The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel – Beyond the Tropes

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel… not the most interesting name for a game, is it? I think you’d have a hard time coming up with a more generic name if you tried, really. Oh, and it’s a turn-based JRPG that takes place in, essentially, a High School? And there’re social sim elements to build relationships with the other characters? And the first female character you meet is a tsundere? And the graphics look a little out of place on the Playstation 3? And the main character is an adopted orphan with a mysterious power nobody seems to understand? And his ‘sister’ has a crush on him?

It would be easy to dismiss Trails of Cold Steel based off any number of the above factors… and it would be an easy decision to just pass over the game entirely, never giving it a second look. And that’s the real pity. Because Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is a game that deserves to be looked at. It deserves to have people give it an honest chance, looking past the parts that seem generic to explore all that this game has to offer… because there is so much more to this game than you might expect.

Combat

Class Is In Session

Cold Steel takes place in the Erebonian Empire, a militant nation with a strict caste system. Nobility rule over commoners, and are seen as being uncontestably better than those beneath them. The gap between the two castes is present in all walks of life, even in this game’s focal point: Thors Military Academy.

Thors is among the most prestigious educational facilities that Erebonia has to offer, and has five classes: Class 1 and 2 for the Nobility, and Classes 3 through 5 for the rest. Or at least, that is how it has been as far back as most can remember… but this year, someone has decided to create a new class, different from the rest. This class, called Class 7 (assumedly to drive home that it is unique), had its members chosen by aptitude and as such has both Nobility and commoners present.

Cast

Class 7’s differences go beyond simply membership though, as they have their own curriculum, dormitory, and responsibilities… and that is where this game finds its feet. The primary difference: Field Studies. Field studies make up the core of the time you’ll spend with this game and are what make the school environment work. Every month, the fine men and women of Class 7 are sent out to various regions within Erebonia to learn more about the country and to help the people living there. The Class is split in half and sent to different locations, and while there they are assigned various tasks – both menial and grandiose – to assist the people living there.

These tasks are cleverly designed to teach both you and the characters about the country and its problems. And they are the reason why the school environment is perfect for this particular game. They utilize the school and the field studies to give the opportunity to really understand this country and its unique struggles. It’s really well orchestrated and never feels contrived. Trust me, I understand your concerns – school anime are so often cut from the same cloth. But Cold Steel brilliantly uses the advantages such an environment grants to help build a world that it is incredibly easy to care about.

Student Bodies

A lot of games manage to build engaging worlds or interesting histories. The trap many game designers fall into is assuming that that’s all you need. So often we see amazing worlds with boring casts, bland npcs, and dry quest design. Trails of Cold Steel doesn’t fall into these traps. Nihon Falcom’s character design is brought to life by XSeed’s masterful localization, making the game world come alive with incredible characters. Our cast of main characters is vast, featuring between 10 and 14 main characters (depending on where you draw the line for a ‘main’ character), and incredibly well developed. Rean, the game’s protagonist, is one of my favourite protagonists of the past several years. Sure, there are some stereotypical elements to his history, but his personality is so relatable. Self-effacing, considerate, and introverted… I saw so much of myself in him. One of my viewers even commented that they thought he reminded them of me, which was both touching and shocking to me.

We then fan out with a cast of characters from all walks of life… each filling a role in the class, and each having a personality that makes sense for their history. Even the afore-mentioned tsundere had a life situation that made her “stereotypical” reactions become a whole lot more appreciable in the end. If I had to pick favourites, I’d go with our shy genius Emma and the boisterous, eccentric Sara… but it is so incredibly hard to play favourites when all of the characters are this good. They even managed to make seemingly-unlikeable characters feel reasonable. Jusis and Machias were characters I wanted nothing to do with. One an arrogant member of the Nobility, the other a bigoted commoner with a strong hatred for Nobility: they seemed destined to butt heads and come into conflict. And come into conflict they did, yet as the story unfolded and their histories were made apparent, you caught glimpses of deeper meaning and you gradually developed understanding for them.

NPCs

You even get the opportunity to build relationships with these characters for minor, but notable, combat advantages. The game’s link system is relatively simple – time spent in combat with a character grants small bonuses towards link levels, while social events during free time increase it significantly – but thanks to that simplicity, they’re allowed to really give you the opportunity to spend Rean’s time how you want to. With a wide variety of these social events available during his free days to build the relationships between the characters, you can become everyone’s friend or focus on becoming really close to a few people. The key, in my eyes anyways, is that the benefits are minor enough that not having them will be highly unlikely to hurt your chance of victory… this means that even if your favourite character isn’t your favourite combat character, you won’t get punished for all your time building your relationship with them. As a result of the bonus link points gained by being linked to someone in combat, your relationship with that ‘favourite combat character’ will still build over time. And since you can’t possibly spend time with everyone, there’s even encouragement to come back and revisit the game to see more.

