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The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III

Rean is back and he’s got some new friends this time.

I knew it had been a long time since I reviewed The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II, but I was surprised when I went back and looked and saw that I posted that entry almost 5 years ago. The Trails of Cold Steel series was planned to be 4 games and I basically went from the first game right to the second, so having to wait for the third part was a bit of an adjustment. And the main driver of that was the switch from the PlayStation 3 era to the PlayStation 4 one. I experienced the first two games on the Vita, but that wasn’t going to be an option going forward. Enter the Nintendo Switch which was essentially my replacement for the Vita. Trails of Cold Steel III was released on the PS4 in October 2019, but I had to wait until June of 2020 to pickup the Switch version and now, more than 100 in-game hours later, I can actually talk about it.

The Trails of Cold Steel series of games is a property of long-time Japanese game developer Nihon Falcom and its The Legend of Heroes franchise traces all the way back to the pre-8-bit era of gaming. It’s one of the longest running franchises in the medium, though it’s never been particularly popular in the west. It would seem this game helped to get it more recognition as it arrived on the PS4 during the console’s natural life-cycle as opposed to the first two games. The switch to the new platform meant this entry lost the ability to import data from the prior games so, in a way, it was like a fresh start. And the four games do feel like two stories in a lot of ways. The first game ends with an abrupt cliffhanger while the second has more of an ending. It does still setup another game though and, spoiler alert, the third entry ends in the most abrupt cliffhanger yet.

The story of these games centers on Rean Schwarzer. In the first two games, Rean is a student at Thors Military Academy, but by the end of the second game he’s more like a full-fledged soldier of the Erebonian Empire. He’s an orphan, and come the end of the second game his parentage is out in the open. A seemingly morose Rean is then used as a tool of the Empire to help annex the nation of Crossbell with the help of Altina, the Black Rabbit, and his divine knight Valimar, which is essentially a mobile suit or mech. When the third game begins, Rean has been appointed an instructor of Thors Military Academy’s branch campus overseeing a new Class VII, which is the class he belonged to as a student. The student is now the teacher, but tensions amongst the surrounding nations cast a shadow over Erebonia. The sense the game gives off is that Rean has been stashed at this lesser school just to bide time until war breaks out when his skills and divine knight will be needed to crush a rebellion. Rean has to figure out how he fits into everything and just how far he’ll go in his service to the Empire, despite openly voicing his opposition to many of the choices made by the ruling class.

The cast of playable characters is quite massive in this one, though the game is crafted in such a way that everyone is almost never available to utilize all at once.

The story is very much about Rean, but it integrates new characters as well. Rean’s new Class VII begins small as it features the returning Altina, who previously was a non-player character and even a villain of sorts, along with newcomers Juna and Kurt. Juna is a young woman from Crossbell who has a lot of mixed emotions about being taught by Rean whom she views as an enemy of her homeland. Kurt is the second son of a noble trying to find his own way who declined an invitation to the main campus and instead took a position at the less prestigious academy. The game begins as the previous two in a cold open fashion as the player will be in control of a party of Class VII from a point in the game that won’t be seen for many hours, so I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that two additions are made to Class VII during the course of the game because they’re a part of that opening. One of which is a noble girl named Musse who has an unquenchable thirst for her instructor. The other is Ash, a fellow orphan with a brash personality who has an open disgust for Rean. Of the new additions, Juna and Ash are the most interesting as there’s a lot of conflict stemming from them which is refreshing in a game where the characters, otherwise, get along too well. Kurt is rather bland and too similar to Jusis from the previous games, even looking similar, while Altina is intentionally wooden as she needs to develop emotions and a personality throughout the game.

If you’re missing the past members of Class VII, worry not, as they do return and in a playable capacity. They’re just not a main attraction and much of the focus is on the new characters. The old ones are used like guest characters, which isn’t a new thing for the series as it did the same with the Bracers in the second game, who bounce in and out of the playable party throughout the game and never stick around very long. It’s kind of needed though as those characters had two games to build up their strength while the new ones start from scratch. Rean does not, though he intentionally holds back during the early parts of the game which is how the game depowers him. Even with that, he’s still pretty powerful compared to the other characters and anchors the party throughout the game.

In order to give the game added challenge and bring the new characters up to speed, Rean’s powers are severely restricted in the early going.

The story for the game is fine, though this is a game that gets too wordy and doesn’t respect the player’s time. As I said in the first paragraph, I spent over 100 hours with this game on just a single playthrough, 115 to be exact. And a lot of that is due to the scenes just dragging and tons of dialogue where nothing of substance is relayed. Characters too eagerly explain every emotion they’re going through and there are a lot of clumsy moments. Few of these emotions are complex or even unique to the character and too often you’ll just watch characters act overly modest and compliment each other back and forth. Other times you’ll experience the game’s perversions which is usually sophomoric in nature. Most of the female characters are well-endowed and other characters (often fellow women) draw attention to that. And then there’s Musse who openly lusts for Rean which is uncomfortable, but I suppose better than the other way around. There’s also still a few instances of the thirsty lesbian character who hits on underage girls which is pretty gross and there are no gay male characters represented at all, which seems weird. This just means there are lots of moments where I rolled my eyes, but there’s also some genuinely humorous moments here and there which are welcomed.

