[PS3 JRPG Review] The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel (EU Version)
This is a review for the European version of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel. The content of both European and American version of this game are exactly the same, and for a second opinion you can check our double-review feature for the North American version that is available right here.
Trails of Cold Steel is the latest in the Legend of Heroes subseries of games called Trails franchise, a series created by Nihon Falcom that dates all the way back to as early as 1989 when the original Legend of Heroes game came out in Japan. Since then there has been a steady stream of games from the series, particularly in the last decade. Trails of Cold Steel (ToCS) is the latest one to make the jump to the west. Originally released in September of 2013 in Japan, the translated version that released in late December in North America finally comes to Europe by way of NIS America!
In all honesty, before doing this review, my knowledge of the Trails series was limited only to Trails in the Sky, which was released on PC back in 2014 (originally released in Japan in 2004). Though I only came across it in passing, it did, however, have a name that stuck with me only because it becomes a very interesting game ever when you use its Acronym as you giggle like a school boy. But enough of that, it is time to play Trails of Cold Steel!
Taking place on the same continent as the fan favorite Trails in the Sky offshoot of Nihon Falcom’s storied The Legend of Heroes franchise, Trails of Cold Steel (Sen no Kiseki in Japanese) is the first in the series to tread Erebonian soil and explore the inner political conflicts of this oft-mentioned powerhouse nation in detail. With a standalone story that also delves into the expansive lore that has become synonymous with the series, players can enjoy school life and bond with fellow students to earn new abilities in battle, take advantage of speedy, tactical turn-based combat with the newly-developed “ARCUS” system, and uncover dramatic events that stand to change everything these two opposing social classes stand for.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel – Launch Trailer
ToCS is set in the Erebonian Empire, a place where the social class you are born into plays a major part in how life is for you. The Nobles are often kept separate from the Common folks and try to avoid mixing with them, including at Thors Military Academy where the game is mainly based.
You play the role of Rean Schwarzer, a member of the newly formed Class VII. Rean and his eight classmates are tasked with testing a bold new idea: instead of separating the Nobles and the Commoners, Class VII mixes everyone from a multitude of backgrounds and social standings! Together the group must travel around the world performing assignments and tasks with potential war slowly bubbling in the background. At first, the plan to unite the social classes causes a great deal of friction amongst the members of the group, but they eventually manage to set aside their differences and learn what it truly means to be a team.
Whilst the story is not the most memorable [Editor’s note: it does become action-packed in the second half and insane towards the end!], a lot has to be said for the lengths the game goes to create what feels like a living, breathing world with a rich history – it very much feels alive. Even a newcomer to the Trails series like myself is made to feel part of the world through painstaking detail that may sometimes appear overwhelming but ultimately well intentioned as you are often bombarded with exposition and lore, but it is always for the greater good.
For me, the characters offer a wide variety of options for players to enjoy while often hitting on the clichés and character tropes normally associated with the JRPG genre but never in a way that becomes worthy of rolling your eyes. The characters, specifically the members of Class VII are full of color, flaws, and mystery, and this draws you in as you hope to uncover more about their individual stories.
Gameplay-wise, if you’re acquainted with the Trails series, then this one will feel very familiar to you. Enemies are visible on the field, and you can choose to run into your opponent to trigger a fight or ignore them entirely. You can also gain an advantage if you can stun an enemy by striking it with your weapon long enough to approach them from behind – the more stunned they are, the bigger the advantage. Do be warned that enemies can also do the same to you, so you better be careful!
The real fun begins once you get into a proper fight. Though this game is a JRPG, it gets a lot more tactical and nuanced the deeper you dig into it. During a battle, on the left-hand side of your screen, you will see the turn queue, and this tells the order in which the player and the enemies will be able to take their turn… but next to that are randomly assigned bonuses that can aide the person taking their turn at that specific point in the queue.
