The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel – Ah, to be young again – Review

Gare – Friday, October 20, 2017 10:14 PM
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As someone who played every single installation of the Trails series (or the Kiseki series, as it is known in Japan) from Sky FC all the way to this game, including the Crossbell duology never released in the west, I’d seen this series grow and evolve over several installments. You might even think that I’m growing a little fatigued with the franchise, having essentially been offered the same basic formula over and over again. Thankfully, that is not the case. With Trails of Cold Steel, Falcom demonstrates that it still manages to bring new things to the table, all the while maintaining what made its beloved series a niche success in the first place: albeit this game may be a departure from the earlier titles of the series in certain ways, its heart is most definitely in the right place, making it a welcome and worthy addition to the ever-growing Trails family.

An age of upheaval

Chronologically taking place after Trails in the Sky the 3rd – and essentially running parallel to the events of Zero no Kiseki and Ao no Kiseki – Trails of Cold Steel shifts the stage to the Erebonian Empire, a major military power that once fought a war with the Kingdom of Liberl. You take on the role of one Rean Schwarzer, a member of the newly-established Class VII at the Thors Military Academy – as you might imagine, the storyline of the game will have you live through several months of Rean’s life as a freshman of the school. This, of course, wouldn’t be a Trails title if there wasn’t some sort of larger, sinister plot brewing in the shadows, and indeed, Cold Steel offers foreshadowing and political intrigue aplenty – for the most part, however, the game is first and foremost an introductory chapter meant to establish locations and characters while setting things up for the inevitable sequel. I say “inevitable” not just because Trails of Cold Steel 2 has already been released on consoles, but also due to the fact that Cold Steel 1 just so happens to end on the mother of all cliffhangers, one that will leave you aching to jump into the next installment right away.

Bonds to nurture

Interestingly enough, Trails of Cold Steel ends up taking several pages from Persona’s playbook. There’s a school setting, there are so-called bonding events – in which you deepen your friendship with a select few characters of your choice – and what do you know, there’s even a constantly expanding dungeon for you to explore every month, a la Persona 3’s own Tartarus. Yet while the similarities are apparent, Cold Steel still retains its Trails-esque essence. Structurally, you probably already know what to expect: the game is broken up into several chapters, during which you’ll be visiting a set of varied locations while completing side and main missions along the way. The way Cold Steel works is a little different in the sense that your “home base”, so to speak, remains the Military Academy, and instead of embarking upon a long journey across the continent (like in Trails in the Sky), you’ll instead visit Erebonia’s many locations during field trips, then promptly return to the Academy once your business is concluded. Each chapter is quite different from the others, offering temporary glimpses into the diverse regions of the Empire – in one chapter, you may be trekking across the vast, green plains of the Nord Highlands, while in another, you will lose yourself on the busy streets of the Empire’s largest metropolis. One may think that the “explore the school, go on a field trip, do quests” formula that each chapter utilizes would grow stale, and for some, it may indeed feel that way. It is essential to know that the Trails series chooses its audience, and is certainly not for everyone – this I won’t deny. Yet for me, despite its massive length of 60-100 hours, Cold Steel rarely ever felt repetitive, and could always deliver that element of surprise whenever a new chapter – and thus a new field trip, along with a new location – rolled around.

One of the enduring staples of the Trails series is its dedicated focus on world- and character building, and Cold Steel is no different in that regard. Non-player characters that would normally only utter a placeholder line or two in other JRPGspossess well-developed personalities and unique quirks, making them amusing, relatable, and easy to come to care about. While the members of Class VII undergo their own share of personal growth, the game makes sure that the NPCs receive the same treatment: they go about living their lives in many colorful ways, something that you’ll be able to easily follow in each consecutive chapter – one would honestly be quite surprised to find out just how many consistently developed NPC mini-storylines run parallel to the main protagonists’ own predicament, and how much care went into making said NPCs feel more than simple background decoration. Similarly, while both video games and anime have made use of school settings to the point they have become one of the most tired clichés in Japanese media, Trails of Cold Steel, despite my initial misgivings, managed to make the concept work through competent characterization – by the end of your first year at Thors, you will likely consider your fellow students to be members of a large, warm family of sorts. I have always admired Falcom’s attention to minute details, and Cold Steel justifies this admiration with its willingness to go the extra mile in painting a world that, despite the admittedly aged PS3/PS Vita-tier visuals, manages to be fleshed-out and full of life.

