Written by John Gerritzen | Edited by Jade Swann

Ah, Youth

Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 3, developed by Nihon Falcom and published by NIS America, is the latest installment of the much-beloved Legend of Heroes series. Much like the other games in the Cold Steel line, you take up the tachi of one Rean Schwarzer, freshly graduated from Thors Military Academy, and now thrust into the responsibilities of adulthood. Rean hasn't left school life behind, however, as he currently operates as a teacher for the newly-minted Thors Branch Campus. Throughout, you'll get to know many characters, both new and old, fight many monsters, and navigate the travails of being under the Erebonian Intelligence Division while also trying to do the right thing.

The More Things Change…

Unlike Cold Steel 2, Cold Steel 3 doesn't pick up right after the events of the previous game. Further, the most glaring difference is the inability to transfer over save data from the last game. Apparently, this is a holdover from the original release, when the series moved from PS3 to PS4. The switch shows, with Cold Steel 3 being the most graphically impressive entry so far, though the lack of carryover certainly wrinkled my feathers from the outset. Also changed from previous iterations is the reliance on what came before. I used to say that, to enjoy the Cold Steel line of games, you didn’t have to play any others within the Legend of Heroes family. I have only played through the first Trails in the Sky and felt the lack almost immediately. Within the first few hours, you're introduced to multiple characters from the previous games, from both Sky and Cold Steel. This is nothing new, as longtime fans of the series can attest, but in previous Cold Steel games, they were almost always introduced in a context where you could get to know them as Rean does. In Cold Steel 3, however, these characters have more apparent histories, both with the world and with each other. While there is a “Story So Far” section in the main menu, it is easily missable and a lot of text to churn through at the start of an already long game.

Reliance on the old isn’t the only thing to change, however. Rean is now a year and a half older since we last saw him at the end of Cold Steel 2. His status as the Ashen Chevalier has earned him no small modicum of respect amongst the citizenry of Erebonia. That standing has landed him a teaching position at the newly opened Branch Campus of Thors Military Academy. While you as the player won't be composing lesson plans and arguing with the dean over funding, the dynamic certainly feels different from when you were a student, running around barely aware of what the adults were up to when you weren't looking. The story casts this perspective in stark relief from the get-go, with your fellow faculty members discussing behind closed doors just how dire things are for the Branch Campus. It's certainly interesting to see Rean stumble through the transition of being a team leader of a group of equals to a teacher in charge of the well-being of students.

...The More They Stay the Same

All that said, it’s still a Trails game. Veterans of the series will feel at home with the core gameplay loop. You still fight monsters with the same active turn system that was there from previous games. You're still greatly benefitted by talking to every NPC at least once every time the main story progresses. You'll still be spending your free days running around town, catering to the various whims of the school and the town it's situated in. You'll still be slotting quartzes into orbments to fuel your various magical abilities. You'll still be sneaking in hours and hours of fishing in the monster-filled wilderness. Each of these systems has a few new facets, such as purchasing gifts for your friends to improve bonding, separating combat links from social bonding, and the more tactically-complex Vantage Masters replacing Blade II. Anyone familiar with the series will feel right at home. Let's face it, if you're a fan of the Trails series, you’ve probably already picked up this game.

For those unfamiliar, Trails of Cold Steel 3 is your standard, turn-based JRPG with a few twists under its belt. Combat works in your typical turn-based, one-at-a-time manner. However, each action has a particular delay value tied to it, which determines when that character can move again. As a general rule of thumb, the more damage a move does, the longer it will be. Combat moves are divided into two categories beyond your standard move and attack. Crafts, fueled by Craft Points (CP), are your standard special moves, encompassing area of effect attacks, status buffs and debuffs, or just hard-hitting, single-target attacks. The other side of the coin, Arts, are magic fueled by quartz crystals installed in a device called an ARCUS II. Every character you'll have control over has an ARCUS, and each quartz does something different beyond merely giving a new Art. These Arts, however, take time to charge up and consume a separate resource, Energy Points (EP). These Arts have various charge times, leaving you vulnerable to attacks and interruption before you can finally cast that fancy fireball you've been saving in your back pocket. Further complicating matters are the turn statuses that are randomly applied to whichever character is active during that turn, regardless of whether or not they're friend or foe. You can always see what buff a turn has beforehand, as well as where your attack delay is going to put you in the turn order. To say that this promotes an excellent tactical depth is underselling it by a lot.

Happy School Life

The other half of the Cold Steel coin is how your characters interact outside of battle. While the combat is fun, Rean still has a life outside the battlefield. Much like previous iterations, the cast of characters at play are diverse and exciting, each with their own names, motivations, and side stories. Watching these characters play off of each other is fun in its own right, and you can while away countless hours just running around talking to people. You may even come across a hidden quest or cutscene for your troubles. As I mentioned before, the characters at play here are primarily drawn from the previous games, even as far back as the original Trails in the Sky. By degrees, as you traverse the newly-expanded Erebonian Empire, you’ll pretty much meet everyone from Thors from the previous two Cold Steel games. Long-standing fans will also notice some prominent faces of earlier games brought to the fore in this iteration as well. Personally, I noticed that the story beats and jokes surrounding characters I knew from the franchise beforehand landed harder than those I was just getting used to. Often when a character waxed on about a rivalry that occurred in one of the games I hadn't played, I found myself more lost and curious as to what really happened than motivated.

All that said, there's the elephant in the room that I haven't really addressed: fanservice. The Trails series has always been a little fanservice-y, but it's cranked up to eleven in this entry. Now, anime games will be anime games, and this will land differently for every player, but I found the focus on it in this game to be distracting. For example, one of Rean's students seems to only exist to flirt with him, to say nothing of the full-on groping scene that occurs a few hours into the game. Again, to some, this will be nothing new, but it certainly feels a lot more prominent in this entry than it was in any other that I've played so far.


The Verdict: Great

Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 3 is a must-play for any fans of the Trails series as a whole. Cold Steel 3 is a fine jumping-on point for any newcomers, but if you have the time (roughly 400 hours worth of it), I would strongly recommend playing through the previous Trails games to get the full experience out of this one.

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