A new start in Falcom’s dense, long-running RPG series provides some great gameplay and character building but a few mis-steps in the pacing and story departments.
World-building & Story
Following the students in Class VII of Thors Military Academy, Trails of Cold Steel continues on in the same universe as its predecessor Trails in the Sky, but introduces a whole new cast and setting. Prior knowledge of the franchise isn’t particularly needed, although admittedly you’re likely to miss some of the finer details and enjoyable quirks without it.
At the centre of everything is Class VII, a group of students pulled together regardless of social background (a big deal in the game’s setting of Erebonia) as they attempt to make sense of the world. Led by their quirky instructor Sara, you’ll be placed in control of Rean Schwarzer, a level-headed young man who finds himself the unofficial leader of Class VII and often tasked with mediating between the group of very different people.
Characterisation is easily the strongest part of the game, as the cast are all well thought out and surprisingly layered individuals. From the strong-headed lower-class gun wielder Machias to the stoic swordmaster Laura, each go through believable developments throughout the story and remain great characters to interact with – I felt a real bond with all of them by the end. Just when you think someone has been under-used, they’ll be thrust into the spotlight with Rean and have some surprising aspect of their personality revealed (something I immediately noticed with Fie in Chapter 6), meaning everyone is likeable and interesting.
Even side characters are given a surprising amount of screen time and development – you’ll interact with a varied cast ranging from older students such as Towa and Crow to Railway Military Police Officer Claire (and all sorts in between); all of whom have their own back-story and developed personalities (I must admit I found it very interesting finding out about last year’s class and their relationships to each other). There are plenty of minor characters who you can chronicle through the school year too, ranging from the grumpy sculptor Clara to Alicia’s rival Ferris.
Broadly, the plot follows the cast of students as they are sent on field studies across the empire, through which they slowly learn about the underlying political conflicts and tensions that exist as a result of the nation’s class system – where nobles are separated from common folk. While it does often fall back on familiar tropes – the military might of warring nations; underground shadowy organizations etc, the setup is interesting enough to keep things ticking along.
Where Trails succeeds is in its world-building – Erebonia is so well realized, which each area feeling distinct and coherent. Gaius’ homeland – the Nord Highlands – is a vast grassy expanse full of nomadic travelers, which is at contrast with Alicia’s home of Roer, a steel city full of skyscrapers and the bustle of people. And even outside of the empire, neighbouring nations all have their own back-story (in fact, most are chronicled in their own sub-series of which only Liberl is available in English at present).
The problem Trails of Cold Steel faces is one of pacing – the game takes forever to actually go anywhere in terms of general plot. I must have hit the 40 hour mark before the story started to get going and even then it moved at a glacial speed until the final couple of acts, where the political undercurrents begun to fully surface. Then things end on a massive cliffhanger and my second grievance regarding the storytelling is raised – the title feels so much like a filler piece in a franchise at times, rather than trying to be a decent standalone story. Sure, it’ll make you want to go out and buy the sequel straight away, but I’d have appreciated more effort in making Cold Steel stand on its own two feet.
So it comes down to character interaction and development to keep things level and as I previously mentioned that’s where the game really shines – but between the slow-moving plot and serious case of franchise-itis it can be slow going at times.
Presentation & Sound
As Falcom’s first foray into a fully 3D game, Trails of Cold Steel could have shown a lot of teething problems – and while it isn’t among Vita’s prettiest games, it’s a good effort that fits in perfect with similarly-budgeted JRPG’s on the handheld.
The cast are well represented by their models, which feature some nice detail on their clothing and hairstyles (Sara is particular looks fantastic). Facial expressions and animations are slightly more problematic, often looking jerky and less professional when out in the field; but conversely in battle things look smooth and impressive. Enemy models are varied and expressive, meaning even fighting the same foes over and over again can be enjoyable.
Speaking of battles – spells and special moves are where the game shines, pulling off an array of beautiful effects to light up the screen in a baptism of colour. Even little things like combat links have variety to them; but witnessing powerful casts such as Grim Butterfly for the first time is awesome, combined with some of the combat artes available. Best of all are the s-rank moves – flashy finishers complete with an anime-style character pop-ups that make short work of enemies with a weapon-specific skill (special shout out to Elliot for breaking out his violin during his attack).
The vast majority of Trails of Cold Steel will have you running around towns, which are generally pretty competent if uninspired. The dual-combo of Thors Military Academy and Trista will form your base, an idyllic rural setting that looks fairly pretty on first inspection. Sadly the layout of many of the houses and church from here will be used again and again throughout your adventure, dulling the feeling of a bespoke world, but thankfully there’s enough other quirks of the places you’ll visit to make them feel special. Most notably, the scope of the areas increases considerably as the game progresses, with Roer being by far the most bustling and entertaining city.
Aside from the towns and villages, you’ll also be exploring dungeons and fields, which run the spectrum from boring copy-pasted corridors to beautiful open spaces. The first time you ride into the Nord Highlands on horseback and realise you can traverse the whole of the vast green expanse as you please is a real jaw-dropping moment; but repeated trips through Thors’ schoolhouse dungeon will have you exhausted from the sheer repetition of stone walls and winding paths.
In spite of all the objective criticisms you could raise about the title, there are still so many moments of beauty that it’s difficult to stay negative for long. The art department clearly have a great time designing areas, whether it be a foggy grass path up to a waterfall or a dimly lit village at night. I found myself taking loads of screenshots during my time playing, which is always the sign of a beautiful game.