Where this game, and this series, excels is just in the gameplay mechanics. Going through the motions is fairly linear and not particularly of interest, but when the game shifts to combat it’s a lot of fun. The battle system from the prior two games returns, only with the dropping of the Overdrive function which is something I do miss. Battles are like a tactical version of the Final Fantasy X combat as it’s all order based and the player is aware of which character’s turn is next at all times. And a lot of the battle system is manipulating that as certain actions require more time to recover while others inflict “Delay” on the enemy and can push their actions back. Character positioning on the battlefield matters, but only in a sense that players grouped together are more easily attacked at once. Most actions occur in a sphere or on a line and others will actually suck characters into a spot which is handy for follow-up actions. Like most JRPGs, characters can attack, use items, cast spells (Arts), and also make use of crafts which are unique abilities that draw from a third resource called CP. The game also makes use of the link system which means characters are “linked” in battle and the higher their link rating the more support they provide each other. This takes on the from of follow-up attacks, temporary buffs, and restorative actions. It also translates to Battle Points, or BP, which are used to cast “Orders” or additional follow-up attacks. Basically, when a character lands a critical hit, a prompt pops-up allowing for either a follow-up attack that will result in 1 BP earned, or BP can be spent for massive attacks. Up to 5 BP can be accumulated at once, and each character has Brave Orders that also consume BP that can be initiated by any active character on their turn. These orders usually apply a buff of some kind or augment things like casting time. They’re often very important for boss fights, but for the garden variety villains encountered they’re superfluous.

A large portion of the combat requires successful manipulation of the turn order (presented on the right) as all actions require a cooldown of some kind that pushes the character back. There are also buffs and debuffs that will pop-up on the turn order that you’ll either want to avoid or make sure your opponent doesn’t benefit from.

The other wrinkle Trails of Cold Steel II introduced that the third game continues are the mech battles. Rean has his divine knight, but the some of the other students also have their own suits to pilot referred to as Panzer Soldats. They’re utilized infrequently, probably too infrequently, but the mechanics of battle change when they’re brought in. It’s a lot like Xenogears as you basically have to manage your character’s vitals along with their CP and each character will be given a support character who can do things like restore health or EP, which is your mana or magic points. In addition to that, the support characters also can cast Arts so there’s often a risk/reward element at play – do I use this turn to heal or do I use this awesome spell? Enemies also take on a different form as they have multiple hit areas, one of which is weak and will often result in a critical hit if you can figure it out. To make it harder, the enemies will change stances throughout a battle resetting which spot is the weak point. Orders are removed, but Brave Points are still needed to unleash ultimate attacks. It’s a fun system which is why I wanted to see more of it, but at least by making these battles a rarity they feel a little more special when they do take place.

Beyond the battle system, the rest of the mechanics are fairly ordinary, but with a lot of depth. Characters accumulate experience and level-up and learn new abilities along the way. Spells, or Arts, are equipped via quartz in a manner similar to Final Fantasy VII’s Materia system. The frame they’re equipped to, called an Arcus, can be upgraded to allow for more slots as the game progresses. The player can also combine quartz to create stronger versions so often a simple spell will at first just give access to that spell, but when upgraded will also apply a stat boost. Each character also has what’s called a Master Quartz which accumulates experience as well. It’s this Master Quartz that influences most how that character should be utilized – are they a support character? Attacker? Tank? Characters can be equipped with two types of armor plus a weapon, the style of which is unique to each character. Two additional accessory slots are available to cycle through items that usually provide protection from some status effects or apply bonuses to stats. What’s a bit of a bummer, is most equipment is just bought at stores throughout the game. There’s little or no opportunities to get a cool item via an optional quest as that’s basically reserved only for each character’s best weapon.

Trails of Cold Steel III also returns the bonding system. Throughout the game, Rean will have opportunities to spend Bonding Points to strengthen his relationship with the rest of the cast. Most of these are fellow Class VII members, but a few are not. There’s a finite amount of points and opportunities and it’s designed in such a way that a player can’t see everything in one playthrough. If you get to a max bonding level with a character you’re treated to a scene that basically features a heart-to-heart between Rean and said character resulting in a permanent status boost to the characters. Unlike past games, only 3 romance options are available to Rean this time and they basically feel tacked on. It obviously doesn’t matter who Rean picked in the prior two games, and they can be undone in the sequel so don’t put too much stock in whatever choice you make here.

The character models in this game look pretty good, especially if you enjoy buxom women, but the environments are rather bland. This isn’t a game that will impress with its visuals.

Trails of Cold Steel III, being the first developed for the PS4, looks noticeably better than its predecessors. I played the game on the Switch and found the character models were a marked improvement, but scenery was still pretty basic and bland. This isn’t a game that will impress in that area, but the sound design is just fine. The soundtrack isn’t what I would call memorable, but it’s suitable while the voice acting is plenty capable. Unfortunately, the Switch version is not the most stable and I had more game crashes here than I have since Skyrim on the PS3. On one occasion, the game kept crashing during a scene and I was worried I’d never get through it. I probably had to attempt it half a dozen times before I finally made it through. The game did seem to run a little better docked, but still not perfect. And since the fourth game is already out it would seem Falcom is unlikely to release any additional patches. I got the Switch version because I wanted the portable experience that I had with the Vita, but in light of the challenges faced, I would recommend against it if you have a PS4 and plan to mostly play from your couch.

This is a game that is relies on its systems and story to get by and it’s a good thing that both are really quite good.

Trails of Cold Steel III is ultimately more of the same. Very little is changed from II to III, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The “new” largely resides in the cast and not the systems and I’m sure there will be some who prefer the more familiar Class VII to this one. I warmed up to the new characters, for the most part, and found the smaller cast a bit more tidy and refined. There’s little redundancy now and almost everyone has a semi-interesting arc. Except Kurt who remains pretty boring for the entire duration. And that’s the other thing that will determine how you feel about this game – just how much time are you willing to spend with these characters? I definitely was growing sick of them by the end as 115 hours is just too damn long. There’s not even much in the way of “extras” aside from a fishing minigame and a card game that will take up maybe 2 hours of time all together. There’s just a lot of reading, a lot of fetch quests, just a lot! It could be more streamlined, and hopefully the finale that is Trails of Cold Steel IV is an improvement. I just started it, so I can’t say for sure, but I have nearly 300 hours invested in this series so of course I’m going to see it through. If you’re thinking of jumping in, you could start here if you wanted to, but obviously it’s better to start at the beginning (and this series is a sister one to Trails in the Sky if you really want to go nuts). There are recaps for the past games available in this one for newcomers to peruse, but it’s obviously a different experience from actually playing through it (and if you didn’t 100% the second game, you may want to look at this too as there’s a scene in that game only available to those who finish everything that’s actually pretty important to the story). For JRPG fans, this is about as good as it gets these days for a modern title so I definitely recommend it from that standpoint. If you’ve never liked JRPGs though this won’t change your mind.


