NOTE: This is a review of the PS3 version after playing for 42 hours (and watching the recap from the 2nd game.) The newest PC release is pretty much identical, with the biggest difference being 50% more voice acting on PC. Obviously, I highly recommend the PC version for its biggest amount of content and improved graphics, but other than that, all versions (PS3, PS Vita, PC) are equally as great and I highly recommend you play this game in whatever way you prefer.
Short Version: The Legend of Heroes series does it again with yet another incredible start to an exciting trilogy. The gameplay is fun as hell, the characters are great, the music is awesome, the story is interesting and the lore runs so deep you could almost believe this game is based on real locations. Aside from some difficulty spikes and voice acting inconsistencies, there isn’t a bad thing I have to say about this game. I highly recommend this to anyone that enjoys playing Japanese RPGs.
Long Version: Trails in the Sky was my first foray into the Legend of Heroes series. I fell in love with it ever since, but had no idea how much it could improve from there. I was so blown away at how well-made the “Sky” games were, that I never thought it could get any better than that; that is until I started playing Trails of Cold Steel. This game is a completely different story, cast, location and graphical style than its predecessors. Even then, it still contains the same charm and heart that got me so attached to the characters of the previous games. And now that it has arrived on PC, there is even more voice acting and graphical upgrades that make the experience more enjoyable.
Follow The Trail Once More
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is an RPG that mostly takes place in Thors Military Academy, where our characters study, learn and get to know each other in a very Persona-ish kind of way. However, the game will soon start sending you out on “field studies,” in which you explore the world and fulfill requests for people. Eventually, you get embroiled in more complicated story arcs consisting of political intrigue and internal struggles within the cast. Of course, you also have dungeons, fights, boss battles and leveling up like any other RPG, but the combat is not what necessarily makes Cold Steel special. The magic lies in the game’s writing.
I fell in love with Trails in the Sky because of how entertaining it was to see the characters bounce off of each other with banter and events that allowed them to grow. They all felt real, distinct, and I felt attached to them in the same way that I felt attached to SEES from Persona 3 or the Investigation Team in Persona 4. Exactly the same thing can be said about the characters in Cold Steel. Shortly after all the main characters in Class VII come together, you start to see them unfold in interesting ways. None of them are perfect; they all have flaws, prejudices and doubts in some places just as much as how they are experts and intelligent in others. Seeing all of them bump heads and get to know each other was always interesting and fun to see, which always encouraged me to keep on playing. On top of that, all of the information surrounding the setting runs incredibly deep. Everything you can think about in this game has its own history and further enriches the story. The most impressive part is that it’s all optional. You could easily miss all of it if you don’t like reading lore, but you’d do well in visiting the library a couple times, even if it’s for geeking out at the references to other games in the series.
Bonding in the Battlefield
Speaking of playing, the combat system is pretty much identical to previous titles, save a few minor differences. The turned-based combat and the Orbment system from Trails in the Sky are back in Cold Steel, but slightly different through the addition of the ARCUS. This device allows you to essentially pair up with other party members for special attacks that add more variety to the fights. The same magical elements and Orbment customization are still here, which allows for a lot of strategy against the wide variety of enemies, whose designs are also very entertaining to see. The developers don’t fix what’s not broken, but rather improve it by adding more fun things to it, and seeing it all moving in 3D is awesome, especially when viewing all the character’s ultimate attacks.
Speaking of having an enjoyable time, the visual elements are pretty solid. It has a more modern anime look, which is a bit different from Trails in the Sky, which is more reminiscent of anime from the 90s. It’s a bit different, but it looks really good and still feels like a part of Erebonia, the continent the game takes place in. Being a massive RPG, there are some inevitable flaws like rough textures in the environment and the typical green plains with nothing on them, but the vast majority of it looks really solid and eye-catching. All the character designs look great and distinctive, with even the NPCs having a lot of memorable looks, especially the female characters. All of this accompanied by a competent soundtrack filled with many tracks that left me humming to myself afterward. Pretty soon, all of these elements come together very well, creating a cohesive experience that features bonding with great characters, then learning more about the world in the same way the cast does. It’s the small things that really make the game special for me.
Check Your Erebonian Privilege
Though I had a great time with the game, there were some things that bothered me a little bit. For starters, the high school/field study routine gets predictable very quickly. After you do it once, you have the entire gameplay loop figured out. You go to school, hang out with friends, fight a floating sex toy (you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it) and then leave for a trip. During said trip, you always have a handful of regular quests and one “oh no, something totally unexpected or corrupt happened and only we can solve this problem” quest. Afterwards, the story progresses, you return to school, rinse and repeat. Obviously, all the dialogue and characters featured within these loops are awesome, but you can definitely see a lot of story beats coming from a mile away after a certain point.
If there were any other concerns I can point out, it would probably be in the combat and its sudden spike in difficulty. I was playing the game on the easiest level, but even then there were moments where impenetrable enemies came out of nowhere. Most enemies encourage strategy and changing your orbment combinations, but a few of them felt just bullet sponges, hitting them again and again until they eventually fall over. I can get a bit frustrating and a waste of time, especially when the game rewards you for finishing fights quickly. Oh yeah, and quests still expire in this game, which is a thing that still pisses me off, even back in the Trails in the Sky days.
Can You Hear Me Now?
One last thing would be the voice acting. There is nothing actually wrong with the voice acting itself, but rather with the frequency in which we get to hear it. This is a very common thing with Japanese RPGs and the kind of budget they have, especially when dubbed in English. One moment you hear a fully voice acted scene, but then all of a sudden the voices aren’t there anymore for the next one. In some important moments where you’d think it’d be voiced, it isn’t, which can be a bit upsetting. Sometimes within the same scene the voices can come and go to the point of frustration. Fortunately, there are two things that make me forgive this problem. The first is that the performances are so good that the wait is always worth it. The second is that the newest PC version has 50% more voice acting that basically voices everything that I wanted to see voiced. XSEED could’ve easily not done this and just port the game to PC, but this, along with some new graphical upgrades, is something that I very much appreciate.
A Third Of What Seems To Be Another Awesome Trilogy
In conclusion, despite my tiny gripes, Cold Steel is an amazing game. Everything that I do in it is fun as hell, looks great, sounds great and is filled with the same enormous amount of heart that made me fall in love with The Legend of Heroes to begin with. The gameplay format translates beautifully in 3D and brings the continent of Erebonia to life in a different way than before. The way the game ends left me on a bit of a bittersweet note (things go south very quickly), but it served to get me massively excited for the second installment. It’s similar to Trails in the Sky in that, as a video game, it doesn’t really break any new ground; it’s just an incredibly well made and solidly written RPG that I highly recommend you play.