The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel - Review

The Legend of Heroes series is one with a very long and slightly complex history. To put it simply, The Legend of Heroes is a sub series to the old school Dragon Slayer series, and is made up of multiple series itself. "Dragon Slayer The Legend of Heroes" gave way to Legend of Heroes II, and eventually lead us to what is called the "Gagharv trilogy." But you can forget all of that. You see after this trilogy released, something a bit different happened. A new game was released called "Sora no Kiseki," and it marked the very start of something new. This was the birth of the "Kiseki" series, which would go on to become known as "Trails" here in the west.

Trails in the Sky was the first entry in this new series that still was branded under The Legend of Heroes name. It had no connections to the past, and started building what would eventually become one of the largest developed RPG worlds in the history of video games. This game would continue on to Trails in the Sky Second Chapter, and eventually be "concluded" with Trails in the Sky The 3rd. Except in reality this wasn't the end, but rather a the beginning.

After Sky concluded, the series shifted it's setting to the city state of Crossbell with two new entries. These games were known as Zero no Kiseki and Ao no Kiseki (roughly translated as Trails to Zero/Trails to Azure). Together they made up the next major chapter in the Trails series, but they actually only told half the story. As things go down in Crossbell, there was actually a second incident brewing just outside of the state's borders -- in the country known as the Erebonian Empire. This is where Trails of Cold Steel comes in.

Released after Zero/Ao, Cold Steel shows the other "side" of the previous two game's story. Because of this they are interchangeable with each other, and it's a good thing too. Despite getting Trails in the Sky and Cold Steel, at the time of this writing Zero/Ao have yet to be released overseas. But putting that aside, just what is Cold Steel, and why is it worth playing? Or is it worth playing? What makes people love this series so much, while it also turns others away? Today I hope to answer that question for you. This is my review of Trails of Cold Steel I.

The Story of Rean:

Trails of Cold Steel begins roughly a year after the Sky series. However being set in a different country from the previous games, the game is very much a stand alone entry in this already established world. Rather than focusing on characters from the past, the story shifts to the life of a young man named Rean as he tackles the real world on his own for the first time, and enrolls himself in a military academy. Thors, as it is called, is the leading military academy in the country of Erebonia, and is where many of the nation's great leaders originally attended. Rean hopes that this will be his new beginning in life, and that he'll finally find his own path. Of course he isn't alone.

On his first day in his new town, Rean walks around the village and gets to know some of the towns people. He also has a run in with a few of his fellow students, but it's not until the entrance ceremony he realizes that something is different. He and a handful of the other students at the academy have a different uniform from the rest. From the get go it's obvious that the uniform signifies which class the students would be in, but what Rean doesn't realize is just how different his class will truly be. After the principal walks off stage, those wearing the strange new red uniform are asked to report to the old school building behind the main campus, and are then given their first proper introduction to their new student life. While the other classes will operate as usual, this new 6th calls called "Class 7" would be taking their own path. Suddenly the floor opens up below them, and for the first time they are thrown into danger.

The basement of the Old Schoolhouse is their first test. The students are required to group up and fight together if they wish to pass the "test," but from the get go it becomes obvious things aren't that simple. Every class member seems to come from a different background, and because of that things become a bit challenging. These students are still immature young adults, and it shows almost instantly. One boy named Machias declares his hate for nobility and refuses to work with those with noble blood, Jusis (a noble himself) clearly has a problem with this, and the others are kinda forced to just do what they can to cope with it. The girls would rather work with other girls, and Rean has an unfortunate incident with fellow classmate Alisa which in return causes her to distance herself from him. It's things like this that show just how young these characters really are, and it's something that become a major theme of this first game in the series.


Character Development and the World of Trails:

Like the Sky series and Crossbell games before it, Cold Steel continues the trend of focusing on the world and it's characters. Rather than filling the towns and cities with generic NPCs, every single person in the game has a name. They all have a life they live, and each time you progress the main story, their stories unfold with it. Every time you talk to a character you get to see small glimpses into their lives, and eventually you'll come to understand their full story and how they connect to other's around them. This is what helps ultimately build one of the most developed "living" worlds out there, and what helps make Trails in general feel special. Even small details most games would ignore play a part in the overall plot, and sometimes reconnect to the main story in some surprising ways. But of course all of this is only a small part to what the game's story is really about.

