Two small things to start off with – First off, if you haven’t played Trails of Cold Steel 1, 2, or any of the other The Legend of Heroes games, be aware that this review will spoil major parts of these games, simply by Trails of Cold Steel 3’s nature.
Secondly, whilst I have managed to beat the whole game top-to-bottom before the end of this embargo, this review will not feature any spoilers outside of what is mentioned in the prologue (And by extension, the current demo available on the PlayStation Store), although I will be giving my overall feelings, playtime and thoughts on general topics, structure, pacing and themes that appear.
Now with that out of the way… Arise O’ youth, and become the foundation of the world!
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 3 (To be abbreviated to TOCS3 from here on out) acts as the thrilling sequel to the Erebonian Civil War Arc that TOCS1 & TOCS2 established, continuing the story of resident waifu-bait and general badass Rean Schwarzer, as he accustoms to life beyond Thors Military Academy. Now becoming an instructor a month after his graduation at the newly established Thors Military Academy Branch Campus on the opposite side of Erebonia’s capital, Heimdallr, in the sleepy town of Leeves – Following Rean as he forms and leads a new generation of Class VII, travelling across Erebonia and the newly annexed Crossbell province, uncovering the dark, ancient secrets and horrors that the nation holds beneath its political turmoil and tension… Sound confusing? Hell yeah it should!
Thankfully, if you’re new to the Trails of Cold Steel series (And if you are, why the heck are you reading this review? Go play the other games!), have just plain forgotten about key details (Like I did), or skipped a game, TOCS3 features a ‘catchup’ menu that gives you key details on the previous games’ story and world, with two categories for Cold Steel 1 and Cold Steel 2, each with around 3-5 videos showing off the games’ acts, culminating in character-by-character biographies and world-building references – Whilst the majority of it is surface-level, I did feel it was substantial enough for someone who got a fair whack of the way through Cold Steel 2, and had dropped it in favour of other games; I did go back and watch a few cutscenes on YouTube for additional context, but overall the catchup system definitely helped me get the gist of what I may have missed in TOCS2, or forgotten from TOCS1, all whilst keeping the story of TOCS3 fresh and spoiler-free (No heavy foreshadowing in my catchup thank you very much!).
Immediately one thing sticks out about TOCS3, and that is that the engine has remained largely untouched from TOCS1 & TOCS2; characters still retain similar models to previous counterparts, and the game still features notable clipping on some models… But come on. Trails of Cold Steel never was a franchise that was expected to push graphical boundaries; the story is where it’s at!
…And boy, what a story it is. Unlike Trails of Cold Steel 1, or the first half of Trails of Cold Steel 2, I didn’t feel like any of the Chapters in Trails of Cold Steel 3 were a drag or took too long to complete – If anything, the Chapters were more scaled like two full-sized Chapters from Cold Steel 1 as opposed to a single, solely contained 5 hour romp. Chapters had me taking over 10 hours to beat, with one or two of them pushing the 15 hour mark with large, expansive dungeons with interesting puzzle mechanics and excellent design – Variety is the spice of life in TOCS3, with major bombshells being dropped in the plot from minute 1; TOCS3 grabs your attention, chokeholds it and does not let go for a single second.
This is additionally true when you combine the extremeley detailed world of Erebonia in TOCS3 – Cold Steel 3 now features many, many new characters and NPC’s to interact with and to experience, often to the point where you may feel a bit overwhelmed at times – I thought Bleach was bad, but TOCS3 easily features over 250 unique characters and NPC’s, with around 50 of which being integral to the story; and that’s just the main cast alone! Combining the casts from other games serves to bloat this out further, with not just characters from the Cold Steel series being mentioned, shown or referenced, but also characters from Trails of the Sky and Ao no Kiseki in this same vein – It can be extremely hard to try to keep up with who is doing what and where people are, and it can be nigh-impossible to trudge through all of the game’s logs and records to find your answer.
