You know what having all this time on lockdown means? That’s right, it’s time to play a lengthy JRPG!
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], PS Vita)
Released Sep 2013 | Developed: Nihon Falcom | Published: NIS/Marvelous
I’d like to preface this review by saying that I know very little at all about the Legend of Heroes franchise. Truth be told, I didn’t even know Trails of Cold Steel was part of a franchise at all until I researched it after my first time playing it. The series has had a number of games but beginning with Trails in the Sky in 2004, the franchise has since adopted a model of several interconnected sub-series, of which Trails of Cold Steel is one. Set on the continent of Zemuria, the myriad Trails games are chiefly concerned with the unfolding conflicts which threaten to engulf the various nations who inhabit the continent.
Trails of Cold Steel is set in the Erebonian Empire. It centres around a set of students newly attending the Thors Military Academy, a prestigious school which trains youngsters in the art of war. Though the school is segregated according to Erebonia’s strict class system, our focus is the students of Class VII, a freshly formed group of learners which eschews this system in favour of mixing both scions of noble houses and common folk together due to their aptitude. Chief among them is Rean Schwarzer, an easygoing son of a northern baron; he finds himself at the head of Class VII as they find themselves tasked with traveling around the Empire as part of their studies.
While Trails of Cold Steel is not the most egregious offender of this, it’s still very anime-esque in its writing and character interactions at times, which I accept can put some potential players off. It can sometimes trend into corny or even cringeworthy moments during the game, though I would argue it’s mostly reasonably harmless. One of the best strengths of the game is how much effort is put into developing the school’s NPCs; as the year progresses you can talk to so many named characters and chart their development, and it honestly is so effective at building a charming and realised world. My favourite example is probably that of Patrick Hyarms, who begins the game as a typical stuck-up arsehole but benefits from some deeply humanising development later in the game which transforms his attitude. The character writing is really good, so it feels a bit of a shame that things like odd moments of fanservice or uncomfortable writing – so many people make comments about breasts for example – threaten to undermine it. These are minor, uncommon moments but I wouldn’t blame anyone for being deeply unimpressed.
Trails of Cold Steel’s narrative is tied to the changing local politics of Zemuria, but it comes with a little feeling of juggling hats here as multiple narratives are juxtaposed against one another. For a start, much of the plot is taken up by the internal class war in Erebonia between the Noble Alliance and the Imperial Army, which accelerates in startling and dramatic ways. Additionally, Class VII must balance the day-to-day normality of school life, and there’s some typical JRPG magic stuff going on at points which pops up more frequently as the game edges towards its endgame. While our cast juggles it deftly, it can feel a touch broken up to us as observers. All of this is without mentioning the elements which enter from other games in the series as characters, groups, and concepts show up from other Legend of Heroes games. It can sometimes feel easy to be a bit lost though to its credit the game does do its best to either fill you in or ensure that it doesn’t really matter.
Despite the deteriorating state of the region and the fierce political conflict, the game’s general tone is kept quite light for as long as possible, for which I am grateful. Comparisons will of course be drawn between this and Atlus’ Persona games due to the school setting, the balancing of social links, academic study, and dungeon-crawling, and due to the life-sim elements of the game. However, despite the quality here Trails of Cold Steel doesn’t have the dramatic chops of Shin Megami Tensei, so that it feels more of a light slice-of-life more often than not works very much to its advantage. It’s sort of like Persona by way of the Tales Of games.
But what’s a JRPG without a battle system? Trails of Cold Steel’s is very similar to CTB from Final Fantasy X in that it’s strictly turn-based with a turn order displayed down the side. Like CTB, the turn order can be manipulated by player actions. Certain turns come with bonuses such as guaranteed criticals or free spell casting, so manipulating turns becomes a valuable tactic. As well as physical attacks, each member of Class VII has access to Arts and Crafts; the former are spells, while the latter are skills, both of which use separate resources. Arts use CP, functionally identical to MP, while your skills eat up EP; however, balancing your EP usage becomes very important as having a full EP bar allows you to use your characters S-Break, a big powerful limit break style attack. If this bar is filled to 200% this attack is significantly more powerful, meaning despite the usefulness of the skills, sometimes it’s worth not using them to save up for your S-Break.
One feature of the battles I like is that each attack has a clearly defined attack range. For example, one of Rean’s starting abilities drops a circle on the screen which can be maneuvered to try and get as many enemies in it as possible, and most attacks have something similar. Like Art and Craft management, management of the class’s attack ranges form a critical part of your approach to battles. During battle members of Class VII can form Combat Links with one another, allowing them to perform follow-up attacks when enemies are staggered; these can provide some of your most effective opportunities for damage. Again, veterans of the Persona series will recognise this as similar to that franchise’s rush attacks.
