A couple of years after Estelle and Joshua saved the kingdom of Liberl, trouble brews in the lands of the mighty empire of Erebonia, and it’ll be up to Class VII to save their home. This is The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel.
Publisher: XSEED Games
Release Date: August 2017
Played Main Story
Platforms: PC, PS Vita
Purchase At: Steam
I heard about Trails of Cold Steel while playing the second chapter of Trails in the Sky, and while I was on the fence about buying the two games in this new entry of the Legend of Heroes series for the PlayStation Vita, XSEED announced the release of this PC version of Trails of Cold Steel. Preferring the upscaled visuals if not just the bigger screen and the new content, I jumped at the chance of playing Trails of Cold Steel on PC.
And you know what? I absolutely love it. I often play games for reviews with a distinct sense that I’m not fully enjoying the game as much as I should, since I’m working with a deadline. But with Trails of Cold Steel, I was hooked from the very beginning and even though I still played with a deadline in mind—one I inevitably missed considering the length of the game—I just couldn’t pull away from playing, spending hours playing it every time I had the chance.
I spent my last couple of weekends playing for hours Saturday and Sunday, something I haven’t done in a while.
Trails of Cold Steel takes us back to the world of Trails in the Sky, the world of the Orbal Revolution, the fantasy quartz equivalent of the industrial revolution, with the difference that Orbal technology leads to anything from Magic to airships and even a crude form of internet and mobile networks. Basically, it’s the starting point for technological innovation, one that drives progress and even social, political and economic changes.
Trails in the Sky showed us Liberl, a Kingdom not without its issues but generally very relaxed, with nobles and commoners on the same level, where the people love the Queen and she’s humble and kind.
Trails of Cold Steel on the other hand gives us Erebonia, a country you hear in passing references in Trails in the Sky, particularly for its military might. In this game, however you see how it works from within, the conflicts that keep its population tense, the near-war state it maintains with its neighbouring countries and the Empire’s constant struggle between keeping its traditions and moving forwards.
While in Liberl Nobles are much like commoners in their outlook—save for that one annoying noble in Trails in the Sky whose attitude is played for jokes—in Erebonia they’re very different. Nobles control their regions very differently from one another, with the greater houses often treating commoners with contempt.
Opposing them are the Reformists, commoners in government who earned everything they have, who even have the Emperor’s backing and support. They want to centralise and standardise things, to keep the wheels turning as they should, even if it means taking some power from the nobles.
And that schism, that conflict of ideologies is at the core of this wonderful setting, which in true Nihon Falcom and specifically Legend of the Heroes fashion, gives a name, a face and a distinct personality to every single citizen you come across. Every NPC, from the little girl playing with her dog to the old cranky pawnshop owner have their own life, a spark that makes them feel alive.
The protagonist Rean and his classmates start their new lives as part of Thors Military Academy, one of the most prestigious schools in the country, one where both commoners and nobles attend, though they don’t mingle. Nobles are in Classes 1 & 2 and the commoners take the next three numbers.
Except for our heroes, Class VII, a new course that draws its students from across the nation and makes no distinction of social classes or family heritage. They have different background, opinions, ideologies and yet they’re supposed to work together to overcome the challenges ahead of them, using their new experimental battle orbments, the Arcus units, to form “Combat Links” that boost their effectiveness.
The problem is, those links depend on the personal relationships. If the students despise or mistrust each other, forming those links is impossible and this plays into the interpersonal conflicts and growth of the characters in the game, a clever way of combining story and gameplay. In fact, Trails of Cold Steel goes even further. If a character decides that they won’t be active in combat, they really won’t be.
Trails of Cold Steel’s plot has some amazing political and social intrigue—and a few genuinely awesome twists—but at its core is about the characters, their lives at school, their issues with their families, no matter their social standing. In fact, these stories play out in tandem with the crises the characters face in their monthly “field studies,” which in game terms follow the same blueprint as the story arcs of new settlements in Trails in the Sky, where you can complete a set of optional quests for rewards and some mandatory ones that push the story forward.
Trails of Cold Steel also adds a bit of this on the school town, with Rean, the protagonist, helping the student council by completing tasks for the student body and the nearby townspeople. Doing so nets you some nice rewards and you can use these “free days” to interact and improve your bonds with your classmates, unlocking new manoeuvres for when you’re in a combat link.
While the Combat Link mechanics of the Arcus orbments is pretty fun and leads to some amazing moments, such as the Burst link technique, I’m not a fan of the quartz and Orbal Arts system of the game, which has been streamlined too much. Where before you combined quartz of different elements and strengths to unlock arts, in Trails of Cold Steel you get the arts by equipping the quartz that gives them. There is no longer the need to experiment with different combinations, what you see on the quartz is exactly what you’re getting.
Part of this streamlining comes from the Master Quartz mechanic, a special quartz that levels up and unlocks special abilities for the equipping character. Arts are among those special abilities. The cookbook approach wouldn’t have played very well. The downside is that we lost some flexibility. Trails in the Sky also attempts to convince you to change the master quartz, even giving you shops, but with how difficult it is to level one of these quartz, changing them around never feels worth it.
Combat is as good as ever and in Trails of Cold Steel it feels much faster, which adds to the excitement. At first it took some getting used to, as the area of effect and pushback mechanics of the fights are easier to follow from the isometric perspective of Trails in the Sky, but once you get the hang of it and learn to “unbalance” opponents to give your linked buddies an opening to attack, even the longest fights become a joy to play.
One part of this game that deserves special praise is the voice acting, and the PC version includes many more recorded lines. I’ve read harsh descriptions of the talent, calling the amateurs, but if they’re amateurs, they’re fantastic. There is a degree of earnestness in their voice, and while some of them have characters with rather strange turns of phrases, such as Laura and Jusis, the noble-born, even their deliveries feel genuine. And the writing is clever enough to poke fun at some of the more cringe-worthy dialogue and deliveries. Though that’s not to say there aren’t some weaker performances, because there are. Elise, Rean’s sister is perhaps the worst of all, both in delivery and voice tone.
The rest of the cast, those with easier characters to play, really shine and do something I think is still very difficult to do, they made the translated Japanese jokes work. Their delivery is spot on and I found myself laughing at many of their comments. It’s great when voice acting feels so natural that it brings the characters to life. Instructor Sara’s actress is superb, as you can feel the character’s humour and simple joy of life and booze in every line.
Music is of course superb, as it tends to be in Nihon Falcom games, and the theme for one of the final bosses is outstanding. There is something about RPGs and fighting against incredible odds that makes orchestral music and choirs feel incredibly epic.
Trails of Cold Steel is one of the best JRPGs I’ve ever played in my life and the new standard by which I will judge future entries in this long-running Nihon Falcom series. The only other thing I can say is that I hope XSEED releases Trails of Cold Steel 2 on PC soon and then give us Trails of Cold Steel 3 as soon as possible after its September release in Japan. I cannot wait!
5/5 – Hell Yes!