Saying this, however, the game’s narrative does keep itself contained and concise, with most of the extra content and slight references making up the extra characters’ inclusions, but you’ll certainly be scratching your head a bit at some parts. Think of the jump between TOCS2 and TOCS3 similar to Kingdom Hearts 1 to Kingdom Hearts 2 – You’ll sail the main narrative fine, but you’ll be lost at some parts without knowledge of the other games, or a risky lookup on the Kiseki Wiki.
Regarding the core cast, I will say that the faculty of Thors Branch Campus and the new Class VII are an absolute joy to behold, and have far more time to be fleshed out as opposed to the cast of the original Class VII – That being said, I feel that at times the narrative can feel a bit stretched out between the groups of characters at play here, and can almost feel like the game needed some sort of spinoff or additional Chapter to help pace the game better.
Regardless, the game is filled with some of the best moments I’ve witnessed in the Cold Steel series, and has by far become referenced as the “Kingdom Hearts 2” of Cold Steel – The gameplay as well helps to reinforce this with some notable additions and exclusions…
Gone is the Overdrive system of TOCS2, now replaced with the new ‘Break’ system and ‘Brave Order’ system – Enemies now have a secondary bar beneath their HP which indicates their ‘Break’ status, which can be depleted by hitting opponents with attacks – Deplenishing this gauge causes the opponent to enter a broken state, where they take additional damage and can’t act for a few turns; hitting them in this state, or with an attack they’re either weak to (I.E. Slash, Strike, Pierce, Thrust) will cause a Link Attack, which gives you one Brave Order point – You can then spend these points to either execute Link Attacks like Assist, Rush or Burst (Like in the previous games), or to execute Brave Orders; special party-wide buffs that can apply benefits like magic reflection, physical reflection, CP / EP buffs, stat boosts, critical multipliers and break damage increases – Every character that can join your party has a range of Brave Orders they can execute, and will make up the core of your time in combat as TOCS3 has some extremely difficult bosses – I was on Normal, as I normally play Cold Steel on the default difficulty, and I was struggling despite being a few levels above my opponents at times, forcing you to master the game’s combat system and to make the most out of your opportunities using tactics and smart plays.
Free Days also make their return, allowing you to gain an insight into your fellow comrades’ personalities, backstories and lives, being much more akin to Persona than what TOCS1 and TOCS2 featured, given those systems were much more restrictive – You can now train with certain party members on your free days, take baths and talk between the partitioned wall between the gendered bathhouses, and play the new hit card game Vantage Masters – A shameless Heathstone ripoff that I love so bloody much that I nearly completed 100% of the card collection; seriously. Screw Blade. Vantage Masters actively made me want to check out Hearthstone.
Overall, I spent just shy of 65 hours with Trails of Cold Steel 3… Which may not sound like a lot for a grand, epic JRPG, especially when one playthrough of Persona 5 ran me 125 hours… But just keep in your mind that I played the game near-exclusively on High-Speed Mode; activated by pressing left on your Dualshock 4 touchpad, High-Speed Mode is a welcomed addition, making quest completion, cutscenes and battles so, so fast, and making my time with TOCS3 far easier to consume, especially given the embargo deadline – If it wasn’t for me playing like this, I feel TOCS3 could have easily reached the 100 hour mark in terms of playtime. I did slow down however during the endgame… Which is all I will say about it.
Trails of Cold Steel 3 has done something that not many JRPGs have accomplished. It made me care about the characters, world, and series history. I smiled big, stupid grins at times, felt the despair creep in with some characters, and noticed a few plotholes here and there… But overall, TOCS3 made me care about Erebonia and the larger continet of Zemuria. I want to play the older games now to experience Calvard and Liberl, and the events that occured there. I want to see the stories of the cameo characters. I want to play Trails of Cold Steel 4 and see where the series concludes... Ah well… Now we play the catchup game.
All things considered, I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with Trails of Cold Steel 3, and whilst I have my issues with some parts of the narrative, I feel that discussion is best saved for after the game’s full release. TOCS3 has become one of my favourite JRPGs of 2019, and is easily the best Cold Steel entry to date.
I give Trails of Cold Steel 3 a: