A Real Class (VII) Reunion
So I’m going to start this review with a little confession. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III? You know, the sequel that we’ve been waiting forever to get localized and the game that I’m literally reviewing right now? Yeah, well, there was a part of me that was just the teeniest bit apprehensive about playing it. Don’t get me wrong or anything. I was excited to play it—very excited, as a matter of fact—but it looked like a lot of things were going to be changing right off the bat… and you know how poorly franchises have been handling major changes lately. Granted, this game did come out in Japan two years ago, and I could have looked up everything then, but that would have kind of defeated the purpose of waiting for the localized version to come out, you know? So, yeah, changes are something that Trails III has a lot of—but I’ll tell you right now that, having finally played it, you’ve got nothing to worry about, and everything to look forward to.
Hopefully, you already know what went down in the first two Trails games (and trust me, a lot went down), because Trails III takes place a whopping year-and-a-half after the climactic end of its predecessor, and doesn’t hesitate at all to get into the thick of it as quickly as possible. Trails III picks up with Rean Schwarzer heading to the newly established Thors Military Academy Branch Campus. This time, however, Rean isn’t heading back to school a student, but as an instructor—and the instructor of the new Class VII, no less! Of course, just because Rean recently graduated from Class VII doesn’t mean that he’ll have an easy time filling in Instructor Sara’s old shoes. But teaching isn’t the only thing that Rean, and the entirety of class VII have to worry about. With political unease blanketing the entirety of Erebonia in an uncomfortable sense of foreboding, and yet another war looming around the corner, it will once again be up to Class VII—both the old and new—to rise to the many occasions to which they are called.
It’s no secret that Trails is a series that prides itself on its narrative prowess, and Trails of Cold Steel III just might be the series’ best entry yet in that regard. Having gotten most of its narrative setup out of the way during the first two games, Trails III‘s story isn’t one which slows down much—if at all. While you could easily complement any part of this game’s story, what impressed me the most was the way in which it handles Class VII. Remember how I said that I was worried about certain parts of this game? Well, “certain parts” basically all boils down to the fact that they swapped out a cast of characters that I spent two games and countless hours falling in love with (the old Class VII) with an entirely new group of students (except for Altina, I guess). But, lo and behold, Falcom came through for me in that regard. While it’s hard to put it into exact words, there’s something about the way that Trails III introduces characters that allows them to seamlessly blend in with everyone, and everything, else that’s already there—all while making sure to pay older characters their due respects, might I add. I’ve never kept it a secret that I find Falcom to be absolutely amazing at story-crafting, especially within the Trails series, and the fact that they not only maintain the level of narrative quality established within previous titles, but improve upon it, is nothing short of delightful.
What’s Old is New Again
You know how Trails II mixed things up partway through the game in order to stand out from its predecessor? Well, Trails III does that too—by going back to the original Trails formula. No, really. While things might not be an exact 1:1 copy, Trails III‘s progression is strikingly similar to its distant predecessor. Just how similar, you ask? Well, each of the game’s chapters begins with a combination of the player walking around campus, completing quests, and spending time bonding with your teammates. Following that is your mandatory trip Einhel Keep—a high-tech version of the Old Schoolhouse that boasts an absolutely killer track—and then it’s off to the train station for a few days of field exercises. Sounds familiar, right?
I’ll be frank; I was, at first, a little disappointed when I realized how this game was going to play out—after all, I was hoping for maybe even more freedom this time around—but, as I’ve already made abundantly clear, this series is dedicated to its story first and foremost. And, from a story perspective, going “back to basics” is probably the best option. After all, what better way to make the player feel like they’re interacting with a new Class VII than by once again throwing them headfirst into those “field exercises,” which Rean & co. had oh-so-much fun with?
There’s also the fact this game ditches some of the previous title’s focus on quantity for a focus on quality. Compared to the previous two games, you don’t actually travel to as many entirely new places. However, each place that you do travel to is greatly expanded upon. Rather than shambling around a city for a while, traveling across one or two short highways, and then finishing things up, Trails III‘s field exercise sections really allow the player to explore the world around them. The inclusion of multiple towns, dungeons, and, heck, even roads and highways, for the player to explore in a single chapter, as well as the ability to experience them for a longer period of time, really allows you to appreciate each part of the game that much more, and provides just enough novelty to make the old style of pacing feel fresh and new. Trails III also throws in a few new re-occurring sidequests, like collecting juicy info for Munk’s radio station and scenic pictures for Vivi’s articles, which add to the experience as well. And, hey, if that’s still not enough, the fact that the game’s received a nice new coat of PS4-flavored graphical paint doesn’t hurt, either. Just don’t expect an increase in leniency things like completing quests and finding recipes… you’ve still got to complete those ASAP.
The Brave and the Broken
When it comes to Trails III‘s battle mechanics, there isn’t much to go over that you shouldn’t already be aware of if you’ve been following the series up until now. The overall flow of battle is exactly the same turn-based goodness that it’s always been, and the focus on tactical positioning isn’t any less important. What you won’t be familiar with, however, are two brand-new mechanics added into the mix which, while unobtrusive enough to avoid making any major waves, are still far from being insignificant. First, there are Brave Orders, or, as I like to call them, “super-buffs”. By spending Brave Points (which, up until now, were only used for Link Attacks), players can buff their entire party at once without even using up their turn. Of course, there’s a little bit more nuance to it than that. Brave Orders are character-dependent, meaning that each order (and there are plenty of different ones) can only be issued by a specific party member. There’s also the fact that, like with Link Attacks, Brave Orders can chew through your BP in no time flat—meaning that it’s best to save them for when you actually need them.
Trails III‘s second new addition comes in the form of Breaks. Acting somewhat similarly to the previously implemented (and incredibly important) “Unbalance” status effect that can be inflicted on enemies, Breaks occur when the player whittles down an enemy’s Break gauge to 0 by—what else—pummeling them with everything they’ve got. As with Unbalancing, there are certain ways to get Break to happen more quickly—the most notable being the use of Arts that an enemy’s weak to—and, once Broken, players are able to deal increased damage and score a handful of easy Unbalances before the enemy can regain their bearings. Neither Brave Orders nor Breaks are, as I’ve already said, game-defining in any way, but they’re nice to play around with, and it’s nice to see that Falcom is dedicated to polishing up the Trails series as best they can with each subsequent title.
Mech battles are back, too, of course, and, like with normal battles, they aren’t without change, either. In fact, I’d say that there’s even more change with mech battles than there are with normal battles, and that’s all thanks to one thing; the fact that you can now fight with multiple mechs! …And that’s about it, really. I’m not really doing it justice, though. Being able to fight with multiple units is pretty darn cool. While this still isn’t enough to bring the level of strategy within mech battles to that of normal battles, it does create a noticeable difference due to the fact that you can better prepare for certain enemy attacks and allows for a more intricate setup of combos and strategies.
Heading Toward Dawn
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III is not only the latest within the Trails series (as far as the West goes, anyway), but it’s also quite possibly the greatest. Falcom has shown that they’re capable of constantly pushing themselves in order to bring about a product that’s just as good—or perhaps even better—than their last, and that’s certainly the case with this game. The Trails series has certainly spoiled us thus far with its dazzling one-two punch of addictive gameplay and intriguing narrative, and I, for one, am very excited to see how Rean’s journey ends in Trails of Cold Steel IV.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed) ; Publisher: NIS America ; Developer: Nihon Falcom ; Players: 1 ; Released: October 22, 2019 ; ESRB: T for Teen ; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.