About a year ago, Trails of Cold Steel III was released worldwide after a 2-year hiatus. Since then, NIS America has expanded the Trails series’ reach to a wider audience, making its debut on the Nintendo Switch and Windows. With Trails of Cold Steel IV slated for a worldwide release in a few weeks’ time, I figured it’s as good a time as any to look back on the Trails series’ arcs as a whole and explore the various arcs set forth within the game’s overarching narrative.
As of last year, Falcom celebrated its 15th anniversary with the series. Since the initial release of Trails in the Sky back in 2004, the Trails series have continually grown in numbers and arcs, establishing a shared game universe that embraces continuity in its plotlines.
Being a super fan of the series myself, I couldn’t be more excited (and broken) that the last instalment of the Cold Steel saga is coming to worldwide audiences soon. With that in mind, let’s take a trip down memory lane and see how far the series has come since its inception, starting from the Liberl arc, moving to the Crossbell arc, and finally to the Erebonia arc.
LIBERL ARC: TRAILS IN THE SKY (TRILOGY)
FIRST ARC OF THE SERIES
Set in the Southwestern Kingdom of Liberl in the continent of Zemuria, Trails in the Sky is the first of the Trails series’ arcs and is where it all started. Spanning a trilogy of interrelated plotlines and characters, Trails in the Sky beautifully sets up the series’ standards to great heights. This arc is divided into three games: Trails in the Sky FC (First Chapter), Trails in the Sky SC (Second Chapter) and Trails in the Sky the 3rd. All 3 titles are available on Steam.
When I first played Trails in the Sky, I’m ashamed to say that I almost gave up on it. I felt the game was moving a bit too slow for me, and the dated gameplay mechanics certainly didn’t help. The thing is, I started with the Cold Steel saga, so moving backward from a sequel that was well equipped with more refined gameplay elements and phenomenal voice acting seemed a bit like a chore.
That said, I still stayed around because I was already well invested in the plot thanks to Cold Steel I and II. “For continuity purposes,” I thought. And I’m glad I did! As I progressed through this arc, I found many things to love about it. In some ways, even more so than Cold Steel. For starters, the characters are well written and likable. The story starts as a simple looking for a missing person adventure that develops into an exhilarating mission filled with political conspiracies and betrayal. In addition to that, the worldbuilding and sidequests, much in Falcom fashion, were expertly crafted and memorable.
The main character is Estelle “The girl who shines like the sun” Bright. Someone hopeful, optimistic, and influences the people around her with her positivity. Complementing Estelle is Joshua Bright, a mysterious, black-haired orphan brought home by Estelle’s father Cassius Bright during one of his missions. Despite his calm composure, you can tell that he’s been through some stuff and has many secrets to hide.
These two fit each other like two puzzle pieces. Estelle is a dreamer continually aiming for the skies, and Joshua is the grounded realist. Their dynamic is one reason why this series is particularly special to me because it feels realistic and pure. Estelle helps Joshua see the brighter (ha!) side of life while Joshua keeps Estelle in check with reality. As you spend more time with them while you progress to the game, you’ll see that their relationship progress to be one of the most meaningful pairings in fiction.
Trails in the Sky the 3rd is the last game in this arc. While it doesn’t feature Estelle and Joshua as the main characters anymore, they still appear throughout a huge chunk of the game, and the new MC, Kevin Graham, is a delight. Without going too much into spoiler territory, Kevin was first introduced in Trails in the Sky SC and is a priest for the Septian Church. Like Joshua, Kevin is more than meets the eye and gets interesting character developments deep into the game.
The 3rd leans away from the traditional side-quest and NPC filled adventures of Trails and instead presented more of a dungeon-crawling experience. On paper, that doesn’t sound as fulfilling as what we usually get from trails games, but the 3rd introduces a creative way to show essential plot points without much filler or fluff through their ‘doors’ system. Not only that, but the 3rd also acts as a satisfying conclusion to the Liberl arc while also maintaining a steady amount of questions for players to ponder over as the Trails series moves forward.
