprising amounts of character development. Running errands in your spare time lets you become better acquainted with many students who aren’t in your class, but whom you still cross paths with every day. The academy students were an area where I was initially concerned, because yes, many of them DO embody some sort of high school anime stereotype. However, the counterbalancing factor is that most of them are strange enough – and fleshed out enough – that they become memorable for the sum of their portrayal and not because they’re “the moody deadpan girl who’s into fortune-telling and creepy stories,” or “the high-class guy who belittles those less fortunate than he but will get his comeuppance by at least episode 8.” Under the controlled chaos of Kris’s pen, the academy’s students became a really engaging bunch, and I know that by the end of the game, you’ll have your fervent favorites, as we here already do.
But all that said, the fact still remains: this is a JRPG set in a high school. That’s not particularly uncommon these days, with the number of stories set in schools seeming to rise across all sectors in Japanese entertainment (and with the Persona series as the stylish trendsetter in the gaming field), but it’s worth making note of. I probably have a bit of a chip on my shoulder after years of going on adventures in the untamed wilds, seeing grand kingdoms rise and fall, discovering the secrets of magic, and all those things that, for years, used to be staple hallmarks of RPGs. I like that kind of adventure, and to be honest with you all, I find more to like in those traditional JRPG trappings than I do in the school setting, where the structure of school life constrains the events that can happen, the lens through which a player will experience the narrative, and the types of stories one can effectively tell.
I look at Trails of Cold Steel – a game I’m very proud of and the best I’ve yet seen the school setting done in an RPG – and then Estelle and Joshua’s ragtag bracer adventures in FC and SC come to mind and I ponder, “Are all the same people who liked that going to be on board for this?” It’s the same world, and those who have played FC and SC will enjoy the many small references to people and places they know the full scoop on, but if someone just straight-up doesn’t like anime-style games, this isn’t going to be the game that changes their mind and wins them over. Even with the nuance we’ve kneaded into the text, it’s a Japanese game, written by writers coming from a different cultural perspective, and in our commitment to bring you the game they made, we can’t just say, “Well, this stereotype is more tired than me after pulling an all-nighter, so I’m just going to leave it entirely on the cutting room floor.” The timeworn tropes that codify the Japanese high school experience in popular media aren’t overbearing here, but they ARE baked into the game at a base level that would be disingenuous (and almost impossible, really) to paper over. If high school stories turn your crank, welcome aboard – you’re in for a wild and fantastic ride. But even if you’re not, I still encourage you to consider Trails of Cold Steel because the core of its plot is very much about national politics, and that was the element that finally captured my interest. Characters like the imposing Chancellor Osborne or the calculating Rufus Albarea proved fascinating individuals, and underscored the extent to which the story touched on issues like class divide and colonial ambition. Beneath the veneer of cheery after-school clubs and “Hmph”-ing tsunderes, there’s most definitely a beast of a story – and plenty of digging to do if, like me, you’re a bit of a lore hound in games.
The kind of questioning and consideration I’ve talked about here isn’t strange or abnormal: it’s the core of localization’s balancing act. We want you to have the same fun experience Japanese players enjoyed, but to deliver that, we often must be willing to depart from direct translation to get something that would capture for you the same feeling that the Japanese dialogue had for its home audience. That’s a bit more challenging here than in a typical fantasy adventure not only because of the school setting, but also due to the modernity of the game’s world. Because we as players have a greater frame of reference for these things, we’re more sensitive to when situations depicted in the game feel awkward or don’t match up to our own experiences or expectations. A good example of this is the Student Council, which is a Big Deal at Thors and at high schools across Japan, and basically in almost every anime set in school. But does the Student Council being a pillar of an academy’s operation match the experience most of us have had attending high school in the Americas? I would suggest that it doesn’t. Of course, Rean runs errands on behalf of the Student Council fairly frequently, so it’s there to be seen, even if it leaves you wondering, “What instructors would leave so many important tasks in the hands of a bunch of teenagers?”
Our goal, then, was to sand the most arbitrarily Japanese edges off of Thors (since Erebonia is pretty decidedly not Japanese) – the senpais and the kohais; the constant ganbattes – and coax forth the universality of the experience of school. There’s still bowing at the end of homeroom, and there might be a mysterious transfer student somewhere in there, but to make it feel natural was our goal, and one that I think we’ve executed quite well. But, again, you’ll be able to decide for yourselves soon enough.
I might come off as critical here, but I think thoughtful criticism is instrumental in helping to improve things. If we, as editors, took the script we were given, just made sure all the periods and commas were in the right places, and sent it off, I’m not sure you’d like the game you wound up with. The very act of editing itself is a statement of, “Yes, we can improve this. We can make it so that people will enjoy it more than they would in the state it’s in right now.” RPGs with anime art styles have developed a somewhat tarnished reputation in modern times compared to fans’ memories of the genre’s golden age. Some people may even consider the presence of “anime art” to be synonymous with “this will be a bad game.” Given that you’re here reading an XSEED blog, the chances that YOU think that are probably pretty low, but even I have to admit, I miss the days when anime-style RPGs offered up the coolest stories you could find in games. But you know Falcom: they’re a developer who worked through that golden age and stood the test of time, carrying their quality workmanship all the way to the present. Building on their steadfast foundations, I wanted to make this a game that, as much as was in my power to influence, would shine with that old glory and quality – to do my utmost to ensure that Trails of Cold Steel would join the rest of the Trails series in being games that make RPG fans think, “This is great in the way I remember my favorite console RPGs being great.”
Throughout this months-long process, I’ve thought of myself as a strict parent, looking over the game with a watchful eye, arms crossed, tapping my foot, saying, “All right…you want to be one of the greats, kid? Impress me.” But as one of the proud parents, it was my job to elevate it into something that impressed me, and I think we’ve reached that goal. Now, with the QA process wrapping up and the game soon heading out into the world of discerning gamers, it’s my hope that Trails of Cold Steel will impress you, too.