I am a bit late to the party with this one, but I just finished the first The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel over the last weekend and wanted to write down some of my thoughts about the game. Depending on the game I might do this more often in the future. 🙂
Trails of Cold Steel is the 11th game in the Legend of Heroes series and the first game in the so-called Erebonia-Arc. It is set roughly 2 years after Trails in the Sky SC and is set in the Erebonian Empire instead of the Kingdom of Liberl. The story follows protagonist Rean Schwarzer who enrolls at the prestigious Thors Military Academy. There he gets assigned to the newly created Class VII, which is the only class at the academy in which aristocrats and commoners are mixed. As part of Class VII, players will experience their daily life at the academy as well as various field studies which lead the class to different areas of the Empire where they experience the growing tension between the noble faction and the reform faction of the government. This divide between nobles and commoners in society and in politics is one of the major themes of the story. The story itself starts out very slow as is typical for the series. The game takes its time to introduce the player to every character and to develop them. The first chapters are pretty focused on the Class itself and the overarching plot only comes to light slowly. In general, Trails of Cold Steel is not a game for players who don’t like to read because, trust me, you will do that a lot. The pacing might be slow for some, but for people who enjoy to learn about the characters and the world at a comfortable pace, this is the game for them. And you shouldn’t forget that this game only tells half of the story (The sequel: Trails of Cold Steel II tells the other half) and I played it for 80 hours until I saw the credits. Not going to spoiler anything, but I thought that the build-up to the ending was not as well done as in Trails in the Sky FC, because I didn’t had the feeling that there was a main “issue” that was driving the party forward. The ending was nevertheless nice and exciting, but the build-up was definitely better in TitS.
While I felt that the main cast is not as great as in Trails in the Sky, Class VII definitely grew on me over the course of the game. Some characters are suffering from known tropes here and there, but the game takes its time to develop them all and some of them become really interesting although they seemed to be bland at the beginning. The supporting cast is also great and features a diverse and interesting cast of different characters with different loyalties and motivations that add a lot to the overall story.
As usual with Trails games, the world building and NPC interaction is great. NPCs in Trails games have a huge amount of dialogue and most of them have their own name, personality and background. Talking to all of them isn’t mandatory, but will give you interesting insights into their character and their relationships with others. The content of the dialogues is usually nothing ground-breaking but it makes those characters and the world feel alive and this is what the Trails games excel at.
The game is divided into several chapters and those are usually divided into a part that is set at the academy and another part that is set in a certain location within the empire. The academy parts feel a bit like a “light” version of a Persona game. You are tasked with several small quests from the Student council and also have the opportunity to engage in bonding events with your party members to strengthen your relationship. During the field portion you’ll usually have more combat-focused tasks to attend to.
The combat system in this game is a hybrid between traditional turn-based systems and SRPG systems. The battle order is determined by the Speed Stat of every character and characters can attack, use arts or skills (called crafts) or simply move around the battlefield. A lot of arts or crafts have an AoE affect, which is why careful positioning is required to get the most of these abilities. Players can see the battle order on the left side of the screen and thereby determine their strategy. On random turns you’ll sometimes see power ups like increased attack or HP regeneration. The character (or enemy) that is active during that turn will get those bonuses and players sometimes have to strategically delay the turn of enemies to reap those bonuses.
Additionally the player can decide to link 2 characters on the battlefield. If one of them hits the weakpoint of an enemy the partner can do a follow-up attack for additional damage. The higher the Link Level between 2 characters is, the more benefits you can get in battle. While the difficulty in general isn’t too high, battles require more strategy than simply attacking which keeps battles interesting. Boss battles can be challenging at times, but at no point did I feel overwhelmed by the difficulty. One thing that I noticed is, that in comparison to TitS arts were not as overpowered and physical attacks and crafts were actually more viable which is a nice change.
Speaking about arts, I felt that the orbment system in Cold Steel was a step-back from what I experienced in TitS. While in TitS one had to carefully plan out the different lines to get the spells and stat bonuses one wanted to have, the whole system has been streamlined in Cold Steel. The arts you can use are no longer determined by the combination of quartz in one line but are available as a quartz of their own. Some quartz even combined stat properties and arts. While this made planning easier, I actually prefered the complexity of the system in TitS. Characters can also equip a Master Quartz this time which give the character additional arts and stats bonuses. Depending on the Master Quartz characters also have additional effects like for example enhancement of healing artes.
One important aspect that should never be ignored when writing about a Falcom game is the soundtrack and boy, Cold Steel has a good one. Probably one of the longest Falcom OSTs ever created, it boasts 4 CDs full of music ranging from uplifting town themes, melancholic event themes and rocky battle themes. The latters are definitely the highlights of the soundtrack and rarely have I felt that pumped up for boss fights than in this one. Some of my favorites are “Belief”, “Exceed” and “Don’t be defeated by a Friend”. Falcom prove with this game that their sound team continues to be one of the best in the industry!
In terms of graphics, the game is not going to wow anyone even for PS3 standards. I played the game on the Vita on which the game looked fine, but the version had some performance issues which were especially notable during cutscenes in which many character models were present. In these moments the frame rate can drop quite severely, but in battles, etc. it was mostly fine. If you are looking for the best performing version, the PS3 version is probably the way to go.
All in all, I really enjoyed my time with Trails of Cold Steel. The game features a intriguing story and an interesting and lovable cast while keeping the great world building for which the series is known for. The battle system is interesting and the battles are engaging enough to not become a chore. It’s unfortunate that they scrapped the orbment system from previous games, but it’s not a deal breaker. The soundtrack is amazing and probably worth the admission alone. As with previous “First Chapters” Cold Steel ends on a cliffhanger and I am glad that part 2 only just released in the US and I am eager to play it. If you enjoy a traditional J-RPG with a huge focus on story, characters and world-building, I can only recommend to dive into the Trails Series. Maybe a short note is required for those who never played any of these though.
While Cold Steel can be enjoyed without knowing any of the other Trails games, I think it would be recommended to play Trails in the Sky FC and SC first before delving into Cold Steel. Cold Steel is set in a different country and features different protagonists, but the Trails games are so connected in regards to lore and background story that knowing the developments from TitS can be helpful. Players who are already familiar with the franchise probably know that XSEED decided to skip the Crossbell-Arc games Zero and Ao no Kiseki in order to bring us the most modern entries before the PS3 and the Vita become totally obsolete. Some fans think that missing out on the Crossbell-Arc will have a negative impact on how people experience Cold Steel, but others are saying that it doesn’t matter in the end since both Arcs are set during nearly the same time period and both arcs “spoiler” stuff from the other. While I sometimes felt that I am missing some obvious Crossbell references during my playthrough, it never felt like I was missing something super important. On the other hand I was really grateful, that I played TitS beforehand since I feel that I would have missed out more by not having played TitS, especially because of the apperance of some characters. Trails in the Sky FC and SC are available for PC and PSP (playable on the Vita) and are fantastic games and imo the recommended starting point for the series.