Heading back to school with a smile
Those of us out there who have been gaming for most of our lives could pretty easily list off a few “system-defining” games when asked. Games that you could proudly point as being a prime example of what that system has going on for it. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is a perfect example of this. It’s an incredibly accurate embodiment of what the glorious era of the PS3 JRPG era had to offer — and a darn fun game, to boot. You probably don’t need me telling you that last part, though.
Naturally, I jumped at the chance to journey back to Thors Military Academy. Excited as I was to return however, I wondered how well the game would hold up. The PS3 is in kind of a weird spot. It’s not new any more, but it’s also not old to the point of being retro. It’s just kind of… outdated? And I’ll be honest with you — that outdated-ness is apparent from the game from the very start of the game. It didn’t take me too long to forget about that, though. Old(ish, sort of) though it may be, it soon became apparent that nothing was going to hold this game back from being just as engaging as it was when it first came out.
Welcome to Thors
Trails of Cold Steel‘s lengthy narrative begins with a young man named Rean Schwarzer, a freshly enrolled student at Thors Military Academy, having arrived in Trista — the city in which the academy is located. As the name may imply, Thors is an elite military school attended by young adults — primarily those who live within the Erebonian Empire. Thors is a particularly prestigious school, and many who attend go on to do great things. Thors only accepts the best of the best.
And ol’ Rean just so happens to be the be the best of the best of the best. Well, him and eight other students. You see, while Rean assumed that his time there would be just like everyone else’s (he’s a JRPG protagonist, like that‘s ever going to happen), the academy had different plans. Initially unbeknownst to him, Rean was enlisted in Class VII — an extremely small class, comprised of the nine newly enrolled students with the most combat potential. It’s a very interesting beginning, but make sure that you’re actively paying attention to what’s going on. There’s a lot of information to take in.
Politics as Usual
I have to give credit to how this game handles the pacing of its story. When a game deals with politics (fictional or otherwise), details are usually important. Very important. And boy, let me tell you, this game is no exception. I had more made-up territories, wars, and alliances thrown at me than I knew what to do with. But not all at once.
Rather than giving you some ungodly long dossier, filled to the brim with fictional history, Trails of Cold Steel tends to feed you information in a way that is much easier to digest. To be fair, it isn’t always perfect. I couldn’t remember every single thing. But, as someone who tends to stop paying attention after a while if too much lore is thrown at me in a short amount of time (depending on the situation, anyway), I realized that I could remember Trails of Cold Steel‘s political goings on much more easily than normal.
Trails of Cold Steel also does a phenomenal job with character development, especially with conflict resolution. Instead of setting up and resolving problems between characters all at once, problems start and end on their own schedule. Much like how we are in real life, each character handles problems differently, and for different periods of time. It isn’t entirely without tedium —many chapters have sub-arcs dedicated to having Rean address the quarrels between his classmates (the game even points this out) — but it’s handled well overall. And, while it doesn’t technically improve the story, the added spoken dialogue added to the game really livened up certain scenes as well.
In contrast to the exciting, dangerous, and somewhat whimsical story, Trails of Cold Steel‘s chapter-based gameplay is surprisingly rigid. Seeing as how Thors is an academy, it shouldn’t be all too shocking to know that Class VII isn’t exempt from normal school activities. When they aren’t off traveling the continent, they’re studying, participating in clubs, and hanging out with friends. If you’re looking to do those kinds of things yourself, you’re mostly out of luck. Trails of Cold Steel‘s story-focused gameplay doesn’t allow for too much messing around. And, while there are certain points where you can form bonds with your friends, they aren’t the core focus of the game. Nor are any of the other side-activities. This isn’t Persona 3. Or 4. Or 5.
Instead, gameplay revolves around completing quests. Quests are primarily issues through one of two sources. The beginning of each chapter will have you running errands for the Student Counsel, and generally involve menial tasks. You may find yourself delivering books for a store, running errands for a friend, or even helping some creepy kid find his lost stickers. Oh, you’ll also go to an old, haunted schoolhouse. A lot.
After finishing your Student Counsel chores and taking your monthly practical exam (which is, of course, a boss fight), you’ll be whisked away to another part of the Erebonian Empire (and sometimes, even further beyond), for your field study. In terms of story and aesthetics, each new area is incredibly diverse. From a gameplay perspective however, it’s more of the same quest-completing action. Most of these quests end up bit more involved or, in the case of monster-hunting, dangerous than those at school, but the same formula still applies.