Popful Mail (Sega CD)

popfulmailThe Sega CD was quite possibly Sega’s first real misstep when it came to hardware and add-on peripherals for its products. It’s hard to say if it truly was though, as I don’t know if the Sega CD returned a profit for Sega. The mere fact that the company released three versions of the add-on suggests it at least viewed it as important to the company, but even if it did financially benefit Sega it’s hard to imagine it really helped the company’s image. And that’s because the Sega CD was pretty expensive and also pretty terrible. Sure, there are fans out there for the Sega CD and its library of games, just as there are for the Virtual Boy, but for the most part the software for the Sega CD was mediocre or downright terrible. Fans likely remembered that when Sega tried to introduce another add-on to extend the life of the Genesis/Mega Drive in the form of the 32X, which basically all acknowledge as a true flop. Sega’s hardware sales following this era of game consoles was poor enough to see the company exit the hardware space in 2000 and pivot to a software only company.

When I made a post about the Sega CD in 2011, my intention at the time was to do more. That inaugural post concerned a recent purchase of mine:  the Sega CDX. The CDX was the third iteration of the device following the first two versions released by Sega for the Model 1 and Model 2 Genesis. The CDX was the company’s first, and only, attempt at releasing what is essentially a stand-alone Sega CD as it also functioned as a Genesis. It was expensive, like all things seemingly related to the Sega CD, and retailed for an eye-opening $399 at release. Which is actually a bargain compared with some of the other non-Sega versions of the product. Pioneer actually released the LaserActive which could support Sega CD games, among other things, but the total would run a consumer $1,600! Premium game consoles were obnoxiously priced in the 90s and it’s no wonder they basically all failed.

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If you’re going to play a Sega CD game might as well do it on a CRT television.

I only purchased the CDX because I had forgotten it even existed until stumbling upon some eBay listings at the time and because I was a bachelor with disposable income. I never had a Sega CD growing up, but loved my Genesis, and I had always wanted one. The CDX was quirky and cute and it was much smaller than most consoles and was actually marketed as a portable CD player as well (a task it can do, but not very well) because of its diminutive size. It was pretty cool, and I ended up finding one in great shape that was only missing the original box. I cared little about that though and set myself to playing Sonic CD pretty much right away. The problems came when Sonic CD was finished.

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Popful Mail stars a bounty hunter by the same name who is quite terrible at being a bounty hunter.

I wanted to play more Sega CD games, and had a few others as the CDX came bundled with additional software, but there really wasn’t a lot out there worth playing. Basically all of the truly great Sega CD titles saw release on other consoles. And I’m mostly referring to the Lunar series when I say great. After Lunar, there was a smattering of worthwhile software, the problem though was that most of that software consisted of Genesis ports with enhanced audio and slightly upgraded visuals. After that though is the unique, Sega CD exclusive, software of which most is poor. You have likely heard about Nightrap which became infamous because some felt it was a weird fetish game about peeping on young girls and watching them get murdered. The actual title is far less interesting and it’s terrible. So many Sega CD titles went this route though where it was essentially video with occasional button prompts. And if you have watched video lifted from a CD before then you know it’s rather ugly.

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The game is reasonably nice to look at and it runs smooth with few interruptions for loading.

There was one game though that I wanted to play and I actually secured a copy relatively close to the time I purchased my CDX and that game is Popful Mail: Magical Fantasy Adventure. I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to get to it, but Popful Mail is a game that caught my eye because it’s a hybrid game. The game is a Platformer/RPG and I arrange the classifications in that order for a reason. It’s definitely more in-line with a traditional platformer, but it does indeed toss in some RPG mechanics. In the game, you play as Mail, a spritely young anime babe with a small outfit and a big personality. You run through the various levels which are all interconnected smiting bad guys and collecting gold. Along the way you’ll be able to spend some of that gold upgrading Mail’s equipment while also meeting non-player characters, some of which will ask for Mail’s help in tracking down an item or defeating an enemy. It’s a bit similar to Link on the NES, though without a robust leveling system. It’s a Falcom game published by Working Designs, so the production values are there and the gameplay is solid making it a relatively safe bet for purchase.

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The golem will likely be the first boss many encounter some difficulty with. Trial and error is the name of the game here.

The game opens with our protagonist, Popful Mail, out attempting to secure a bounty. Mail is an elven bounty hunter who, according to the game’s manual, sucks at her job. When the bounty goes bust, she turns her attention to a new target:  Muttonhead. This absurdly named character is a wizard with a 2 million gold bounty on his head so naturally Mail is pretty interested. The intro is done in anime and for a Sega CD title it looks pretty nice and the voice acting is lively. When the game drops you into play you’ll find yourself in control of Mail. She moves rather fast and has a heavy feel to her when she jumps. It takes some time to get adjusted, but it lends itself well to a speedy style of play. Or it would, if enemies didn’t sometimes take repeated jabs from Mail’s sword to fall. Each enemy encountered will have a health bar displayed in the game’s HUD at the bottom of the screen. Mail’s info is there as well and while she has 100 health she’s not particularly durable. If you just try to barrel ahead you may find yourself dead in short order.

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As you make your way through the game more characters join in Mail’s quest to take down Muttonhead.

In order to navigate this dangerous world, Mail will need to make use of all of her skills, of which there aren’t many. Her sword is her main method of attack and she can attack while standing, crouching, or jumping. When crouching, Mail can pull up her shield which will completely protect her from projectile attacks. It’s important to get used to this as Mail will often be tasked with dispatching one enemy while an enemy behind it shoots at her. One of the barriers for newcomers is learning the quirks of the game. Popful Mail basically requires you to abuse the fact that when enemies are blinking after a hit the player won’t take damage from them. It’s a key to beating the first really tricky boss, the golem, as he slides across the screen and can’t be cleared with a leap. Mail instead needs to just whack him and let him pass by her unscathed. If your timing is off though, the duration of this blinking state won’t be long enough and Mail will take a beating. The biggest hindrance to Mail’s existence is her natural desire to go fast. The game positions Mail approximately two-thirds of the way across the screen so if the player is zooming along there isn’t much chance to react to a new enemy. When enemies are defeated most will drop a small sum of gold while healing items (like various fruits and herbs) are hard to come by. The player is at least free to save their game whenever they wish so the penalty for death isn’t too terrible if the player saves often. When loading a game, the player will typically spawn wherever they entered the screen they were on at death.

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While out and about, the player will also encounter other characters in need of some help.

The game takes place mostly in levels that are long and connected. There is also a brief overheard map to traverse at times that more resembles Super Mario World than Link. Mail will be tasked with exploring the many stages both horizontally and vertically. There are different paths to take some of which lead to treasure and some of which advance the plot. Mail will often encounter NPC’s that need help before the plot can advance, like freeing someone from captivity who will then open a way to continue onward. Sometimes Mail will find little towns where she can spend her gold on upgrades. Mail can upgrade her weapons and armor which in turn improve her underlying stats, though she can’t level-up. These upgrades seem to do little though. If you’re struggling with an area and think the solution is to backtrack and buy better equipment then you’ll probably be disappointed. The solution is often to simply “get good” and take advantage of those saves.

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Gaw is the last to join the fun, but he’s certainly the most unique.

During Mail’s journey, she will eventually find some allies in her quest to stop Muttonhead. Tatto is the first ally Mail will add. He’s a wizard with a score to settle with our antagonist and he becomes available roughly an hour or so into the game. Eventually, Gaw will join the group as well. He’s a monstrous little bat creature that can’t fly, but he can jump higher than anyone else. The characters are largely distinguished in how they move. Mail is the fastest, but her jump is the worst. Gaw is the slowest, but he can jump the highest with Tatto settling somewhere in between. The other characters can also attack from a distance. Mail can as well if you supply her with daggers, but they’re costly. You’ll be able to augment Tatto’s abilities by buying new staves while Gaw can also improve his attacks by buying…a new tail? It’s odd, but it works well enough. Changing characters is done by accessing the menu and switching there. It would have been nice if selecting a character could have just been mapped to a button to cycle through, but it’s possible the game needs a little time to load the new sprite since this is a CD system. Each character also has his or her own health bar so unlocking a new character effectively doubles the available hit points. If one character falls though it’s game over, so you have to remember to switch them or heal if near death.

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If you’ve played a Working Designs game before then you should be familiar with the company’s brand of humor.

The game is not super long. The goal to unlock the best post credits content (basically just voice outtakes) is five hours. Most players will probably need six or seven on their first playthrough not accounting for deaths and reloads. The game is challenging, and it’s also arguably one of those games that starts harder before getting progressively easier as new characters and abilities are unlocked. It’s a mostly fun play, though it’s not going to “wow” most who play it. There’s not a ton of nuance in how to attack and Working Designs’ decision to make the enemies more resilient when localizing this wasn’t a great choice as things can get a bit tedious. Some enemy placements feel a bit cheap too as this is a game less about finesse and more fixated on trial and error. There’s a reason Falcom has continued with the Ys franchise and not the Popful Mail franchise all these years.

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Almost all of the dialogue in this game is voiced and there’s plenty of anime to help push the plot forward.

Being a CD game and one localized by Working Designs, it shouldn’t surprise many to know that what stands out most are the production values. The game is nice to look at, though visually it’s not really any more impressive than most Genesis titles. Character designs are kept simple and some of the boss characters are considerably larger than the player and are fun to take in. The voice acting is about as good as one could hope for in the early 90s as anime and video games didn’t exactly attract the best talent. Melissa Gulden, who voiced Mail, stands out as a bright spot for the game while some other performances can be a bit wooden. According to the manual, roughly 3 hours of voice work had to be compressed to fit onto the CD and it’s certainly noticeable when you hear it. That’s the reality of game development though back before DVD and high capacity media. The anime cut scenes are also compressed significantly, but it still looks all right.

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My own personal copy. I was fortunate to find one in terrific shape that even has this supplemental card and the foam insert.

I would say if you happen to be the owner of a Sega CD then Popful Mail is a worthwhile addition to your collection for the simple fact that it’s actually worth playing. The game was also released on the Super Famicom where it stands out less as that console is practically bursting with quality content. By far though, the biggest hindrance to playing Popful Mail in 2020 is cost. When I purchased this game in 2011 it wasn’t exactly cheap, but it wasn’t where it’s at today either. The Sega CD version for just the game is now routinely listed for hundreds of dollar. There are some sellers trying to get more than $500 for complete versions. Perhaps that makes me foolish for still clinging to my complete version. My copy is missing the mail-in survey card on the back of the manual, but I do have the “Attention!” card the game came with which tells owners how to properly format their console’s system memory for saving. Easily, the most economical way to play the game is to go after the alternate versions. They’re still not exactly cheap, but the Super Famicom version is far less expensive as is the PC Engine version. Even the Mega CD version is a lot cheaper, though it lacks that Working Designs polish (it’s also supposedly easier).

