The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel Review

Now that The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky trilogy had its long in coming conclusion in the west, XSEED games brings another Nihon Falcom JRPG series to PC. Trails of Cold Steel starts a new story arc in the world of The Legend of Heroes and is of more fresh origins than the previous western translations. The game was first seen in Japan in 2013 on PlayStation 3 and Vita. The old school charm of top-down games from the past is gone in a transition to a polygonal 3rd person view, but the added dimension gives an extra depth to the overall gameplay experience and character studies Nihon Falcom is known for.

It’s again that time of the year when the youth of Erebonian Empire enroll in the illustrious Thors Military Academy. Usually the nobles and commoners are divided into their own classes as the social inequality is highlighted in the Erebonian society, but this semester, five boys and four girls of different social upbringings find themselves in the same class. Why are these particular teenagers chosen into this experiment? The problems in the empire may run rife due to the social differences, but these boys and girls must learn to close their ranks in the upcoming year and eventually in the world turmoil, even if it proves sometimes impossible.

The player assumes the role of 17-years old Rean Schwarzer, a well-mannered, right-minded and modest young man (do these heroes actually come in any other form?). Thanks to his diligence, Rean is one of the better performing students in class VII and others will often look up to him, much to his bewilderment. En route to the academy, Rean literally bumps into quick-tempered Alisa. Despite the girl’s mercurial nature, the two have an obvious eye for each other.

There’s also Laura, an unexpectedly level-headed girl for an upper class and a fearsome warrior with her broadsword and Emma, a likable bookworm. Academically inclined Machias hates nobles so snooty Jusis, the heir of the prestigious Albarea house, is his natural enemy. Gaius is an exchange student from the far away Northern Highlands and surprisingly sensitive for a young man of his imposing figure. He, Rean and gentle-hearted Elliot, who underestimates his obvious abilities, make fast friends together. Fie, the silver-haired petite girl, is an unplayed card for everyone else though. And what would you think if your homeroom teacher was a hard-drinking and seemingly indifferent? Well, that’s Sara for you.

All these boys and girls become familiar during the academic year, like it or not. Rean & co. might look and sometimes even act like stereotypes, but there’s more going for them than meets the eye. Character building takes hours for each student individually, but I ended up liking all of them, even Jusis. Then there’s the massive supporting cast of eccentric and mysterious characters, all given their special role in the game world. This level of intricate and subtle characterization must be applauded.

Much of Trails of Cold Steel takes place in the academy, and its structure follows a school timetable. It’s like being back in the school for real. Sometimes during virtual lessons, there are even spot checks. But unlike in real life, you can’t just hide in silence behind the desk as it’s your duty as the player to give an answer. Overall typical school days consist of exams (usually watching events) and practical studies (mostly fighting monsters).

Free days are spent on running errands for students and the local folk as Rean is very early in the game coined to join the school student council; that means helping everyone who has troubles, big or small. Some of the quests are optional, but they all give academy points which means better grades. Even the most menial fetch quests are properly motivated. Rean reasons that more than the grades, he learns a lot from these tasks. Indeed, he and the player alike are taught in history, customs and everyday life of Erebonia. This way, Trails of Cold Steel actually preps remarkably well for what will eventually be a trilogy.

Every student of class VII is equally anticipating and dreading the field studies which take the pals and gals all over the empire. Transitions are made in dialogue-heavy train trips which are lightened by playing cards. The actual locations are geographically restricted and dungeons are linear in their nature, but it’s only appropriate to the narrative and story-rich game experience. It’s a welcome change that you don’t get lost all over the open worlds.

It’s not only cute to see friendships and attractions spark and grow during all the activities and events. They lead to bonding of characters, which enables link attacks of various effects in battles. Depending on who performs them, some links give extra attacks and others provide support for the group of four at the time fighting the monsters. The turn-based combat allows much strategic planning based on following and manipulating the active time bar, which displays the turn order for both heroes and enemies. Unbalancing the foes with certain damage types, much like staggering in the later Final Fantasy games, gives an opening for link attacks. It pays off to look out for students’ weapons in a relation to the enemy types so all of the characters are called for in different situations.

Each student is also given more special moves (crafts in the game’s terminology) and magic arts as the story progresses, gradually enhancing the means at the player’s disposal. It makes for tense battle encounters, especially on tough boss encounters which require all the planning, executing and typically, luck on your side. Screen-shattering super crafts can be called upon regardless of the turn but they alone won’t turn the tide. Timely use of supers is more important, giving a sliver of an upper hand followed by a careful resource management. As always, good preparation like stocking up potions and items is half the win.

PC conversion is smooth and offers surprisingly lots of graphic options to tinker with, considering the deceivingly simple nature of the visuals. The result is a clean and crisp image over the console originals. There’s a lot of personality put in the anime-style characters and surroundings of the Erebonian empire. XSEED didn’t get the rights to use Japanese audio, but that’s just as well. I really have grown into the English dub (which I usually don’t) and couldn’t imagine the cast without their respective voices. The PC version adds some 5000 lines of new voiced dialogue, but still not every conversation is spoken.

What I like about Nihon Falcom games is they’re so grounded. Trails of Cold Steel is no exception. Despite an ensuing dramatic upheaval of an empire on the verge of a civil war, a lot of emphasis is put on everyday routines. Of course, the dramatic blows aren’t held back whenever the need to raise the stakes arises, but the game manages to pull off a lot of its more acute social commentary through the mundane lives of its folk. The narrative favors details over broad stokes, forming an intricate world.

Nihon Falcom’s games have helped me to rediscover JRPGs which I had almost given up due to their often perplexing superiority complex. There’s this integrity towards the way Nihon Falcom makes their games, and it’s reflected in the gaming experience. What The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel may lack in production values, it makes up for in the richness and depth in its unpretentious and diverse narrative. That makes following Rean and his friends during their year of study uncannily engaging entertainment. I can’t think of any better way to get acquainted with The Legend of Heroes series than this. The only thing bothering me right now is how long I have to wait for the second part!

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.