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“The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel” Review

In a matter of just a couple months, Nihon Falcom and XSEED released two JRPG’s that made fans wonder where they’ve been all last generation.  

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SC launched in October with enough acclaim for it to net sixth place in our Best of 2015 list, while The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel came out a little before Christmas — not giving enough time for most publications to play through it and put it in the discussion.

What Is It?

Trails of Cold Steel marks the beginning of the third arc in the Trails or Kiseki spinoff of games that originated from The Legend of Heroes.  It’s actually the sixth game in the series, though the third through fifth games never came out in the west, and there are no plans to as of right now.  However, since the action takes place in an entirely different place in the world, it’s okay for newcomers of the series to start here and not miss much.

zemurian-1A

This is the Erebonian Empire, where Cold Steel‘s story takes place. The world of Zemuria is so huge, it hasn’t even been fully mapped yet.

The game takes place in Erebonia, the empire in northern Zemuria (the continent in which all the Trails games take place) known primarily for their military as well as their progression with orbal technology.  Trails of Cold Steel immediately puts players in the thick of a conflict at a military base, controlling a group of students in red-clad attire.  You don’t know who anybody is, and you don’t know what exactly is happening.  You just know that it’s big, and you get to try out the game’s battle system in its most juiced form.

But it’s after that where the game becomes more routine.

Why Should I Care?

You’re put in the shoes of 17-year-old Rean Schwarzer, a katana-wielding youth, beginning his enrollment at Thors Military Academy, a military school well-regarded among the citizens of Erebonia.  It’s here where Rean is placed into Class VII, an outlying class combining students of both noble and common blood.

Erebonian society draws a clear line between the lower and upper classes, which might strike one as rather surprised after playing Trails in the Sky because the Liberl Kingdom didn’t have such a problem. With that, those who have played Trails in the Sky will appreciate Falcom’s take on the cultural differences in the regions covered in the series’ lore as well as the familiarity of the game’s overall feel.

Though it’s the series’ first foray into 3D, the game feels like a Trails title through and through. Like Trails in the Sky before it, Trails of Cold Steel is huge on both character development and world-building.

While some will argue that it’s fluff, Falcom prides itself in the fact that almost each of the NPCs in the game are unique people with separate personalities, a testament to the game’s well-written dialog. As you progress through the game, you’ll quickly discover the noble versus commoner conflict is only one of the many conflicts each party member faces.

Thors Military Academy's Class VII. They're more important than any other class because you get to use them.

Thors Military Academy’s Class VII. They’re more important than any other class because you get to use them.

The game will undoubtedly draw comparisons to the Persona series due to the amount of action that takes place in a scholastic setting, so aside from studying and taking tests, much of the character development and plot-related content requires you to perform tasks that could be as minuscule as making small deliveries or ridding an area of monsters. The requests can be grander in scale, like the monthly request made by Thors’ principal to explore the abandoned old schoolhouse that seemingly undergoes magical interior changes time after time—much like Persona 3’s Tartarus.

In addition to the things happening at school, Class VII is also tasked with field studies, and this is where much of the series’ signature world-building takes shape. During these field studies, you’re also tasked with completing various requests, and like the ones fielded at Thors, there are some that are required and others voluntary.

Of course, as any Trails enthusiast would tell you, if you want the best ending, nothing is voluntary. In fact, each of the game’s six chapters also includes a couple hidden quests not found in the notebook given to you. To make things a tad less tiresome, the game has a Quick Travel option so you can choose to traverse to a specific area through a menu rather than having your character run there. In addition, areas that are essential to quests and sidequests are marked on the map. (The hidden quests, however, don’t have such markings.)

As for Trails of Cold Steel’s battle system, it’s roughly the same as in the previous Trails games with a couple minor changes here and there to make them go by more quickly, namely through Combat Links and the new ARCUS system.

Not much has changed in the Trails battle system, but it didn't need any change anyway.

Not much has changed in the Trails battle system, but it didn’t need any change anyway.

For those unfamiliar, the battle system is turn-based, and a slider on the left side of the screen indicates turn order. Characters can either attack, move around the plain, or perform arts and crafts.

