Originally a Japan-only PSP game released in 2012, the game now formally known in English as The Legend of Nayuta: Boundless Trails was Falcom’s final release for Sony’s underappreciated handheld – and it shows. Shockingly gorgeous to look at and crafted with the sort of confidence that only comes with hands-on experience and a specific, single, format in mind, the game was a highlight of the system’s library and Falcom’s offerings as a whole: and never ported elsewhere… until now.
Boundless Trails, AKA Nayuta no Kiseki Kai, finally made the leap elsewhere just a few short months ago – to Japanese PlayStation 4s. This Steam release, at the time of writing mere days old, marks the first time the game has officially had an international release in any format and… it’s still not in English. Not yet. That’s coming in 2023 and being handled by Falcom’s current multiformat/multilingual partners, NIS America.
The naming scheme technically makes this part of the wider “Trails of…”/”Kiseki” series (this specific entry made its debut after Ao no Kiseki/Trails to Azure and before Sen no Kiseki/Trails of Cold Steel) but in truth it’s very much a standalone adventure in every single way: You not only don’t need to have played any of the other Trails games to understand this one, but bar one extremely minor non-canon cameo you won’t gain any benefit for doing so either.
So it’s Trails, but not also Trails. A Falcom title where an inseparable pink haired magical girl and blue haired sword-wielding boy go off on warm-hearted action adventure, eat delicious meals to regain HP and boost their XP, potentially get a pet dog who will bring them random items, a place where bar one hub town every area is its own discrete stage with character level recommendations made very clear before entry. I’ll be honest – you’ll correctly guess most of the plot twists hours before any of the cast do – but you’ll be enjoying yourself so much you won’t mind.
This is a secret new Zwei!!, released under a (sadly) more saleable brand.
More importantly than that it’s also perhaps Falcom’s finest action game yet, each stage seamlessly flowing back and forth between 2.5D style platformer-esque challenges (think Klonoa) and 3D combat arenas, always carefully balancing the need for something new – a new enemy type, a new puzzle – with a clear and reliable set of rules: Hit the lever to deactivate the gate, defeat the monsters to make a spring appear, whack the switch and then pass over the bridge before the timer runs out. Stages are linear in the best sort of way, a focussed thread of action that might see you running across the ancient spines of forgotten beasts, swimming through gaps in the ceiling of crumbling ruins as the water level rises, or rushing over red-hot platforms, hoping pink-ponytailed “Please don’t eat me!” fairy Noi’s magical shield will last the trip. There’s a happy sense of energy to it, every surface placed just so because it contributes to the overall rhythm of your bouncy-slashy behaviour, every detour – deliberately taken or otherwise – short, engaging, and no doubt holding a reward at the end. After a few hours you find yourself blindly leaping into the air or swinging from one magical hang point to another without even breaking the titular Nayuta’s stride, simply because time and again Boundless Trails has proven it will catch you.
Combat is more in-depth than the speed and enthusiastic nature of the game would suggest. While there’s nothing to stop you hammering the attack button and leaping around beyond the inevitable early demise that will come from doing so on harder difficulties/later stages, you’ll always do better by using Nayuta’s growing range of skills, Noi’s equippable magical spells, and paying close attention to your surroundings. Enemies big and small have multiple position-sensitive attacks (for example a dragon will try to hit Nayuta with its fiery breath from the front, but if he’s around the back try a tail swipe instead), all with clear tells that make rolling, blocking, or leaping out of the way in time a reliable life-saving tactic. Even enemies that burrow in from underneath or surprise you from the air are given suitable foreshadowing thanks to telltale puffs of dust beneath your feet or easily spotted shadows on the floor with no enemy in sight.
Each neatly portioned off area of your adventure ends exactly as all good action games should – with a spectacular boss battle. These are all without a doubt some of the very best Falcom have ever done; every last one an intense multi-phase duel against a wholly unique giant-sized adversary, arenas flipping upside-down with a dramatic blow or inviting you to grapple your way up to a godlike being’s face with more eyes and vestigial faces than anything should have. As with every other monster you encounter their attack patterns have been crafted with utmost care, and without exception you are never more than seconds away from knowing what to hit and when.
On normal difficulty setting just engaging with the game as intended – I’d consider that hitting whatever you come across, spending all the money you happen to have on the best weapons and armour you can afford, and not making any effort to clear every stage of its treasures – is always enough to keep you hovering around the main story’s intended level: sometimes just ahead, sometimes just behind, but always roughly where you need to be and always with a real chance of success. Longer stages are broken up into front and back halves (if present these are always found on your final run before the separately-accessed area boss), with Boundless Trails making it clear when you’ve crossed this otherwise invisible line and also granting the ability to restart one of these levels from either point once the latter’s been reached, even if you’ve taken a break and wandered elsewhere in the meantime as well. Failure prompts either a return to the world map (XP and any gained currency/items intact) or in the case of a dramatic boss battle, an instant retry, automatically restoring any spent healing foodstuffs to stop you from getting stuck in an ever-worsening situation. And if that’s not enough (and it wasn’t for me at one point, about an hour from the end) the retry dialogue will include the option to permanently reduce the difficulty a notch after a few failed attempts, giving those at their wit’s end a helping hand, while still allowing someone who just needs a little more practise to carry on as they already were.
