A Truly Excellent Sequel
When I reviewed The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel, I described the game as “system-defining”. That, during its initial run on the PlayStation 3, it just felt like one of those games that RPG-loving system owners “just had to play”. The same can be said for PC too, really. It’s subjective, I know. But that didn’t stop the from being good enough to warrant an opinion like that in the first place. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II manages to emanate just as much quality in that respect. And it’s because of that quality that I can happily point to it and say something along the lines of “now this is how you handle a sequel.”
As a sequel, Trails of Cold Steel II does a lot of things correctly. So many things, in fact, that I’m not even sure where to start. Nihon Falcom manages to take almost everything that was great about the first game and improve upon it. Or, at worst, keep the (already high) level of quality the same. In all honesty, just playing through the game is a big investment. There’s a lot going on in terms of both gameplay and story. The game tends to demand your full attention and understanding. And Aidios help you if you haven’t played Trails of Cold Steel first. But, for those who did play the game and liked it (and why wouldn’t you have?), then you’re in for a real treat with this one.
Oh, and fair warning; there will be spoilers for the first Trails of Cold Steel!
Setting the Stage
Trails of Cold Steel II‘s story picks up right on the cliffhanger that the first game ended on, with Rean who, after losing to Crow during the coup on Thors Military Academy by the Noble Faction and fleeing alongside Celine on Valimar, finds himself waking up in the middle of a cold and desolate mountain after a month-long slumber. Naturally, it doesn’t take long to decide upon finding the rest of Class VII — all of whom he had last seen risking their lives to protect him as he made his escape. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be easy. In the short month that Rean was sleeping, the Noble Faction seized control of not only Thors but other parts of Erebonia as well, and have branded all of Class VII as wanted criminals. And, as Rean will soon find out, things are only going to get worse from there.
Although CS2‘s narrative does a lot of things correctly, the storytelling really shines through — at least in my opinion — when it comes to connecting all of the dots originally set up by its predecessor. Although CS1 no doubt has a good story, it’s obvious that a lot of it is setup. And, while setup is a normal thing in most games, the amount of setup presented in CS1 is staggering. The game constantly throws new characters, terms, and mysteries at the player, only ever bothering to answering a handful of them. But that’s what makes CS2‘s story so darn satisfying. Not only does it address many of the most prominent issues CS1 left us in the dark about, but it manages to do so in a way that feels completely natural. The amount of narrative payoff that this game has is incredibly impressive.
You can’t overlook Class VII either. Having already done quite a bit of growing up, Rean & co. are able to act with an additional level of maturity and confidence in CS2 that manages to be noticeable without ever being overbearing. In a way, it almost feels like you’re growing up with them. Character growth is often times subtle, but always consistent. It’s legitimately enjoyable to watch (and help!) them carve their own path, and fight for what they believe is right.
The Same, Yet Different
Trails of Cold Steel II divides itself into two separate “Acts”. Act I plays out exactly like the entirety of CS1. Players are taken to a specific area to search for Class VII members, go through a town and a few dungeons, fight a boss, and are whisked away back to Ymir. Each area contains a few side-quests that players can partake in, but things are incredibly linear other than that. You can’t really backtrack much during these parts. There aren’t a whole lot of extra places to wander around in, either. Being as narrative-centric as it is, the game tends to make sure that you never stay off-track for too long.
Act I isn’t completely devoid of differences, though. For starters, there’s the inclusion of Shrines. Taking the place of CS1‘s Old Schoolhouse, players can find a number of Shrines scattered throughout Erebonia. Although optional during this portion of the game, they make for a fun and profitable diversion. Choosing to do them earlier gives you additional cutscenes, and chance to gain additional EXP, mira, and items. Early investigation is also absolutely vital if you’re trying to net as much AP as possible. There are also Trial Chests hidden within each area. Rather than containing items, Trial Chests contain special bosses which must be fought with pre-determined characters. They’re tough, but the extra Overdrive (more on that later) options are absolutely worth the trouble.
Act II is where the game really takes off, though. And I actually mean that literally, in this case. Thanks to a timely series of events and a massive stroke of luck (which I won’t go into for the sake of spoilers), Trails of Cold Steel II gives you one of the most precious gifts that any video game can give you; free travel! It might sound like I’m overselling it here, but I’m not. While it does compliment the game’s narrative, I wasn’t terribly fond of how overly linear the series was up until this point. Part of the fun of an RPG is being able to explore areas to your heart’s content. I was very happy to see that CS2 actually presents players with the opportunity to do so.
It’s important to keep in mind though that “free travel” doesn’t mean “no restrictions”, though. CS2 may give you the opportunity to re-visit areas, but that doesn’t mean a second chance at missed opportunities. The game still puts a severe time limit on things like completion of quests, and the acquisition of certain recipes and items. Heck, I’m pretty sure that the fishing areas (outside of Ymir) don’t even respawn. Still, it’s a good compromise. And it’s one that I can accept. The ability to travel around Erebonia at will is probably the most refreshing change that this game could possibly introduce. I most definitely welcome it.
Fights of Fancy
Rather than wildly changing things up when it comes to combat, Trails of Cold Steel II makes the intelligent decision to largely keep things the same. Battles are once again turn-based, with tactical elements thrown in for good measure. Players are not only responsible for character actions, but character placement on the battlefield as well. Many offensive and defensive skills have an effect radius. Clustering your party together is a great idea when buffing, for instance. It can become disastrous, however, when facing enemies capable of hitting multiple targets at once. Which is pretty much every enemy in the game.
Abilities divided into Arts — the game’s version of magic — and Crafts — powerful, character-specific skills — and, while they function the same as they always have, they way in which they’re acquired works a little differently. Players are once again able to customize each character’s Arts by equipping various kinds of Quartz to their ARCUS. All ARCUS slots are immediately open this time around, and instead must be upgraded in before Rare and Super Rare Quartz can be equipped. Party members also start out with their previous Craft skillsets mostly in-tact, instead learning upgraded versions of Crafts and, in some cases, entirely new crafts altogether. Last, but certainly not least, ARCUS Links are also back, allowing players to pair up party members in order to receive unique benefits mid-combat.
Although much of CS2‘s combat is similar to CS1‘s, not everything is the same. Bulking up Class VII’s already intimidating repertoire of abilities is the newly introduced Overdrive feature, which allows Linked characters to perform three actions back-to-back. Additionally, Overdrive recovers a significant amount of HP, EP, and CP, and allows characters to cast Arts instantly. Overdrive does take a while to charge up, meaning you can’t use it willy-nilly. When used effectively, however, it can really help turn the tables mid-battle. It’s also worth noting that only Rean can initiate Overdrive with every character right away. Other Overdrive pairs must be unlocked by defeating bosses within Trial Chests. Trial Chests are a neat idea, but due to the fact that characters don’t all level simultaneously clearing them can be a hassle sometimes.
Valmir is also back, and plays a significantly larger roll this time around. During certain parts of the game, players will engage in what are essentially turn-based mech battles. Acting similarly to the few that occurred at the end of CS1, these battles are significantly more basic than normal battles. Taking away the tactical element of character placement, Valimar battles instead require players to target and attack specific parts of their enemy. Attacking the correct part results in an increased opportunity to perform follow-up attacks. Additional combat features are added as the game progresses, and eventually Rean can even summon Valimar into battle (for the hefty price of 500 EP). Despite being a gigantic mech, Valimar’s presence isn’t overwhelming in the slightest. It instead manages to add just the right amount of uniqueness into CS2‘s combat.
Looking Toward the Future
Regardless of how you look at it, there’s not getting past the fact that The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II is an outstanding example of what a video game sequel should strive for. It not only utilizes the elements that made the first game great in terms of both story and gameplay, but builds upon in them such a way that makes the game feel fresh while still retaining all of the Trails of Cold Steel Charm you’ve (undoubtedly) grown to love. If you’re even slightly interested in this game, I more than recommend that you check it out. Make sure you play CS1 first, though!
FINAL VERDICT: 4.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed) ; Publisher: XSEED Games, Mervelous USA, Inc. ; Developer: Nihon Falcom ; Players: 1 ; Released: February 14, 2018 ; 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 II given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.