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Trails of Excessive Dialogue

Trent Seely

Have you ever noticed how game peculiarities will sometimes be written-off by the developer's track record, almost like a trademark? Publicly criticise how unintuitive three combat systems and eight sub-menus feel and there will be some that ask why you are playing a Compile Heart game in the first place. Unintuitive design is presented as a quirk that players need to suck up or shut up about. Some of the best games are not exempt from this phenomenon.

Trails of Cold Steel is a fantastic experience. Featuring a cast of heroes and villains each with their own unique perspectives, personalities, and motivations — characterization is deep and it is clear that the developers had invested quite a bit of time into adding dimension. It's just a shame that most of the player's time is spent in dialogue boxes that test the physical endurance of their X-button.

The world building is grand and the political undertones are well executed, but the cost is high. The player is regularly inundated with exposition as soapboxes are handed out to every nearby supporting character or NPC. Class VII has eleven students and at least four instructors. Even when the cast is split up for field exams there is a lot of talking. Everyone has to chime in with their two cents.

(video contains spoilers and dozens of dialogue bubbles)

Brevity is the soul of wit. This well-known idiom hits on something that seems unfamiliar to the writers of these games; strong, engaging writing doesn't get bogged down in extrapolation. It is brief. It leaves the filler on the cutting room floor. The playtime most players will experience with Trails of Cold Steel is roughly 80 hours, which is indicative of the filler content and it comes with unintended consequences.

The repeated instances of long blocks of dialogue creates divisions between narrative events and instances of player agency. It gives a start-and-stop feeling to the gameplay. Though this might be enjoyable for those who savor each line of localized text, many will find themselves at the will of these games — unable to progress without pressing the same button twenty or more times.

(video contains spoilers)

Video games provide opportunities for visual storytelling, and it would be to the benefit of the experience if more was shown and less was said. The over-reliance on dialogue to deliver lore, political history, characterization, and relationship development loses its charm quickly and can be fundamentally disruptive to the flow of the game. The medium itself isn't being fully utilized.

The most common condemnation of this criticism would be that these games are not for gamers who don't enjoy lengthy dialogue sequences. An argument that holds as much water as saying Final Fantasy XIII isn't for gamers who don't enjoy hallways. It's a cop-out, and thinking of these games on such all-or-nothing terms tends to undercut other valuable qualities of the experience.

The political intrigue is founded in the history and culture of the setting, the characters are well developed and charming, the soundtrack is distinctive, and the combat is enjoyable. There is a lot to enjoy and only a bit to tweak. We need to be able to be critical towards the things we love if we want them to improve in the future. Falcom is limiting their player base by creating a barrier to entry composed of excessive dialogue. Even though some of the sequels improve this pacing somewhat, the hope is that scenario direction is greatly improved for future releases.

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