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The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel Review

Edited by: Tiffany Lillie

High School Hijinx

Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel, developed by Nihon Falcom, is the first entry in the sequel series to the Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky series. Instead of following the story of two up-and-coming adventurers coming into their own and following their father's footsteps, you'll play as a group of high schoolers in Thors Military Academy. These ragtag teenagers find themselves in the middle of rising conflict between the two social classes in the empire of Erebonia and must manage their studies alongside exploring the country to become the future leaders of their homeland.

Persona-able

The first few hours of Trails of Cold Steel have a very definite Persona feel to them. For the uninitiated, you'll follow a colorful cast of characters throughout a school year, focusing predominantly on an audience surrogate as they navigate the travails of everyday school life balanced with a healthy dose of supernatural adventuring. In particular, you play as Rean Schwarzer, a seventeen-year-old beginning his first year at Thors Military Academy. Rean quickly becomes the heart of the class, assisting his classmates with their own social issues as the year progresses. You'll be able to navigate the town of Trista, talking with townsfolk and classmates alike, each advancing their own personal story as the days tick by between exams and field studies.

Unlike the Persona games, however, time skips frequently, jumping through about a month at a time. Each month, Class VII has a practical exam and a field study. As these events are really the only ones pertinent to the story, these are the only ones you see. Each sees you team up with a select subset of the class to overcome various challenges and quests. The practical exams are usually one fight with certain restrictions, whereas the field studies are protracted, multi-day assignments in one of the Empire’s different regions. Naturally, during each of these field studies, the tensions between the two Erebonian factions rise higher and higher.

Two Sides

On the one hand, Trails of Cold Steel is a slow-burning political drama about the increasing disparity between the haves and have-nots in a late 1800s/early 1900s fantasy world. On the other, you have a weird, supernatural mystery involving a bygone age and lost magicks. Until the end, however, they don’t really intermesh. As I followed the exploits of Rean and his band of merry misfits, I found myself enthralled by the worldbuilding on display. While it has some of the similar trappings of your average sword-and-sorcery story, it adds in the flair of a burgeoning industrial complex and the competition between the old ways and the new. Trails of Cold Steel handles these topics rather well and paints its characters with a believable brush.

But that’s really all there is to Trails of Cold Steel, at least in this first game. As much as I enjoyed the story during my playthrough, I became angrier and angrier as I approached the end and realized that there wasn't near enough time to answer all the questions I still had before the game wrapped up. Granted, I knew when starting this review that this was the first part of a series of three. However, an entire game of prologue is a bit much. While I understand why they cut off the story where they did, my cynical side feels that the cliffhanger is just to cement sales for the sequel. The worst part is, it worked. After finishing Trails of Cold Steel, I immediately bought the second one to see what happened next. I cared about these characters and this world. I was wholly committed to spending another seventy hours in Erebonia.

Class of Warfare

Mechanically, Trails of Cold Steel plays like your standard, turn-based JRPG with a few twists. First off, you can position your four units on the battlefield on each of their turns. Each character has a Move rating that determines how far they can travel, along with a Range rating that determines how far away their target can be. Attacks can cause knockback, and AoE attacks target a position on the ground or an area around a character. However, you can’t attack and move independently of each other. You can choose to move a character on their turn, but then you can’t attack. You can attack targets out of your character’s immediate range and they will close distance as best they can, but that can leave you in a disadvantageous field position, either separated from your party’s beneficial AoE attacks or accidentally in an opponent’s impending attack.

Each combat maneuver, from your basic attacks to moving, to using items or spells, comes with a delay cost. Delay determines how long until that character can move again. A high-speed character with low delay times can sometimes attack two to three times before your opponent can have another turn. Aside from the inherent advantage of action economy, certain turns have special effects associated with them. At the start of a battle, some turns will have special effects tied to them. One turn might restore a percentage of your health or energy. Other turns can add an instant-kill effect to your attacks. It all depends on the various overworld effects and the luck of the draw. This also applies to your opponents as well. If you get unlucky or mismanage your delay, you could wind up fighting a man down because the enemy got a lucky hit on an effect that removes a character from the field.

Imperial Style

Initially released in 2013 for the PS4, Trails of Cold Steel still looks pretty nice. Opting for a very anime aesthetic, Trails of Cold Steel has aged better than something going for a photorealistic look would have. However, there are still a few visual hiccups. There's not a whole lot in terms of foliage rendering, so the various fields and forests you run across are mostly flat textures. Many of the animations feel wooden, including the walking animation when you hit a longer set of stairs. The characters just kind of float down the stairs, their feet and legs clipping through steps. This doesn't happen often, but enough that it stands out. The lip-syncing also didn't make the translation very well. Rather than animating a polygonal mouth, the face texture on the character cycles through various phases of mouth openness. Rarely do the lip movements match what a character is saying.

Aurally, Trails of Cold Steel can be lacking. There are two or three dedicated combat tracks: one for average battles, one for when you're losing, and one for tougher battles. Considering 90% of the game is spent in combat, this can get very boring very quickly. While the overworld themes change based on where in Erebonia you are, the game always comes back to one of these three combat tracks. There is only one exception, late in the game, where the high-intensity music from the overworld carries over into the combat. Sadly, there are other places where this could have been used to greater effect.

6

The Verdict: Good

I’m overall conflicted about recommending Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel. If you’re going to play it, it feels like something you have to commit to. At around seventy hours of gameplay for the first game alone, there’s certainly a lot to enjoy for fans of the JRPG genre, but as a standalone experience, narrative-focused gamers will leave frustrated and unfulfilled. However, if you’re willing to put in the time, either Legend of Heroes series is a must play for fans of anime-inspired RPGs.

See About Us to learn how we score

John Gerritzen
Written by
Wednesday, 29 May 2019 04:15
Published in Adventure

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John Gerritzen is a programmer by education, author by hobby, and game critic by occupation. While he usually favors RPGs, he will play anything that engages him narratively or mechanically. When he's not playing games for fun or profit, he's usually reading or watching anime.

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