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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.