FULL DISCLOSURE AND DISCLAIMER: Because of certain circumstances and going through a particularly busy time in my life, I was not able to finish the game all the way to the end. I acknowledge that the best reviews always involve seeing the credits roll, but I simply didn’t have enough time and the game is pretty massive in length; most RPGs are. However, I did play long enough to get a firm grasp on the gameplay, story and what the vast majority of the game is going to be like. Plus, I have a lot of experience beating the previous games in the series, so I hope all of this is enough to make this review trustworthy enough to take my opinion on this game into account. I could easily just not tell you any of this, but for the sake of honesty, I thought you should all know that. Enjoy the review!
TL;DR Review: This is my game of the year for 2019. It’s a 10/10 for me. I honestly don’t care what other game comes out after this, because this game gave me everything I wanted in a sequel and more. If you’re a fan of the series, there is no doubt you’ll love this one. If you’re new, I highly recommend you start playing these games, starting at Cold Steel 1. They are incredibly well written and leave a mark on you that’s difficult to forget. You won’t regret it.
Full Review: The wild ride that has been the Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is one that has to be experienced to fully appreciate. No amount of Youtube summaries or wiki articles summarizing the story will ever do the full games justice. The biggest fun you can have with these games is to completely immerse yourself in the world, talking to everyone and doing as many things as possible. The reason for why I say this is comes from The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III being the culmination of all of that effort put into the first and second games, and it’s glorious.
Right off the bat, I can tell you that Cold Steel III is primarily for fans of the series. There is a safe haven for newcomers in the form of story summaries that get you up to speed with everything that happened up until this installment. But as I said at the start, it doesn’t compare to actually living it for yourself. Most of the game is filled with character appearances, cameos, lore, locations and story details that you won’t understand if you didn’t play through all the games in their entirety. Yes, that does include beating some games a second time through New Game+, beating other games that aren’t even a part of the Cold Steel series, and also games that released in Japan that never got translated into English (until very recently).
Similar to the Marvel cinematic universe, every single game connects to the others in some way, so the time commitment is pretty demanding (borderline impossible for English speakers) if you want to fully understand the franchise and its lore. As I said, Cold Steel III is essentially Part 1 of the culmination of all of these games coming together to one point, similar to an Avengers: Infinity War before reaching Endgame. With that said, if you are interested in getting into the series, don’t start here. At the very least, play the first Cold Steel game, and then work your way up to here. For veterans of the series, I can assure you that there is nothing to worry about. Everything you love from The Legend of Heroes is fully present, but it has been improved upon in every single possible way.
Gone are the days of playing this RPG on a PS3. The developers have now moved on to the PS4, and they wasted no time demonstrating that. Everything that you knew about Cold Steel is now bigger, better, shinier and more responsive than its PS3 predecessors. If you played the PS4 re-releases of Cold Steel 1 and 2, than you might take these upgrades for granted. However, I beat both those games on PS3, so I immediately noticed the improved framerate, bigger resolution, and how much prettier the graphics looked. The anime art-style translates beautifully, and I’m sure the colors are brighter and more defined than ever before. For fans of the series, seeing such an impressive facelift will be very enjoyable to experience.
The story takes place a year and a half later from the previous game. All of the student characters have now graduated from the military academy, and a new generation is upon us. The protagonist, Rean Schwarzer, is now a teacher for these new students at a new campus. Him and his fellow instructors help in training and teaching these students in order to achieve big things during future events of the game. This setup for the story immediately gave me nostalgic feelings, and sometimes got me a bit emotional.
Both Cold Steel 1 and 2 involved living the life of a student while exploring the world and learning from everyone else. But now, there is a clever role reversal where that same kid is now an adult, and now you are the one that has to teach the students everything. Seeing Rean make small nods and references to things he experienced in the past was heartwarming, and even more so knowing that you lived all of that along with him. This isn’t some vague implication of a backstory, like other characters you might not know. You, as a player, legitimately lived that backstory, and you longingly reminisce on those memories in the same way Rean does. That is a powerful feeling to get from a video game, and that’s why I keep stressing for newcomers of the series to not skip out on the first two games. Sure, you can technically play this first and consider the other two games prequels, but the feeling wouldn’t be the same.
I honestly don’t want to spoil any big parts of the game, so I won’t get into any specifics. However, I can confirm that this sequel follows in pretty much the exact same structure all the other games do. For some reason or another, you have to regularly explore different places in the world and complete tasks for people. These missions might be as small as finding someone’s lost cat or as big as going out to defeat a scary monster. Eventually, these tasks will transition you to bigger set pieces for the main story to move forward. And then, you move to a different location, rinse and repeat until the credits roll. A few of these missions are required to do and most others are optional, but I highly recommend you do all of them.
My reasoning for this is due to the extraordinary world building and the fantastic writing to every single character, including the NPCs. It’s doesn’t matter who you talk to, everyone has something interesting, funny or charming to say. They all legitimately feel like real people within a very specific city in the country. They all react to certain events and even follow up on their own little story arcs. When it comes to other RPGs, I don’t spend that much time talking to people. However, in Cold Steel, you are doing yourself a disservice in skipping out on the dialogue. The errand-running routine of these games would get boring quickly if it weren’t for how interesting and fleshed out everyone is.
