The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel (yeah, we’re not using the full title in the rest of this review) is one of those RPGs that never really broke into the mainstream as much as other titles in the genre, but was affectionately loved by those who invested the time into the adventure. I’ll be the first to admit that I never played the game the first time around, but always had this urge to thanks to the fact that I’d heard so many good things from those who actually played it.
Finally, I’ve not only played Trails of Cold Steel but finished it too, all thanks to the game getting a re-release on the PlayStation 4 following its 2013 debut on the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita. It comes with a few improvements too, so it’s arguably the best way to experience Nilhom Falcom’s RPG. However, it’s been six years since the game first came out so the question remains: does it feel a bit too dated to enjoy these days following the release of more high-profile titles in the genre?
Trails of Cold Steel’s tale is one that blends together political intrigue with the personal relationships that the colourful cast share. Playing as Rean Scwarzer, a student at the Thors Military Academy and a part of Class VII, you find yourself mixing with others of different social classes – whilst this may not typically be something out of the ordinary, Trails of Cold Steel emphasises the disparity between the upper class and commoners with a heavy focus placed on the difference in fortune between the two. That’s put aside in Class VII though and it’s something that is explored in depth as you meet new characters and learn more about them. Of course, there’s a lot more to the characters you meet than just a difference in class, and it’s something you learn more about the further you progress through the game.
Naturally, there’s also more at play than just being a part of a military academy. The Zemuria continent where the game takes place is one made up of multiple nations, and with uneasy tensions in place between them it doesn’t take long to see your adventure heading out further afield than the grounds of Thors Military Academy, though I’ll leave the details of that to the player to discover themselves.
One thing that you’ll notice almost immediately about Trails of Cold Steel is that it REALLY likes to flesh things out. The narrative, character interactions, and the lore of the world go into a lot of depth, with the player essentially taught everything about anything across the entirety of the adventure. I’m a sucker for a game that doesn’t hold back on detail, but even I was left astounded (and even a little tired at times) by the amount of reading I had to do.
At least it’s all incredibly well-written though, with the plot doing more than enough to keep me hooked into Rean’s journey. I loved seeing the interactions with all of the other characters (and believe me, there are plenty) whilst learning more about his home Kingdom of Erebonia and its political history made for some tantalising sequences. It’s a story-heavy experience, but when it’s all presented in a meaningful and highly engaging way it’s difficult not to appreciate it.
Whilst it can feel like the narrative makes up the meat and bones of Trails of Cold Steel, thankfully you’ll spend plenty of time battling too. The game adopts the classic turn-based approach, though an emphasis on lining up your attacks and utilising their area-of-effect to damage multiple foes spices things up a bit.
Your attacking manoeuvres are broken down into standard attacks, ‘Crafts’, and ‘Arts’. The standard attacks are pretty traditional, with the character using whatever weapon they have equipped to either attack up-close or from range: simple. The Crafts and Arts are a bit different though, with the Crafts tying into each character’s individual abilities and the Arts more equipment-based.
Crafts offer a multitude of boosts and damaging effects and you’ll unlock them as you level up your character, so they’re the abilities that are tied to each party member. The fact that they range between damaging attacks and buffs ensures that they add a strategic twist to battling, though they’re also handy when you just want to smash a weaker foe down with ease. Arts are unlocked by equipping special items known as Quartz, with each one changing up your character’s stats whilst unlocking a new ability – the best comparison to make would be to the Materia system in Final Fantasy VII, though it does feel a bit more fleshed out in Trails of Cold Steel. There’s a fair amount of depth to their use and there’s the potential to customise your character’s abilities in an intricate manner so that they adjust perfectly to certain roles, but you’ll have to play about a bit to take advantage of the full potential of the system.
Add to that some Link attacks which allow characters to team up and pull off powerful manoeuvres as well as the focus on character and enemy positions, and you’ll quickly find that there’s a lot going on in Trails of Cold Steel’s combat. It comes together nicely to make for some tense and action-fuelled showdowns and ensured that battling didn’t stop being entertaining for the entirety of the game’s lengthy adventure.
When you’re not battling or taking in the story, you’ll also have to manage your time in Trails of Cold Steel. In Persona-like fashion, the game is broken down into days where you’re given the freedom to essentially decide what you want to do, whether it’s spending time with friends, progressing the story, completing side quests, or just enjoying the activities that the world offers. There’s a hell of a lot to experience in Trails of Cold Steel and it’s up to the player to do so – do you prioritise uncovering side quests or do you spend your days fishing instead? It’s up to you. It never feels unmanageable though and it typically feels like there’s time to do almost anything you want, though if you’re a true completionist who wants to uncover everything that the game has to offer you might have to spend your time wisely…
One thing that is worth mentioning is that this release of Trails of Cold Steel isn’t a remake or even a full-fledged remaster – it’s essentially a port of the game with a few improvements here and there. It was a PlayStation 3 game originally (and not an overly attractive one) and it really shows, with some sketchy textures and character animations on display throughout. Sure, it’s consistent as far as its performance is concerned and it hits a constant 60fps throughout, but it’s difficult to feel particularly wowed by anything you see in the game after being impressed by the likes of Final Fantasy XV, Kingdom Hearts III and even Tales of Berseria in this generation of RPGs. It doesn’t mean that Trails of Cold Steel is a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but it might be something that’d sway gamers who aren’t necessarily hardcore RPG fans.
With its engaging and fleshed out narrative, its enjoyable combat, and the abundance of things to uncover in the world, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel offers a deep and entertaining RPG experience that’ll really hook you in. Sure, the sheer depth that the writing goes into can drag things out a little at times and it’s not the most aesthetically-pleasing game you’ll play, but even six years on from its initial release it still manages to stand out as a true gem in the genre.
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: Marvelous Europe
Platform(s): PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, PC