An expertly forged adventure
If you’ve read my previous review on the recent entry in the The Legend of Heroes series, Trails in the Sky Second Chapter, you’ll know that it’s no secret I’m a dedicated fan of Falcom’s games. Aside from a few stumbles here and there (I’m looking at you, Ys V), their products are among some of the best to come from Japan. Even with their small studio size and lack of big-budget products, they somehow manage to almost constantly remain immensely enjoyable and expertly crafted. Suffice to say, I have been anticipating the release of their newest title to grace the west, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel, with bated breath. I am happy to say that for the most part, it was well worth the wait. In fact, I feel this is one of the strongest releases Falcom has put out to date.
Taking place in the country of Erebonia, a land only mentioned by name previously in the Trails in the Sky games, players take control of protagonist Rean Schwarzer, a young swordsman and native of the Ymir region of Erebonia, who has come to the town of Trista to attend the prestigious Thors Military Academy. Thors Military Academy, and especially the country of Erebonia as a whole, operates on a class-based heiarchy. Commoners and nobility are distinctly divided and practically segregated in their social roles, even all the way down to the Military Academy’s uniforms. Nobles wear white uniforms while commoners wear green. Things such as this have caused quite a rift upon the populace, leading to a Reformist Faction being created to fight for change against the conservative Four Houses of Nobles that want to keep the class system in place. Even from the start of the game it’s evident that tensions are mounting between the nobility and common folk.
Upon arriving at the academy Rean notices his uniform as well a few other students’ are red as opposed to the typical white and green. This is all explained shortly after as a part of a social experiment of sorts the academy is conducting. Rean and eight other students are among the gifted few displaying natural aptitude for newly developed Orbments (a staple item of the Trails series used to augment stats and use magic) called ARCUS units. These nine students have been placed into the same class regardless of social standing, which leads to some particularly interesting banter between some of them. Machias and Jusis in particular have a very clear rivalry going from the very first time they speak, for instance. As part of this newly formed “Class VII”, it falls on you to get Rean and his class put differences aside and not only work together to graduate from the academy, but to also solve the monster and, later on, socio-political problems plaguing Erebonia as of late.
For those previously accustomed to the Trails series, they will feel right at home when jumping into this game. The combat system remains largely unchanged, although there have been some tweaks and additions as part of the game’s new layout and transition to 3D. As mentioned earlier, Orbments are still the integral part of the game’s combat process. Each student is given an ARCUS Orbment unit early on in the game that they place different colored Quartz into, similar to Final Fantasy VII and its Materia system. This enables the use of magic called “Arts” to be used and effects stats based on what type of Quartz is equipped. Each student also has unique physical skills called “Crafts” that they can use which aid them and others in battle. Special overdrive attacks called “S-Crafts” can also be used when certain conditions are met. Combat is still range based, but no longer takes place on a grid due to the shift from 2D to 3D. Fighting itself also feels much faster paced due to some fine tuning, which is a welcome change as some fights in both parts of Trails in the Sky did feel as though they crawled along at times.
One notable change to combat is the addition of the “Link” system. Up to four party members can be in a battle at any given time, and using the Link system these characters can be “linked” to each other in groups of two. Using this system, you can have your linked teammate back you up when you target an enemy’s weakness and/or knock it off balance. This can be quite handy as some of the enemies in this game can prove to be quite difficult early on. Players develop these links with their fellow classmates in what is quite possibly the most noticeable and interesting departure from previous games. In almost seemingly Persona fashion at first glance, part of the game revolves spending time with your classmates and developing your bonds with them. The days in each chapter of the game are divided into day and night time segments, and clearing story based segments ends the day, so it’s up to you to spend your time wisely and maximize your bonding time with your classmates.
Although this may come across as a bit of a rip-off at first, and believe me, I was very skeptical at first when I noticed this was the path this particular part of the game was taking, it is surprisingly well done. Whereas games like Persona give you a very difficult choice often times by letting you only do one task per day to develop your bonds with your friends, Trails of Cold Steel takes a much more lenient approach and gives you a multitude of ways to form bonds with your classmates. Each school day you are given two “Bonding Points” as well as a bonus evening point on non-school days to spend with classmates. You can also improve your bonds through battling with them linked to you or each other, and even through playing an in-game card game together while taking the Empire’s elaborate train network to one of your many destinations. It pays off to increase your bonds with your fellow classmates as they learn additional skills to aid you in battle as their bond level with their connected classmate increases. This leads to a much deeper and enjoyable combat experience than featured in previous entries in the series.
Also of noticeable change is the departure from the seemingly staple “2D Sprite, 3D Environment” engine Falcom has been using since Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim for many of their games. This time around, Falcom has opted to use the engine developed for Ys: Memories of Celceta, originally for the Playstation Vita. The engine has been fine tuned to make the most of what the Celceta engine has to offer. Character models have many fine details modeled onto them, water displays some decent pixel shaders, and the enivronments display some subtle depth of field effects to make them “pop” more. In the sound department, Falcom hits their stride as usual with some amazing music to accompany a fun to play game. Whereas Trails in the Sky had more of a laidback, jazzy ensemble to back it up, Trails of Cold Steel leans more toward standard Falcom fare. Amongst the gentle, easy listening tunes of the towns are upbeat, fast paced battle themes sure to get your blood boiling (in a good way, mind you).
Writing, as always, is among one of Falcom’s strong suits, and they definitely hit the mark with this game. As mentioned earlier, much of the game is centered on socio-political strife in Erebonia between the commoners and nobility. Class VII is made up of people from all walks of life, and this shows through in their own well-written personalities and personal developments with each other. This is of course aided by XSEED’s as-usual amazingly well done localization process. Each character comes across as relatable and realistic, and nothing is lost in translation. On top of this, there is a ton of voice work in this game. While not every line is spoken, many key story segments have spoken dialogue, and all the voice actors do a great job of getting their character’s personality across. Not a single line comes across as lazy or phoned-in.
I’d like to say that Trails of Cold Steel is a nigh-perfect game, and in many regards it is. Unfortunately, there are a few downsides that keep it from being the absolute best it could be. While the game looks great for a Vita game, my review copy provided for PS3 didn’t look so good on my TV screen in my opinion. Some of the light shaders on characters just didn’t look right on the big screen, and many of the textures didn’t seem to translate too well either. The character models themselves are nicely detailed, but some animations can be fairly stiff at times, most notably Rean’s run cycle. Also, while there is a lot of spoken dialogue, Rean’s voice work seems inconsistent. There are some story segments where he is voiced, but others where he isn’t, yet the other classmates still are. This can cause a little bit of immersion breaking. Or at least, it did in my case.
Still, these are very minor nitpicks in an overall amazingly well put together game. Truly this ranks among one of the best Falcom games I have had the pleasure of playing. Whether it is on the PS3 or Vita, or both if you feel like double-dipping as Cross Save functionality is available, this is one RPG a diehard fan should not pass up. While players that have experience with the Trails series will be familiar with the game’s concepts, locales, and thematic elements, Trails of Cold Steel is enough of its own game to be welcoming to those new to the Trails franchise. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is not only a worthy continuation of the well-established and well received Trails series, it’s a fantastic evolution in all the right places.
Final Verdict: 5 / 5
Available on: Vita, PlayStation 3 (Reviewed); Publisher: XSEED Games ; Developer: Nihon Falcom ; Players: 1; Released: December 22, 2015 ; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review code provided by The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel’s publisher, XSEED Games.