(Just one example of meeting the same guy at different points in time.)

Just as you would expect, Cold Steel has a major focus on the main characters, as well as the school they attend. Everyone there becomes an important part of Rean's life, and we get to see exactly how these characters develop over time. Initially many of the characters struggle with their own issues and insecurities, but as the story progresses we get to learn more about them, and see how they can overcome these challenges they face. Rean himself doesn't have very much self worth. He may be the main character, but he doesn't even see himself as the main character of his own life -- something that just isn't normal. He puts others first, and feels like he's either a burden to them, or just not worth as much as others. Machias has an extreme hate for nobles, but eventually you start to understand where he is coming from. That's not to say he's right, but that's something he needs to realize on his own. Fie is an ex child soldier from a mercenary group, and because of her background she struggles to fit in with others. And with society in general. Laura sees what Fie is, and just can't see eye to eye with her. The two have a lot going on between themselves, and their issues aren't something that can easily be worked out. Then you have those like Elliot who would rather have a carrier in music than in war. All of these characters have challenges they must face, and as the game goes on we get to see just how things develop between them. But again they aren't the only ones, as the entire world is involved as well. And it doesn't stop at their school.

Eventually Class 7 gets assigned to what are known as "Field Studies." The purpose of these are to travel to different regions of the country, and to interact with the towns people living there. Upon arriving at each town the students are given a list of goals they must accomplish, and are typically required to meet different key figures throughout the country. At first it isn't clear why the class is being assigned these tasks, but eventually you come to understand the purpose as you learn more about the world. With each trip comes new knowledge about the current state of the country, and we also get to see some of the harsh realities about the world. The simple fact is, school life isn't going to last forever, and one day it's the students who will build the future. If they are thrown out into a world they don't understand, then they very well may be eaten alive. Especially when tensions are running so high -- something a normal school student would never realize.

The thing is, Erebonia is not in a good position. While everything may seem fine to the students who are only focused on school, the truth is the real world isn't as nice. Different factions within the country are constantly at ends with each other, and then there are other nations that must be contended to. The city state of Crossbell is a valuable resource that Erebonia would like to control, but the same can be said for Calvard -- which also shares a border with it. This means war between Erebonia and Calvard can technically break out at any time, but the same can be said for Crossbell which wishes to remain independent. Then you have those within Erebonia and Calvard who wish to give Crossbell this freedom, but doing so would go against their own nation's wishes. To put it simply, it's an unstable situation that would only take a small push to open the flood gates. This is the world Rean and his classmates must witness and understand for themselves before moving forward. This is only the start of what's to come.

The Gameplay:

Trails is a very story focused game, and because of that you'll spend most of your time walking around and talking to people. The story is told out in a linear style with you moving between locations as they game tells you to, and back tracking only occurs when you return to the school between each chapter. Other than that there is little to no exploration outside of exploring the current town, talking to the people you meet, and the occasional dungeon or puzzle you must complete. It's a lot different from other RPGs which typically have a world map you can freely travel across, but it works. With a game this story driven with so many characters to meet and talk to after every single story event, it's a design choice that works out for the better. Although to be fair, it's also because Cold Steel I is only the intro -- that world map freedom comes from the sequel.

Despite having limited exploration, Cold Steel's world is not small. The paths outside of towns are pretty good size with a lot of enemies to fight, and each area tends to have multiple side quests that you'll want to complete to understand the whole story. Thankfully a fast travel option is given to you so you can jump to specific areas quicker, but even then you have to physically walk to each character if you want to talk to them and see their story. This is something that never changes from start to finish, but what does change however is your location. While you do return to the school in between each chapter, the chapters themselves focus on different parts of the country. Each one has a new central town for you to explore and meet people in, and they all have at least one dungeon for you to complete. Of course there are times where this flow gets broken up by unexpected events, but for the most part things do remain the same. Go to new town, talk to everyone you see, complete side quests, do story missions to advance the plot, go back to talk to everyone again, advance the plot a little more, revisit everyone, and then eventually finish the story and return to the school. While at first it can be a little repetitive, once you get invested in the story and these character's lives, you'll start to enjoy seeing what they have to say. But of course this is only half of the gameplay.

