Social relationships are important in the life of a teenager. They open up the way to new experiences, great memories, and unlock powerful combat techniques that can be used to take down monsters from the Dark Ages. At one of Erebonia's top military academies, young people from all walks of life come together to team up and show off their combat skills they've mastered in their brief time on the planet.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is the first entry in a trilogy that is part of an even larger video game world. Play as a student who must grow his relationship with his fellow classmen in order to overcome challenges both mystical and political. Customize your skills with the Orbment and ARCUS systems, utilized advantageous positioning, and swap characters in and out in the middle of battle to adapt to changing scenarios.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is available for purchase on Steam.
Trails of Cold Steel puts you in control of Rean Schwarzer, an enthusiastic young man from a complicated background. Rean is beginning his first year at the Thors Military Academy, where he finds out he's been selected for the mysterious and exclusive Class VII. Although the school enrolls students from both commoner and noble background, they are kept more or less separate, and clearly marked by their difference in uniforms. Class VII, however, brings both nobles and commoners together into the same classroom, all with the same uniforms (although some alterations are to be expected among JRPG protagonists).
From the outset, the theme of upbringing and societal norms is laid out before the player. Even a novice to the series can quickly pick up on the class system that exists in the empire, primarily because it's somewhat simple. Nobles are the ones in power, many of whom lord it over the common folk, drawing ire from said group. Change is in the air, however, and the ones caught in the middle of it are the sons and daughters of the various lords and revolutionaries.
It becomes something of a Romeo and Juliet scenario, though not in a romantic sense. The members of Class VII come from different backgrounds, nearly all of whom have more layers than they present from the start. No student is just simply a noble or just simply a commoner. There always seems to be some element in each of them that makes them something of an "oddity," even among their own class of people.
There's a lot of subtlety at play within the plot, though it may be hard to notice it, ironically, since it's overshadowed by the dialogue and how unsubtle it is. Trails of Cold Steel runs into a problem that seems to happen in far too many anime and JRPGs, and that problem is over-writing. With over nine characters on screen at a time in many scenes, things get bogged down and come to a crawl because every single person has to have a thought to share. "This is an ARCUS." "So this is an ARCUS?" "ARCUS, eh?" All of those lines come from different people. The same point is hammered in several times because god forbid a character have nothing to say in a situation.
The writing, thus, creates a conflicting situation. On the one hand, you have a plot that tackles some deep subject matter, with no easy answers and many moving parts. On the other hand, throughout the plot are conversations that drag on for far too long, with upwards of half of all text being unnecessary. This becomes frustrating, as it's likely that you will come to a conclusion that the rest of the characters won't see for another few minutes, simply because they have to vocalize every step of the thought process.
Still, this has become something of par for the course, for better or worse, in these types of games. It's almost expected that you'll encounter a large plot that is bloated by being over-written. As expected as it is, that doesn't mean it's forgivable, just tolerable. Also keep in mind that this is the first part of a trilogy, so while a lot is being set up, not all of it will be resolved by the game's end.
Like other JRPGs that take place in a high school, Trails of Cold Steel features a relationship-building system that comes with combat benefits. Improving your social link with another character means you'll be able to perform greater combat tricks in battle, including combo extenders and finishers. As is stressed in the story, this system is going to be a major part of what will determine your success. There are more than enough obstacles that will prove too challenging if you don't utilize your bond with other students.
As you can expect, your social link is built up primarily through hanging out with the characters after class. There's only so many hours in a day, so while there may be three or four characters who want to hang out on a given Sunday, you'll only have time for two. The game is at least generous in that it'll build up the links with other characters through some forced interactions, so you're never stuck with a group of characters whom you barely know and thus have a weak combat unit. Social link is also gained through using the characters in battle, but the bump is so negligible that it's curious why it's even in the game in the first place.
Combat is played out in a turned-based system, the order being determined by the speed and delay of characters. Making full use of upping your speed and lowering your opponent's can be the difference between a flawless victory and a bloody defeat. Enemies can hit very hard here, able to knock out characters in a few hits if you aren't careful (or you're just really unlucky). There are a number of ways the game lets you overcome nearly impossible odds.
Rather than standing in a row, your party is free to move around the map, albeit only on their turn. Think of it as a more restricted Tales system. Many enemies can attack in an area pattern, or have attacks that spread wide rather than hit just one person, so positioning becomes important. Another way to increase your chance for success is to take advantage of damage types. Each character has one or more damage types they specialize in, and every enemy has weaknesses and resistances to those types. Hitting an enemy that's weak to, say, piercing damage with a piercing weapon has a good chance of unbalancing them, which opens them up to a link attack.