Arts are the typical magic attacks and abilities found in other JRPG’s and are tied to your characters’ EP gauge, while Crafts are more immediate moves unique to each character and are charged to each characters’ CP gauge. Characters also have S-Craft abilities, which are signature crafts that unleash a substantially larger amount of damage than any other maneuver. They can only be accessed when a character that has at least 100 CP, which is accumulated by delivering hits or receiving damage. If CP is maxed out at 200, the S-Crafts receive a power boost. With that, as long as there’s enough CP, a character can perform an S-Craft at anytime during battle. This can allow players to strategize when they want to use them, especially when some turns come with specific status bonuses such as a critical hit, which can easily make or break your chances of victory. Of course, if you hold on to an S-Craft for too long and your character dies, their CP will drop to zero.

If you fail in battle, you’re given the option to immediately retry, so you don’t have to worry about being sent back to your last save if you felt that you had the right preparations. You also have the option of making the enemies easier, but nobody does that (and if you’re here for just the story, you could’ve just chosen easy mode from the get-go).

Cold Steel’s ARCUS system presents the series’ signature orbment system in a more simplistic fashion. For those unfamiliar, it has its similarities to Final Fantasy VII’s materia system, except it comes off a whole lot more logical. Each orbmental “quartz” has its own arts you can equip to each character, and there are virtually no limitations here, unless one of the character’s available orbment slots require the quartz to be of a specific element, such as wind. In that case, they’d be limited to that quartz. There aren’t too many slots open early on in the game, but as you progress, you’ll be able to open more up with the loot obtained in each battle.

The latest draw in the Trails battle system is the addition of Combat Links, which are pretty much an extra attack or support move.

The latest draw in the Trails battle system is the addition of Combat Links, which are pretty much an extra attack or support move.

But what’s really new about the battle system? The ARCUS units each Class VII character holds gives them the ability to form what’s called a Combat Link. When linked, two characters can gang up on enemies. This extra attack is tied to how effective each character’s weapon is against specific enemies. For example, more often than not, flying enemies in the game are weaker to projectile weaponry, so if Alisa shoots a bird with her bow, it’s likely the character she’s linked with will follow up with his or her own attack. Combat Links can be switched around anytime during your turn, except when specific characters can’t form a Combat Link because of reasons indicated in the game’s plot.

Other than that, there really wasn’t that much tuning, but it didn’t need much tinkering to begin with.

What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?

At this point, it’s easy to tell that Trails of Cold Steel has a strong narrative-driven plot with a solid battle system. If you’re into gampelay time, there is no shortage of it. My first playthrough went well over 70 hours. Throw in the fact that there’s the New Game+ option, not to mention the definite possibility that your first playthrough won’t be a “perfect” playthrough, and you have a game that you’ll spend an extended amount of time in if you’re looking for 100 percent completion.

As for which version to get, there are almost no differences between the PlayStation 3 and Vita versions of the game. The Vita version noticeably has slower load times than its PS3 counterpart, but because of its high resolution on a condensed screen, the game is actually more visually appealing on the handheld. Those with a PlayStation TV also have the option of playing the Vita version there. While the game unfortunately isn’t cross-buy, it does have a cross-save option that’ll enable you to upload and download your saves to play them on whichever version you prefer through PSN if you’re up for buying both.  If you could only pick one, go Vita. Cold Steel is one of the Vita’s best games. Period.

Since it came out a few days before Christmas combined with the fact that the PlayStation 4 and the eighth generation of gaming is already upon us, it’s very likely that Trails of Cold Steel will fly under the radar and go obscure, especially since it’s on PS3 and Vita.

Zemuria is a continent so vast that Nihon Falcom hasn't even completed a defined map yet.

Zemuria is a continent so vast that Nihon Falcom hasn’t even completed a defined map yet.

By all accounts, gamers, especially those who have or had a strong affinity for Japanese role-playing games, would be doing themselves a huge disservice by letting that happen. The Trails series of games are among the most superb JRPG’s on the market, and XSEED has already invested in this franchise by confirming a 2016 release for the sequel.

Be that as it may, Trails of Cold Steel is a superb game best experienced by those who’ve already immersed themselves in Trails’ lore. So while the game is still enjoyable without playing Trails in the Sky, I’d still wholly recommend picking those games up and finishing them before moving on to this one. You don’t need to, but doing so makes this good game great, and it’s a more affordable method of knowing whether this is the series for you.

If you’re an old-school JRPG fan, this should be the series for you.

 
 
 
 
 
Title: The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel
Platform: PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita
Publisher: Xseed Games
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Genre: JRPG
Release Date: December 22, 2015
ESRB Rating: T
Developer's Twitter: @NihonFalcom
Editor's Note: Both the Vita and PS3 special edition versions of the game were purchased by the reviewer, who spent more than 75 combined hours going back and forth between versions prior to the start of this review.