As this is an RPG, combat and character development plays a major role in Cold Steel. Each party is made up of four main members, and two sub members. While the game controls which characters are with you during the story, there are moments where you are free to pick whoever you want. Each of these characters specializes in their own fighting style, and they have a wide verity of skills and abilities with them by default. Rean for example uses sword skills, and also has a high chance of delaying enemy attacks. Then you have Emma who is more magic focused, with healing abilities as well. The game wants you to plan out your parties to cover every role, but there's also ways to get around what the characters are normally built for. As each character has what is known as a "Master Quart" equip, by changing these out for others you can alter a character's stats and skills. To go along with this are also the smaller orbments which each have their own stat increases or abilities attached to them. By equipping characters with these, you can customize what magic abilities they have access to in battle, as well as control their passive abilities and stats. For example some orbments might make it so your attacks also a chance to poison enemies, while others may increase your attack power and give you access to a fireball attack. Healing and revive skills are also an option here, and you're free to give characters elemental attacks outside of their original element type. Of course there is a limit to this as each character an only equip so many orbments at a time, and some slots are element locked. Even so you have a great deal of freedom with your characters, and sometimes it can be a challenge to decide what you actually want to use. But don't worry, it's not as bad as it sounds. In fact Cold Steel's battle system is designed for everyone.

Like many RPGs, Cold Steel is a turn based game; however how it handles it's turn based systems is quite a bit different. Battles start when you run into an enemy on the field, and will begin in different ways based on how you initiated the battle. Get hit from behind and the enemy will have the advantage and move first. Run into the enemy from behind however and you'll have a smaller advantage. Use your weapon to hit the enemy from behind, and then run into them instantly after? Then you'll have an even higher advantage than you would by just walking into them. It's a nice system that rewards you paying attention and sneaking up on others, but it's not something that can be used against bosses and large enemy types.

Once you're in a battle the turn order is decided based on character speed, and can be seen on the left side of the screen. While this is a handy feature to let you know who will act and when, it also serves a second purpose. In most battles special bonuses will be applied to the field, and who gets these bonuses depends on who's turn it is. In other words if you see an enemy with a "critical hit" bonus next to their turn icon, then you know that enemy will hit you with a critical hit. However by delaying that enemy's turn and taking that spot with your own character, then you will be the one with a critical hit instead. It's a unique system that plays a huge role with the game's unique combat.

Rather than having your characters stand still in a line like most turn based games, in Cold Steel characters and enemies are spaced out across the battlefield, and you are given the option to either attack, defend, or even move your characters into different positions. Each attack has a different range, and if an enemy falls outside of that range you cannot hit them. Instead your character will use that turn to run closer to the enemy, and the attack will fail. The same can be said for the enemy as well though, which can be used to your advantage in some of the harder fights. By keeping characters spaced out you can avoid area of effect attacks enemies might have, but it also means your characters will be too far apart to share buffs and healing skills when used. It's a tactical system you have to learn to take advantage of, but most of the time it is better to keep your own characters somewhat close. Of course that isn't always possible though, as your attacks will move your characters across the map.

After you select an attack or skill to use, you will either be asked to pick an enemy to target, or you'll be given a sort of area of effect target to place on the map. These AoE areas show you exactly what enemies your attack will hit, and it's up to you to try to position them so as many enemies get hit at once as possible. Sometimes these areas will be in the shape of a circle (which come in different sizes), while other times they'll be a straight line -- it all depends on the type of attack it is, and it's range. Meanwhile other attacks are target based where you can only pick one enemy, but their range will still be wide enough to hit enemies close to them. Often these attacks are sword slashes which will extend past enemies, but sometimes you'll have smaller ranged attacks that can still connect with multiple enemies if they are extremely close. These attacks tend to be more useful at the start of fights before enemies start moving around the field, but it's up to you to realize when to use these. But of course you get to physically see when something will connect or not.