But the real surprise comes when you realize that even the side characters are given the same loving care – including some of them even having social events during free time. There were only a handful of unnamed NPCs in this game and if a character had a name, they had a story and a personality. Most of these stories were completely irrelevant to Class 7’s story, but if you chose to explore and speak to everyone you’d come to know characters you have no game-relevant reason to meet. Characters like the small child who develops a crush on the student volunteering at the local church as a nun, or the childhood friends whose friendship – and potential romance – crosses social classes. Characters like the overly-loving couple who give each other heartfelt (and downright silly) goodbyes every morning as the husband leaves for work and get shy when you catch them in the act. Characters like the Noblewoman who ran away from an arranged marriage, and the loyal butler who chases her all over the Empire. You’ll meet random characters throughout the world and, unless you happen to have heard the random conversation from another part of the game, never realize that these people are related to your fellow students. You’ll see scenes that make you realize just how amazing your instructors actually are… and make you realize that your characters are not the only players in this grand story. And it is in this exploration – discovering these little stories – that this game’s true value come to the front: the love and care they took in making this world feel real boggles the mind.

Arts and Crafts

And no, I don’t mean drawing and sculpting… the Trails series, to my endless amusement, refers to their special abilities as Arts and Crafts. Orbal Arts are magic that is drawn from quartz crystals using special combat Orbments, in Cold Steel referred to as Arcus Units. Crafts, on the other hand, are the unique individual talents each character possesses in combat. There are, also, a special type of Craft known as S-Crafts that have their own unique properties.

But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves… combat in Trails of Cold Steel is turn-based, taking place on an SRPG-esque battlefield. In fact, if I had to make a comparison, it reminds me a lot of a turn-based Tales of Xillia – right down to the linking. Turns are based off of a character’s speed, but certain actions also increase or reduce the wait time for the next turn. For example, if you choose to spend a turn repositioning yourself, you’ll have a reduced wait time for your next turn. Understanding this concept is essential in this game, because turn order is extremely important.

Link effects

You see, the turns often have turn bonuses, which can be seen on the sidebar of the combat HUD, that affect whoever has that turn. These effects can mean the difference between victory and defeat: for example, the rare and coveted ‘deathblow’ bonus which instantly kills targets not immune to its effects. And yes, these effects do work for enemies as well, so managing your characters’ turns suddenly goes from being ‘faster is always better’ to a strategic puzzle where delaying a turn may yield amazing rewards, and using that Art that takes a bit less time to cast but doesn’t do quite as much damage may mean a whole lot more in the long run.

And here are where the S-Crafts I mentioned before come into play. S-Crafts are extremely powerful attacks that take a lot to use and will drain your character’s craft points (CP) dry. They’re unique to each character and have extremely high wait values, meaning your turns afterwards will be delayed by a noticeable amount… sounds kind of bad, right? Well, that’s where S-Breaks come into play. S-Breaks allow you to use your S-Craft at any time, accelerating your turn and allowing you to steal a turn bonus from an enemy provided you have the CP to use one. This adds another layer of strategy to the combat, making it even more interesting.

During the early phases of the game, you’ll need to take advantage of these bonuses and be strategically minded even in normal fights. Over the course of the game, you’ll gradually get strong enough that if you get the jump on an enemy, you’ll probably be able to kill them without taking harm… but beware, even normal enemies can do a real number on you if you let them get the drop on you.

You see, like most modern games, the random battle system has been scrapped for enemies who appear on the game’s overworld maps. Also, like many other games, attacking the enemy from behind will give you an advantage. The fun part here is that there’s an interesting little dance that can happen, since hitting an enemy dazes it for a second, allowing you to try to sneak behind it to stun it for a back attack. The only downside is that most characters simply aren’t fast enough with their attacks to go this route, so you have to come up with different strategies for other characters, often relying on the enemy’s chase radius to catch it when it turns around to return ‘home’.

A Rose Quartz By Any Other Name…

Quartz are how you learn Arts. While crafts are character specific, Arts are defined by what you equip in your Arcus Unit. The Arcus Unit reminds me a bit of FFVII’s Materia slots, but a lot more well defined than they ever were. Each Arcus Unit has several Quartz slots laid out in a distinct pattern that have to be unlocked over the course of the game. At the center of each, you can place a Master Quartz, which defines the character’s style. Master Quartz level up over the course of the game, and there are nearly 30 to play around with, each with their own unique bonuses and spells to offer.

Arcus

The main Quartz slots, however, are laid into a series of paths. These paths restrict where you can put the Quartz. For example, you can only have one status effect Quartz per path. They use this to help define characters. Casters, for example, tend to have fewer paths so as to hammer home the fact that they’re best with spell quartz, which are far less restricted. Additionally, some characters have slots that can only hold a specific colour of Quartz, to help define their elemental leanings. It’s not so restrictive as to be a turnoff, but provides meaningful boundaries to the game’s system and makes each character feel unique.

Extra-Curricular Activities

The game features several interesting minigames, some only accessible once, others accessible repeatedly. The former consist of silly things like a ‘Whac-A-Mole’ style minigame and a short little stint as a merchant, while the most noteworthy of the latter are a simple, yet engaging card game called ‘Blade’ and the ubiquitous fishing game.