There is a small story to tell in every side mission you do, and that’s why I think you should check everything off of your list before moving forward. This isn’t even factoring the moments where voice acting is involved, which is still as high quality as it always was. And now, you can even change the voices to Japanese if you want. I never went with that option, since the English voices are so excellent, and I already spent all of my time with the previous games in English. I think it would be weird for me to suddenly have the voices changed to something else when I’m so attached to them. To summarize, getting to know everyone is half the fun of the game, with the other half being the combat.
In this sequel, even the fights got an improvement. If you were like me and played these games on PS3, you will appreciate how incredibly fast the fights start now. Not only that, but the controls got streamlined where you can reach all of your battle commands at the press of just one button, very similar to Persona 5’s way of setting up your buttons. The improved graphics make all of the attacks look even flashier than before. My only gripe would be the sound, which doesn’t reflect how awesome the attacks look. Most sound effects during combat come off as flat and deflated, never making me truly feel the punch in any of my attacks. But other than that, all of the usual stuff is in here and I have no complaints.
There are some tiny changes in the combat, such as the addition of Brave Orders and sub master quartz, but they are so small that fans of the series are going to feel right at home here. You can still customize all of the character’s magic spells to your liking, so that flexibility to essentially build the characters you want is still there.
Now, even though I have been gushing relentlessly about this game that I have already decided to name my game of the year for 2019, it does have a few issues. Granted, they are fairly minor and honestly nit-picky, but I thought I should address them anyway. Most of the issues lie within the story, involving bothersome things that Cold Steel hasn’t been able to shake off since the start of the series.
Right off the bat, the newer characters introduced here take a little bit of getting used to. The newer generation of students include some people that are fairly unpleasant and annoying to talk to at first. They do eventually become more compelling, but there is definitely a hump you have to overcome in order to start liking them. This is a strange occurrence, since most characters in The Legend of Heroes series tend to be incredibly likeable almost immediately. Because of this, the newer characters feel dissonant. Their arrogance and confrontational attitude throughout the game sometimes feels uncalled for, considering how level-headed everyone else tends to be.
It almost seems like the writers of the story were trying to stir up drama in places where there shouldn’t be. I honestly would’ve appreciated a more natural development than the typical “students don’t like their teacher, but stuff happens where they grow to like him over time” kind of format. It’s been done before and the series is better than to be so predictable like this.
Speaking of predictability, there are moments toward the beginning of the game that are way too similar to previous moments in the series. Almost beat-for-beat, the exact same things happen, which makes the game lose some of its identity in favor of making callbacks to older times. In addition, the new students are so far behind everyone else that the entire cast needs to be re-introduced and the all the basic mechanics need to be explained again. I know this is for new players to get into the gameplay, and many of these introductions do make a lot of sense. But, considering that it’s mostly fans who will play this, many moments made the game feel like more of a soft reboot than an actual sequel.
If there are any more story-related criticisms (because for gameplay, I have none), it’s probably the usual occurrences of some of your actions not feeling like they matter at all, which is usually seen during boss fights. If I had a nickel for every time I won a boss battle, but ended up in a worse situation during a cutscene, I would have enough nickels to melt them down and make a statue of Olivert holding a rose. Way too many times I see these moments where the villains show up, I mop the floor with them, but they just get up like nothing happened, and then they escape, smiling like they were the ones that won the fight and not me. In all three Cold Steel games, this exact thing happens consistently, and it never fails to anger me.
It’s amazing how detailed the game can be in its dialogue when it mentions the people you’ve talked to or missions you either did or didn’t do. However, I never see that same level of consideration on how good or bad you do at a boss battle. You pretty much seem to always be losing no matter how many times you win. Seeing as how practically all of the main villains in the entire series are completely indestructible, I never felt any satisfaction out of my victories. I always knew they would get up, claim that they were only using 10% of their power and run away.
Speaking of consistent annoyances, there is one last thing that I would like to mention. I didn’t have enough time to beat this game, but I played far enough into it to know that the story begins to take a turn where it becomes incredibly unfriendly to newcomers. Even for me, who has already played a fair share of Legend of Heroes games, had no idea what some of the characters were talking about. This is where the Avengers analogy gets stronger. If you didn’t play every single game up until this point, many details will fly over your head higher than Santa Clause going out to deliver presents.
It honestly took me out of the experience and made some parts of the story a bothersome chore to get through. Having to play so many incredibly lengthy games, even ones that never came out in North America, is a bit too demanding just for people to “get it.” And even then, I know I will still get hated on by hardcore fans for not listening to the Japan-only drama CD inside a limited-edition cereal box that you can only listen to once before it self-destructs inside your bowl of Mishy-Os. I still love the entire series to death, but the grander story at play does get frustrating when that was the last thing I ever cared about. I would’ve very much rather kept on exploring the world and help people find their lost cat or hang out with friends, since that’s what the vast majority of the game is anyway.
Overall, despite my nitpicking, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III is a wonderful game. None of the bad parts combined would ever hold a candle to the sheer amount of joy and fun I had exploring every single corner of this world. Even the mini games like fishing and playing discount Hearthstone was fun to get into. Every aspect of this game from the graphics to the gameplay and story is simply better in every way. Even after I’m done writing this review, there is no way I’m stopping my playthrough. I am going to see this through all the way to the end, and I might even write a follow-up to this when I do. It is an absolute joy to experience. If anything that I said peeked your interest, you should absolutely get this game. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to go get my passport to travel to a different country. At the moment, there is nothing I would rather do than to visit my friends in Erebonia one more time.