In a matter of just a couple months, Nihon Falcom and XSEED released two JRPG’s that made fans wonder where they’ve been all last generation.   The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SC launched in October with enough acclaim for it to net sixth place in our Best of 2015 list, while The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel came out a little before Christmas — not giving enough time for most publications to play through it […]

In a matter of just a couple months, Nihon Falcom and XSEED released two JRPG’s that made fans wonder where they’ve been all last generation.  

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SC launched in October with enough acclaim for it to net sixth place in our Best of 2015 list, while The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel came out a little before Christmas — not giving enough time for most publications to play through it and put it in the discussion.

What Is It?

Trails of Cold Steel marks the beginning of the third arc in the Trails or Kiseki spinoff of games that originated from The Legend of Heroes.  It’s actually the sixth game in the series, though the third through fifth games never came out in the west, and there are no plans to as of right now.  However, since the action takes place in an entirely different place in the world, it’s okay for newcomers of the series to start here and not miss much.

zemurian-1A

This is the Erebonian Empire, where Cold Steel‘s story takes place. The world of Zemuria is so huge, it hasn’t even been fully mapped yet.

The game takes place in Erebonia, the empire in northern Zemuria (the continent in which all the Trails games take place) known primarily for their military as well as their progression with orbal technology.  Trails of Cold Steel immediately puts players in the thick of a conflict at a military base, controlling a group of students in red-clad attire.  You don’t know who anybody is, and you don’t know what exactly is happening.  You just know that it’s big, and you get to try out the game’s battle system in its most juiced form.

But it’s after that where the game becomes more routine.

Why Should I Care?

You’re put in the shoes of 17-year-old Rean Schwarzer, a katana-wielding youth, beginning his enrollment at Thors Military Academy, a military school well-regarded among the citizens of Erebonia.  It’s here where Rean is placed into Class VII, an outlying class combining students of both noble and common blood.

Erebonian society draws a clear line between the lower and upper classes, which might strike one as rather surprised after playing Trails in the Sky because the Liberl Kingdom didn’t have such a problem. With that, those who have played Trails in the Sky will appreciate Falcom’s take on the cultural differences in the regions covered in the series’ lore as well as the familiarity of the game’s overall feel.

Though it’s the series’ first foray into 3D, the game feels like a Trails title through and through. Like Trails in the Sky before it, Trails of Cold Steel is huge on both character development and world-building.

While some will argue that it’s fluff, Falcom prides itself in the fact that almost each of the NPCs in the game are unique people with separate personalities, a testament to the game’s well-written dialog. As you progress through the game, you’ll quickly discover the noble versus commoner conflict is only one of the many conflicts each party member faces.

Thors Military Academy's Class VII. They're more important than any other class because you get to use them.

Thors Military Academy’s Class VII. They’re more important than any other class because you get to use them.

The game will undoubtedly draw comparisons to the Persona series due to the amount of action that takes place in a scholastic setting, so aside from studying and taking tests, much of the character development and plot-related content requires you to perform tasks that could be as minuscule as making small deliveries or ridding an area of monsters. The requests can be grander in scale, like the monthly request made by Thors’ principal to explore the abandoned old schoolhouse that seemingly undergoes magical interior changes time after time—much like Persona 3’s Tartarus.

In addition to the things happening at school, Class VII is also tasked with field studies, and this is where much of the series’ signature world-building takes shape. During these field studies, you’re also tasked with completing various requests, and like the ones fielded at Thors, there are some that are required and others voluntary.

Of course, as any Trails enthusiast would tell you, if you want the best ending, nothing is voluntary. In fact, each of the game’s six chapters also includes a couple hidden quests not found in the notebook given to you. To make things a tad less tiresome, the game has a Quick Travel option so you can choose to traverse to a specific area through a menu rather than having your character run there. In addition, areas that are essential to quests and sidequests are marked on the map. (The hidden quests, however, don’t have such markings.)

As for Trails of Cold Steel’s battle system, it’s roughly the same as in the previous Trails games with a couple minor changes here and there to make them go by more quickly, namely through Combat Links and the new ARCUS system.

Not much has changed in the Trails battle system, but it didn't need any change anyway.

Not much has changed in the Trails battle system, but it didn’t need any change anyway.

For those unfamiliar, the battle system is turn-based, and a slider on the left side of the screen indicates turn order. Characters can either attack, move around the plain, or perform arts and crafts.

