The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel Review

I’ve only recently discovered that it’s an absolute shame that Falcom, a developer of JRPGs, has remained relatively obscure in the West for so long. Most famous for their Y’s series, the vast majority of their games weren’t translated and released outside of Japan. Having played some of their recent games that were localised, I have to say it’s unfortunate because otherwise Falcom would be one of the most well-known and well regarded makers of JRPGs. Their latest release The The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel, is an excellent game that combines an interesting and well written storyline and setting, gameplay that feels both modern and traditional, and some sharp presentation.

Cold Steel is the first in a new trilogy for the Legend of Heroes universe (Trails in the Sky being the first trilogy and currently available to download as PSP games from the Network).  The Heroes universe is one that blends together fantasy and technology. It’s filled with magic, monsters, lost and mysterious ancient civilizations, and questing hero guilds, but at the same time it’s set in a rapidly industrialising society where technology has spread quickly, resulting in trains, airships, cars, tanks, radios, and primitive computers. Cold Steel is set in the Erebonian Empire, a traditional and conservative country where the nobility maintains dominance. However, the Reformist faction, ambitious and powerful commoners who have gained significance in a modernising world are trying to spark a social revolution. The story follows the adventures of Class VII, a specialised group of students attending a prestigious military academy which is meant to train the cream of the crop and the next generation of movers and shakers. Class VII is unique, with the students assembled from a wide range of backgrounds, both noble and commoner, and tasked with working together. Easier said than done when some of those students are seriously opposed to each other. As Class VII get sent on missions and field studies, political tensions continue to rise, the threat of all-out war looms, and a mysterious group of figures seem intent on provoking all out chaos. Meanwhile, a mysterious old building on campus conceals ancient monster filled ruins beneath the surface, which also must be investigated.

 

Despite the bright colours, (military) high school setting, fantastical world, and cast of anime-esque teenagers, it’s a surprisingly mature and grounded story. The social divisions are a key theme, and the politically themed conflict is quite interesting. Neither the nobility or the reformists are outright good or evil, with both heroic and contemptible figures on both sides.  The storyline is well written and deep, although I preferred the more grounded political elements to the storyline rather than the fantasy elements that crop up. The characters of Class VII are an interesting, likeable, and motley crew, and the conflicts, character developments, and interactions are interesting, dramatic, and humorous. They all have surprising depths. Machias for example, is the son of a major figure in the Reformist faction. He’s a nice guy, except he has a seething hatred of nobles and is constantly harping on about social injustices. He’s kind of a pain in the ass, and you tend to laugh when he’s the butt of jokes because he’s such a serious figure. But he’s well intentioned regarding the plight of the common man, and he also has some tragic, personal reasons for hating the nobles.

In terms of gameplay, Trails of Cold Steel is somewhat reminiscent of the Persona series, although time management isn’t quite a key factor. Granted things need to be done in a certain way, and you’d probably need an FAQ to get everything, but there isn’t the same sense of urgency. As a student, you attend classes, try to make friends with other characters to increase your powers, complete tasks, and either explore the mysterious school labyrinth, or attend field studies where you’re adventuring out in the world. It makes for interesting pacing, mixing things up so that you don’t get too burnt out on one gameplay aspect. It’s a system that works well for Persona, and that works well here.

The combat plays like classic turn based RPG, but with one slight change. Positioning is key. You can use a turn to move about freely on the battlefield, and both your location, and the location of your enemy is crucial. Your magic attacks and combat skills often have area of effects, either ones that you can direct, ones that must be centred on a target, or as a straight line that extends from your character. The enemy’s abilities do so as well. So while maintaining a tight formation lets you heal or buff your party all at once, it means an enemy might be able to land an attack on your entire team at once. The importance of positioning means that battles don’t become a chore anytime soon. There’s something very satisfying about being able to wipe out all your opponents quickly and cleanly, before they even have a chance to damage you, using some well place techniques and magic spells.

Character customisation is interesting. Aside from the basic effects of weapons and armour on stats, everything depends on the “Orbments” and “Quartz” system. Orbments are grids for each character, into which you slot Quartz, which are techniques, magic spells, and buffs. Mixing and matching them together into the Orbment allows you to tailor your character however you wish. Rean, the protagonist has some very handy area of attack abilities that can delay an opponent’s moves. Equip him with a Quartz that increases the delay effect and give him one that increases his speed, and he’ll frequently get the first move in battles while his abilities will allow you to stop an entire group of enemies in their tracks, giving you free reign of the battle. Or Machias, who fights with a shotgun. His basic attack has a small area of effect by nature, meaning he can hit multiple foes with just his basic attack. Equip him with status inducing Quartz like poison or paralyse, and he’ll cut right through mobs. It’s quite tricky and deep, and I’m sure the power gamer types who love stats and finding ways to make the most ludicrously powerful and broken characters possible will relish the level of customisation.

 

Presentation wise Trails of Cold Steel is great. Granted it was developed years ago and is a Playstation Vita and PS3 game, so it’s not some visual masterpiece, but it does the job well. It’s colourful and crisp, with a sharp art direction and some lush environments. The sound design is fantastic. While some of the voice acting can be a bit high pitched and chirpy, it’s still well done and is helped by a great script. The music is excellent, and Falcom’s in house music team do some very good work.

Overall The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is one of the best JRPGs to come out in recent years, and an excellent JRPG in general. It has an interesting setting with a mature political narrative, classic gameplay but with added modern features, and great presentation. I’m hoping that the rest of Falcom’s works are released and I’m eagerly looking forward to Cold Steel Part 2, especially if it’s coming out on the rather criminally underutilised Playstation Vita. A must play for JRPG fans.

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