CROSSBELL ARC: TRAILS FROM ZERO AND TRAILS TO AZURE (DUOLOGY)
SECOND ARC IN THE SERIES
Ah yes, the one that got away. For the most part, the Crossbell arc is not well known amongst the general audience of Trails because it never got officially localized. According to this localization blog post from 2015, XSEED’s former Production Coordinator, Brittany Avery had this to say:
When Falcom approached us with interest in seeing the game localized (and yes, they came to us), I naturally was all for it. But like most fans, I worried because of the two games that preceded it—Zero no Kiseki and Ao no Kiseki (which I will henceforth be calling Trails to Zero and Trails to Azure, though those should not be considered final or official names)—because they have some events in them that seem to tie in with Cold Steel directly. Is it okay to publish the series out of ‘order’? If we do take on Cold Steel, will people be missing out on some critical information by not playing Zero and Azure first?
To which, Falcom’s president, Toshihiro Kondo responded:
Actually, this is kind of intentional. We wanted Cold Steel and Zero/Azure to be playable in any order because we noticed that, with Cold Steel, the demographic suddenly became younger. Many new fans of the series were going back to the old games.
As such, Falcom found that it was more important to get Cold Steel into the eyes of worldwide audiences. While I do understand their reasoning behind this, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed because, to me, the Crossbell arc is arguably the best of the trails series’ arcs. It comprises of two games, starting with Trails from Zero followed by Trails to Azure.
Thankfully, there is a way to play both games in English! While I played Zero and Azure using the original fan translation patch that was done by Guren, The Geofront team made (and is currently working on) a refined fan-localization patch of the game that is more up to standards with the official translations of the series. Their translation of Trails From Zero released earlier this year. As for Azure, they’re currently on their second editing pass.
If you’re wondering where to purchase these games, this website offers the digital version of Zero, and if you wanna get Azure, this blog post from the Geofront offers a comprehensive guide on how to buy it.
THE SSS REPORTING FOR DUTY
Trails from Zero starts with our protagonist (Lloyd Bannings) coming back home after passing his detective exams at police school. His home, Crossbell, is a buffer state lying in between two large nations. Although technically an independent state, Crossbell is continuously living in the shadow of these two large, potentially hostile forces, and is at risk of being the victim of collateral damage in war. What makes matters worse, Crossbell is riddled with corruption and organized crime.
This is where Lloyd comes in with a wide-eyed view towards his hometown, Lloyd strives to make Crossbell a better place as a member of its police force while looking for clues about an incident that happened in the past. Much to Lloyd’s chagrin, Crossbell isn’t how he remembered it was. Nobody takes the police force seriously due to their constant negligence, making the general populace lean towards the Bracer Guild for help.
As a result, Sergei Lou, former first division investigator and driving instructor of the police force put together a team dedicated to restoring the public’s perception and faith towards the police force with Lloyd at the helm. From a general standpoint, the SSS isn’t much different from Bracers; they go around town doing their rounds, talking to townspeople and taking on requests. But, the SSS’s priority isn’t just to help people but to restore their faith towards the police force, which has been in a steady decline.
One of the main themes surrounding the Crossbell arc is “getting over the barrier”, which means to overcome adversities. Lloyd and the crew are consistently faced with sneers and ridicule from their enemies, neighboring nations and even their peers. However, this doesn’t stop them from pushing forward throughout every challenge they encounter. Lloyd plays a pivotal role in the team, consistently giving his anime speeches and never questioning his ideals and morals.
Alongside Lloyd, the members of the SSS work in tandem to keep a harmonious (but messy) relationship. You have Randy, the flirty, carefree older-brother who’ll always have your back, Elie, an organized all-rounder and Tio, the child genius. These different personalities come together to create a well-balanced cast of characters that each shines on their own and as a team.