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Considering the game stars a buxom, anime, woman with no pants it probably comes as no surprise to learn there’s plenty of pervy art out there.

If Popful Mail were available to anyone who had a Sega CD and wanted the game then I’d say go for it. Since that isn’t the case though I can’t exactly recommend it. The price point has put this game into the territory of “For serious collectors only.” The Sega CD library is actually trending towards that. When I first purchased my CDX, the Sega CD wasn’t as sought after as it is today. It seems as people get older and get more interested in collecting retro games, everything has gradually gone up. It started with Nintendo games before spanning to the 16-bit games. As the actual good software disappears, collectors turn to other untapped libraries. And the Sega CD is desirable to collectors partly because the library isn’t massive compared with the Genesis or NES. It’s also more harrowing though as Sega CD hardware isn’t as reliable as cartridge-based hardware as those lasers are just ticking time bombs. If the Sega CD version of Popful Mail were to become available overnight on an E-shop it would be worth a look just to see what all the fuss is about. It’s a genre that’s been done much better, but the game is not without its charm.

 


The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II

81lhuCL-5kL._SX342_Here at The Nostalgia Spot, we don’t just celebrate that which is old, but also that which celebrates the old. Few modern devices apply as well as a JRPG video game. The JRPG once dominated the video game landscape in the later stages of the 16-bit era and through the 32-bit era. Following that, the western style of RPG began to dominate the RPG subgenre. Titles from the likes of Bioware and Bethesda were often praised while former titans such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest slunk to the sidelines.

Today, the JRPG is basically a niche genre though plenty of developers still support it. As you could probably guess, these developers are largely Japanese and many of the games do not make it out the far east, but a surprising amount still do. Many of them are smaller budget releases for older hardware such as the Playstation 3 and Playstation Vita, which are both home to Falcom’s Trails of Cold Steel series of games.

Back in February, I reviewed the first entry in this supposed three-part epic (now four). After over 80 in-game hours and several months of play, I’m here to review the sequel. If you did not read my entry or experience the first game yourself, all you really need to know is that Trails of Cold Steel II very much carries forward the JRPG experience with a few twists and additions to the formula here and there. You control the young Rean Schwarzer, a military student, who together with his classmates has become embroiled in a civil war that really broke out at the conclusion of the first game. Rean possesses many JRPG tropes in that he’s an orphan with unexplainable powers who is genuinely kind-hearted and a natural leader. The sci-fi, steam punk, setting means guns and tanks are met on the battlefield with swords, spears, and magic. Cats talk and ships fly while everyone takes turns hitting each other. Really, if you do not like the slow pacing and gameplay style of traditional JRPGs then you will not like Trails of Cold Steel II.

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Activating an Overdrive triggers a splash screen with still images of the participating characters. Expect to see many awkward poses for the women designed for maximum titillation.

The game picks up immediately where the first one left off. I do not mean to spoil the conclusion of that game, but if you intend on experiencing these games cold then maybe skip this paragraph. At the conclusion of the first game, mech battles were introduced and Rean was separated from his allies and crash-landed in the mountainous region near his home of Ymir. Rean will have to reunite the members of Class VII, who as fugitives of the Noble Faction, have all gone into hiding. All of your equipment from the first game is gone, though you do start out at level 40 instead of 1. Rean will also have to re-form social links with his allies and earn experience for his Master Quartz, as that is sadly reduced to level 1. The only thing that really carries over if you import cleared save data from the first game is your romantic interest and a bonus item depending on what level you were at when you finished the first game. The romantic interest only contributes an extra bit of dialogue here and there as you’re free to pursue another woman should you wish. And for those of you hoping to make Rean romance once of his male companions, you unfortunately cannot.

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Battles should feel largely familiar to those who played the first game, and that is not a bad thing.

The battle system is largely the same as the first game, but there are a few twists to liven things up. The Overdrive system is new and is comprised of two meters that gradually fill up during the course of battle. It usually takes several encounters with enemies to fill both completely, but once one meter is full, two characters can participate in an Overdrive series of attacks. Activating Overdrive is done during a character’s regular turn in battle, and whomever they are linked with will be the second participant in the Overdrive. What it does is provide a bit of a recovery effect to hit points, magic points, and craft points while giving the duo the next three turns in battle, meaning whomever activates it will get two turns with the second character getting a turn sandwiched in-between. All actions during an Overdrive will lead to a critical hit, if a physical or craft maneuver is used, and in the case of a magical “Arts” attack, ignore casting time and take effect immediately. Overdrive is very useful for boss encounters, especially if you have magic users who match-up well and can unleash a triad of devastating attacks in a row. The only catch to the Overdrive function is that the ability for characters to work with one another must be unlocked via special blue trial chests hidden throughout the world. Rean is the only character who can use Overdrive with anyone right away.

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These two will become fast friends.

The other new addition comes in the form of mech battles, which were introduced at the very end of the first game. These encounters are largely scripted throughout the game, meaning you’re never able to just roam around in a mech and lay waste to your enemies. Rean is on his own in these battles, but he can utilize his allies as support characters. For the most part, the mech fights are just a simpler version of standard encounters that focus more on resource management. CP is at a premium and EP can be restored by your support character, but it will cost them a turn. Support characters also have their own Arts abilities, usually two per character, that often take on the form of one attack and one buff/debuff maneuver. You’re also very dependent on link attacks, when you land a critical blow you gain one brave point and 3 are needed for finishing moves and 5 for special unite attacks with your support character, and gaining enough brave points sometimes feels like a matter of luck. Your opponents will usually have three places on their person that can be attacked and you have to guess which is the weakest given their current stance. They’ll change stances during battle, and thus change their weak point. Hitting a weak area is the best way to score a link point, but it isn’t a guarantee. Despite this though I found the mech confrontations to be a nice change of pace and the randomness didn’t make them all that more difficult, just longer.