The typical fair of the Tactical JRPG of trying to jostle your opponents away from their turn gains an extra dynamic when delaying your opponent could mean that the next time they attack they might get a guaranteed critical hit! And that is not only the thought that has to go through your mind. Normally when you play a game like this or any game for that matter, there are always certain abilities and items that are considered “go to” and staples of a playstyle, but with ToCS, almost every single ability has a time and a place when it is perfect to use. Yes, you have the ones you return to again and again, but to truly master the combat system, you have to understand that not every hit needs to be your super-powerful-ultimate attack. Sometimes, the weaker but faster attack is just as valid an option.
While you are allowed a maximum of 4 playable characters on the field, you are encouraged to substitute characters from your squad freely (even in the heat of battle!) – organizing your team and knowing how well they are organized is vital to the success of your battles. Character abilities are divided into EP and CP. EP is the points you spend when you want to perform Arts (think magic abilities), and CP relates to Crafts that are the more unique abilities that characters can possess. While Arts are open to everyone, Crafts are more unique and individualized.
As the story progresses, characters begins to learn potentially game-breaking but definitely game-changing abilities, essentially making them the Limit Breaks of this world. As long as you are willing to spend 100 CPs or all of a character’s CPs – whichever one is more expensive – that character will unleash a unique ability that can turn the tide of any fight in an instant. This is just another aspect of the combat that plays into how you plan your fights. One wrong move and it is all over. ToCS certainly goes out of its way to give you the tools you need to win your battles and for good reason too – some battles tend not to mess around, and even playing on normal difficulty, I found a few fights challenging and had to rethink my strategy on a few occasions.
Something that might not be familiar to even the veterans of the Trails series would be the Tactical Links which can help a lot with how you deal with each fight. With Tactical Links, two characters on your team are linked together by a line whenever they are on the battlefield. When you manage to hit your opponent it “unbalances” them, and the linked partner is sometimes allowed to follow up with an extra attack – meet the right conditions and you can follow up with a double attack! Tactical Links also add to another part of the game in the form of “Social Links.” During the time between missions, Rean is allowed some time off to relax, see the sights and generally you’re off-the-clock time with your friends. Spending time with your classmates improves your Social Link. Those familiar with the Persona series will be well aware of this system and, just like Persona, leveling up your links with teammates will grant you certain bonuses in combat.
By now you probably would have guessed that I think this game is amazing and needs to be experienced, but it should be noted that it isn’t without its flaws. Amidst its slew of side activities, from acquiring recipes from around the world – that allow you to cook food that act as battle items – to trying to find fishing spots during your journey, the one that disappointed me the most was the card game called “Blade.” Apart from the “cool” sounding name, the card game – simple to pick up and relatively easy to master – feels unnecessarily tacked on. Yes, it gives you a one-time boost to Social Links when you challenge classmates, but it just feels like a last minute addition as a filler for certain parts of the game.
Another point deserving of contrition is the voice acting. Much like the soundtrack, it is superb but only when it is audible. You see, only certain scenes are fully voiceacted, which is fine in its own right but, what is more, jarring is that when in certain conversations only one speaker will be voiced, and you are left reading the replies of other characters. This would be fine if it happened with non-essential NPCs, but it happen to the main character more often than not. It feels disorientating and takes you out of the flow of the game when a conversation is inexplicably one-sided in its delivery.
Get used to hearing that because in this game that voice clip will be played a lot. I have no problem with characters having a line to introduce them into a fight when it is used sparingly. But in ToCS, it seems that every time a character takes a turn they have to announce themselves with “My Turn!” It would be fine if the speech were varied or infrequent but it feels like a neverending onslaught of irritation. If the game had a Japanese voice option, it might have made things a little less painful.
But when you look at the whole package, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is an excellent RPG for people looking for something to enjoy as they anxiously wait for Persona 5 arrives. This is a superb game that needs that be experienced by everyone. It has the best elements of all our favorite JRPGs without reinventing the wheel, and sometimes that’s all we need.
[review pros=”Excellent gameplay
Interesting characters and story” cons=”Inconsistent voiceover work” score=88]
Cost: $39.99-54.99 (Standard to Lionheart Edition, and depending on if you go for the Vita or the PS3 version)
PSN Game Size: 2.7GB