Just before Anime Expo, I had the opportunity to join NIS America at a press event held in San Francisco. There, I got to play part of their English build of Trails of Cold Steel III, as well as meet with Toshihiro Kondo for an interview.
If you are interested in reading about my impressions of the build, I have that posted here.
Not all of the questions and answers that I heard asked to Kondo during the week are included in this- this is primarily my own interview with him. Also, as I did with the previous interview, I opted to take a more ‘fan-based perspective’ from the start, knowing that most press outlets would end up asking many of the other major questions about the company at this point in time.
This interview was graciously interpreted by Alan Costa.
Endless History: Thank you for taking the time to sit down with me. This has been a very exciting opportunity.
What kind of advantages have you seen from working with multiple publishers to localize your games? And have there been any particular difficulties as well?
Toshihiro Kondo: To talk about the merits first, of using multiple publisher partners, is that the size of our company, since we’re not a very large company… A larger company would be, for example, able to do all of the localization and publishing themselves, but as you can imagine, that requires quite a bit of manpower. Therefore, for a company of our size, it is very difficult to devote people to that. So we need help on that front. Allowing other companies to do that allows us to do what we want to do, which is focus on game development and game creation.
And honestly, I can’t think of any demerits. For us, just being able to work with some outside party to publish the games for us for localization frees us up for development. So there’s really no demerit that comes to mind.
EH: Have there been any differences or changes in any English localizations that surprised you or that you really liked?
TK: One thing is that characters in our games have a lot of Germanic-sounding names. So I’m always kind of impressed when I see how the Germanic names end up actually looking in English.
For us, as Japanese people, we don’t really have this impression of German names being something specific. They’re kind of mixed into the idea of ‘the West.’ When we did see them, I always find it interesting to see just how different it actually is.
On the other hand, I know that it may cause some confusion or surprise, maybe, for people in the West. So recently, we’ve been trying a little harder to make sure that the names are a bit more accurate.
EH: Are there any other older titles that you would like to see released here in the West?
TK: I get this question a lot when I’m over here. What I would definitely like to see brought over here is Zero and Ao no Kiseki. Honestly, these games aren’t in a position to be played on consoles anymore and first of all, we’d like to address that issue and get them onto consoles that can be played. I would love for, once that happens, publishers in the West to raise their hand to take the games and bring them out here.
EH: That would be awesome.
TK: We’ll do our best.
EH: This ties into that, then. Are there any plans to keep the older Kiseki titles available as current platforms go into their end of production cycle?
TK: This is something we’ve really thought about. It’s a shame to think about all of the hard work that went into the creation of these games that will be lost once the hardware changes and it’s no longer able to be played. As you can remember recently, we’ve released a PS4 version of Memories of Celceta. So what we’d like to do, in that same way, is continue to update the games and bring them out so that they’re able to still be played.
EH: I recall that you have talked about some development issues with the original Trails of Cold Steel. Are you able to go into detail of any of the issues you encountered?
TK: To go into more depth of that, as you can probably remember, up until that time we never used full 3D for these games- in particular for the character models. What would be done is they would be rendered in 3D, then turned into a 2D image. In Trails of Cold Steel, this was the first time we attempted to [do it with] full 3D. As you know, there are tons of characters, which means we had to create a lot of different models for them. We ran into trouble in particular with creating those models, then creating their animations. So that’s something that we had to just work through trial and error over the years to get used to it to make it look good. And finally starting with Trails of Cold Steel III, we finally reached what we were going for in terms of the models and animations.
EH: I think you succeeded with it with Trails of Cold Steel III.
TK: Then on the story side of things, what made this one really difficult was that- obviously- the setting for Cold Steel is the Erebonian Empire, which is something we’ve been dropping hints to, talking about, and pointing towards since Trails in the Sky through Zero and Ao. So the difficulty here became- now that we’ve built this place up so much- how exactly do we tell this story? If we were to kind of throw in everything we were thinking of, or that we had hinted at, in the main story, it wouldn’t come together and gel well as an actual story. So the way we kind of got around this was we put different information in quests in the game, we had different NPCs talk about different things to give supplementary information to things we had talked about before. So that was another area where we really struggled, which was to make sure the story blended well.
EH: I’m glad you guys took the 3D approach, because seeing Heimdallr for the first time in Trails of Cold Steel was amazing, I don’t think it would have as much of an impact without being in 3D.
