The Legend of Heroes is an extremely long-running and often-translated franchise. The first English release, The Legend of Heroes: A Tear of Vermillion came out for the PSP in the 2000s, and we’ve gotten many games in the series since then. However, the star of the show is probably the Trails sub-franchise of games, which are known for their length, complex world-building and inordinate amount of text. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is the most recent of this sub-franchise, taking place several years after the events of Trails in the Sky and its two Japanese-only follow-ups, Zero no Kisekiand Ao no Kiseki. While Cold Steel references other Zemurian events, it’s largely a self-contained game, but players should be prepared to drop into a fully developed world.
Cold Steel follows the story of Class VII of Thors Military Academy, which is located in the Erebonian Empire, one of the largest locations in the Trails setting. The empire is one of the strongest military powers in the region and mired in conflicts both internal and external. Even Thors is divided by social class, though Class VII is an experiment that attempts to unify the nobles and the commoners into a cohesive fighting unit. The protagonist is Rean Schwarzer, a newcomer who is promptly assigned to Class VII with other misfit would-be soldiers. All of Class VII has to figure out how to come together and fight as one as the threat of class conflict becomes more likely and a mysterious organization looks to spark a disastrous war.
Cold Steel is absolutely about world-building. While there is a fun plot, a good chunk of the game is spent learning about the world. You travel around and learn about the empire’s people and culture with the help of party members who have connections to the area you’re visiting. You can’t rush to finish the story in Cold Steel; instead, a lot of time is spent on the world’s culture, politics and social structure. It might be frustrating for players who like a more focused and structured plot. If you’re into world-building, Cold Steel does a fantastic job. The empire feels like a plausible place, and the game sets up the class conflict quite well.
Early on, especially as the game introduces you to a gigantic cast, very few feel like more than archetypes. For much of the opening segment, several characters, such as Alisa and Machias, come off as very one-note. As the game progresses, the characters open up and become more natural, but the early part of the game is rough. It’s a shame because the characters are genuinely likeable and can surprise you. The game does a good job of not being too predictable, and there are some neat plot twists. For some characters, it just takes a while to get there.
If there’s one core problem with the plot, it is that Trails of Cold Steel is the first game in a multi-game set. Trails of Cold Steel 2 is due out later this year, and Trails of Cold Steel 3 was recently announced for a Japanese release. I’m unable to speak for the gap between the second and third game, but the first game doesn’t end on a satisfactory note. If you’re willing to wait for the sequel, there is more than enough gameplay and plot to tide you over.
The structure of Cold Steel is similar to Persona 3. While it doesn’t follow an individual daily routine like Persona does, you have a set school year, and each time the plot advances, you go further along that year. Occasionally, it pauses so you can use a free day to explore, do side-quests and hang out with the characters to increase your friendship levels. It’s a more linear experience than Persona 3, but it feels similar, minus the strict time limit that Persona imposed. You won’t be able to see every character interaction in a single playthrough, but you don’t need to worry about running out of time to do side-quests.
The game follows a pretty predictable pattern. You get a free day and are given a few side-quests, some mandatory and some optional. Once you finish the quests, you’re tasked with going into the Old Schoolhouse, a dungeon that continues to expand month by month. Afterward, you partake in a field study that takes you to a distant part of the empire; this is where you get the bulk of your plot. Every so often, a boss fight pops up and requires you to take out a high-level enemy. You are graded on each of these things. While it’s impossible to fail your tasks, if you do well, you’ll be rewarded with academic points, which allow you to unlock special equipment and items.
Cold Steel follows in the footsteps of Trails in the Sky by including hidden, undocumented quests that can only be reached by talking to random people at random times. They represent a handful of potential AP but are enough to prevent you from unlocking top-tier items without them. There are other hidden items and secrets you’ll only discover if you spend time wandering around and talking to people. This is a plus for some people, but others may be extremely frustrated at the thought of spending time after every major plot event trying to find which person misplaced a pen. There are online FAQs that document these things, but obviously, playing through a game while adhering to an FAQ isn’t much fun, either.