The rest of combat is largely the same. You’re permitted four members of your active party with often four or more in reserve. You can switch out a character with another during their turn without any sort of penalty. Characters can link with one another, and overtime their link level will increase allowing for follow-up attacks following a critical hit and other bonuses. Characters can attack either traditionally, with magic, or with crafts. Crafts are carried over from the first game, and as you level up your old crafts will be replaced with better ones. When a character has a minimum of 100 craft points, out of a maximum of 200, they can unleash devastating S-Crafts that consume all of their CP but can be activated at any moment. I found in this game I really exploited crafts more than I did in the first game, perhaps because it seems like it was easier to restore craft points quickly. I relied far less on the S-Craft moves, often only using them to finish off a boss or disrupt the flow of battle if the enemy was about to get a guaranteed critical attack or other bonus. Delay is the name of the game in Trails of Cold Steel II as it’s an affliction that can basically delay an enemy’s turn to the point where they never even land an attack. Bosses are resistant to it, but few are immune. Once you figure that out, the game becomes pretty easy though there are harder difficulty settings that I did not play on. There were still a few moments where things got tough, but for the most part I saw the Game Over screen very infrequently.

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Fie is a master of the delay technique and will likely be a mainstay in most battle parties.

The game moves at a quicker pace than its predecessor, and the environment is changing almost constantly as you no longer have the Military Academy to return to after every mission. The entire map of the fictional Erebonia is also open to you from a  very early point in the game until the end. For the most part, you’re free to pursue main objectives as well as side quests and activities at your own leisure. Usually quests come in groups with some being hidden. Ignoring the side quests and undertaking the required main quest will often cause you to forfeit attempting the side quests. At certain points you’ll also have downtime in certain locations where you’re given bonding points to spend on your allies at your own discretion. Using one leads to a scene where you will usually learn something new about your companion and ultimately earn a bunch of link experience. These points are finite on a first play through and it’s impossible to see every character’s bonding events, so don’t even try. Just spend them on the characters you like best. There are a few mini games, like fishing and snow boarding, which have their own rewards if you see them through, but are mostly just simple diversions.

The game’s story and presentation obviously needs to be interesting enough to support a roughly 80 hour campaign. As I said about the first game, the structure of the bonding events naturally lend to Persona comparisons. And, as was also the case with the first, if you’re looking for Trails of Cold Steel II to match that series in its character development and personality you will be let down. The main cast of Class VII are a bunch of milquetoast, boring, adolescents who never fail to do the right thing. They’ll give each other a pep talk and are rarely modest. If one compliments another then a compliment returned is sure to follow. They’re likable, but decidedly boring, and they’re embroiled in a conflict that has a GI Joe level of actual casualties which minimizes the story’s impact. There are some interesting twists in the story’s plot, and there at least a few NPCs who’s allegiance is cloudy for much of the game, but for the most part the game is kind of a breezy romp despite the war backdrop. Basically all of the voice actors returned from the first game, and they’re adequate though you’re sure to find some you like more than others. Some of the girls tend to have such a high pitch voice it can become grating, but that’s not atypical of anime localisations.

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In addition to the members of Class VII, you’ll also be able to make use of guest characters at certain points in the game.

The rest of the presentation is merely adequate. Being that this is a PS3/Vita game, the visuals are not all that impressive. Even judging by the standards of the hardware, they still come up short in places. Generally, the character models look good but the environments are small and bland. Most of the locales you’ll visit in this game are lifted directly from the first game with only a few exceptions. The game features what is basically a tradition for developer Falcom in that it opens with an anime intro set to some up-tempo synth metal reminiscent of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal style. It’s fun, but don’t expect to see much more in the way of anime scenes or that style of music. The rest of the soundtrack is more atmospheric and fairly basic. There’s not a ton of variety, but it has its moments.

Add it all up, and what you have in Trails of Cold Steel II is a very competent JRPG that tries to combine a lot of elements from other popular games in its genre and does so adequately, but without really mastering any. The combat is the game’s clear star as its combination of turn-based actions with strategic formations is rewarding, but perhaps leads to instances where it can be exploited too easily. The story isn’t high art, but it’s not boring and I am genuinely curious to see where the series goes with the third installment (currently in development for PS4), though I’ll continue to hope they find a way to make the characters more interesting. Trails of Cold Steel II is an easy title to recommend for JRPG enthusiasts, especially those looking for some gaming on the go with the Vita.


The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel

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The Legend of Heroes:  Trails of Cold Steel

There was a time when the term RPG meant really only one thing, at least for kids and teens in the 90’s:  Final Fantasy. Now the term is probably more synonymous with Bethesda and Bioware games, the “western” style of RPGs, with the eastern take being some-what of an endangered species. The “JRPG” as we know it is mostly relegated to older consoles and portables. Even popular JRPG franchises like Final Fantasy have adopted a more western style of real-time combat. Others settle for takes on the MMORPG, like the Xenoblade series, which is also more of a western creation than an eastern one.

That old style is hard to come by, either because it doesn’t sell well or the perception exists that gamers today don’t want to play a game where combat is largely turn-based and the game unfolds in a mostly linear fashion. There are, of course, some exceptions as Nintendo’s Fire Emblem, a tactical RPG but a genre that still largely adheres to the same constraints as traditional JRPGs, and Atlus’ Persona series still garner a lot of attention. In the case of Persona, it’s been a long time since Persona 4 was released, but Persona 5 is finally set for release in the spring so we’ll get a good idea of how popular the JRPG can still be.