TK: It sounds like our efforts paid off.
EH: I think they did. I’ve been playing these since the first game came out in 2004, and after all the talk about Erebonia, that pan that goes down in Heimdallr, showing the castle, I had to stop and take a breather.
TK: Trails is a series we want to continue making in Japan. We think it’s very important that we reflect on the game’s user feedback and user desires so going forward we would like to improve these games and make improvements for people.
EH: Do you foresee an opportunity in the future to revisit some old titles like Sorcerian or Brandish?
TK: Yes, as you know, we have this rule now that we do a Trails game, then an Ys game, but that’s not the only thing we want to do. A few years back, we released Tokyo Xanadu, and it was a good thing that we did it on the development side, but we also got a lot of positive user feedback as well. It often comes up in our development meetings for what we want to make and the younger staff want to try their hand at things outside of the two games we just mentioned. Going forward, we want to continue to try our hand at older series that we’ve worked on before. We definitely want to put it into our view and make games both from the past and continue the series that we [currently] have.
And in order to accomplish that goal of being able to make more games we have been gradually increasing the amount of staff.
EH: What does JDK stand for?
TK: They won’t tell me. The name was actually bestowed to the sound team by Mr. Kato, the founder of the company, who is now the chairman. When I asked him about it, he said that there are some things you’re better off not knowing. I have to have investor meetings quarterly and I’ve actually been asked about that. I don’t know the answer, and it’s kind of embarrassing. One of the staff jokes is ‘Just Directed (by) Kato.’
EH: With the large music library that you have available, have you ever considered a rhythm game?
TK: This actually comes up every now and then and we want to do that. So I think that if we have the opportunity to do another game like Trails in the Sky the 3rd, we might throw that in as a mini-game or something. We have the song library for the entire Falcom catalog that is over 4,000 tracks. It would be a shame to not put those to use.
EH: With the recent release of the Ys VIII Super Ultimate Arrange album, there haven’t been a lot of arrange albums to this point. Is there any particular reason, and can we expect more of them in the future?
TK: There isn’t any particular reason as to why we haven’t released any arrange albums recently, but when it comes to this one that just came out for Ys VIII, the music for Ys VIII was highly evaluated by everyone. Given the positive reception for the soundtrack, we thought it would be a good time to revisit an arrange album.
I have a funny anecdote to tell you about Ys VIII and the music specifically. Early in the development, Mr. Kato- back in the day he used to give me and the development teams a lot of advice, but recently he’s been quite quiet and lets us do what we want. However, when we decided to make Ys VIII, he called me and the Sound Team into his office, and he said, “I want you to make the best Ys soundtrack in history.” This was a really vague command, yet at the same time it was a very difficult one to fulfill. So, we worked really hard with the Sound Team and, maybe more than usual, we gave specific directions on how we wanted things to sound. Obviously, we focused very much on the melody of the songs, so I think that hard work paid off in terms of what actually came out.
EH: On the topic of music, is there anything that Trails fans should be listening for in the lyrics of [choral] songs like Azure Arbitrator?
TK: I don’t necessarily think that, in terms of the lyrics, that we try and put any kind of deep hints in them or anything and there’s certainly nothing that would constitute as a spoiler. But that said, obviously the lyrics are related to the game and what’s happening in the game- particularly where they’re used. So I would like it for fans, once they’ve actually played the game and seen the scenes where the songs are played, to maybe listen again and see how it relates.
EH: Are there any chances of the lyrics being released in the future?
TK: We haven’t? I did not know that. We should probably get those out at some point. I’ll take that home with me as homework.
EH: Still on the topic of soundtracks, there’s a song in 3rd called ‘Phantasmal Blue Flower.’ I was wondering if there was a coincidence in its relation to the pleroma in [the Crossbell games.]
TK: Unfortunately, when we were making the 3rd, we hadn’t thought about what the blue flower signified yet and whether or not it would be there. This is just a coincidence.
If my memory serves correctly, after we made Zero and we moved on to Ao, there was a piece of key art that used this blueish-yellow… I’m fairly certain we decided to base the flower color on that image that we made.
In Japanese, the character that we used for Ao is normally translated blue, but that character actually refers to a blue that’s kind of between a blue and a green.
