This review isn’t my first experience with The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II. Because of that, the game, and all of its masterfully crafted twists and turns that it throws at its players, didn’t catch me off-guard. Its ups, its downs, its similes, and its frowns — I knew that all of it was coming. There was one thing that I realized, though, while playing through this game again. Something that, while I had already known it to be true beforehand, really sunk in when I went toe-to-toe with this game once again — the fact that this seriously one of the best video game sequels that I’ve ever seen.
Making a series’ overarching plot span across multiple, interconnected games isn’t something new in the realm of video games, but there’s something about the way that Trails of Cold Steel does it that just lets you know that Nihom Falcom is dedicated to making things be the very best that they could possibly be. They were clearly just as dedicated to Class VII as they hope the players to be (which I totally am), and that kind of dedication really enhances the overall quality of the game in a way that no amount of technical could ever hope to completely replicate.
Taking place approximately one month after the events of its predecessor, Trails of Cold Steel II begins with protagonist Rean Schwarzer who, after using Valimar to flee from Crow, finds himself waking up from a month-long coma atop a barren, snowy mountain. Fearing for the worst, Rean quickly makes his way to his hometown of Ymir (with a little bit of help, naturally), only to find out that those fears of his have very much been realized. While Ymir may still be okay for the time being, the same can’t be said for the rest of Erebonia. During Rean’s snow-filled slumber, the Noble Faction has seized a great deal of Erebonia, including Thors Military Academy, and has officially deemed the entirety of Class VII as criminals — scattering them throughout the continent. Fortunately, all isn’t lost, as Valimar just so happens to know the general location of each of Rean’s companion’s locations. Thus, with only the sword on his back, and a sentient, teleporting mech at his side, Rean sets out for an adventure that will determine the fate of everything that he holds dear.
While the extreme tonal shift between the two Trails of Cold Steel games may be obvious from the very beginning, what might be less obvious is just how well it shows off Nihon Falcom’s ability to tell a story. Yes, it may be a direct sequel to a game that ended on a cliffhanger, but, direct sequel or not, it’s almost shocking how differently Trails of Cold Steel II‘s beginning is when taking its predecessor into consideration. The first game is literally setting itself up to be a school-based RPG more akin to something along the lines of the modern Persona games, only for the sequel to be like “nah, we’re going to start this one out with Rean almost dying alongside a magic-powered mech and a talking cat in the middle of nowhere”. To say that the game starts out strong would be putting it lightly, and, despite this, it manages only get more exciting as the game goes on. Ripping the school component, one of the first game’s core narrative elements, out entirely was an incredibly risky move, and the fact that Trails of Cold Steel manages to thrive in spite of this is a testament to the series’ ability to tell a story.
Trails of Cold Steel II‘s story isn’t the only thing about it that’s undergone change — its gameplay has as well. In the beginning, or rather, the entire first half of the game, Trails of Cold Steel II plays very much like its predecessor. The player is forced to go from location to location as the story goes along, completing a bevy of mandatory and optional missions as they do, with little to no chance to backtrack. Added to this familiarly linear gameplay is the ability to explore what are known as “Shrines” — small, optional areas which both look and feel the same as Cold Steel‘s abandoned schoolhouse — within each area, as well as the ability to kick back at Ymir from time to time in order to deepen your bonds with your classmates. Despite the change in home base scenery, as well as the story-related stress, it becomes very easy to slip back into the Trails of Cold Steel routine during the beginning of this game. The gameplay, while still a tad annoying with how constrictive it is, is fun and just as high-quality as it’s ever been… but all of that changes during the second half of the game.
Thanks to a certain benefactor literally handing over an airship to Rean and the rest of Class VII, players’ horizons broaden very quickly during Act II — both literally and metaphorically. That’s right, baby, I’m talking about free travel! Woo! Now, normally I wouldn’t make such a big deal of a game letting players freely travel around the game. It’s a pretty common practice, after all. However, if you know even the slightest thing about the first Trails of Cold Steel game, then you know that, while it offers plenty of unique places to explore, you’re never in any one area for long. Heck, it’s even that way for half of this game. Because of that, I’m sure that you could see how this would be a literal game-changer.
Of course, I’m sure that some of you are worried about this messing up the flow of the game. And to those people, I’ll tell you to rest easy. While there is a bit of a shift in pacing, it’s all for the better. Allowing players to explore areas with a greater amount of leisure does wonders in reducing how stressful its collect-a-thons can be, but the game also never goes so far as to entirely stray away from its initial formula. It’s an expansion of gameplay that not only makes sense in terms of the game’s story but the next step in a series that has been naturally expanding and evolving from the very get-go.
Clashes of Cold Steel
Compared to everything going on in this game, Trails of Cold Steel II‘s combat has changed the least. Rather than actually morphing the battle system into something new, Trails of Cold Steel II sought to add small bits and pieces to what was already there — kind of like the sprinkles on top of an already delicious cupcake. The most noticeable way that the game accomplishes this is through pre-strengthening all of the player’s characters. Given what Class VII has already gone through it would be weird to set them all back at Level 1, so, instead, the game begins with Rean & co. beginning at a healthy level 40 or higher (depending on when they join), with all previously learned Crafts still in-tact and all ARCUS slots unlocked — thus allowing characters to learn even more new Crafts, and powered-up versions of some of their old ones. Each characters ARCUS, then, needs to be powered up in order to equip rare Quartz in lieu of simply unlocking slots.
In terms of actual mid-combat mechanics, Overdrive is Trails of Cold Steel II‘s biggest gimmick for players to play around with. A natural progression of the Link system, the Overdrive, when activated, allows a pair of characters to act 3 times back-to-back (that’s in total, not per character, mind you), while automatically healing and getting a temporary stat buff in the process. As with the rest of the Link mechanics, Overdrives serves as a powerful tool for players to utilize but isn’t so strong that it can help them brute-force their way through things as they please. Additionally, after a certain point, Rean will also have the ability to become rather…. “beastly”, shall we say (sorry, I’m trying to avoid spoilers!), giving players yet another trump card to throw down when times get tough.
Valimar’s also back in action, and this time around you get to use him more than one time! Typically occurring after boss battles, and during certain parts of the story, Valimar battles are less about using the terrain to your advantage, and more so about using what knowledge and resources you have to come out on top. Because you’re almost always outnumbered (or overpowered), toppling opponents and building up CP by hitting their weak spots is typically the name of the game. Fights aren’t all about strength, however. By using properly timed counters, as well as the abilities of your Secondary Contractor — one of the other members of Class VII, who can support Valimar and attack foes with Arts — even the most ferocious enemies can be taken down… even if it does take you a few tries. Although foreign in comparison with normal battles, Valimar’s presence isn’t a bad thing at all, and his fights offer a nice break from monotony.
Unbreakable Bonds, Unforgettable Adventures
While I’ve done my very best to explain just what it is that makes a game like The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II so wonderful, I’m not sure that my words truly do it justice. It’s an amazing game worth any JRPG fan’s time, and absolutely one worth checking out when you have the time and money to do so (with special emphasis on “time”). With the series’ third installment finally on its way Westward, and the first two games now incredibly easy to access thanks to their PlayStation 4 (and PC!) re-release, there has never been a better time time to see for yourself how great of a sequel Trails of Cold Steel II truly is… after you play the first Trails of Cold Steel, of course!
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), PC; Publisher: XSEED Games, Mervelous USA, Inc.; Developer: Nihon Falcom; Players: 1; Released: June 4, 2019; 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.