At the end of each chapter, the game will grade you based on your performance. Along with mandatory quests, there are optional quests, and even hidden quests (which are really annoying to find), that you can complete. Completing these optional quests improves your grade. Participating in certain activities and answering certain questions can also boost your grade. Basically, the more you do, the better your result. While this has the potential to drag certain points of the game out, it doesn’t. Hidden quests aside, most optional tasks are relatively easy to complete, and rewarding.
After reading this, you might be thinking that the game is repetitive. And in a way, it is. But you don’t realize that when you’re playing it. In all honesty, it wasn’t until I was writing this that I became actively aware of how cut-and-dry the gameplay actually is. Sure, I noticed that I was doing a lot of the same things, but it never felt the same. You’re traveling to new places and uncovering more of the story at such a clip that each excursion is just as exciting as the last.
Dungeon Crawling 101
It might sound ironic, but I kind of forget that Trails of Cold Steel is a dungeon crawler. Between the lengthy initial setup of each chapter and the frequent boss battles, there’s always a lot of time in between exploring each new dungeon. But, well, once you’re there, it’s some pretty classic (not to mention basic) dungeon-crawling.
There isn’t actually much to say about the game’s dungeon-crawling segments. Most dungeons are fairly short and, other than the occasional need to backtrack in order to pick up some treasure or to flip a switch, straightforward. Oh, there are also usually a lot of monsters. That one’s kind of obvious, though.
Fortunately, linear dungeon-crawling isn’t the only kind of exploration that Trails of Cold Steel has going for it. In between dungeons, you’ll find yourself exploring the outskirts of each land that you visit. In contrast with how dungeons are set up, exploring the great outdoors allows for a bit more freedom. This is especially true in the Nord Highlands which, to my delight, were bigger than some of the game’s cities. Trails of Cold Steel‘s aesthetics are very pretty, especially considering when the game first came out — and the graphical boost that the Steam version got makes it all the prettier. …Assuming that your computer can handle it.
This too was imperfect, however. While there may be more space to cover during your outdoor adventures, there’s typically less to do. Save the occasional person to talk to, all you’ll be doing is fighting monsters. Even the Nord Highlands were barren of extra activities — a disappointing waste of potential.
At Arms, Men!
Trails of Cold Steel doesn’t provide anything new, in terms of combat (which makes sense, given its original 2013 release date), but it does do what it does well. Seriously. Even with its occasional clunkiness, this game still holds up by 2017 standards. Fights are turn-based, with each character’s Speed stat determining when their turn arrives. Range and movement are also important. Instead of being affixed to a certain location (a la Final Fantasy), characters are capable of moving around the battlefield (a la Hypderdimension Neptunia). Not only is this important due to each attack have a limited range, but it also allows you to strategically place your party members.
Taking the place of magic and skills, are Arts and Crafts… which work exactly the same as magic and skills. Arts are the game’s form of magic. They’re typically more powerful than physical attacks and Crafts, but take time to charge up. While it may be frustrating to some at first, it isn’t hard to get in the groove of correctly timing your Arts. Arts are not learned by leveling up, but instead by equipping items known as Quartz on characters. This ends up being a bit of a double-edged sword, as you can transfer Arts between allies easily, but may have a hard time setting up different party members with similar Arts due to the high rarity of certain Quartz.
Crafts, on the other hand, are skills that characters learn as they level up. The polar opposite of Arts, Crafts are primarily physical attacks and support skills. Crafts are incredibly versatile, but characters, unfortunately, learn them rather slowly. Each character also has a special skill, known as an S-Craft. Although extremely powerful, using an S-Crafts depletes that character’s entire reserve of Craft Points (which you need to use Crafts), so think before you act.
Finally, there are Combat Links. Good old Combat Links. Combat Links allow you to link two active party members together. In the beginning, linking doesn’t do much more than allow a character to perform a follow-up attack. As the bonds between your party members grow stronger however, they’ll be able to do more — like finishing off damaged enemies, and healing allies after they’ve been attacked. Combat Links naturally grow stronger through battle, but can receive huge boosts by spending time with characters and through story events. It takes some time before they’re actually all that useful, but buffing up Combat Links is well worth it in the end.
Something Worth Fighting For
Let’s get this out of the way. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is outdated. Its graphics are old, and its gameplay is occasionally clunky. But none of that matters. Regardless of how you slice it, Trails of Cold Steel is an excellent JRPG. It’s got a great story, fun gameplay, and promises an all-around good time for anyone who decides to pick it up. So hey, what are you waiting for? Thors Military Academy is calling you!
FINAL VERDICT: 4/5
Available on: PC ; Publisher: XSEED Games, Marvelous USA, Inc ; Developer: Nihon Falcom ; Players: 1 ; Released: August 2, 2017 ; ESRB: T for Teen ; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel given to Hey Poor Player by the Publisher