Some developers are keeping the genre alive, and Nihon Falcom is one of them. Falcom has been around almost as long as video games have been and Falcom was one of the first Japanese developers of RPG computer games. Falcom has never had much exposure in the US and if I had to guess, the developers most popular title is the Ys series. If you had a Sega CD then you may know them for Popful Mail, one of the few Sega CD titles worth playing. Falcom’s most popular franchise for a longtime in its native Japan was Dragon Slayer, which was basically on par in terms of popularity as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, for a time. The Legend of Heroes franchise splintered off from Dragon Slayer in the mid 90’s and has become a franchise all its own, and possibly Falcom’s biggest. It has slowly made its way out of Japan, first with the Trails in Sky series on Sony’s Playstation Portable. Trails of Cold Steel is the most current, and Xseed has handled the western distribution for the first two titles which have been released on both the Playstation 3 and Playstation Vita.

Trails of Cold Steel was first released in Japan in September 2013. It wouldn’t see a US release until December 2015. Of course, by then the Playstation 4 was out and selling well, but apparently the game has been successful enough for Xseed to continue bringing the series to the US with Trails of Cold Steel II arriving in the summer of 2016. The third game in the series is still in development for the Playstation 4.

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Class VII from left to right:  Emma, Gaius, Fie, Laura, Rean, Alisa, Elliot, Jusis, and Machias.

My exposure to Trails of Cold Steel has been via the Playstation Vita, with some play taking place on the even less popular Playstation TV peripheral. As such, I can’t compare it to the PS3 version, but from what I’ve seen the two look similar, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the console version performs a little better in terms of frame-rate. The game, and its sequel, supports the cross-save functionality so if you wish to buy both versions you can save between the two. Trails of Cold Steel is my first exposure to the Legend of Heroes franchise, but it’s my understanding it contains same narrative homages to the Trails in the Sky games without being a direct sequel.

The game takes place in a fictional setting called Erebonia where opposing factions are quietly trying to seize political control of the region. The main conflict is between the Noble Faction, those who have ruled via birthright, and the commoners who have risen to high-ranks via political means. There’s no active war taking place at the game’s onset, but it becomes clear throughout that tensions are high. Complicating things is that a terrorist organization has shown itself whose motives are unclear at first. They seem to want to stir the pot and challenge the empire, but naturally you have to play the game to learn more.

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Class VII’s instructor, Sarah, who very much enjoys a good beer.

Caught up in all of this is Rean Schwarzer. Rean has just enlisted at Thors Military Academy, a prestigious academic institution that welcomes students from all social classes. Historically, Thors still recognizes a student’s class standing and organizes its dormitories appropriately, but Rean has learned he is to be a part of Class VII, a new experiment by the academy that is forcing nobles and commoners to work cooperatively. Rean’s class contains an eclectic mix of students, both male and female, and naturally conflicts emerge. Part of the game’s narrative is working to resolve these conflicts while advancing the storyline and building relationships. Class VII contains nine students, four boys and five girls, and the games structure unfolds in such a fashion that the player is rarely in control of more than five students at any one time, with Rean being the clear main protagonist.

The game utilizes a day structure reminiscent of the Persona series. Days unfold at a methodical pace with the player having certain tasks to complete during the day, some forced and some optional, with each day ending when the player decides to end it. Most of these are fetch quests and some are dungeon crawls. Once a month Class VII is dispatched on field studies to different parts of the continent which is when the party is split-up, shrinking the cast of main characters temporarily. Doing so allows the story to play-up inter-class conflicts while allowing the player to experiment with different party combinations in a less intimidating way. It also allows for the story to show the current state of affairs in different parts of the world which pays off later in the game. Also like Persona, Rean can establish bonds with his peers and learn more about them during what the game calls bonding events. It’s not as robust as what is found in Persona 4, or as rewarding, but it is still an effective way of developing characters.

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The battle menu. Linked characters are denoted by the beams of light on the ground and connecting their portraits. The portraits on the left indicate action order. The icons beside the portraits denote special bonuses on that action such as EP charge, healing, and so on.

The gameplay is mostly classic JRPG, but with some twists. Navigating the field is pretty traditional and comparable to Final Fantasy X. There’s no throwback overworld or anything, and most settings contain a hub town with branching areas of hostility. Enemies appear on the screen and will react to your avatar by either attacking or running. Avoiding enemies is pretty simple, but of course avoiding conflict won’t help you in the long run as you need to defeat enemies to earn experience and get stronger. Characters can attack enemies in the field, and landing a blow on an enemy’s flank will stun them allowing you to engage the enemy with an advantage. Rean is the main character, but any character in the party can be utilized to navigate the field and they all have different weapons. Certain characters, like the shotgun wielding Machias, can break parts of the environment or attack enemies from a distance. It gives the player a chance to figure out how they would prefer to navigate the world and approach enemies. I typically stuck with Rean as his wide-arcing sword slash makes it easy to flank enemies for an easy combat advantage. Certain large enemies can’t be stunned on the field, but flanking them can still impart a bonus.

Combat itself is like a hybrid of Final Fantasy X and a  tactical RPG. Characters can be moved and positioned on the battlefield which is mostly useful for taking advantage of area-based attacks and arts (the game’s version of magic). Four characters can partake in battle at any given time, with reserves able to swap in and out of the active party at any given turn. The order of attack is displayed on the screen so you know when the enemy will next attack, but the order can be influenced with delay tactics and other conventions. Characters typically can attack, use an art, use an item, run, or use a craft. Crafts are basically special attacks and abilities that utilize CP, which is accumulated primarily by attacking and taking damage. Throughout the game characters will unlock special crafts which can be triggered with 100 CP, but are more effective when triggered with 200 CP, which is a full CP gauge. These attacks are basically massive, highly damaging, maneuvers that often can help turn the tide of battle as they can be triggered at any point, allowing the player to bypass an enemy turn.

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The females seem to enjoy pointing out Emma’s bust, even though every girl “of age” is pretty well endowed in this game.

