By: Brian Gunn
The Legend of Heroes series continues its recent western expansion with Trails of Cold Steel, a new trilogy of games meant to be a bit more welcoming to newcomers. Set in the country of Erebonia a few years after the Trails in the Sky series, does it manage to appeal to new fans, or is it only something for the hardcore?
Trails of Cold Steel is a third-person, party-based JRPG and controls like you’d expect. The series started with an isometric perspective but since shifting to console-focused development the camera now ends up behind the player character.
Battles are menu based, and the series has a few sleek updates like allowing players to quickly switch party members mid battle and even something close a quick save option. Encounters are seen on the field before engaging and players can attack to gain an advantage, though it can feel a bit awkward at times as the general movement is a little stiff.
If I had to describe the visual style of Trails of Cold Steel in one word, I’d probably say “generic.” Okay, that’s a bit harsh; “standard” is probably more apt. Part of this is because the story and characters are fairly boilerplate so their designs feel similar to a lot of other ones in recent games and anime. It’s nothing awful, but very little of it stands out. There are also some performance issues in the bigger cities, especially when story events are going on.
A lot of the music is returning tracks from other games in the series, though some are remixed or new songs playing on old motifs. The new battle theme is my favorite in the series so far, and the music in general seems to be a bit more rock n’ roll flavored.
Voice acting is generally good across the board, and there’s a lot of it. There’s a character I didn’t like the acting for at first (for instance, Laura), but it seemed clear the stiff mannerisms were more a product of reflecting the character rather than poor acting.
There are a few oddities, however, in how much voice acting there is. There are frequent conversations where the supporting characters are voiced, but the lead is not, or only some of his lines are voiced, and it felt fairly distracting.
Like many recent JRPGs and anime in the wake of Persona 4, Trails of Cold Steel opens with the first day of school at a prestigious military academy. Rean is our bland lead, and surrounding him are the girl that’s mean to him but likes him, the brainy beauty with glasses, the stuck up noble that’s not as bad as he seems, and so on. Clichés and tropes are everywhere in this game, but strangely enough I found myself going from rolling my eyes to liking most of the story.
The main factor in this is time. The series takes its time in general, and Trails of Cold Steel is no exception. It takes these archetypes and eventually makes real characters out of most of them.
What this means is that the first few chapters, which are relatively long, feel a bit generic and dull. If you persevere though, there’s some generally interesting stuff. Not just on a character level but on a plot one, too, as toward the end of the game things can get pretty strange with some cool twists. The title does end on a massive cliffhanger, with the sequel already thankfully coming stateside this year.
Battle system wise, Trails of Cold Steel is serviceable but doesn’t really standout, though it does improve on its predecessors. There’s still a Grandia-style turn order with interruptions and random boosts on certain turns, with newly added weapon weaknesses added to encourage swapping characters.
Magic works like most other games, while Crafts are generally physically oriented skills that use a resource that can be renewed via dealing and receiving damage. Crafts end up outshining Magic to an almost silly degree given their renewable resource, damage and utility.
As the game is set in a school, there is a social link system and school life formula. Each chapter you’ll get a free day to spend some time bonding with characters and doing minor quests, which gives brief story snippets as well as increases Rean’s link to them — that plays out in battles as a bonus system, like assisting with an attack or casting a heal spell freely when damaged.
Then there’s the next day’s physical exam, followed by a field study in which groups of students go off to the corners of the world to help out. This is a little grating early on, especially because there’s usually some drama between students Rean has to resolve in each field study, but it works to set the routine and helps to get to know everyone.
While this does take place after previous games, events are only casually referenced and only a few supporting characters make appearances. It will be a bit more fun for the series faithful, but it works perfectly fine as an entry point.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is a bit of a slow and clichéd game, but if you have the time to dedicate it may end up getting its hooks in you.