The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel Review
Trails of Cold Steel is the latest localized entry in the Legend of Heroes series of games that include the first and second chapters of Trails in the Sky. While it's great that Trails of Cold Steel is part of the latest arc in the Trails franchise, the downside is that we in the West are missing out on the two previous canonical titles: Zero no Kiseki and Ao no Kiseki (the “Crossbell Arc” duology). This presents an issue when it comes to understanding the lore and world building that were so key in grasping what the current events are in any given narrative.
Cold Steel tries to rectify that by offering plenty of reading material and dialogue that tries to fill in those gaps of the overarching story arc. I never found myself getting lost in what the story was trying to tell me, but there is plenty there for fans who have played the prior titles to enjoy.
And really, it just feels nice being able to play a modern entry to a series that we in the West are used to finally getting a chance to play nearly a decade later.
Trails of Cold Steel is set in Erebonia, an empire that was depicted as evil in the other games. What this presents is a fascinating perspective from a cast of characters that aren’t that much different from what you would normally see on the good side.
The story opens with a bang. We’re quickly introduced to Class VII, a group of students who are caught in the middle of a siege of the building that they are stationed in. After a few skirmishes and simple boss battle, the opening movie plays and we are taken back to where the game truly begins.
Rean Schwarzer is a newly-enrolled student at Thors Military Academy, a prestigious school made up up of nobles and commoners of different backgrounds and skill sets that are divided into classes based on their social status.
Class VII throws away any sense of hierarchy by having members of both factions in one classroom. Over the course of several months, Rean and the rest of Class VII soon find themselves swept up in international politics, and the many dangers of the outside world, by being in the right place at the wrong time.
Thors Academy becomes the focal point throughout most of the game. While this setting would be considered overdone, I felt it offered a lot of great opportunities to bond with the rest of the incredibly likable cast. What I enjoyed most was how each of my schoolmates and faculty members had their own story threads that I could follow from beginning of the game all the way to the end.
Whether it was learning how incredibly smart the fortune-telling girl was during the midterm exams, or getting to know the instructor who loves to be an adviser to as many clubs as possible, I never wanted to advance the story before running around and catching up with them. For those that aren’t as interested in that aspect as I am, the moments in the school are broken up with field studies; these activities has Class VII setting off into different locations in order to learn more about the world around them.
This is how the routine basically goes throughout the game. You show up at school to learn some things; get a free day to mess around with your friends and build your social links, along with completing a few quests; and then head off into a new field study at a different location where you do even more quests.
This always means a different arrangement of party members that you are shoehorned into traveling with, meaning you’ll rarely travel with the same party member twice in a row. While this would usually bug the crap out of me, thankfully the game keeps your party’s levels in line with your own even when they’re off doing their own thing.
Plus, they make sure to unequip all of the accessories and quartz the other characters have, making it less of a chore having to remember to re-equip the new group coming in.
The biggest hurdle the game faces is how slow the opening moments of the game are. It takes a good while before things ramp up to a decent pace (much like Trails in the Sky), and I kept seeking out other things to distract me while making my way through the more tedious parts of the story.
Fortunately, once the more important plot events take place, Cold Steel really takes on a life of its own. Suddenly I couldn’t wait to see what was just around the corner. I was excited to learn where the path would take me.
And then just as quick as it was to get started, it just as quickly screeches to a grinding halt with the Nord Highlands. Suddenly my nightmares from Final Fantasy XI of having to travel by chocobo to get to the Valkurm Dunes came rushing back.
The game starts off presenting this place fairly well - here you have these beautiful, large expanses of land where you get to ride on horseback, but I soon dreaded the very thought of having to spend minutes of dragging my horse from one destination to the next trying to complete a simple quest.
And that almost killed my enjoyment of the game.
Once that chapter is over and done with, the game only got better from there all the way until the end, where things leave off on a massive cliffhanger that caught me completely off-guard. To go from a meddling pace to something unexpectedly mind-blowing gives you an idea of what you’re in for.
The characters themselves are, for the most part, very well developed and written. They have their own personal moments in each chapter to help tell us more about their respective backgrounds.
Unfortunately, some of the members of Class VII - Rean, Alisa, and Laura, for example - are given far more time in the spotlight than the others. Thus, the rest of the group members' inner developments rely on spending your free days getting to know them better. But hey, we have a second (and a recently announced third) entry to look forward to to resolve those matters.