EH: I remember… I think it was on the Falcom twitter, at one point, where it was said that at a certain depth [of water], you can’t discern the difference of blue from green?
TK: Exactly. You remember very well. I totally forgot I had said that.
EH: There has been some commentary in the West about the almost ‘dating sim’ nature of the bond events in the Cold Steel series. Is this something you wish to keep going with, or [are there plans] to go back to the single love interest that you had in the original Sky trilogy?
TK: Going forward, nothing is really planned yet in terms of how we’ll handle this, so I don’t know. But to talk about why we put this in Trails of Cold Steel in the first place… Obviously, the story of Trails of Cold Steel takes place in the Erebonian Empire and tells a grand story within that, and it tells a story about a man named Rean. What we wanted to show through these bonding events is that in portraying his life, Rean had many different choices on things that he could have done. So, we thought it was appropriate to the game system that, in order to show off that he has choices, to include a system of that sort within it. Again, because we don’t know where we’ll be going from here, and how we want to make the games, I can’t say whether a system like that will reappear or not in future titles.
Interestingly enough, in Japan, opinions are pretty heavily split between liking it and not liking it. The people who like it say, ‘next time, give us even more choices of girls to date!’ and on the other side of the equation are the people who say ‘I don’t know if this necessarily belongs in a Falcom game.’ I’d be very curious to hear what people over here think about the system.
EH: In a past interview, you had mentioned that the plans for the Reverie Corridor in Trails of Cold Steel II were to be an infinite dungeon. Are there any plans to revisit this concept?
TK: That’s actually a system that we’ve had in previous games, like Xanadu Next and Zwei. For the players who really like to get deep into a game, it’s a very well-received feature in the system. It is something we’d like to revisit going forward if it’s appropriate to the game we’re making. For example, it often comes up when we’re developing Ys games that this may be a suitable feature to have. That is definitely something we have considered.
EH: Additionally, congratulations on the 15th anniversary of the Trails series.
TK: Thank you very much.
EH: Are there any standout moments behind the scenes from working on the games for the past 15 years?
TK: Over 15 years, there are a lot of things that remain in my memory, but probably what sticks out the most is when we made Trails in the Sky FC. This is a game that took over three years to develop and we weren’t even finished but we were told by people above us that whether this game is finished or not, it needs to come out. And so we released it. As you know, the game ends on quite the cliffhanger, and that was an interesting challenge- a challenging way for the audience, as well- to make a game. That’s something I know I’ll never forget.
What we learned from that is, because we originally intended to release FC and SC as one game together. I look back at that and think about how young and inexperienced we were to have an idea like that. So what came out from those games had a direct affect on the games that followed. So we definitely put what we learned from those games to use.
EH: I remember how shocking it was without realizing it was going to have a sequel…
TK: Even for us, despite having more planned and being made to release what we had finished. We didn’t know if we could continue, so we were surprised too!
Back at that time, unless the fans had really praised the game and made their voices heard to us that they wanted to see more, we wouldn’t have been able to continue it. And so we thought of many different ways we could do this- try to make a preview version, or lots of other things we could do to make people say, ‘hey, we want to keep playing the series.’
EH: It’s been 12 years since 3rd came out. Are there any mysteries from it that are still unraveling?
TK: In terms of everything that we talked about with the Erebonian Empire, we pretty much covered everything leading in to that in Trails of Cold Steel. However, when it comes to the Ouroboros? No. There are still things that remain out there.
EH: [What about] the happiness stone door? Moon Door 5?
TK: (laughing) Once again, your memory is great. For a second, I had to think… is that the door that…?
EH: With chibi Ragnard?
TK: The thing is, the mystery of the Ouroboros is related to the entire continent of Zemuria. The only way we’ll find out all about them is when the overall series itself comes to a conclusion.
EH: I didn’t expect that kind of an answer! Of all of the characters in the Kiseki series that have been playable, what four would make your dream team?
TK: I think my dream party would be the main characters, so Estelle, Lloyd, Rean… and then one other…
TK: Kevin! (laughing) Kevin is also a protagonist. And the thing is, there’s still a lot of mysteries that haven’t unraveled yet that are related to him specifically.
EH: Oh, really?
TK: There’s a lot left to tell on that side, as well.
EH: And probably more to learn about Rufina?