Every time you go on one of your class’s Field Studies, you’re given the opportunity to both talk to your classmates on the train and play Blade against them. It is surprising how much fun I had with Blade, considering it is an incredibly simple game. The basic premise is that players take turns playing a card trying to surpass or match the total value of the opponent’s cards on the table. If at any point you can’t do that, you lose. If you match the value of the opponent’s cards, the cards are discarded and a new card is drawn, and the chain starts over. There are a few bonus cards, like a mirror that swaps the cards around and a bolt card that erases the top card of the enemy’s pile, but in the end… it really is that simple.

The fishing is also fairly simple. When you find a fishing spot, you can fish there a few times. When you catch a fish, you’ll be given button prompts… mash the button it tells you to, and you’ll make progress catching the fish. When you successfully catch the fish, you’ll get fishing points and some reward based off of the fish you catch (these rewards range from sepith, which are used to make Quartz, to various items, but are small enough that you can easily do without them). You can then use the fishing points to purchase special items from the fishing enthusiast at your school. It’s simple, yet a fun diversion.

But my favourite ‘extra-curricular’ activity is the game’s cooking system. This is unquestionably the best crafting I’ve seen in a game where crafting is not meant to be a big part of the game. Over the course of the game, you’ll find recipes. When you create these recipes, you can choose to have Rean do it alone or with any of his classmates. Each character has a proficiency rating for each type of cooking recipe which determines the resulting dish when you attempt to cook it.

Each recipe can produce four variants: Unique, Superb, Normal, and Strange. Superb and Normal variants can be created by anyone, while Strange can only be made by people who have really low proficiency with that recipe and Unique can only be made by one specific individual. This is always one of the people with the highest listed proficiency, but its up to you to figure out who it is by trial and error.

Cooking

The Superb version’s effects are always an improved version of the Normal food’s effects, while the Unique and Strange variants are often wildly different. The Strange products, as a matter of fact, are often offensive items that you can use to harm enemies. Talk about a good way to turn ‘bad at cooking’ into an asset, right? Notably, you can also turn the Strange and Unique variants into specific people on campus to get rewards, which just adds another layer of awesome to an already engaging crafting system.

Final Thoughts

I don’t want to go on forever (okay fine, I already have… but this game deserves it), so we’re going to end it with a few more points that I think you should know. First, the game’s presentation is a mixed bag. The graphics are clearly dated. That being said, that doesn’t make the game ugly… it’s just not up to the same par presented by a lot of other games this past generation. On the other hand, the game’s soundtrack is utterly stupendous. One of the best I’ve ever heard. While streaming this game I was constantly talking about how much I loved this track or that tune… but the truth is I loved the whole damned soundtrack. So much so that I am strongly considering buying it, an honour I reserve only for the most incredible soundtracks.

The game’s ending has two things you should be aware of. First, it’s a massive cliffhanger. If you’re not prepared to deal with a cliffhanger… the sequel is coming later this year. Wait for it to be almost out, then buy this game. I don’t recommend waiting, since this game is so good, but if you can’t take a cliffhanger, it might be in your own best interests. The other point I’d like to make is that this game strikes one of my personal pet peeves. The end boss battle completely scraps everything the game has built up and faces you up against a rather difficult enemy in a battle where the mechanics are weird, the tutorial is blatantly inaccurate, and your stats/gear mean virtually nothing (okay, your level matters, but that’s all). It’s a sour way to end the game, and it took a bit away from.

Lastly, there is a lot of both content and dialog in this game. It is only about half-voiced, which is fine by me since I don’t mind reading but may turn some away. Don’t fear though, the English voice acting in this game really is among the best I’ve seen. And the game will, if you’re going for any relative measure of completion, take you at least 60-70 hours for your first playthrough. Mine, on hard difficulty, took me around 120. But that was streaming the game and talking to everyone to uncover every story I could… so you can easily cut that down quite a bit depending on how thorough you want to be.

Overall

I’m sure you’ve guessed this by now, but I love this game. I love this game enough that it will forever rank among the best RPGs I’ve ever played.

It’s rare that you find a masterpiece of this magnitude. The characters are perfect, the story is intriguing and leaves the game completely ready for a sequel, the combat is dynamic and satisfying, even the minigames are good (but not Chocobo Hot and Cold good!).

I’ve said all I need to say above… all I’ll say here is if you aren’t playing this game, you’re missing out. If you let the title or the superficial reasons to dismiss this game deter you from giving it a try, you’re missing out on unquestionably the best RPG the PS3 era has to offer, and probably the best RPG of the past decade.

  • Lovely writeup, it’s a shame I can’t get my hands on this game right now but I’ll keep on my list of game to play asap. It’s a blessing that the sequel is getting a localization–I hope it sells well.

  • Indeed! And it’s even more of a blessing that it’s confirmed for later this year! Thank you for the kind words, I hope you find a way to play it soon. It really is worth the time!