While Trails in the Sky is more of a classic adventure you have with your buds, the Crossbell Arc is more of a polished take on sticking to your ethics no matter the situation, the importance of preserving your roots, and how wrenching it is when it gets taken away from you. Despite being the unfortunate middle child of the Trails series, Zero and Azure do a great job exploring the themes it sets out to explore and is most probably my favorite arc of the series. (For now, at least.)
EREBONIA ARC: TRAILS OF COLD STEEL (TETRALOGY)
THIRD ARC IN THE SERIES
Featuring the largest cast of characters and four number of games, Trails of Cold Steel is probably the most popular of all the Trails series’ arcs. Released for worldwide fans in 2015, and a sequel a year after, Cold Steel came to worldwide audiences when the PS3 and Vita were nearing the end of its lifespan. However, XSEED released a PC version of the game in 2017 and Cold Steel II in 2018.
I mentioned this earlier, but Trails of Cold Steel was my entry point to the Trails series. I still clearly remember looking for JRPG’s to play on PC, where I stumbled upon this gem and its “overwhelmingly positive” Steam review. However, I wasn’t going to let any review make my judgment for me! So I bought the game, and when I came to, the credits were already rolling.
A whole semester break passed me by like lightning; I was in awe of how much I fell in love with this game. Traversing the lands of Erebonia through the railroads in between field studies, experiencing the tensions of class systems and topping it off with notable interactions between NPCs and characters, Trails of Cold Steel reminded me why I loved JRPG’s in the first place.
OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW
Gameplay-wise, the most glaring difference Trails of Cold Steel has from its predecessors is its 3D graphics, replacing the sprites of Sky and Zero/Azure. Other than that, Trails of Cold Steel also introduced the “Bonds System” similar to that of Persona’s Social Links. (But not really.) Personally, I don’t really favor the bonds system because it disturbs important character build-ups due to the points distribution to initiate a bonding event being limited. The only way you get to see everyone’s bonding events is if you play the game twice. Bear in mind: the games are on average about 50+ hours or more.
As far as stories go, the Cold Steel saga is ambitious, consistent and a lot of fun. Stepping into the shoes of students in Thors Military Academy, you get to see the happenings of the Erebonian Empire through the eyes of its inhabitants, shifting the villainous point of view you get towards Erebonia from the previous two arcs.
The first half of the arc (Trails of Cold Steel I and II) oversees Rean’s and his classmates’ journey as they go to different locations in Erebonia through their field studies, taking a glimpse of the tensions between the distinctions of the class system. In the second half on this saga, (Cold Steel III and IV) Rean and his classmates take on different roles after they’ve graduated, applying what they’ve garnered from their adventures to steer the country to a better path.
The Erebonian arc sheds light on the class system that’s present in Erebonia. For generations, nobles have a total monopoly over the regions across Erebonia, and commoners are, well, commoners. As they weren’t blessed with that special birthright, the only way up is through bone-breaking hard work. Enter class VII of Thors—a class that’s a mixed bag of nobles, commoners, foreigners, and everything in-between, with Rean Schwarzer, this arc’s protagonist right at the center of it. Traditionally, Thor’s students are divided into classes of only nobles/commoners, so class VII comes as a surprise to many, even the students themselves.
To me, this arc does a good job of displaying the perspectives of these different classes and showcasing their reactions when they’re all put in the same pot. Even so, some aspects of it fall short now and then due to character bloat. As much as I don’t mind having a large ensemble of characters, The massive amount led to them not having the same amount of development and growth.
On the whole, the Erebonia arc is still an A-class in the JRPG category, and the plot is superb. Combining the cumulation of plot points and buildups from past entries makes it worth it for those who were here throughout the entire journey. The Trails series stands on its own and is an exemplary template of a shared universe. I, for one, can’t wait to see it through the end once the final entry of this saga comes in a few weeks!