While the official localization of Trails into Reverie isn’t set for release until 2023, a dedicated team of fans took on the challenge of making a spreadsheet translation available for the game. Huge props to Kitsune and the Zero Field team for their work on the Haji spreadsheet! A very impatient Trails fan, I ended up caving when the Japanese Steam version of the game, Hajimari no Kiseki, launched. To those on the fence between waiting for the localization and playing with the spreadsheet and those who are merely looking for an English review alike, here’s my full take on Hajimari no Kiseki!
As something of a foreword, I’m something of a Skyboomer with regards to the Trails franchise. I’ve made my distaste of Cold Steel IV abundantly clear before, but I do at least try to give any positive aspects of recent games the time of day in discussion and debate about the series. While I do think Hajimari no Kiseki is something of a return to form or at least a huge step in the right direction, it should be noted that this review is from someone who generally had a bad taste in his mouth through the Cold Steel arc.
There will be spoilers ahead, though only one major spoiler will be in this review: the identity of one of the three main protagonists. Additionally, while I will be referring to the game as Haji, Hajimari, or Hajimari no Kiseki, I will be using the English localized names of past arcs. It felt appropriate to review the game with the title it currently has after all.
I think it would be fitting to start with the story of a JRPG, so let’s go with that. The three routes will be discussed individually, then as a collective. C’s identity will not be spoiled in this section, and only my main thoughts will be featured here.
Going a bit deeper into things, Lloyd Route starts the player off. Unfortunately, this part of the game is easily the worst to many fans, myself included. The macro story beats are fairly weak overall, what with the independence of Crossbell feeling like a tired trend at this point and odd story decisions from before making a return. Due to shenanigans, the Erebonian Curse is back, and really only affecting Crossbell. The city is sieged by former Governor-General Rufus, the public is against the SSS, and they need to take Crossbell back once again.
The problem with this route mostly lies within it feeling rather unnecessary and boring. The route on a whole feels sort of like a retelling of Azure’s highest points but with notably worse context and execution surrounding those events. Characters like Wazy and Randy do get good moments, but the route feels like a weaker retelling of Azure, an already fairly flawed entry in the series.
Rean Route, on the other hand, surprised me consistently in its quality. If I had to shorten my thoughts, it’d be that Rean Route is the best of Cold Steel without the worst of it. The route does feel fairly par for the course with regards to Cold Steel’s atmosphere, themes, and such, but with better execution throughout. Rean’s arc finally comes to a very, VERY late close, and it still manages to feel fairly well done. Characters present in Rean Route feel appropriate for the situations they’re in and tend to add to the chapters they’re present. I was also surprised at just how… competent, the group felt. Rean and co consistently make reasonable deductions with the information given to them and take actions that feel appropriate and reasonable.
On the whole, the route felt like a huge breath of fresh air. Rean’s harem is mentioned much less frequently and many of the characters who only existed to orbit around him get to spread their wings a bit. Pacing, which has been a problem through much of Cold Steel, is pretty good in this route, where only minor parts feel draggy. Rather than a huge world-ending story that couldn’t possibly accommodate the massive cast of Steel, Haji manages to keep the events in Rean Route notably more grounded and allows its cast to shine and patch over some of the admittedly lacking main story details.
C Route is easily the best part of the game’s story, and it isn’t particularly close either. The Jingo-appointed Picnic Squad acts as one of the most well-woven main casts in the series with a story that feels perfectly paced and consistently thematically appropriate. Much of the route’s charm and intrigue lies within its cast, and as such, I feel it more appropriate to go into my thoughts on the route as a whole in the Characters section.
As an aside, though, props to the new writers responsible for the route. It has been said that Haji’s existence allowed Falcom to integrate more of the newer employees into Trails, and if this is the quality they produce, I look forward to their work in the future.
On the whole, Haji’s main story is one that I think is… okay. The routes vary in quality but end up rather good on the whole, but this is due mostly to the strength of the cast rather than the story which allows these great moments to happen. It feels like many of the mistakes of Cold Steel III/IV were lampshaded and even addressed in some cases, but it feels like too little too late.
Seeing the people turn on the SSS and allowing that to spur character moments is cool! The problem is that it should have happened already, so setting up another Crossbell siege to act as the main stage makes these moments lose impact. Additionally, while the in-game reasoning for the Curse’s return is fine and justifiable within the context of the series, it brings the same issues as in Steel. When the Curse is used to spur these events, it reduces accountability on the part of villains or even normal citizenry, and as such it makes events hard to take seriously. Referring to earlier, the Curse shouldn’t be needed to have people be wary of the SSS and their actions; the story already set it up well enough in past arcs for these reactions to be genuine and thus add more impact.
This is what I mean when I say the macro story feels like addressing Steel’s problems but in a too little too late sort of way. The content in Hajimari no Kiseki isn’t usually BAD, and the macro plot does allow for great moments to occur, but a questionable foundation and overreliance on Azure’s peak moments keep the story from hitting the Trails standard.
I am aware that the story section was SUPER winded, but using that section as a reference will make the rest of this comparatively much shorter. As one can probably guess from the above, I think the characters of Hajimari no Kiseki are fantastic, and generally the best iteration of these characters seen so far.
While some irksome moments do exist, such as a continued overfocusing on Rean and Class Vii or the continued romance teasing, the cast feels better than it has since the Crossbell arc, in my opinion.
The SSS members, while surrounded by a rather poor macro plot, actually get good development on the whole. Wazy, Lloyd, and Rixia are highlights of this route, and I can’t complain about characters like Tio or Elie being inoffensive at worst.
The cast of Cold Steel on the whole still carries many of the flaws from their past appearances, but many strides have been made to address previous issues. Characters like Juna or Gaius haven’t miraculously been made amazing members of the cast, but many characters have improved throughout Haji. For one, Rean himself has made huge strides in finally feeling like a fully developed, competent protagonist who doesn’t suck the life out of everything around him.
While the harem still exists to some degree, characters like Elise manage to develop quite nicely without even mentioning their love for Rean. In another surprising turn, Alisa not once yells her mother or Sharon’s names in embarrassment due to their teasing. Alisa was a character with tons of potential in Cold Steel I, but sort of infamously devolved into a character with little agency or variation despite huge tethers to the plot at large.
Other returning characters like the Brights, or guests characters not within the main casts of previous arcs also tend to be done fairly well, and this can be attributed in part to the Episode system present in the main gameplay hub. In short, these 20 or so episodes feature side stories that take place before the events of the main game and feature combinations of cast members to either further their arcs, provide insight into the main story, foreshadow the next arc, or really any combination of these. While they vary in quality, none are offensively bad and the good episodes do stand out a lot.
SPOILER WARNING: C IDENTITY
As my final note on the cast, the Picnic Squad of C Route is fantastic. I was fairly skeptical as to Rufus Albarea returning and being made into a third protagonist. His arc by the end of Cold Steel IV felt somewhat hollow and unbelievable to me, at least within the events of CS2-4. As a megalomaniac villain, I loved the dude, but his sudden breakdown after being talked down with bonds and such felt so unsatisfying. To say the least, I was skeptical of people calling him the best main character since Kevin.
I was wrong. While there are still some issues regarding his thought process, I think Rufus’s quest and ultimate redemption feel well-executed and satisfying from beginning to end. This is in no small part due to the other members of the Picnic Squad, Swin, Nadia, and Lapis. Without going too in detail, these four have been some of the most charming and well-written cast members the series has had in years, and they all bounce wonderfully off one another. C Route is the best in the game due almost in full to how well written the main characters are acting within the story at large.
I won’t draw it out more than it needs to be: Hajimari no Kiseki has the best gameplay the series has ever seen. Cold Steel IV already had a combat system with tons of customization and interesting battles, and Haji just ramped it up even more.
With regards to difficulty, Haji is a definite step up from Cold Steel. Don’t get it twisted, both games can be super unbalanced with regards to their highest difficulties and builds which players are afforded. That being said, it feels like Haji manages to trickle resources at a rate that keeps the main story encounters fairly challenging without being constant one-shots. I played the game on Hard, as with the rest of the Steel games, and there were a number of tricky encounters where I genuinely needed to try different strategies or high-end turn management to beat.
As a final note for the gameplay, Haji does something which Trails hasn’t excelled at in years. The series has consistently given characters new crafts throughout their respective arcs, and this sort of sells their growth over time. Steel, due to the arc being split into two halves, redid movesets for the entire main cast and returning characters had notably smaller arsenals than before. Haji remedies this with old characters returning for this title getting new crafts, upgraded orders, broken stats, or any of these combined.
Characters having S Craft super moves from older titles integrated into their base craft sets are a wonderful in-game representation of growth. Additionally, characters who are canonically superhumans and the like, such as Arios or Aurelia, feel appropriately busted in gameplay. It’s a minor thing for sure, but characters feeling fun and believable in gameplay adds to their great presence in the game as a whole.
Hajimari brings motion capture to the table and easily becomes the best-looking game in the series by far. The same graphics engine from Cold Steel III/IV is used, so the game looks very similar with regards to the modeling and such.
The big improvement is the animations and cinematography. While Trails’ 3D animations have been consistently weak since moving from the Chibi art style, Haji makes up for this with motion capture being used throughout the game as well as clever camerawork to disguise some of the weaknesses of the engine. While not every scene, those which do feature motion capture tend to look fantastic, and some scenes even only use it for mouth movements, which add a ton to very emotional scenes.
The camerawork on the whole is a lot more creative and cinematic compared to Steel III/IV. Scenes are rarely just static shots of characters talking to one another, cutting between their faces or a slight zoom applied. This is something somewhat hard for me to explain, but in short, the camerawork in Haji allows for scenes even without motion capture to look much more visually engaging, even if the baggage of the old engine can be seen from time to time.
Falcom as a company has excelled at making absolutely banger soundtracks to accompany its titles. Hajimari no Kiseki is no exception to this.
Special props here to the three main battle themes, which each manage to sound amazing and feel incredibly appropriate to the three main story routes. I especially like Rean and C Routes’ battle themes, the latter of which can be found below.
I’m not enough of a music nerd to really go far in depth beyond commenting that I just really enjoy much of what is on display in the soundtrack. I can, however, comment on how the use of tracks both new and old within Haji feel appropriate and consistently add to the scenes in which they are played. The final dungeon theme is a standout here, though I won’t spoil why the track is so impactful.
Hajimari no Kiseki is a deeply flawed JRPG with a main story that barely stands on its own but is supported by a fantastic cast and great individual moments throughout. The story may feel like one which didn’t need to be told for the series to move forward, but what is contained in the routes and episodes feel like concerted attempts to fix many issues brought to the table in Cold Steel, and set many of these characters and story beats straight so they can excel in future arcs.
While I don’t think Haji is the same quality as the Sky or Crossbell titles, I think it is leagues ahead of the most recent Cold Steel titles and shows great promise for the future of the series. I give Hajimari no Kiseki an eight out of ten.