Thanks to our friends over at XSEED Games, I was able to revisit The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel on PlayStation 4 after having reviewed the PC version back in August of 2017. The PS4 version is identical to the Steam release in that it has 50% more dialogue available than the original release, as well as the substantial upgrades the graphics department underwent. Replaying through Trails of Cold Steel reminded me just how fantastic this franchise truly is. I’ll be making edits and adding information where needed to the previous review of the PC version, but let me just say this. If you’ve still managed to somehow ignore this release the three other times it hit the market, you owe it to yourself to experience it on the PS4.
Title: The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel
Publisher: XSEED Games
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Available On: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 4
Reviewed On: PlayStation 4 Pro
Release Date: March 26, 2019
Game Provided By XSEED Games for the Purpose of This Review
The latest series of entries in the Legend of Heroes franchise, Trails of Cold Steel is the first of four chapters and follows Rean Schwarzer and Class VII at Thor’s Military Academy in the Erebonian Empire. A fair warning. This game takes place at the exact same time as the duo that released in the franchise before it, which is Zero no Kiseki and Ao no Kiseki, effectively known as the Crossbell Arc. Therefore, there are heavy spoilers in the narrative about things going on in the other two, which it assumes you would have played beforehand. Since these are not currently available in English, that makes things a bit difficult. Rumors are swirling that NIS America is currently working on English versions of these two releases, but as of the time of writing, there hasn’t been an official word or peep mentioned about this, so as of right now, we have to take this rumor with a grain of salt and just continue to hope that eventually the entire franchise will be made available in English.
It cannot be stressed enough, but this is a great entry point for newcomers to the franchise. Because each Arc effectively introduces a new story and new set of characters, you won’t feel as if you missed anything if you didn’t know there were five other games in the same world that took place directly before or at the same time as Trails of Cold Steel. If this is your first experience with the series, don’t dwell on that aspect too much, and just enjoy the game for what it is. Which is an amazing roleplaying game with one of the best cast of characters ever conceived, an interesting story, clever mechanics, and a killer soundtrack. In all actuality, this could also be presented as a great entry point for the JRPG genre itself if you’ve never been a fan of it or never played a game like this before. Give it a shot! It deserves to be experienced by more gamers!
Let’s briefly discuss the cast of characters just mentioned. I have not felt such a strong connection to characters in a game in a very long time. I was thoroughly invested in every single member of Class VII, Professor Sara, and all the named sub-characters that were introduced throughout the 85 hours it took me to completely finish the story. That time frame also includes completing every side quest, and spending a significant amount of time over-leveling. Rean, Alisa, Elliot, Laura, Machias, Jusis, Emma, Fie, and Gaius are undeniably one of the strongest main cast of characters to exist in a modern video game, and it definitely helped to suck me into the story and feel an emotional connection with every single one of them every time something major or minor would happen in the narrative.
Threads of politics, historical figures, and a war between nations really drove home the story being presented in Trails of Cold Steel. While everything at first appears happy-go-lucky in a typical anime school setting, the story soon takes a much darker turn and Class VII, a mix of nobles and commoners, finds themselves directly at the center. One of the very few complaints I have with this entry in the series, is that the pacing for the story was filled with a bit of fluff that honestly just felt as if it was there to prolong the experience and make the game longer. I’m all for 70 to 100 hour JRPG experiences, but only when the game calls for it and it is done out of sheer necessity. When it’s done through other means just to make for a longer game, then certain points are obviously going to feel as if they drag on slightly. While this isn’t a huge deal, especially if you play the game using the fast-forward mechanic only found on the PC and PS4 versions, then you may not even notice how long some of the segments truly take.
Often compared to the Persona franchise in terms of how the gameplay is, I want to make it clear that while some elements are similar, this in no way truly plays like a traditional Persona game. Here’s how the layout of the game actually goes. There’s six chapters found within, and then a prologue and epilogue. You do not play every single day of the calendar year like in Persona. At the start of each chapter, you attend the lecture or event for that given day. Afterward, you’re free to roam around the school, chat with your friends in Class VII, and do various tasks around the school campus. Upon returning to your dorm for the evening, the game transitions into the next day, which is considered a Free Day. These free days consist of completing side quests around the school campus and Trista, the town the school is located in. You also can spend bond points on certain characters, which is very much like the social links system found within Persona.
After you’ve finished bonding with your selected characters and doing the side quests, you set off to explore the Old Schoolhouse, which is where a lot of leveling up and exploration can be done. Each chapter consists of a new floor to explore, and being able to travel back to previous floors makes leveling up a breeze during these sections. Once you complete the floor for the chapter, the story progresses forward toward that month’s practical exam, which is just a fancy way of saying boss battle. After that, you go on a Field Study with a select few of your Class VII friends, which takes you to a different city or region within the Erebonian Empire. More side quests, leveling up, spending time with classmates, and exploration is done on these Field Studies. After completing them, you return to Thor’s Military Academy, the chapter ends, the game advances several weeks at a time, and you repeat the process, maybe with a few slight differences here and there. While this system works extremely well, it did become a bit predictable, and I would have liked to see a bit more variation with how the chapters were laid out. The final two chapters nailed this concept perfectly at least.
The battle system is another strong point for Trails of Cold Steel. A traditional turn-based roleplaying game in an era where these are more or less a rarity, Falcom continues to prove that there is a place for these types of games in the modern gaming landscape. Each member of Class VII behaves differently in battle, coming equipped with a unique weapon, play style, and personality. Alongside this is the Arts system, which is up to the player on how to equip all the characters. These come in the form of Quartz, which are found throughout the world and given as rewards for some of the quests in the game. This allows for deep customization of every character in your party, and means that anyone can be a healer, a tank, or a heavy damage dealer if equipped correctly. There is also the Link mechanic, which works exactly like it sounds. Two characters can link up and perform stronger attacks, and eventually you’ll learn the ability to pull off powerful S-Break attacks as well. It’s an enjoyable system, but I expected nothing less from Falcom, who have truly become masters at the genre.
In 2019, you really will be hard pressed to find another traditional Japanese roleplaying game that completely satisfies all checkboxes as well as The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel. While certain portions of the game did feel like filler and every chapter is laid out in an almost identical fashion, this is easily overlooked thanks in part to the memorable narrative, amazing cast of characters, addictive battle system, and incredible soundtrack. Keep in mind that this is also part one in a series, so some of the filler may have more meaning in Cold Steel 2, Cold Steel 3, and Cold Steel 4. Speaking of which, Trails of Cold Steel 2 is currently available on the PS3, Vita, and PC for those who finish the game and cannot wait to see what happens next. For everyone else, I’d suggest waiting for the PS4 release, which will most likely be coming later this Spring. Then we have Trails of Cold Steel 3 coming later this Fall to truly continue the series for those of us that have been waiting years.