You know what all this time spent waiting for my turn at a vaccine while in another lockdown means? That’s right, it’s time to play a lengthy sequel to an equally lengthy RPG!
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II (PC, PS3, PS4 [reviewed], PS Vita, Switch)
Released Sep 2014 | Developed: Nihon Falcom | Published: NIS / Marvelous
Genre: JRPG | HLTB: 48 hours
We pick up directly where the first Trails of Cold Steel left off. Our hero, Rean, managed to awaken a giant mech named Valimar and leapt to defend his school and home from being attacked as a huge civil war broke out across the empire of Erebonia. Unfortunately his best friend Crow revealed himself to be a traitor, assassinating the Chancellor of the country and armed with his own mech he fought and gravely wounded Rean, who was whisked away to save his life. Cold Steel II opens a month later as Rean wakes from unconsciousness. He finds himself in the mountains near his hometown of Ymir, far to the north but once healed he vows to rescue his classmates from the midst of the war that has engulfed his homeland.
Cold Steel II will almost certainly be completely incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t played the first game. In fact, in many respects it feels like the two were intended to be one game, before someone at Falcom decided that a 150-odd hour game probably wasn’t a sterling business move. Trails of Cold Steel already had a massive cast of characters to keep track of, from our protagonists in Class VII to the various military, economic, and political leaders to whom they are related, not to mention their friends and classmates that make up the rest of the illustrious Thors Military Academy around which the game is based. The sequel has all that and then some as the scope of the narrative expands and more and more players are introduced into the war, from nobles involved in the conflict to the growing story around Ouroboros, a secret society whose goals remain mysterious.
The first game felt relatively self-contained, sufficing itself with a few oblique references to the wider The Legend of Heroes lore but this game is where the Cold Steel series steps up to take its place in the franchise. Events which seem vitally important happen offscreen and there’s at least one moment where something huge happens in the distance but the next time you see it, it’s gone, solved, no problemo. For someone like myself who hasn’t played the other Legend of Heroes games it seemed a copout until I read up a little lore and was informed that those goings-on were all events in the other games. Playing Cold Steel II it became quite clear that to get the most out of the franchise I’d need to go away and play the other preceding games before moving on to the third game but that’s very much a double-edged sword as you risk alienating players. In its defence I will say that Trails of Cold Steel II is still eminently enjoyable even without the wider knowledge – I stand as testament to that – but requiring players to delve into a number of other lengthy JRPGs, some of which aren’t even localised outside of Japan, can surely only bite Falcom in the arse in future.
Another development to the story is that this 2nd Cold Steel entry is much more anime-esque. That’s maybe not a super helpful statement, so allow me to explain. One thing I really enjoyed about the first game was how grounded it felt, at least in relation to other JRPGs; it was set in a subtly magical world, in contrast to the overt fantasy settings of other mainstream JRPGs, and it dealt with relatively realistic issues, both low-stakes such as school kids managing relationships and life, but also high-stakes, such as tackling a deeply unequal class system which divides Erebonian society, and the effect that a budding civil war can have on what are essentially child soldiers training at a military school. While there are odd flashes of more mystical elements to the world, the vast majority of the game is reasonably down-to-earth, and it’s only in the finale where events erupt into something more cartoonish. Trails of Cold Steel II however begins from this fantastical point and it only ramps up from there; for example, the opening sequence features Rean piloting an ancient magical mecha and by the end that’s barely the oddest thing here. There are still some hard-hitting and realistic facets to the story and I very much appreciate them; my personal favourites are the moments where Rean is confronted with the reality that the villains who reappear from the previous game are people with logical and heartbreaking reasons for their actions; they’re humans after all, and they stand in stark contrast to this game’s main baddies who are decidedly more supernatural. It even begins to explore the ramifications of Erebonia’s class system and imperialism as the civil war cracks the nation, which is an impressive step but these moments are sandwiched in between mecha fights and magical battles as the game starts to go all Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann on us. I should reiterate that I don’t have a great problem with that – I’m all for some giant magical mech brawls – but it feels a bit of a shame to leave the realistic conflict behind.
Alongside the narrative changes to Cold Steel II comes a structural change. The first game was built around the school year as Class VII traveled across the Empire on school trips and returned to their military academy for days of lessons and social events. However, in Cold Steel II Thors Academy is under siege and the students of Class VII are scattered and in hiding across Erebonia. Because of that, that solid structure of the first game is lost and in its place is a more traditional JRPG story progression. Though Rean returns to a couple of hub locations periodically during the game, the game is organised more around which location he is going to next in order to reunite his classmates. The game still progresses day-by-day but it feels vestigial and doesn’t matter since there’s no academic events for those days to lead to. Events halfway through the game throw this even more to the wind as a small amount of nonlinearity comes into the plot, but the changes do at least serve the narrative.
What hasn’t changed is the core gameplay. I spoke at length about the battle system in my review of the first game and it appears unaltered here save for a scant few additions, but that’s ok – Trails of Cold Steel’s combat is excellent and it remains a great draw as far as I’m concerned. It uses the variant of random encounters where enemies spawn on the map and our party gets an advantage if we smack them to trigger combat; conversely enemies which sneak up on the party sees battles start with a detriment for our heroes. Once in an encounter events are turn-based using a variant of Final Fantasy X’s CTB, with turn orders clearly marked down the side and each action you select shows how it will affect the turns. This allows you to more precisely plan your moves for the best possible benefit to you.