Taking the critical path with only minimal diversions gives Boundless Trails a fifteen hour runtime, completion (on any difficulty) unlocking a special “further adventures” chapter set a year after the main story’s conclusion. As someone who personally feels Falcom’s games in recent years have become bloated rather than more in depth, this feels like something of a reminder of happier days spending exorbitant amounts of money to import Ys: The Oath in Felghana long ago, back when it was still a Windows exclusive: This is an action RPG that wants you to experience the action for yourself as often as possible, a game happy to let you dip in and out as it suits you rather than dedicate yourself to completing.
If that sounds too short for your personal tastes there are plenty of entertaining diversions to occupy yourself with. Stages can be replayed endlessly, each one showing how many money-giving crystals you shattered, which treasures you found (these can be anything from hair ornaments for Noi to additional spell slots to best-in-game armour – helpfully the stage select screen will let you know what sort of item’s hidden there before you enter), if there’s an especially powerful foe lurking within, and whether you completed a stage’s unique mission or not (“Use one healing item or less!” “Defeat forty enemies!“, etc.). As you progress new “seasons” are unlocked for each area, created an optional more difficult remix of every level with new monsters, new hazards, and a rejigged layout. You’re also never more than a few button presses away from a productive visit to Nayuta’s conveniently compact island-town home; a small but busy place where it’s possible to buy a doghouse (and upgrades) for your optional dog, read a steady stream of subquest-starting letters, sell otherwise useless treasures to local researchers in exchange for money and unique items (anything you give them is placed in a walkable museum filled with the things you’ve found, from live fish to multi-part dinosaur skeletons), buy yet more dress-up clothes for Noi, and generally entangle yourself in the lives of the charming people around you.
So the game’s great but…what about this revamped version and its PC port?
Let’s start with the good: Major cutscenes now contain new screen-high character portraits and partial voice acting. These are all of reasonable quality in Falcom’s now-familiar house style, and while I wouldn’t say Boundless Trails needed them (the character models are pleasantly expressive as they are), they don’t do any harm either. In terms of performance I can’t fault this port: It was never anything other than rock-steady and reliable during my time with it, and the settings menu contained all the features I hoped it would. On PC all three major console manufacturers controllers are supported by default, so if you want to see Switch button prompts or connect a PlayStation 4 controller you can (it’s worth mentioning here the layout doesn’t alter between them, so Xbox users will spend the game pressing B to confirm actions). The default keyboard and mouse layout is serviceable, if naturally a “we’re doing our best” adaptation of the original control scheme. Windowed, borderless, and fullscreen display options are all available alongside a few basic anti-aliasing settings, and Boundless Trails supported my monitor’s unnecessarily high 240Hz refresh rate by default.
No matter how far you push these it’s always clear the game’s not a modern remake but an upscaled port of the PSP original, and it’s a testament to both Falcom’s mastery of the PSP as much as it is the power of Sony’s handheld itself that the low-poly look – a necessity at the time – was used to give everything clean lines and strong shapes, 2D fakery blessing our screens with the warm glow of magical lights, petals fall from the sky, and giving even the smallest monster fuzzy features, multiple facial expressions, or both. The textures have been…
This is where the port comes undone.
The problem is to get around the hard work necessary to bring what was a 480 x 272 resolution game up to 1080p+ standards all of the textures have been very obviously AI upscaled and copy and pasted over the originals, resulting in a game where at best everything looks like it’s been posterised to hell and back, and at worst looks honestly corrupt. The exact same issue runs rampant through the optional (and free) 1GB+ HD texture pack, only sharpening a few rough edges (grilles, armour, etc.) and otherwise suffers the same. Chromatic aberration can be seen on almost every surface; wood textures showing long streaks of red and blue that weren’t there before, brickwork a sea of canary yellow and greys. This isn’t an overblown nitpick about the underside of a table or one pillar in a forgotten ruin but a constant stream of wrong, literally from the first few seconds of the opening scene and then found in every floor and wall texture afterwards. The source material was small and fuzzy, yes, but it had at least been created that way – cobblestones and ancient cogs echoing their intended materials in spirit if not detail. There’s a wonkiness and smudge to everything that only makes this worse, bottles on a shelf looking rather more Picasso-like than they ever should to the ropes on a ship senselessly fading away to nothing, like horizontal toothpicks, just because the algorithm interpreted it that way.
Boundless Trails art direction shines in spite of, rather than because of, these “improvements”, and even in the rare moments where everything is fine there’s this lingering awareness that it looks OK, and not as it’s supposed to. There’s an artificial painterly look to it all, everything too wobbly and too sharp all at once.
This is a fantastic game and you really should play it as soon as you can, even if you have to play it looking like this. But it’s beyond disappointing to see what was such a beautiful PSP game – one of Falcom’s finest and most fun, in my opinion – visually decimated like this and treated with such little care, especially as this is the title’s international debut. I’d even go so far as to say that if you’re able to enjoy the story in Japanese you should seriously consider playing it on its native format, because what’s been gained isn’t as significant as what’s been lost.
Bad textures may not make or break a game, but they sure as heck can spoil a good one.
[This review was available to read last week on Ko-fi! Thanks to all supporters for making this article a reality!]