Besides attack skills, buff and debuff skills play a role as well. Some characters have such abilities as skills (such as Rean's motivation skill) that'll use CP to cast, while others will have to reply on arts to do the same thing. Magic in uses it's own point system to use which frees up your CP points for your skills, but unlike CP it does not auto recharge as you take damage or attack enemies. This means characters who can't buff or debuff enemies naturally can only do so a limited number of times, but the same can be said for their normal attacks as well. It balances things out and keeps you from spamming over powered magical skills, while also forces you to rely on character's natural abilities as well. Another bonus of built in buffs and attacks comes from the fact that they are used in a single turn, while magic has a multiple turn cast time which can be interrupted by enemy attacks. On top of all of this is also the special crafts that can be used, which will absorb all of your CP to unleash an ultimate attack on your enemies. Doing so leaves you without skills for awhile, but having magic attacks can me up for it. It's really a balancing act, but the game doesn't actually force you to use one over the other. It's up to your own play style, and how you built your characters. But the thing is... Cold Steel is actually as easy or as hard as you want to make it.

Unlike most RPGs, Cold Steel is setup in a way where you cannot fail. You seriously can't. If you die to an enemy you are given multiple choices. You can either retry the fight, accept the game over and reload, or you can use the "lower the difficulty and weaken enemies" option. This will start you over at the beginning of the battle, but enemies will now be weaker than they previously were. In other words you could continue to fail a fight ten plus times, and still eventually win because of how weak the enemies have now become. So even if you avoid leveling up by running past enemies, and ignore the equipment and orbment systems, you can still win fights just by continuing to fail. Then once the fight is finished the EXP will be scaled based on what level the game expects you to be, and you'll receive a possibly massive boost in power. In a way it's cheating, but at the same time the game is known to have some pretty high difficulty curves at it's boss fights, so even seasoned RPG players may find themselves using this option. But again that's your choice.

The Good and the Bad:

Trails of Cold Steel is a solid JRPG, and a great entry in the Trails series. The characters start out a little rough, but as you get to know them they really grow on you. The world and character development is spot on, you get to visit a lot of interesting locations and meet a lot of great characters, and the game as a whole does a good job of making you feel like you're living Rean's life. It's very easy to become attached to this world, and once you're sucked in you never want to leave. However that doesn't mean the game is perfect, and there are some hurdles newcomers will have to get over before they can truly judge the game.

(While new players can enjoy the game, long time fans will see a lot more connections.)

First of all, Trails is developed by Falcom which is a relatively small team. Cold Steel is their first attempt at doing a full scale 3D Trails game, and they created it using an engine they were unfamiliar with. Also because it was to be both a Vita and PS3 game, the anime style isn't as sharp or as nice looking as other JRPGs out there, and there are some stiff animations at times. There's also the fact that not all lines are voice acted, but thankfully XSeed themselves stepped in for the PS4 and PC releases of the game. That being said all versions are the same, it's just that the PS4/PC releases have the extra voice acting, have been touched up a bit graphically, and were given a speed up button as well. Still it's clear the game was limited by it's handheld roots, but honestly these are minor complaints.

The real issue for some will be getting into the game to begin with. Cold Steel I is just an intro to a massive story arc that spans 4 full games, and it takes awhile to get going. Things move a little slow, and if you're not already invested in this world it may be hard to get yourself to care about the random people around the cities. As you move through the game though things will eventually start to click, and you'll realize just how much love and effort went into crafting this world. It's something you rarely see in games, if at all, and it's something that should really be experienced. Of course if you don't like Japanese style games, or can't get past the handful of generic anime tropes near the start of the game, then this game may not be for you. For those of you who don't mind this however, Cold Steel is really a game that should not be overlooked. And it only gets better from here.

As great as Cold Steel I is, this is only a small taste of what the future holds. While the gameplay and combat system is already a lot of fun, each game that follows continues to improve on said elements. Sadly this can make it hard to return to previous games, but really that's how it should be. Cold Steel is a great starting point, but it's the future games that become something truly special. If you're a JRPG fan at all, then this is one you shouldn't pass up.

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