Disposed Hero's Blog

Posted on Nov 29th 2019 at 08:00:00 AM by (Disposed Hero)
Posted under Review, RPG, Falcom, Xseed

I've written previously about the Trails in the Sky games, which is a series that has become near and dear to me over the last couple of years. After finishing the main trilogy that was localized and released in North America, the logical next step was to dive into the Trails of Cold Steel games, which are set in the same world and time period. I started the first Trails of Cold Steel title during the summer of 2018, and it took me roughly a year to finish it with many ups and downs along the way.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is a Japanese role-playing game that was developed by Nihon Falcom as a branch of the larger Legend of Heroes series which itself is a branch of Falcom's Dragon Slayer series. Originally released in Japan for the PlayStation 3 and Vita in September 2013, the game was later localized and released in North America by Xseed in 2015 and has seen a recent re-release for the PlayStation 4. It has been met with mostly positive reception and has spawned quite a few sequels.

Set in the Erebonian Empire just a few years after the events that occurred in the Trails in the Sky series, Trails of Cold Steel follows main protagonist Rean Schwarzer and his classmates of Class VII at Thors Military Academy. Much of the early parts of the game are centered around Class VII's training and field studies, and it isn't until later that more important events start to unfold. As such, the first half of the game is fairly uninteresting, but these early sections serve to establish relationships among the main characters, and some of the seemingly unimportant events in the early game turn out to have greater meaning later. The story is a slow burn and may be tough to care about early on, but there is eventually a payoff, and it's important to keep in mind that this first title is just the beginning of a much larger story.

The overall gameplay loop is fairly formulaic, with much of the game divided between time spent at the academy and the adjacent town of Trista, and the field studies which task you with traveling to another city to complete certain objectives. While in towns, you can obtain and complete side quests for a variety of rewards, and there are shops where you can buy restorative items and equipment, among other things. At the academy, you will be able to spend bonding points that allow you to spend time with a fellow classmate and improve your social link with them, and this has an impact on combat links between party members (more on that later).

There's also no shortage of NPCs to interact with.

Exploring dungeons and wilderness areas is fairly straightforward and what one might expect. The major areas in the game are self-contained and usually not particularly open-ended, so paths tend to be fairly linear with some branches here and there. There are no random encounters and enemies are instead displayed in the wild, giving you the option of avoiding them if you choose. Attacking an enemy from behind will allow you to start the battle with an advantage, but enemies can also get the advantage if you allow them to get the drop on you.

The combat in the game is turn-based and is very similar to the Trails in the Sky series, albeit with a few new additions. Quoted from my earlier Trails in the Sky review since these elements are all the same:

"Turn order for party members and enemies is indicated by a timeline known as the AT Bar with portraits that represent each participant in the battle, and turn order can be manipulated depending on what attacks and abilities are used.  There are also AT Bonuses on the AT Bar that grant perks such as higher damage or partial healing among other things to whomever has a turn in the corresponding spot on the timeline.  This is a unique and interesting concept that places further strategy on manipulating the timeline.

Other than standard physical attacks, two other types of attacks can be used: arts and crafts.  Arts are the equivalent to magic in this game and consume an MP-esque resource called EP and take a couple of turns to cast.  Crafts are character specific abilities that consume a resource called CP, which works differently from EP and is charged up any time a character deals or receives damage.  Once a character's CP gauge reaches 100 or higher, that character can use an ability called an S-break, a more powerful craft that can be used any time regardless of turn order but fully depletes that character's CP to zero.

As mentioned previously, Trails eschews the traditional magic system in favor of arts, but what really sets this system apart from other games is the Orbment system.  Orbments are mechanical devices powered by orbal energy that can be equipped to your characters.  Different orbments grant characters access to different arts, but they can also grant stat bonuses to your characters as well.  For example, an HP orbment will raise a character's HP by a specific amount, while an Attack orbment will raise their strength by a specific amount.  Equipping other orbments such as Poison and Petrify will give that character a chance to inflict the corresponding status ailment when attacking an enemy.  Orbments allow a great deal of flexibility to how you can customize your characters."

A typical battle in the game.

New to Trails of Cold Steel is the ability to form combat links between two party members. Combat links allow linked characters to assist each other in combat with assist abilities and follow-up attacks. Assist abilities will vary depending on the character and include things such as dealing extra damage after an attack and healing an ally after they have been damaged. Available assist abilities increase as social links between characters are raised. Follow-up attacks allow allies to join together for a larger attack after an enemy has been staggered. Without going into too much detail, it is also worth noting that the game introduces an entirely new battle mechanic during the final fight that is reminiscent of Xenogears, and I suspect that this is further explored in the sequels.

Graphically, the game is a mixed bag overall and tends to remind me of an early PS2 game. Character models look pretty decent, but many of the environments look bland and uninspired. Fortunately, Trails of Cold Steel fares better in the audio department. The music is generally well done and is mostly reminiscent of classic PS1-era JRPGs with a few tracks that feel like they were ripped from the Persona series. The game also features both English and Japanese voice acting, although not all versions of the game may contain both languages (research the version you're interested in), and the voice work is well done for both languages.

Like the Trails in the Sky games, Trails of Cold Steel can be a hard sell due to the significant amount of time it takes before the game really sinks its claws into you, and the barrier to entry feels much steeper with this game. However, with the amount of quality hours you'll get from this title and its many sequels, I feel that the investment is well worth it. I would highly recommend starting with the Trails in the Sky series since it comes first in the timeline, and simply because I enjoyed those games more overall.

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