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The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel (PlayStation 3) artwork

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel (PlayStation 3) review

"Despite its generic-sounding name, Trails of Cold Steel offers a JRPG rife with political intrigue."

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel marks a new chapter in the storied Eiyuu Densetsu series, which arguably ranks second only to Ys when one considers Nihon Falcom's output over the years. Although this particular title is the 11th entry in the series, potential newcomers can rest assured that it serves as every bit as appropriate a starting point as any of its predecessors would, especially given how few of those are conveniently available to English speakers.

The game's campaign largely tells the story of a kingdom known as Erebonia. At Thors Military Academy, youth are groomed and prepared for a future aiding the countries from which they hail. Existing as a neutral entity, the institution educates students who come not only from Erebonia, Calvard and the surrounding kingdoms, but also from different classes within their respective societies. Commoners and nobles are traditionally segregated into five standard classes, with little reason to intermingle due to the existing prejudices that first divided them so long ago. In the year 1204, however, Thors has begun a social experiment that includes a new student body and class known as Class VII.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel (PlayStation 3) image

The newly established class celebrates differing backgrounds and social hierarchy by bringing together nine students that could not be more different from one another. Existing tension between nobles and commoners inevitably bubbles to the surface, and is most immediately obvious when one looks at the dynamics between Machias and Jusis. Those two characters are constantly at each othersí throats for no apparent reason other than the houses into which they were born.

Class VII, despite suffering from its own faults and tension, at least has one cohesive component keeping it together: Rean Schwarzer. He's the story's main character. His sincere compassion and generosity work well to forge bonds between his fellow classmates, at times pushing him into scenarios where his kindness means being taken advantage of by those far lazier than him (with his homeroom teacher, Sara, being one notable example).

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel (PlayStation 3) image

The bulk of Reanís time is devoted to his academic efforts, which are represented with unique game mechanics. His class attendance consists of short, one-off conversations, or on occasion he will instead find himself answering impromptu multiple-choice questions. A brief amount of free time can also be spent on side quests, before a trip to an old schoolhouse on campus. That mysterious structure gains an additional floor in each chapter, and serves as a sort of training ground. It offers combat that breaks up the more standard school segments with a plethora of monster encounters, culminating in a boss battle that requires players to utilize link attacks between party members.

Any role-playing game worth its salt needs but two things to be enjoyable: a story worth seeing through to its end, and a combat system that meaningfully supplements the narrative. The system used in Trails of Cold Steel features a harmonious balance between the tried-and-true turn-based styling of contemporary JRPGs, and the position-related combat of a strategy title. Each move in the teamís arsenal, as well as every attack, art or craft, operates according to a set of ranges and areas of effect. Buffs bolster the partyís effectiveness and status effects and magical crafts do just the opposite to anyone who comes their way, which means positioning becomes crucial. I personally lost at least one major battle after falling prey to a horrible, wide-ranging attack, simply because my units were positioned too closely to one another. Installments within the franchise have found ways to make turn-based combat fresh, and the result here is as expertly constructed as anything I've seen since the days of Chrono Trigger.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel (PlayStation 3) image

Each member of Class VII carries a special tool, known as an ARCUS. This piece of tech allows the party members to easily communicate with one another, sort of like a walkie-talkie, and also serves as the source of each student's combat potential. ARCUS units contain slots that can house quartz crystals, which imbue the students with new abilities and stat increases. At the center of a given unit is a special slot reserved for a "Master Quartz," which can significantly alter a character's play style when equipped. Midway through the story, I gave the primary swordswoman, Laura, one such crystal. Doing so increased the damage her regular attacks inflicted by a factor of three, but also prevented her from taking as many turns during combat. When that major enhancement was coupled with smaller boosts to her attacks and status effects, she could easily cleave through standard foes with little trouble at all. To perform well, you must pay attention to ARCUS limitations (some slots only allow a quartz of a particular element to be added, for instance) and learn how to effectively combine effects. Those interactions go a long way toward defining a party member's role and establishing party synergy.

Trails of Cold Steel sports excellent combat, but if the game has a single defining flaw, it's the narrative's lack of driving momentum. Due to a general lack of the set pieces that other contemporary RPGs pride themselves on delivering, you're left with a slow burn that happens one careful step at a time. The first 20-plus hours of the story adhere to a fairly simple structure, with only the occasional break for field studies. The world opens up over time, however, with cities offering their own unique settings and characters. Such expansion ultimately allows Erobonia to feel more fully realized than it does initially, but the downside to that is that the sheer number of characters and major players that are introduced over the course of the campaign can eventually become staggering. I frequently had to check the in-game glossary in order to keep relationships and faction alignments straight.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel (PlayStation 3) image

As the story evolves, it becomes less one of misfit youths struggling to come to terms with their differences, and more the tale of a world that lingers a single misstep away from all-out war. Right from the start, tensions between the various factions and countries are at an all-time high. It's not long before a group known as the Imperial Liberation Front stirs up trouble around Erebonia, working toward a single ideal: the assassination of Chancellor Osborne (who is known as the Iron and Blood Chancellor). Some of the movement's actions and motives are revealed early on, but only during the later chapters of Trails of Cold Steel do the antagonists truly reveal themselves. As the story builds toward its conclusion, the ILF evolves from a minor annoyance behind the scenes, into a brazen force willing to launch an outright attack. The major players of the ILF that you'll see along the way are interesting in their own ways, but itís a shame their motivations rarely extend beyond that of the "Chaotic Evil" archetype.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is a phenomenal addition to both the PS3 and Vitaís RPG libraries, even if you're unfamiliar with other titles within the franchise. While the story ends with a serious cliffhanger as the credits roll, knowing that the sequel is already well on its way should help to mend any longing for a resolution. Taken simply as its own unit, Cold Steel is still an enjoyable JRPG that should appeal to newcomers and veterans alike, even if occasional narrative missteps hold it back from offering a perfect experience.


Gregarious's avatar
Freelance review by Kai Powell (January 12, 2016)

As an aspiring FGC contributor, Kai has earned enough tournament accolades to earn the title 'Eternally Second'. When not pouring his heart out over covering the games industry and running a corporate games store, he also spends his mornings at a ramen-ya

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forweg posted January 13, 2016:

Good review, but "Trails of Cold Steel" doesn't really sound like a generic title at all to me.

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