The game progresses in a day-by-day system as Class VII works through their school year (another point of familiarity for Persona players). After classes and on free days Rean gets the opportunity to spend Bonding Points hanging out with his classmates; aside from being chances to develop their personalities, these also increase the Link between Rean and them. As the Link levels up between the two it unlocks special passive bonuses during battle, such as auto-covering their partner. Rean can also freely explore whatever area he finds himself in and complete sidequests. No sidequests are all that complex, though occasionally they can involve a lot of traipsing around the local countryside as Class VII travels across the Empire.
These travels take you to some far-flung corners of Zemuria, from the sleepy fields of Celdic and the vast plains of the Nord Highlands to the bustling metropoleis of Heimdallr and Roer. It’s not the most detailed game in the world, but Trails of Cold Steel does still look good. As with many games that opt for an anime-inspired visual style, there’s a lot of use of bright colours and stylized design to help things pop, and helps it continue to look good even as the game gets older. There is still some uncanny valley on display though for certain; the society of Trails of Cold Steel has a vague fantasy vibe but combined with a lot of modern tech, which can create a sense of disconnect to see boxy tanks and gunmetal fortresses alongside other elements of the world, like it exists in some strange time vortex between several different eras. For all the lovely visuals, it’s worth noting that Trails of Cold Steel features some extremely sharp pop-in, with not textures but entire models lurching into existence as you approach.
Naturally, you find yourself in dungeons of varying sorts as the story progresses. Dungeon design can often look a bit intimidating and twisty but they always end up being really straightforward and simple. Usually only a single path is open at a time, so you’re corralled neatly; it almost feels a shame that the dungeons are so linear as encouraging some exploration could have been very beneficial, especially because so much of the rest of the game is also linear. Exterior areas look notably better as indoor locations suffer from a lack of character.
Trails of Cold Steel does have quite extensive cutscenes at times, so do be prepared to sit back and hit buttons to crawl through lengthy dialogues. That’s not to say there isn’t sufficient gameplay, but this is a decidedly more modern RPG approach and fans of older, less directed experiences might find themselves frustrated. However, in-between the cutscenes and battles, Trails of Cold Steel offers a bunch of smaller distractions to fill out your game time. Blade isn’t the world’s most invigorating minigame but I always like an RPG card game, and I found myself looking forward to playing at every opportunity. The customary fishing minigame is another surprising timesink; Okami is my personal benchmark for fishing minigames but Trails of Cold Steel doesn’t do too badly. It comes down to a simon says button mashing sequence but that makes it quite easy to do and it comes with some decent bonuses. Filling out your notebook with character details, cooked recipes, and in-game lore offers a challenge for completionists, who will find the game necessitates multiple playthroughs to fully complete.
I’m not hugely wild on the soundtrack but I think there are still some worthwhile tracks to take a listen to. Investigation is a pleasant and reasonably relaxed track while using the bass and chimes to hold a tiny grasp of tension, and The Glint of Cold Steel is a super-pumping battle theme which makes great use of the piano, which sits in an aurally isolated space in the middle of the track to give it more power and presence. The violin melody of Tie a Link of ARCUS absolutely sells the tougher battle track – I love how Trails of Cold Steel doesn’t feel compelled to stick entirely to expectations of a JRPG soundtrack and is happy to mix it up with elements like that violin. The arpeggiating synths in the background of To Grasp Tomorrow really cheer me up, as does the general mood of the track; and I’m a huge fan of the soft guitar and lightly-teased pipes of Land of Blue Skies which accompanies your treks through expansive highlands. Probably my favourite is the slow jazzy jam of Dining Bar “F”, which reminds me of some of the soundtrack of Persona 3.
A lot of the soundtrack lacks a gripping quality; it’s pleasant but otherwise not hugely noteworthy, though that’s not to say it’s not worth a listen to at all. If I have a major gripe it’s that the soundtrack loops are not that long and can grate after a while; it’s an especially pertinent problem when you’re playing such a long RPG.
I’ve run through Trails of Cold Steel twice now, and given it’s a 70+ hour game (or 40+ with liberal use of Turbo) I’d say that should give at least some inkling as to my opinion towards it. It’s certainly no exceptional favourite of mine in the genre; it lacks the timeless charm of classics like Dragon Quest VII and Kingdom Hearts II, and nor does it elevate itself through powerful, emotive, and human character arcs like Final Fantasy IX or Persona 3. However, Trails of Cold Steel is damn good. It’s part of that niche of games which offer a solid, gripping experience that pulls you in for the entirety of its runtime, and only a few small flaws and foibles hold it back from greatness.
6/7 – EXCELLENT. Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.