The glint of cold steel

As one would expect, the game also introduces a number of new mechanics to its combat system. The most evident one would be the presence of the so-called ARCUS Link, a system that allows you to link up two characters who will then perform various additional actions in battle. This can take various forms. One character may shield their linked partner from harm or provide some extra healing in a pinch. At other times, once an enemy’s weakness is hit and is successfully staggered, a link attack can be performed, which, if carried out enough times, can be developed into either a two-person combo or even a full-fledged rush that has all four party members ganging up on the baddies for some extra damage. If you’re familiar with Persona 3 or 4’s “All-Out Attack” system, this is essentially the same thing. Yet another thing I have personally noticed is Cold Steel’s reliance on Crafts, that is, the unique combat abilities available to each character. While they played a prominent role in previous installments as well, their utility in Cold Steel has seemingly quadrupled – in short, they are tremendously useful and will likely end up being your major source for both healing and damage-dealing. Consequently, Orbal Arts, while not completely without their use, seemed to have been pushed into the background in terms of how effective they are when compared to Crafts, at least on the Normal difficulty level I personally played on.

The way Arts are acquired has also been simplified a bit. Instead of gaining spells from a certain combination of equipped quartzes as before, Cold Steel now ties its Arts to specific quartzes: once you equip them, you will gain access to those spells immediately. In terms of difficulty, Cold Steel’s Normal should pose no real problems to anyone relatively familiar to JRPGs, with only one or two bosses requiring a bit of extra effort and thinking. For those looking for an actual challenge, the Hard and Nightmare difficulties exist, but if your primary objective in playing Trails is to enjoy the storyline, Normal should do just fine, especially since the game allows you to retry failed battles and even (optionally) weaken enemies to give you a better fighting chance, should you need it.

As a side note, the quality of the game’s PC port must also be highlighted. One notable new addition is the Turbo Mode, which allows you to speed up the game by simply holding down a button – a feature that may sound familiar to anyone who played Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age earlier this year. In a game so heavy on cutscenes and dialogue, being able to swiftly skip through them when the need arises is a more than welcome addition.

Liberl, Crossbell, Erebonia

As previously mentioned, Trails of Cold Steel is very much an introductory game – a prologue, if you will – that helps set the stage for what is to come. While you do see glimpses of an overarching plot and a shady conspiracy in the background, the game’s chapters more often than not feel like episodic scenarios, and only at the very end do things begin to truly escalate in terms of the main plot. This is one of those titles where the journey is far more important than the destination, especially when we consider that said destination is a huge cliffhanger – in other words, the sooner you realize that Cold Steel 1 is merely a part of a larger whole and not really a self-contained story at all, the easier it will be to accept the game’s emotional, yet ultimately open-ended and unsatisfying conclusion.

Being the sixth entry in a series that began with Trails in the Sky FC, Cold Steel builds upon all that came before it – references to the events in Liberl (Trails in the Sky) and Crossbell (Zero/Ao no Kiseki) pepper the narrative, but not to the point of alienating newcomers. In fact, while I very strongly suggest starting the franchise with Sky FC, people who jump into Cold Steel as their very first Trails game will also be able to enjoy it without feeling like they’d been thrown into the middle of the ocean without a lifeboat, so to speak.

Until we meet again

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold SteelPlatform: PC, PS3, PS VitaGenre: RPGDeveloper: Nihon FalcomPublisher: Nihon FalcomRelease: 09/26/2013Rated: TESRBAs a fan of the series, I found Trails of Cold Steel to be an enjoyable journey from start to finish; though initially skeptical of its school setting and many nods to the Persona series, I soon found myself enamored by its world and characters. Granted, the game still carries in itself the same Trails DNA that will either attract and fascinate, or discourage and bore gamers, depending on what they’re looking for in a JRPG and how tolerant they are of the game’s relaxed pace and dialogue-heavy nature. However, for those that want a truly slow and steady burn of a title, Falcom offers a hearty, albeit narratively incomplete feast.

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