Outside of combat, characters can be customized not just with gear but with spells and abilities as well. Very similar to Final Fantasy VII's Materia system, elemental nodes are placed into a character that unlock stat boosts and spells. At least one plus it has over the Materia system is that when characters are made unavailable to your party, all their rare quartz (the Materia of the game) are pulled out and given back to you, just in case you wanted to put them into other party members.
Characters coming and going is something of a common occurrence in the game. You'll often be split up into different groups, the game wanting you to try out the different characters before you make a decision on who your primary fighters are going to be. At the very least, no one feels useless, each one bringing their own strengths to the table. Being able to switch characters in from the support slot on the fly is very handy when taking advantage of the damage type/unbalance system. One character might not be useful against one pack of enemies, but as soon as some heavily armored ones show up, they're great to have around.
Trails of Cold Steel first released in 2013, and with this PC port comes a slew of upgrades to help it compete with modern releases. Most notably, the graphics have a gorgeous tune-up, with everything looking smooth, colorful, and just overall pleasant to look at. When first booting the game, you'll be given a settings prompt that lets you tinker with the specific settings, as is to be expected. Where this game goes one step further is in illustrating what each setting does. Not sure what "transparency supersampling" or "anisotropic filtering" are? That's alright, because the menu has gifs that show the differences in the visual presentation when these are turned off and on.
The presets should also be noted. "High" and "Maximum" are present, but rather than "normal" or "low," there's "console" and "portable." Including a preset for GPD Win devices likely isn't going to be used by a lot of PC gamers, but it's a classy move that is much appreciated. A personal favorite setting is for "shadow resolution," which goes up to "absurd." And yes, the game can be set to run at 60 FPS. However, there were some hiccups early on, where cutscenes would fall to a sub-20 FPS pace. After a couple of those, the issue never showed up again, so it's not something to be concerned over, but maybe mindful of.
A matter of contention for some fans is the dubbing of the game. Unfortunately, XSEED was unable, for legal reasons, to release the game with the original Japanese voice recording. Instead players will only have the English voice actors to work with. It was honestly hard to tell if the actors were good or just really enthusiastic, trying to cover up some stilted deliveries and odd tones. It's of course disappointing that the original cast couldn't make it into this port, and the English dub leaves a lot to be desired, but the port does provide 50% more voiced lines than in the initial release.
The soundtrack, at least, as far as one knows, stays the same from the original release, if not upgraded a bit by modern tech. The music is enjoyable and often fits in well with the settings and situations. None of the tracks really stood out, however, as something worth listening to outside of the game itself. You won't want to turn off the music to the game, but you likely won't want to find it on YouTube to listen to later, either.
While the plot is interesting, with characters that start off as two-dimensional tropes and unfold into more complex beings as you get to know them, so much of it is bogged down by redundant dialogue and unnecessary exposition. The most unfortunate fact about the characters, though, is the main character, Rean, is the dullest. He's overly apologetic, super happy and helpful, and just generally uninteresting. Revelations are made about his past as the game goes on, but his personality is persistently blah.
Combat has a lot of depth in it, requiring more than just mashing attack to get anywhere. In fact, only doing the basic attacks will likely not get you beyond chapter 1. Players have to use all the tools at their disposal, from the magical arts to the skillful crafts, weaving them into each other with link attacks and S-rank super attacks. The ARCUS/Orbment system will be familiar to those who have played FF7, of which there are many.
This isn't just a straight port from a game nearly half a decade old. Upgrades have been made to the graphics and sound that make this a definitive edition rather than a late release. Missing out on the Japanese audio will turn some hardcore fans away, unfortunately, however. Aside from some minor hiccups early on, the game runs smoothly at 60 fps, and has settings to see it played even on a portable device.
There is a lot of content within this game, to say the least. Taking in all the side quests, a player will be looking at upwards of 60-70 hours until they reach the end. After the credits roll, New Game+ opens up, with extra bonuses available (though you can't take them all unless you beat the game three times). Given how tedious the writing became, there may be many players who think just one playthrough is enough, and so NG+ loses some of its appeal.
Pound for pound, Trails of Cold Steel is a good value for the content it provides. Fans looking to get into the series have a comfortable starting point with this entry, and longtime fans have a port that's worth owning a copy of alongside the original release.
|+ Deep, engaging, and very fun combat.||– Writing sometimes dull and dialogue redundant.|
|+ Lots of hours worth of content.||– Plot takes a long time to get moving.|
|+ Slick updated graphics and great performance.|