Cold Steel is a Real Trailblazer
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is definitely a game that’s earned its proverbial stripes, and I am more than happy that it’s finally made its way onto the PlayStation 4. Having initially debuted on the PlayStation 3, jumping over to the Vita, and then undergoing an upgrade before releasing on PC hitting the PS4, Trails of Cold Steel has proudly withstood the test of time, transcending into something that I consider to be a modern-day classic. Even as it’s started to come along in years, there’s something about it that just exudes a unique and refreshing energy that refuses to age alongside the rest of it. Some of that might have cheesy, but that’s okay. Trails of Cold Steel is a wonderful game, and it’s more than worth its weight in Colby-Jack.
If I’m being honest, I feel as though this game has hit the point where it doesn’t really need an introduction anymore. Describing the game is kind of part of my job, though, so I’ll be giving you a quick overview regardless. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel stars none other than the young and soon-to-be-illustrious Rean Schwarzer as he enters his first year at the highly prestigious Thors Military Academy. Unbeknownst to Rean, however, is the fact that, despite having just enrolled, his academic career is one which will be very different from the rest of his classmates. He, along with six others, has been selected to be a part of Class VII — a very new, very special, and very rigorous class for the creme de la creme of Thors. It won’t just be exams and fieldwork that Class VII will have to deal with, though. Despite just being students, Rean & co. will soon find themselves entangled within a plot that will decide the fate of Thors, the country of Erebonia, and perhaps even the entire world — whether they like it or not.
There are a lot of things that stand out to me about Trails of Cold Steel‘s story. However, if I had to pick just one thing, it would be its world-building. Despite its incredibly lore-heavy premise, something which I actually tend to shy away from most of the time, Trails of Cold Steel manages to keep its narrative both highly engaging and in a constant state of movement (there’s seriously never a dull moment). This, in turn, is all thanks to its characters. Despite the vast and unique world (well, country I guess) that is Erebonia, it would be empty without a cast of characters to help keep it alive. And boy, do Trails of Cold Steel‘s characters ever keep things alive. Even more importantly, they do this in a way that makes things feel natural. Now, obviously, as a JRPG, you can expect this game to have some character tropes. And it does. But it’s never anything over-the-top. Despite having already played through this game in its entirety before, I couldn’t help but once again get swept away with just how believable (as far as JRPG characters go, anyway) everyone felt. It’s fair to say that Nihon Falcom has given not just Rean, but every major character — or perhaps just every character period — an incredibly solid foundation from which they may grow within the next three games following this one. It doesn’t try to rush everyone’s stories at once. Rather, it nurtures each of the characters throughout this first in the four Trails of Cold Steel games, giving them some immediate growth, while allowing for ample growth in the future as well.
Trails of Linear Progression
The tongue-in-cheek sub-header probably already clued you in on what I’m about to say, but, even after all of these years, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel has got to be one of the most linear JRPGs that I’ve ever played. It still kind of baffles me to this day, to be honest. Despite having a fairly traditional setup in terms of being a JRPG, and keeping hold of many JRPG-esque elements throughout its duration, Trails of Cold Steel‘s pacing is anything but. You know how the Tails games are infamous for having very short time frames for a lot of its extras? Take that, and apply it to most of the game. That’s Trails of Cold Steel. With the exception of Thors and the surrounding city of Trista, every area in this game is a one-and-done kind of deal. The completionist side of me, of course, is driven absolutely crazy by this. I like being able to backtrack, and I think that most other people do as well. And with the way this game works, I can’t do that. Fortunately, there’s a handy little feature called “New Game+” that lets you go back and collect everything you missed — unless you miss it again — but still, the fact that you have to spend so much time obsessively pouring through an online guide painstakingly combing through everything can frazzle those of us who like to pick up every last item and view every single cutscene.
Looking at Trails of Cold Steel‘s hyper-linear method of progression more objectively, however, it’s actually pretty neat. Class VII is just that — a class. They can’t spend their time cruising around Erebonia at their leisure (they’ll have to wait until Trails of Cold Steel II for that!) — Thors decides where they go for them. Because of this, the game really ends up making you appreciate each area more, and discourages you from rushing around. Even without taking things like being a completionist into consideration, there are a lot of neat things to find within the world of Trails of Cold Steel that would be a shame to miss. And, when a game imposes a strict time limit for each area like this game does, you come to appreciate every little thing that you encounter that much more.
Trails of Cold Steel also appears to be aware of just how linear it is and tries to make itself appear less so for the sake of the player. Each chapter within the game, generally speaking, is split up into two parts; school, and field studies. And no, I don’t mean “school” in a Persona-kind of way. Rather, the school portion of each chapter is quest-oriented. Due to some fast-talking by his instructor, Sara, Rean gets to help out the Student Counsel every month by completing various tasks for them. Ranging from delivering important pieces of equipment to finding lost notebooks, players will find themselves doing mundane tasks that, through some way or another, generally end up getting interesting somewhere along the way. And, of course, each of these sections always ends with an obligatory visit to Thors’ abandoned schoolhouse (it makes sense if you play the game, trust me).
The field study portions of each chapter, then, deal with areas not related to Thors. Each chapter will see Rean and a selection of his classmates (which are pre-determined, sadly) setting out to one of the major cities within the Erebonian Empire — and perhaps even to areas beyond — in order to improve themselves as members of Class VII and to help out those in need. Ultimately, this does mean that you’ll just be running more errands, but it’s not just a re-hash of what you did while at Thors. Field study quests are often much more robust and diverse, with many playing handily into the game’s story, and, thanks to the change in scenery, always feel fresh and new.
The Arts and Crafts of War
Trails of Cold Steel‘s polished combat mechanics also really help to give this series a running start. Following in the footsteps of its Trails in the Sky predecessor, Trails of Cold Steel features a highly strategic form of turn-based combat which tasks players with not only carefully choosing their moves, but the placement of their characters as well. Rather than being confined to a single space, a la most mainstream JRPGs such as those in the Shin Megami Tensei or Dragon Quest franchises, both allies and enemies are able to move around the battlefield as they fight. Character placement affects a lot of things, including which enemies you’re able to hit, and, should enemies be clustered, how many you can hit with a single attack. The enemies have the same mechanics to work with, of course, and proper defensive placement becomes absolutely imperative the later you move on. Because Trails of Cold Steel‘s combat focuses players to focus on more than just their attacks, combat can, and will, get incredibly difficult, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it isn’t also a lot of fun once you get the hang of it.
Character placement isn’t the only strategic combat-related element that this game has going for it, though. Each character has two unique sets of skills, known as Arts and Crafts (which I really hope is supposed to be some kind of a pun). Crafts are mostly physical, entirely character-specific, and are learned naturally as each character levels up. Arts are the polar opposite in every way. Set up as this game’s version of magic, Arts are gained when a character equips an item known as a “Quartz” into their ARCUS (which you can basically look at as a skill tree). Unlike with Crafts, Arts are not permanent — you only know an Art if you have its corresponding Quartz equipped. Additionally, there are Quartz which don’t teach Arts, but are solely used to boost stats, making Quartz placement something that you really need to take some time thinking about. And, if that doesn’t convince you, I can confirm firsthand that haphazardly equipping Quartz onto characters will result in them having a bad time.
Last, but certainly not least, there are Links. A literal case of your friends being your power, Linking two characters together will allow them to support one another in combat in a variety of ways. This support is limited in the beginning, with linked characters only being able to perform follow-up attacks (known as “Assists”), but as they battle together (or if you choose to spend time with them as Rean), linked characters will eventually be able to provide support in more ways, such as by healing an injured ally or jumping in the way of an enemy attack. Players are also able to stack what are known as “Bravery Points” after a certain point within the game, which are gained by performing Assists, and can be used to perform powerful all-out attacks known as Rushes and Bursts. And, yes, just as with everything else, mastering Links is integral to your survival in this game.
Seeing as this is the fourth time Trails of Cold Steel has been released, you might be wondering if this version has anything new added into it. And, lucky you, it does! Originally featured within the PC version of the game, this “definitive version” of Trails of Cold Steel comes with several new features which greatly enhance the overall quality of life, including dual audio, 4k/60FPS support, the ability to transfer saves from the PS3 and Vita versions of the game, over 5,000 additional voiced lines, and, best of all, a turbo mode! That might not seem like much to some of you, but it really is amazing that they included all this extra stuff, and the fact that they went back and added in so many new spoken lines into a game that made its US debut in 2015. If you’ve ever had doubts about Nihon Falcom caring about its fans, you can shoo those away right now.
An Exciting Future
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel may not be able to hide its grey hairs any longer, but age is the only possibly negative thing that this game has going for it. Having already been a phenomenal game upon its initial release, and only finding itself bolstered even further after receiving a nice little care package of quality of life improvements, Trails of Cold Steel isn’t a game that you want to skip out on if you’re even remotely interested in JRPGs — and the best is still yet to come!
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), PC ; Publisher: XSEED Games ; Developer: Nihon Falcom ; Players: 1 ; Released: March 26, 2019 ; ESRB: T for Teen ; MSRP: $49.99
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.