"Most RPG's would be content with just telling us, "Eimelle loved animals. This forest girl might be her." Legend of Heroes has already given us the background information to understand such a statement. That level of authenticity makes the game more believable and more compelling."
When Falcom decided to release a prequel to their self-proclaimed "poetic RPG" The White Witch, they needed an important-sounding title. Falcom chose The Legend of Heroes: A Tear of Vermillion. Despite the pretentious name, this is one of the most personable role-playing games I've ever experienced. The likable characters chat and bicker like normal people, and the occasional moments of philosophy are delivered poignantly but succinctly.
"I'm like a marionette whose threads are cut."
Whereas the previous game opened with boring boar hunting, this one opens with excitement! While a local nun scolds orphaned hero Avin and his younger sister Eimelle, an EVIL and TRAITOROUS priest named Bellias (reminiscent of Belial) invades the Cathedral's inner sanctum. This powerful villain is after Avin's sister, because she seems to possess divine strength of some kind or another. Numerous guards and holy men are slaughtered by the wicked priest's magic, but they manage to buy the two children enough time to escape out the back to a waiting dragon-driven carriage. Eimelle climbs inside quickly, but the diabolical priest shows up and starts flinging fireballs before Avin can get onboard. A powerful sage pulls our hero into the woods to protect him from the fiery blasts, and the carriage speeds away as Avin screams his sister's name...
...eight years later, Avin's guardian (and mentor) passes away. Before he dies, the sage gives Avin a holy artifact that must be delivered to the capital. Avin's compelling quest to locate his missing sister and fulfill his master's last wish takes him across an entire continent, a continent filled with a ridiculous number of mountain and forest trails. Fortunately, Legend of Heroes also includes many sites of exquisite beauty. The ice temple at Truth Island -- decorated with marble pillars and sapphire tiles -- is absolutely gorgeous, and the music is even more beautiful. Falcom's "electronic orchestra" may be officially retired, but their spirit lives on; the carefully-composed music makes each scene feel powerful and important.
The amazing soundtrack also makes backtracking a lot more tolerable. There's a decent amount of retread throughout the game's 40 hours, but all of the enemies (whether in the overworld or dungeons) are visible and can actually be avoided, so previously-navigated zones are quick to cross the second or third time around. However, even though Legend of Heroes doesn't require mindless experience farming to survive, you're still expected to kill things to gain levels. The battle system is a blend of turn-based and strategic; the closest comparison would be to Lunar, where you issue attack/defend/magic commands to the heroes and they make their own way across the map. The nice part about Legend of Heroes is that translucent spheres clearly distinguish each character's effective range, so you'll never walk up to a monster and suddenly discover "OH NO I CAN'T ATTACK".
Another part of the game's charm is its characters. Avin might look like a stereotypical RPG hero, but he's got a powerful motivation for his quest that anyone with younger siblings can identify with. Avin talks a lot (no silent hero here!), and he's even a bit of a jerk.
[Avin tries to leave the room]
Evil man: "Not so fast! Don't forget about me!"
Avin: "Who are you?"
Evil man: "Don't tell me you've forgotten the power of my axe!"
Avin: "Oh, yeah. I remember. You call that power? You really sucked."
[Avin beats the evil man's butt]
During the ensuing fight, Falcom's clever writers manage to slip in a quick line about true strength stemming from the desire to protect others... but this scene is mainly about our smart-ass hero kicking ass. Avin also constantly makes fun of his best friend, tries to punch out multiple clergymen, and even tells the guildmaster -- his employer -- that collecting Church donations is a lame quest.
He's right; it is a lame quest. After that, Avin and his best friend Mile agree to track down a missing teddy bear (at least it's better than tracking down five missing kittens). Picking some cabbage for supper isn't exactly thrilling, either. Like a classical novel, Legend of Heroes dwells on every minute detail of the characters' lives. By reasonable standards, the game should be boring, but Falcom's masterpiece dwells with such eloquence and atmosphere that even something so simple as "opening a really heavy set of double doors" becomes enthralling.
Girl: "I want to help."
Old warrior: "Help Avin. He isn't used to this kind of work."
Avin: "Help the old man. He might hurt himself."
Girl: "Um... what should I do?"
Avin: "Just stay there and observe."
Old warrior: "Don't help either of us!"
Avin (pushing door): "UWAAAAHHHH!"
Old warrior (pushing door): "UNNNNNGGGGHHH!"
Legend of Heroes doesn't succeed by overcoming these simple moments; it succeeds by building on them. For example, the above door-opening event is referenced during a later conversation to surprisingly good effect. Even Eimelle's adoption of a stray cat during the introduction (in direct defiance of Cathedral nuns) comes back into focus 10 hours of play-time later, when Avin hears rumors of a mysterious forest girl who's preventing trappers from killing off the sacred MEEPAS. Most RPG's would be content with just telling us, "Eimelle loved animals. This forest girl might be her." Legend of Heroes has already given us the background information to understand such a statement. That level of authenticity makes the game more believable, more compelling, and more real.
The kitten scene wasn't in the original 1996 PC version. With 20/20 hindsight, Falcom has re-tooled, revised, and outright rewritten the game several times across the past nine years. This final rev feels so natural that it's hard to believe scenes like Avin meeting his best friend (and quest companion) Mile weren't always present. In the original, Mile was simply introduced as Avin's buddy. During the PSP version's prologue, we get to see how a younger Avin first met the shy Mile. Years ago, they both attended a local village festival. Part of the festival involved floating a written wish across the water. If the wish floats to the center of the lake, it will come true. If it sinks, then it will never come to pass.
Avin wishes to someday find his sister... and his wish sinks on contact. THE HORROR! But then Mile immediately hurls his own wish into the pond. "Please, let Avin's wish come true!" Mile's wish floats beyond the center of the lake... rejuvenating Avin's hopes. Not only does this make their friendship more believable than just saying "they're buddies", but it's a stirring example of how great things cannot be accomplished by one man alone. There will be many more such examples by the time the immensely satisfying conclusion arrives.
Unfortunately, there's a problem. Legend of Heroes is poorly translated. I don't know whether the game was rushed, or whether Bandai lacked confidence in their own product. I do know that this is a disappointing effort fraught with grammatical errors and unusually complex sentences (which leads me to believe that the translators probably used computer assistance). Most scenes are acceptable, but every now and then a particular moment is ruined by clunky English. The following four doozies all occur within a five-minute frame:
"But, that doesn't mean that I should be a man who can leave alone someone in trouble."
"He is not the kind of person who can walk out of a girl who can use his help and keep on a journey."
"Grandpa, I go now."
"Hm, please take good care."
It's a testament to Tear of Vermillion's excellence that Falcom's writing still manages to overcome what could have been a game-crippling flaw. The Great Oracle Avarice is appropriately slimy, Lightning Douglas is appropriately proud, and young Sailor Thomas (who's also referenced in White Witch) is appropriately heroic.
Don't go into this game expecting deep play mechanics like you'd find in Shin Megami Tensei. Instead, Tear of Vermillion is all about atmosphere. Even the highly-touted "pet system" -- where a rabbit, dog, or cat can help you in battle or fetch hidden items -- is so minimal that it serves better as a constant reminder of your dead mentor's farm than as a gameplay device. Similar to classical novels like The Count of Monte Cristo, details, details, and more details are piled one atop another to make Avin's search for Eimelle -- a quest that changes their world forever -- one of the most compelling and authentic adventures I've ever played. This truly is a Legend of Heroes.
Staff review by Zigfried (November 28, 2005)
Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.
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