Arts are the typical magic attacks and abilities found in other JRPG’s and are tied to your characters’ EP gauge, while Crafts are more immediate moves unique to each character and are charged to each characters’ CP gauge. Characters also have S-Craft abilities, which are signature crafts that unleash a substantially larger amount of damage than any other maneuver. They can only be accessed when a character that has at least 100 CP, which is accumulated by delivering hits or receiving damage. If CP is maxed out at 200, the S-Crafts receive a power boost. With that, as long as there’s enough CP, a character can perform an S-Craft at anytime during battle. This can allow players to strategize when they want to use them, especially when some turns come with specific status bonuses such as a critical hit, which can easily make or break your chances of victory. Of course, if you hold on to an S-Craft for too long and your character dies, their CP will drop to zero.

If you fail in battle, you’re given the option to immediately retry, so you don’t have to worry about being sent back to your last save if you felt that you had the right preparations. You also have the option of making the enemies easier, but nobody does that (and if you’re here for just the story, you could’ve just chosen easy mode from the get-go).

Cold Steel’s ARCUS system presents the series’ signature orbment system in a more simplistic fashion. For those unfamiliar, it has its similarities to Final Fantasy VII’s materia system, except it comes off a whole lot more logical. Each orbmental “quartz” has its own arts you can equip to each character, and there are virtually no limitations here, unless one of the character’s available orbment slots require the quartz to be of a specific element, such as wind. In that case, they’d be limited to that quartz. There aren’t too many slots open early on in the game, but as you progress, you’ll be able to open more up with the loot obtained in each battle.

The latest draw in the Trails battle system is the addition of Combat Links, which are pretty much an extra attack or support move.

The latest draw in the Trails battle system is the addition of Combat Links, which are pretty much an extra attack or support move.

But what’s really new about the battle system? The ARCUS units each Class VII character holds gives them the ability to form what’s called a Combat Link. When linked, two characters can gang up on enemies. This extra attack is tied to how effective each character’s weapon is against specific enemies. For example, more often than not, flying enemies in the game are weaker to projectile weaponry, so if Alisa shoots a bird with her bow, it’s likely the character she’s linked with will follow up with his or her own attack. Combat Links can be switched around anytime during your turn, except when specific characters can’t form a Combat Link because of reasons indicated in the game’s plot.

Other than that, there really wasn’t that much tuning, but it didn’t need much tinkering to begin with.

What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?

At this point, it’s easy to tell that Trails of Cold Steel has a strong narrative-driven plot with a solid battle system. If you’re into gampelay time, there is no shortage of it. My first playthrough went well over 70 hours. Throw in the fact that there’s the New Game+ option, not to mention the definite possibility that your first playthrough won’t be a “perfect” playthrough, and you have a game that you’ll spend an extended amount of time in if you’re looking for 100 percent completion.

As for which version to get, there are almost no differences between the PlayStation 3 and Vita versions of the game. The Vita version noticeably has slower load times than its PS3 counterpart, but because of its high resolution on a condensed screen, the game is actually more visually appealing on the handheld. Those with a PlayStation TV also have the option of playing the Vita version there. While the game unfortunately isn’t cross-buy, it does have a cross-save option that’ll enable you to upload and download your saves to play them on whichever version you prefer through PSN if you’re up for buying both.  If you could only pick one, go Vita. Cold Steel is one of the Vita’s best games. Period.

Since it came out a few days before Christmas combined with the fact that the PlayStation 4 and the eighth generation of gaming is already upon us, it’s very likely that Trails of Cold Steel will fly under the radar and go obscure, especially since it’s on PS3 and Vita.

Zemuria is a continent so vast that Nihon Falcom hasn't even completed a defined map yet.

Zemuria is a continent so vast that Nihon Falcom hasn’t even completed a defined map yet.

By all accounts, gamers, especially those who have or had a strong affinity for Japanese role-playing games, would be doing themselves a huge disservice by letting that happen. The Trails series of games are among the most superb JRPG’s on the market, and XSEED has already invested in this franchise by confirming a 2016 release for the sequel.

Be that as it may, Trails of Cold Steel is a superb game best experienced by those who’ve already immersed themselves in Trails’ lore. So while the game is still enjoyable without playing Trails in the Sky, I’d still wholly recommend picking those games up and finishing them before moving on to this one. You don’t need to, but doing so makes this good game great, and it’s a more affordable method of knowing whether this is the series for you.

If you’re an old-school JRPG fan, this should be the series for you.

Date published: 01/19/2016
4 / 5 stars

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