Characters can also link with other characters, and the more often a character links with another the higher their link level will rise. The main benefit of linking characters is that when one lands a critical hit the other is able to utilize a follow-up attack. As the game progresses more benefits open up, and increasing the link level between characters also opens up other benefits like one character automatically curing another after damage is taken. These link levels are not confined to just Rean and everyone else, but even between the secondary characters. The bonding events open to Rean will increase the link level faster, so naturally Rean will have a higher level with his comrades than they will with each other.

Outside of combat, characters can be equipped with character specific weapons, armor, and accessories. They also have what is called an ARCUS unit which contains slots that quartz can be equipped to. Quartz are essentially materia from Final Fantasy VII. They’ll contain elemental based arts as well as passive abilities and restorative arts. They’re elemental based, and certain slots can only take certain types of quartz. Throughout the game you will earn Sepith from enemies and treasure chests, and Sepith is used to open up more slots on each character’s ARCUS unit to equip more quartz. Each character can also equip a Master Quartz which earns experience like a character and grows throughout the game. These Master Quartz also have a greater impact on a character’s underlying stats and help influence how a character should be played, if they’re a tank, healer, etc. Naturally, characters are predisposed to certain play styles and deviating from that is probably more trouble than its worth, but it can be done.

Being that I am a big fan of both Final Fantasy X and tactical RPGs in general, I naturally find the combat mechanics of Trails of Cold Steel to be mostly excellent. If I had one major complaint it’s that the Crafts are a bit overpowered and easy to take advantage of. At the same time, I also played through the game on the normal setting and harder ones are available so my criticism is some-what empty. For the most part, the combat is addicting and enjoyable. It’s easy to get used to, but also possesses depth, and that’s all gamers really want out an RPG combat system.

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Lesbian characters are depicted as especially lustful with one of them being a downright creep who hits on young girls.

Technologically speaking, Trails of Cold Steel offers little to get excited by. It’s a PS3 game, that even by PS3 standards, is unimpressive to behold. The main characters all look good, but the settings are small and bland. The game uses an anime style that is mostly pleasing to look at, and there’s even a few instances of actual anime used to enhance the story-telling. Xseed’s localization is pretty good, with lots of veteran anime voice actors onhand to give the game a professional sound. The music is also excellent, though at times can get a little too repetitive. There were some frame-rate dips in combat, and some slowdown as well. It’s mostly cosmetic though and didn’t affect my ability to deal damage or anything.

The game’s approach to story-telling is pretty consistent. Trails of Cold Steel is often serious, but also inserts a lot of humor into the mix. Some of the humor can be fairly juvenile with there being an abundance of gay jokes, or instances of male characters being spooked by something gay. Interestingly, lesbian characters are approached in a completely different manner and are often depicted as sex-hungry perverts. These characters are also accepted by their peers, so in one sense the game is progressive, but in other respects it feels like a sixteen year old heterosexual male wrote portions of the scripts. I didn’t find any of this offensive, but at times I felt like I was older than the game’s target audience. There are also numerous jokes about breasts, especially directed at the Emma character who is depicted with a large bust even by video game standards.

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Meanwhile, the game’s lone fat girl isn’t exactly portrayed in a positive light.

The main plot unfolds very methodically and in a very linear fashion. That more than anything is probably what is most likely to turn off a modern gamer accustomed to Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect. The game’s plot is a slow burn, and finding every available side quest in a given day often requires you to speak with every NPC you come in contact with, some of which won’t give up their quest on the first try. I took my time with the game, and it took over 80 in game hours for me to complete. Part of the reason why the game moves so slowly is because it is the first game in what is projected to be a trilogy so it’s possible future games in the series will unfold at a brisker pace. Of course, I won’t know for sure until I finish the sequel (which I am actively playing).

Completion of the game unlocks a new game plus, a pretty common convention in modern games. During the first play through, it’s impossible to see every bonding event in the game so completists will need at least two play-throughs. Players can also save a cleared game save to carry over into the sequel. For the most part, carrying over a save just gives some bonus items depending on Rean’s level and rank at the game’s conclusion. There’s also an opportunity to establish a more romantic relationship with the game’s female characters that also appears to carry-over. The game definitely steers the player towards one character in particular, and I took the bait figuring I would experience the story the developers most want to tell. I’m not sure if other characters take on a romantic relationship with Rean or if it’s more a friend type of thing, but it’s nice to have some variety in the gameplay experience. Since the characters are all teens, don’t expect any Bioware styled sex scenes or anything, it’s mostly puppy love.

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The Link menu makes it easy to keep track of the combat links earned throughout the game.

Playing Trails of Cold Steel often made me think of Persona 4. As I spent more time with the game I thought of that game less as ToCS has a very different tone than Persona. It definitely borrows a lot from that game in its setup, and most of the stuff it borrows it does not improve upon and kind of half-asses. That, however, is really the only main fault I found with the game. Sometimes the characters did frustrate me, as they tend to be so unfailingly nice and pure, I’d like to see an edge to at least some of them even if the main protagonist is as dull as a butter knife. There’s also a twist at the end of the game that felt rather forced and unnecessary, but I can’t say it really affected my enjoyment of the game. It also closes with some hints at what’s to come in the sequels with a positive spin on the gameplay. I do appreciate the wide scope of the game’s narrative, and it has a very ambitious feel to it. Hopefully Falcom can deliver on that front.

If you like the JRPG genre and have a Vita or PS3 handy, I do recommend Trails of Cold Steel. I do recommend with some trepidation as the series is unfinished, and there’s no promise the third game in the series will be released outside of Japan at this time. Its predecessor series, Trails in the Sky, was never concluded in the US and I’ll be disappointed if the same happens here. Though for now, I’ll enjoy what I have. Trails of Cold Steel isn’t the next big thing by any means, but it’s a game that’s done pretty well and gives hope that the JRPG is not a dying genre.


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