Cold Steel uses a modified version of the combat engine originally seen in Trails in the Sky. The turn-based combat engine uses a time gauge to show character and enemy turn order, similar to Final Fantasy X or Grandia. Manipulating this time gauge is pretty important since you can deny enemy turns and special turn bonuses come up on certain turns. These bonuses can recover various stats, allow you to cast magic free of charge, get an instant critical hit or other powerful bonuses. Later in the game, you’ll unlock advanced bonuses. In order to ensure that your characters, and not the enemies, are getting the bonuses, you have to use special moves to manipulate the turn order. For example, there are special S-Breaks that allow you to instantly slot one of your characters into a space on the turn order but drain all of their CP, which is used for special moves.
Beyond that, combat is fairly traditional and hasn’t changed much from Trails in the Sky. Players have two kinds of special moves in addition to regular attacks. Crafts are character-specific special abilities that drain CP when used. CP recovers quickly while fighting but is harder to restore with items or abilities. In comparison, you have Arts, which are like traditional magic, use up EP and have a casting time. To do well in the game, you must balance Craft and Arts usage.
Cold Steel has added a new Link system. Each character in battle can link to another character. When two characters are linked, they can perform a linked combo attack. First, you have to put an enemy off-balance by hitting them with the right type of physical attack. Once an enemy is off-balance, the attacking character can summon his or her link partner for a follow-up attack. As the game progresses, you’ll unlock more link abilities, and you can swap in party members from the sidelines to quickly alter your party composition.
A particularly welcome feature of Cold Steel is that status effects are a big deal. You can see each enemy’s individual resistance and strength to status effects and take advantage of that with special moves and equipment. You might have to consider carefully based on your enemy loadout, but a wise choice of moves can make the game far easier. Many enemies have attacks that inflict dangerous status ailments, and properly kitting out your team is essential to survival. Good usage of status effects, especially on higher difficulties, can be the difference between easy victory and getting stomped into the ground.
The majority of player customization comes from the Quartz system, which was present in the previous Trails game but is here in a simplified form. Every character has an orbment, which is effectively a magical cell phone into which you can slot special crystals (quartz). Low-level quartz will allow the use of a magic spell or give a stat boost while high-level Quartz can do both at once, teach multiple spells, grant special passive bonuses or other features. Every orbment has a different setup of lines, which is how the orbment slots are connected. Some are long and others are short but have multiple paths. Characters with long lines, like Emma, are better at using magic spells because they have lots of EP and magic attack power. A character with short lines, like Rein, is better at physical attacks.
Combat is very do-or-die. Enemies hit extremely hard, but so do your party members, and a good chunk of combat is dedicated to figuring out the most effective ways to stack damage while denying turns to your foes. The default normal difficulty is a little easy, but the higher difficulties offer a nice challenge. You’re encouraged to spend every fight trying to figure out which combinations of abilities and moves defeat your enemies most effectively. Actions like killing multiple enemies at once, striking enemy weak points, or avoiding damage will earn bonuses that can stack nearly infinitely. It’s a cool challenge that keeps the combat feeling fresh. It means a lot of fights end before your enemy can even attack.
On a gameplay level, Cold Steel is a huge step up from Trails in the Sky. This is a little unfair since there are two Japanese-only games between the two, but it’s still an unavoidable fact. The in-game map and documentation does a better job of pointing out where things are and how to reach them, and the addition of a quick-travel feature helps save a lot of time. In general, the user interface is a lot better than its predecessor, and the core combat is a lot more engaging. There are some disappointments. The new quartz system is effectively a Materia clone and no longer allows for the juggling of quartz to access high-level spells. Of course, some may consider that change to be a positive.
As for the graphics, Cold Steel doesn’t look terrible, but the character models are simplistic and have pretty basic animation. The environments are varied, and there’s some excellent art design, but it’s hard to not notice the poor texture work in a lot of places. There were times when I was clearly supposed to be impressed by a visual, and I could only think of how I was staring at a blurry mass of textures. Fortunately, this is mitigated by a very spirited dub. There are a few missteps, but the voice acting is largely excellent, with characters conveying proper emotion and tone in every line. However, Rean mysteriously loses his voice acting in some otherwise fully voiced scenes. It’s inconsistent and pulls me right out of those scenes. The soundtrack is also wonderful and has a lot of excellent and memorable songs.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is an excellent, well-made RPG. The minor complaints are few and far between. The combat is fun, the story is engaging and the translation is top-notch. It suffers from some lackluster visuals and an unsatisfying cliffhanger ending, but that shouldn’t drive away RPG fans. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does everything well. If you’re in the mood for a lengthy, wordy and enjoyable JRPG, you’ll have a hard time finding a better option than Trails of Cold Steel.