The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel Review

By Shawn Collier on January 10, 2016

The Legend of Heroes series in Japan has been quite a long running one, with numerous entries on the PSP and most recently on the PS3 and PlayStation Vita, with some occasional ports to PC along the way. Back in 2011, XSEED Games brought over the first game in the series, Trails in the Sky, to North America on the PSP. After some delays fans eventually got the sequel late last year on PSP and PC, but during that time there's been quite a few releases over in the series' origin country.

So now enters Trails of Cold Steel, the first in a series of what's currently announced as three games taking place in the Erebonian Empire, a location in the world of Trails that should sound quite familiar to those who've played the first two games in the series. And while this game does take place around the time as two other currently Japan-only titles, the game itself is setup so the essential backstory information is clearly explained in-game to the player. So with the transition from the PSP to the PS3/Vita, how does this new entry in the franchise fare?

As this is the first game in what's currently announced as a three-chapter series of titles, Trails of Cold Steel is setup somewhat similarly to the first Trails in the Sky game in the sense that there's quite a bit of introduction and world building taking place initially at the game's outset. So the stereotypical Japanese RPG tropes of cutscenes and tutorials are in place initially, although after a few hours the game generally lightens up on this.

Unlike the previous duology, this game centers around the actions of "Class VII", a special group setup in the Thors Military Academy that's the only one to mix together both students from the aristocracy and the "common" folk. Initially, they think they're just put together to learn how to work together and complete missions, but since this is a Falcom game there's a deeper reason involved and they're also involved in a larger civil war between the social classes. Generally, the pacing was good, but I did encounter some instances where the game felt like it was drip-feeing me new nuggets of information before dumping a plethora of new information all at once.

Something that should be noted is the localization work that went into the Western version by XSEED Games, as it helps smooth over some of the technical issues the game has. With the game primarily taking place in a school location, there's the obvious "Japanese school life" tropes one would expect, but like Falcom's previous works this is meant more as a front for each character's deeper convictions. The game also features a full English dub, and while there's no Japanese sub option available, the English voice-overs are of exceptionally high quality. While playing through the game, I didn't feel like any of the voices were mismatched to the characters and the voice direction matched the actions taking place during the scenes.

As far as gameplay goes, if you've played other Japanese RPGs like the recent Persona games especially, you'll have a good idea of how Trails of Cold Steel works. You explore dungeons, get some story exposition, and then get to enhance your classmates' social links and do side quests, with this process generally repeats throughout the game. While this sounds a bit bare-bones, it's actually quite a bit deeper than one would imagine. Like the world created in the Trails in the Sky duology, there's an insane amount of side quests available to undertake. One thing that I loved about this entry is that the map indicates what students are available to talk to and what side quests are available at any given time, with the latter being color-coded to let you know which are optional and what ones advance the narrative.

As far as battles go, if you've played the previous games in the series, you'll have a pretty good idea of how the mechanics work in Trails of Cold Steel. Enemies appear on-screen, where touching them transitions to a battle screen where you fight them. Like with most recent Japanese RPGs, you can either evade them and avoid fights entirely or attack them from the sides or the back and gain a pre-emptive strike. Another feature I've only seen rarely used in other games such as Earthbound is the ability to instantly win a fight if the game detects you're way more powerful than the enemy, saving time that would have been wasted otherwise and is a great inclusion.

As far as combat goes, if you've played a Trails game before you'll know what you're getting into. You have your basic attacks, supplemented with Arts (magic) and Crafts (unique abilities inherent to a specific character). Stats and Arts revolve around the Quartz system, which works similar to Final Fantasy VII's Materia system where you can equip different orbs to gain new magic, abilities and stat boosts.

Multi-range attacks have a helpful indicator to let you know where the attack will end up firing, generally taking the place of a circle or a line. Playing into the classmate aspect mentioned earlier, this game features a linking aspect in battle which has paired characters gain enhanced powers and join up in attacks when linked. The game incentivizes doing this, as there's special Link EXP gained through doing this and the game allows you to switch your four characters on the field at any time, so you can always try out new party combinations with ease.

As far as graphics go, this was a game originally released in 2013. It carries over the graphical touches and approaches found in the previous Trails games with some great Gothic-inspired architecture and impressive field design, but some of the dungeons (namely the caves) felt a bit lacking. I liked the detail in the character models, although they felt a bit too stiff at times. But considering the game's original release and the fact this was the developer's first real 3D entry for the franchise thus far at the time and with all of the other parts of the game hitting high notes, it's something I can overlook. And speaking of the music, it's the typical high standard music you'd expect from Falcom, so there's no change in that department thankfully.

One minor thing that should be noted is that the developers wisely included the ability to save anywhere, removing the need for the typical Japanese RPG staple of save points. This ties nicely into the PS3/Vita cross-save functionality, as players can easily move from one platform to another thanks to this ability.

Final Thoughts

It has its flaws, but it's clear that there was a ton of detail and effort that went into The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel. The series has had a rocky road in the west, but this entry looks like it'll be the start of a fresh new chapter for the long-running series.

The ability to save anywhere is something that really should be a standard in JRPGs nowadays.
The English localization and the English dub is top-notch.
Like the other Trails games, the characters initially feel "trope-y" but become much deeper in nature as the game progresses.
Character models feel a bit stiff at times.
Plot occasionally feels like it's taking its sweet time to move along.
Some of the dungeons feel a bit lacking in terms of their design.
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