For years, Luke – my fellow co-owner and JRPG addict – has been clamoring on about me trying one of his favourite JRPG frachises of all time… Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel.
Before this point, I had never had any experience with the Legend of Heroes franchise, let alone any title in the Trails of Cold Steel sub-series… In fact, apart from second-hand accounts from Luke, I hadn’t heard of these games at all.
So it goes without saying that going into Trails of Cold Steel, I felt a bit uncertain; I’ve played a decent few JRPGs in my lifetime, and there’s no doubt that me and Luke have very… Differing tastes, to say the least, so it was with a sense of anxiety, excitement and anticipation that flowed around me when I entered this supposedly legendary title…
…And hoo boy was this worth it.
As you start Trails of Cold Steel, you find yourself deep into a warring conflict with enemy soliders and monsters in some sort of fortified garrison, rushing to try and prevent these ‘terrorists’ from activating a set of railguns pointed straight towards a largely populated city – Cue a dramatic rush towards these explosive cannons, and a fade to black, and you find yourself reset to the start of April, flashing back to the start of the game’s events – You play in the shoes of Rean Schwarzer – resident weeaboo and practitioner of the ‘Eight Leaves One Blade’ style – as he begins his adventures into the big, bad world as a member of the prestigious Class VII, a new selection of students hand-crafted by their aptitude and potential by Thors Military Academy – A school designed and meticulously crafted into one of the world’s finest military training establishments.
Joining Rean are a diverse crew of classmates ranging differing backgrounds, social classes, interests and experiences – Some hand-plucked from some of the nation’s finest noble families and some scouted through rigorous testing; acting much like the class structure of games like Danganronpa or Persona, you get to really bond with each of your classmates, learning their secrets, backgrounds, likes and dislikes, and helping them through the mundane to the genuinely heart-wrenching – Class VII has quickly become one of my favourite groups of characters in JRPG history, and despite some members falling to predictable tropes – some more than others – all of the characters in Class VII seem to have very multi-faceted personalities that mesh and clash with eachother, as you’d expect in any school setting. Pupils will love one-another, pupils will like one-another, pupils will hate one-another, but it’s all in the name of character development – Never fan-pandering.
On this topic, another part I have to praise this game for is for it not falling to standard anime stereotypes – Early on a group of male and female students are required to sleep in the same room due to their accommodation being limited during one of their Field Studies, however the game chooses not to fall to expected fanservice or pervy peeping tropes, instead treating both their male and female characters with dignity and respect – When you do manage to find a character in their swimming shorts or a bodysuit or something, the characters don’t outright make a huge fuss over it, but instead just act like normal people would in that situation – I definitely appreciate this more mature and grounded tone, not as a stuck-up no-fun stick-in-the-mud, but moreso in terms of it mixing better with the game’s more serious world and thematic tone. It just wouldn’t fit, and developers Falcom realise that. It’s impressive when the below image is one of the only instances of fanservice in the entire game.
In terms of socialising with your fellow classmates, it is a bit disappointing, however, that for a Persona-like title Trails of Cold Steel only gives you a limited number of interactions with your cohorts across literal months, easily skipping past weeks and weeks to get to the next important story beat; hanging out with your friends (Or enemies; looking at you Machias) gives you not only valuable insight into their personalities, but also rewards and experience towards your ‘Combat Links’; an important part of the game’s combat.
Like any JRPG in the modern era, Trails of Cold Steel has a combat system that has it’s quirks and oddities – Combat takes place by attacking a monster in the overworld – like in Persona 3, 4 or 5 – and entering battle in a circular arena; your party members and enemies obtain a turn order with a variety of differing factors and benefits, not only for you and your party, but for your opponents too; benefits like regaining health, using magic for free (Known as Arts), regaining Craft Points (Used for special attacks known as ‘Crafts’), and so forth – Knowing when you’ll be obtaining these benefits and when your opponents will be is imperative to combat, as letting the enemy get a free top-tier spell off against your party can absolutely cripple you and spell disaster.
Additional to this, different spells will place you differently on the priority chain in battle, and can lead to some situations where enemies can get two or more hits off on you in a row due to bad planning; thankfully at some instances you can break an enemy’s position on the chain using a special S-Break Art that can interrupt their actions, and can break some enemy Arts using Craft attacks, so knowing your options and what you can do in a pinch really is essential to staying alive – Around the second Field Study adventure the game does spike in difficulty quite considerably, with bosses from the last Chapter appearing as normal enemies, so you really do need to learn the mechanics quickly and effectively.
Thankfully the game does do a rather good job of weighing up your performance and teaching you these mechanics, with skillful plays not only ending battles sooner, but also multiplying your earned EXP and obtained items – This can really make a world of difference with boss battles, especially if you gear and spec your team towards a specific encounter, and can lead to you possibly exiting the fight with over double the normal amount of EXP that you’d normally earn! It’s really rewarding and gratifying, and it’s good to finally see a decent turn-based JRPG combat system that rewards you for smart plays.
Sound is another part of Trails of Cold Steel that struck me as impressive; violins permeate the more tense and dramatic encounters in the game, and towns are filled with a Persona-like charm that never fails to get my foot tapping; there’s not a single track I’ve found so far that turned me away or sounded particularly bad, and I’ve even been listening to parts of the game’s OST in my own spare time.
So to end things off with a nice little bow, why should you care about Trails of Cold Steel? To be honest, the answer to that will vary from person to person, but to me, at least, the reason I think you should care is because we just don’t see games like this any more. Too many JRPGs fall to the same old tropes and traps and offer subpar experiences to try and capitalise on the masses or the niche – Trails of Cold Steel builds upon the shared world of the rest of the Legend of Heroes games, and allows new players to be introduced into the world in a formal, easy-to-digest and enticing way, visiting a wide variety of locales across the country and learning of the other games’ characters and story – For a recent re-release of this franchise, Trails of Cold Steel allows JRPG fans to dive head-first into an interesting and diverse world full of unique and developed characters, leading to a whole host of other enjoyable experiences through the other titles and games in not only the Trails of Cold Steel sub-series, but also throughout the entirety of the Legend of Heroes series.
If you care about JRPGs, care about good characters or good gameplay, then you should care about Trails of Cold Steel.
Keep your eyes peeled for the full review coming soon! I’m currently trying to beat the game’s main story at the behest of Luke due to some apparent interesting twists and turns, so watch this space for more Trails of Cold Steel content!