TK: And in the same way the Ouroboros is related directly to the world, so is the Septian Church as well as the religion for the goddess Aidios. It’s all connected, and those are things that, again, will be revealed as we continue to create more and more games [for the series.]
EH: Another question about the 3rd- are you able to comment on its importance to the series overall?
TK: The thing about 3rd is that we never originally intended to make it. We just wanted to go directly from FC and SC into Cold Steel to talk about Erebonia. The thing is, though, that when we were doing the planning and things like that, particularly when we started thinking about the Septian Church, and we had kind of name dropped Crossbell as a place, we realized that maybe we had a little longer to go to get there. We wanted to really portray Erebonia as a threat to the world, and we wanted to show what a mysterious and frightening figure Osborne is. So to do that, we ended up making the 3rd and the two Crossbell games. We thought that would make the whole story more dynamic and more interesting. Within that, it’s a very important part of the entire series.
EH: Just a fun random question: is Dorothy the Grandmaster?
TK: Unfortunately, she is not. Why do you guys think that it’s her? Because she’s wearing glasses?
EH: I think so. It’s a popular fan meme.
TK: Really? For Japanese fans, it’s Towa, since she is so talented at everything.
EH: I’m going to jump to the Gagharv trilogy…. what were your favorite scenes in it?
TK: Within the trilogy, the game that impacted me the most was Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch [also known as White Witch -ed]… there’s a scene in that where Geld reveals herself to the group. This is added on that, throughout the game, you don’t know if she’s alive or dead. When the truth is finally revealed, it really impacted me, I was even shaking from the excitement of that scene.
EH: I agree, that scene is a powerful one.
TK: And from that, I thought that the story and the scenario from the game was so good that it’s what inspired me to try my hand at writing scenarios.
EH: I agree- I finally got to play the trilogy for the first time last year. I think I cried a lot over the ending.
TK: That game is just so special and the story is so powerful… Nowadays, everyone looks at everything from a graphical perspective and when you put it into comparison to modern games, it might not look as appealing or as great, but from a story aspect, I think that it’s pretty much second to none. It’s a great example of the games overall- and obviously of the Legend of Heroes series.
EH: The impact of everything coming together at the end in Song of the Ocean [also, Cagesong of the Ocean -ed] was so great but on top of that, there were moments like Chris setting Jurio on fire in White Witch, or- one of my favorite scenes- the Triangle Rhapsody in Cagesong.
TK: Those are really comedic moments. There were lots of gags in that game.
EH: We had nicknamed it ‘Shenanigans the Musical’… But it was really neat how it had these gags and comedy, and suddenly it just went really serious.
TK: I understand what you mean by it going from comedic to having this gravity to it. That’s kind of what makes that game great is that it does that so well.
That is a game I would love to revisit or remake but each one of those games in the trilogy has its own complete world… to remake it today would be kind of on the scale of Final Fantasy VII Remake [for Square-Enix]. But I would love to try and do it someday.
EH: The Kiseki series seeing a return of something like Ensemble Magic from Cagesong of the Ocean would be really great.
TK: As you know, in the world of Trails, magic is handled through orbments… but who’s to say, going forward, if we could incorporate something like that as well? Like a magical link attack.
EH: I know you’re extremely busy with everything with Falcom, but are there any particular things you like to do on the side, on your own? Like hobbies or anything?
TK: I’m really an outdoorsy person. I love to go mountain climbing and camping with my family.
EH: Since I loved the Michel response in my previous interview, I wanted to close off with another fun question- have as much fun with it as you want, it’s nothing serious… but if you could have any character in the Falcom library to show up in Smash Bros, who would it be and why?
TK: Having been directly responsible for Ys for a lot of my career, I would love to be able to say Adol… but the truth is, I can’t picture what his moveset would be. So, I think I’ll defer to Rean since he’s a swordsman and I think he’d fit in pretty well.
EH: Thank you very much- that was a very fun interview.
TK: Thank you.
Once again, I would like to take the time to thank NIS America for inviting me to do this interview! There will be more coverage and more promised questions that were picked up during the convention over the course of the week.
Additionally, I have also prepared some videos from this interview to be used as bonus material for awhile, so pay attention to this site’s twitter, @EndlessHistory for additional side content. That way, you can see some of the answers themselves- especially the fun JDK one!