Sound is a particular strong point for the game thanks to the trifecta of soundtrack; voice acting and effects. The music department at Falcom have always knocked out some brilliant tunes and Trails of Cold Steel is no different – although it’s also them at their most subdued, with town themes being a little more plodding than those in Ys (although things pick up when in battle and on the road). Voice acting is top-notch with all characters turning in a fantastic performance (particular mentions to Laura’s subdued brilliance and Sara’s mystery); while effects ranging from sword swings to the shatter of septith all fit perfectly.
Gameplay & Content
Playing it safe by following standard genre designs almost to the letter, Trails of Cold Steel is the most traditional JRPG I’ve played in years. A smart battle system and varied life sim elements keep things interesting, but at times the game plays things almost too safe.
The game’s biggest flaw lies in its structure, which follows the same sequence of events over and over in its early chapters, giving a rather stale feeling. It’s only late on that Legend of Heroes deviates from this – broadly you’ll always be starting with free time events, before exploring the schoolhouse; taking part in combat training and then going on a field trip. It makes things feel exhausting, like you’re not actually pushing towards anything – which is amplified by the slow pace the story moves at.
But otherwise, Trails of Cold Steel is a competently made JRPG as each of these elements holds up well on their own. You’ll have a fully 3D world to explore, making each town and city you visit feel lively and real – as well as making field exploration a joy thanks to the sense of scale. Combat is a clever take on the turn-based formula, mixing in elements of tactical RPG’s with Final Fantasy X‘s turn order; and the game’s relationship system is a nice bonus.
Each chapter nearly always starts in Thors Military Academy and you’re given free reign to explore or do whatever you want. You’re often given quests to undertake but only some of these are mandatory – although you can uncover extra quests by talking to the various NPC’s scattered around Thors. Indeed you’re encouraged to talk to NPC’s, as there are whole sub-stories hidden away that you can completely miss if you don’t.
You’re also given a limited number of bonding points, that you can choose to spend with any one of your dozen or so classmates or teachers. Doing so will unlock a small conversation scene that will teach you something about that character, as well as increase your link gauge for battles – which is crucial for landing extra hits or activating special bonus abilities. Some of the bonding scenes are pointless, but lots are quite touching – such as Elliot’s wind Orchestra performance or learning more about Laura’s history with her father, the Radiant Blademaster.
Once you’re done with this, your mandatory quest will always be exploring the old schoolhouse – a dungeon of copy-pasted corridors that’s generally a boring place to look around. Thankfully the other dungeons you’ll come across on your travels tend to be much more exciting, such as Legram’s haunted castle, but they’re definitely not the title’s strong point. They always end with a chaotic boss battle and combat is definitely an area Trails of Cold Steel shines in.
Taking place in an open 3D area but with turn-based actions, the game invites you to consider positioning and strategic thinking constantly. Each character can move; attack or cast spells, and uniquely for the series – use CP moves, a resource which slowly regenetates over time (making it perfect for being used in normal battles). You’re also awarded link moves upon critically hitting foes, allowing even more damage depending on the level of bond between the two characters linked. Fighting quickly falls into a familiar pattern of attacking when you can and trying to kill the enemies in order of next attack, as seen in things like the Atelier series.
What makes Legend of Heroes unique is positioning – each character will move in range to attack; some abilities will cause you to end up on the other side of the map etc. And this is important – you need characters to be near to each other for effective healing and buffing, but if they’re too close together bosses can slaughter them with area-of-effect attacks. The game isn’t afraid to ramp up the difficulty either – quite a few times I found myself retrying a battle or even reloading my save to re-equip my party with different quartz. It never seemed unfair – just challenging enough to be rewarding.
While the game’s equipment system is fairly run-of-the-mill, spells and boosts are handled using the ARCUS system, which behaves similarly to materia from Final Fantasy VII. Each character can equip a master quartz which confers various stat boosts and abilities and they’ll also have a number of open slots which you can equip normal quartz in (which gives access to certain spells). As such, you can build characters however you like – one can be loaded up with spells while another attacks; or you can mix and match so everyone can heal, which affords a lot of variety in the fighting.
When you’re not forming bonds with classmates or exploring the schoolhouse, you’ll be embarking on field trips across the continent. These will nearly always see you discovering a small town and undertaking a number of quests for a particular resident, which boil down to the usual JRPG tropes of kill x monster or find y item. The areas themselves are usually fun to explore, making a nice change from the fixed setting of Thors that you’ll keep coming back to and each plays a part in the overall conflict in Erebonia.
There’s so much more to Trails of Cold Steel beyond this – an extensive fishing mini-game; a sea of recipes to discover and cook; NPC’s to bond with and an in-game year’s worth of events to follow. The title is one of Vita’s lengthiest, offering over 80 hours of content and plenty more to do beyond this; although with how long the plot takes to get going I have to wonder whether it couldn’t have trimmed some of the lengthier sections to make a more enjoyable, streamlined experience.
And so gameplay is surprisingly the title’s trump card – it may be too talky at times; take too long to get going and feel padded out, but the core moment-to-moment game is a lot of fun. Hopefully with the sequel, Falcom have all the pieces they need to dive straight in to get the action going and create a truly unforgettable experience.
A variety of DLC pieces are available for the title but these are nearly all cosmetic – ranging from costume attachments for £0.79; extra costumes for £1.69 or additional faceplates. Nothing is particularly essential or even worth having in my opinion, but the option is there if you want it.
Trails of Cold Steel is very much a game you have to invest time into to reap the benefits – it takes far too long to get going and relies on you forming a bond with the characters to fully appreciate it. While it does suffer from feeling part of a franchise rather than a stand-alone experience, the enjoyable battle system; great world-building and relationship system meant I had a great time in playing – just a bit of story trimming would have made it a fantastic one.