The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II Review

The Legend of Heroes is a long-running franchise by Japanese RPG developer Nihon Falcom, begging in the late 1980s and continuing through today, spanning several story arcs set within a single world. The most recent The Legend of Heroes adventure, Trails of Cold Steel, presented a third person view instead of a top-down perspective used by many of its predecessors. XSEED released the excellent PC conversion of the game last summer, and the wait for the second part was surprisingly short. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II picks up where the previous game left off and as a straight sequel, it has an advantage of getting right into the action without getting caught up with world building. One could say that Cold Steel II is what Empire Strikes Back was to Star Wars. A word of warning: this review is bound to include some spoilers for those who haven’t played the first part.

The last time we met the boys and girls of Class VII of the prestigious Thors military academy, it all ended in a chaos. A long and bitter dispute between Noble Alliance and Imperial Army of Erebonia erupted in a civil war. Nobles attacked the capital, and Class VII was caught up in the middle. Modest and honest Rean Schwarzer, the nominal leader of the class, was revealed to be an awakener of an ancient divine knight Valimar, a sort of battle mech. It was not only Rean who turned out to be more than meets the eye. His loyal friend Crow showed his true colors as he attacked Class VII, also controlling a divine knight of his own. The brave battle ended in a sour note, forcing Rean to retreat while his class mates took a stand against the overpowering enemy. Cold Steel II picks up a month later, when Rean wakes up in the mountains in the company of Valimar and a talking cat Celine.

While the last game was split between a tight school regime of classes, free days and field studies, now the whole time is spent on the field, doing story and side quests, and most of all, battling against various enemies. Progress is pretty linear, taking Rean from one place to another. A fast travel within story sections is often made available, either by horseback, a customizable motorcycle, or a personal airship. The first half of the game follows Rean searching for his class mates, scattered over the Empire. Toval, of a peace-keeping Bracer guild, accompanies him until he can gather up his allies. Rean is joined by other friendly faces outside Class VII too, all eager to see Noble Alliance fall. When Class VII is eventually back together, they start doing their bid for the war effort. Also, there’s a matter of rescuing princess Alfin and Rean sister’s Elise, who were kidnapped early on.

Completion data from the previous game is carried over, granting bonuses and relationship details. Those keen to enroll in the rebel ranks aren’t turned away, though. There’s a comprehensive summary of the events in the previous game for newcomers to the Cold Steel series. The course of the story is laid out in detail, but the more intricate chemistry between the characters are, of course, something that only veterans can fully understand. Even so, the overall relations can be read pretty easily, as the characters express themselves clearly. There’s no murmuring and behind the back talk among their ranks. All members of Class VII return but with new sides to the many, like petite Fie, who for the longest time seemed sleepy and lethargic but turned out be a Jaeger, a fierce elite soldier.

Even though the heroes and heroines of Cold Steel II are teenagers, their characterizations are avoid of most typical JRPG-clichés. True to Nihon Falcom’s trademark style, you won’t find pointy-haired and arrogant angry men or squeaky and meek girls here. None of the large cast, including whimsical villains as well, annoyed me or came off as filler. There’s no doubt that XSEED’s once again supreme localization has helped in shaping up the characters for the better. XSEED didn’t get right to use Japanese voices this time either, but the English cast is superb, giving characters that extra layer of personality. There’s 50% more voice lines dubbed than in PS3 original, but still not all of the dialogue is spoken.

Considering that large parts of the game involve fighting various enemies, monsters and men alike, I found myself actively seeking out battles instead of trying to avoid them. It’s entirely possible to shun fighting (not counting intimidating story fights) as the mobs are presented as red dots on the field map. They can be seen roaming in the game view too. There are no random encounters. You gain advantage by engaging the enemies in the field by attacking them fiercely head on (I found Fie especially effective here due to her gun blades that offer both ranged and melee attacks).

The fights themselves take place in a separate battle mode. Even though it’s entirely turn-based, fighting is fast-paced and intense. Special attacks (S-breaks and the new Overdrive which grants linked combatants three attack turns with bonuses) are encouraged to be used frequently rather than holding them back for tougher fights. The more abilities you can spam, and shorter the fight time, the better the experience factor and the rewards are. I can’t say it as a fact, but I felt that CP point generation (used for special attacks) was more generous than in the previous game, ensuing a full display of flashy moves. They’re not only for a show-off (animations can also be skipped) but essential in besting the story boss encounters. Some of these take place inside Valimar against enemy mechs. You have to read opponent’s stances, and attack accordingly.

There are some optional dungeons, much like the old school house in the first game, that has individual characters trials to strengthen the bonds between the party members. They’re great places to gain levels and upgrade skills. All the characters are rewarded the same experience, not only the four active members, so there’s no need for unnecessary party make-up shuffling if you fancy a certain set-up fitting your playing style. Cold Steel II has more liberty in choosing the active party, whereas in the first game the field studies had fixed groups.

Cold Steel II offers a few more graphical settings to fiddle with than the already well-covered predecessor. Unlimited frame rate and draw distance give the PC port a wide breadth over console originals. Even though the visuals aren’t top-drawer stuff (it pales in comparison with the likes of later Final Fantasy games), they’re more than enough to convey the story with all its ups and downs. As is usual for Nihon Falcom games (am I repeating myself here?), the music is top-notch. Fast-paced and melodic rock, grounded with deep and bouncy bass lines, spices up the events and battles to new heights.

What’s there not to like about Cold Steel II? Well, those fights you can’t win for the sake of the story despite your best efforts (and awesome skills) can be demoralizing but I can’t think of anything else. If you’re not into JRPGs that much, Cold Steel II isn’t likely to convert you into a fan by its mechanics alone. Make no mistake, this is a heavyweight JRPG with plentiful narrative, detailed plot, rich characterization and intricate combat system. For its modest production values, the game has unprecedented depth. It avoids the most typical JRPG tropes, and has heart and sincerity instead. Everything in the game adds up to the overall experience, making The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II one of the best in the genre. The third part of Trails of Cold Steel saga has seen the daylight only in Japan for PS4. I hope the western PC conversion doesn’t take too much time to arrive. I want to see what’s stored for Rean and Class VII in the future!

Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.