Another issue I faced with the game is how uneven the voice acting is. There are moments in the game where Rean goes completely silent while characters around him are provided spoken dialogue. It’s bizarre seeing a main character who isn’t voiced be surrounded by people that are, but the exact same thing happens in the Japanese version of the game.
After doing some reading, this apparently began with Zero no Kiseki when Falcom fell back to partial voice acting as they didn’t have the budget to afford full VO, but still wanted to voice the key moments of the game. Ao no Kiseki was an even worse offender.
Apparently, Trails of Cold Steel and Cold Steel II have the most voice acting seen in their games up until the recently-released Evolution remasters. XSEED had asked Falcom to code Cold Steel in such a way that they could add additional voice acting but it didn’t happen, so I can’t fault the localization for this. Plus, the voice acting that is present is great and cast very well.
The combat is where Trails of Cold Steel really shines. Up to four party members are able to partake in battles, which is presented in a turn-based, free-roaming design, similar to Trails in the Sky.
Each party member can equip different quartz that each possess their own inherent characteristics and stat boosts, such as an increase to strength or resistance to poison. Some even grant new arts, or magic abilities. After reaching a certain level, players unlock Craft skills that consume CP. CP is earned by attacking enemies, being damaged, or using certain items or arts to regain it.
By gaining at least over 100 CP, party members can use S-Crafts, which are incredibly powerful abilities similar to Final Fantasy's Limit Breaks that can help turn the tide of any battle. The only real downside is that if that same party member dies, they lose all of the CP they have accumulated, an aggravating penalty the series is known for.
By improving your social link with other party members, whether through teaming up with them during battle or bonding with them at school during free days, new “Link” abilities are unlocked. This includes covering a party member from being attacked or help provide a finishing blow. In the end, not only does this help flesh out the characters in the story, but it obviously provides a very tangible benefit in combat. Don’t expect any real romantic encounters here, though.
There is also something called Link Attacks - if an enemy is hit with a weapon or skill that they are weak against, it breaks their defenses and the person you are linked with (who you get to choose inside of battle at any moment with the press of a button to bring up a menu) is given the chance to provide a follow-up attack.
Assists attack the same enemy, Rush attacks an area of enemies, and Burst has your whole party attacking the entire field of enemies with a high degree of damage.
There are even ways to exponentially increase the amount of EXP you collect in battle by earning different achievements, such as not taking any damage or defeating multiple enemies at once..
On the left side of the screen is the turn order which can be manipulated through different skills or attacks to have other party members go first and delay the next action by the enemy. Taking advantage of this mechanic is particularly useful when the going gets tough and one of your party members is about to be killed.
Trails of Cold Steel has a Final Fantasy X-style party system where a party member can be rotated out with another sitting on the sidelines and allows them to act instantly (though you can’t switch them out for yet another party member if you accidentally choose the wrong one).
This keeps the combat moving at a fever pitch. I had a hell of a lot of fun with it and it is easily the most enjoyable part of Cold Steel
Performance-wise, this game has some real framerate issues if there are too many NPCs on screen at any given moment. This is especially evident towards the end of the story when a lot of the students at the school are outside in this small area and things start to get very choppy. I wouldn’t say it hurt my enjoyment of the game, but it was very noticeable.
While the technical issues are prevalent, the fantastic art design helped the game overcome those shortcomings. There are visually no real differences between the Vita and PS3 versions of the game, though I felt the game really shined on the Vita due to how the game was designed for the platform to begin with, even if it suffers from longer load times. And hey, the game includes cross-save for those that would like to own both versions.
Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel may very well be the longest I have played a story-driven game before seeing the end credits, pouring nearly 85 hours into my first playthrough. A lot of it has to do with the wonderful writing backed by the amazing localization by XSEED Games.
I became enthralled with each person I met - even in the Nord Highlands. When the game was pushing me with urgency into the next story event, I had this nagging urge to hurry back and make sure my school friends were okay and find out what they were up to.
While the game does suffer from pacing issues and technical problems, the story builds up to this amazing climax that I can’t stop thinking about. Couple that with an amazing combat system and a killer soundtrack that had me practically leaping out of my chair in excitement, and I had a great time with Trails of Cold Steel. I wholeheartedly recommend it for anyone looking for a fantastic new JRPG to enjoy.
Hopefully the success of this title paves the way for a localization of the other entries.