Attacking leaves a chance to stun enemies, allowing you to unleash powerful follow-up attacks to rack up the damage (fans of the Persona games especially will feel right at home with this as the way in which staggering moves are triggered is largely identical), and each character has access to both Crafts, special and unique skills they can use, and Arts, which are spells. Which spells they can cast depends on what Quartz they have equipped, and changing these between characters can allow players to refocus the party members into new builds; optimising what Quartz is equipped to who can be a huge focus for power-gamers. Any players hoping for more in-depth or wholesale changes will be left disappointed as at most the combat has been merely tweaked. Battles can now be stacked by engaging multiple foes on the overworld, which results in you fighting back-to-back fights for larger rewards but aside from the tutorial where it is introduced I never had a chance to use it; enemies tend to spawn too far away from each other to ever get to trigger stacked battles.
The main addition to combat is the Overdrive system, which lets linked characters take extra turns in a fight, during which all their spells and abilities are free. This sounds overpowered but it takes a while to charge up and, in all honesty, I never found myself needing to use it. Overdrive comes across as less of a core part of fights and more of a gimmick but that said, perhaps it comes into its own on the harder difficulty settings. Speaking of being harder, Trails of Cold Steel II is definitely a bit trickier than the first game. The reason for this has less to do with any innately harder elements to the combat and more down to the fact that the party’s attacks miss much more frequently, leading enemies to hit you with counter attacks far more often.
Cold Steel II does add at least one big new thing to combat though, and that’s the inclusion of mech fights. In the previous game, Rean awakened the power of a Divine Knight, Valimar, only during the finale; we get one encounter with it and that’s your lot. During this game however Valimar becomes a much more important part of Rean’s arsenal and as such fights between him and the mass-produced Soldat mechs the Noble Alliance are deploying across the country become far more common. It’s a shame that they’re still linked solely to the plot though; I’d have loved for their to be some random encounters against massive foes that necessitate calling in our mecha, but regrettably that is not the case (you can call him into regular random encounters though if you feel like smashing an enemy underfoot).
Fights with Valimar require a different application of strategy to regular bouts. Valimar fights alone (well, no one else gets a mecha after all) and can target specific areas of the mechs he takes on. In order to maximise damage you need to work out which area is the most vulnerable in order to stagger them and chain together attacks. Partway through the game Rean gets the ability to call in his friends to support him but only one at a time; this gives you more flexibility in the mech fights because each character comes with their own special attacks for Valimar to use, and experimenting with them can be heaps of fun. Because the fights are all linked to plot progression though they’re sometimes few and far between and it feels like a shame to not have them as a more constantly available option.
Despite being designed for PS3 and PS Vita, Trails of Cold Steel II still looks pretty good. I’m generally of the opinion that stylised graphics will always age better than hyper-realism and Cold Steel II certainly still looks decent though how much you appreciate it will no doubt hinge on whether you like anime art styles or not. It shares an issue with its predecessor however in that although the character models look good and certain key locations have some pleasing detail, often that comes at the expense of the world around you, with dungeons and roads sometimes ending up kind of bland and lifeless. Additionally, I appreciate that this game is set in most of the same places as the first and there are good narrative reasons for that, but as a player I always want to see evolution from my sequels and ultimately what happens is that we end up running through some places we’ve already seen. Sure, the cities might not have changed much in the short time frame between the two games but on occasion we even step foot into dungeons we’ve been to already in the prior game, albeit never for too long, and although it still looks lovely, there’s only so long I want to ride around the vast expanse of the Nord Highlands. How irritated this makes you will probably mostly come down to how much you can forgive some retreading for narrative reasons.
At least Cold Steel II still has some banging music. Ashen Chronicles perfectly encapsulates the themes of the game; the militaristic brass is bright but sharp, cutting through the rhythms, while beneath it the melody swings into a darker, more depressive tone, perfect for a country in the midst of war. Still Countryside nails an unsettling middle ground between tranquillity and uncertainty as the slightly off-pitch sound effects echo across the aural space; it feels peaceful, but the kind of peace that comes at the end of a battle as your character stands amidst ruins. The game in general is quite good at depressing music, such as Ymir Canyon or Crossing Over the Horrors of War, which envelop you with those brilliantly sombre piano arpeggios. Still, despite that it’s hard not to get caught up in the cheesy eurobeat of Awakening, especially as it always coincides with another Valimar appearance and the knowledge that we’re about to get to punch up another giant robot. Finally, I can’t remember that many character themes which stood out to me as much as Altina, which lulls you into a false sense of security with the light chime intro before absolutely hammering you across the face with those booming dirty synths.
Despite the length (this game is easily as long as its predecessor) I came away from Trails of Cold Steel II thoroughly satisfied. At its worst it’s as good as the first game, and the best moments utterly eclipse it. Though I’d have loved more new additions to the formula, and I can think of few games I’ve played that feel as hostile or closed off to completely new players as Cold Steel II, as someone who did come to it from the first game I feel like the demands it made of me in terms of understanding the narrative were earned. That’s the bottom line really; although it gives into excess at points, after a cumulative 120+ hours of gameplay, Trails of Cold Stel II has earned the right to that. Although there are sequels, the core story of this duology comes to a solid conclusion here and I’m very glad I was here for the ride.
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.