Released digitally onto PlayStation Network for PS3 and Vita here in the UK, Trails of Cold Steel is the start of a third trilogy in a series that’s had a spotty release schedule for western audiences but is finally starting to get the love it deserves through Steam and Sony’s various systems.
When I say a spotty release to the west I mean that the original trilogy, ‘Trails in the Sky’ has seen release of parts one and two onto PSP and Steam but at the present time is yet to be concluded, with a Steam release planned soon. A second series titled ‘Trails of Zero’ and ‘Trails of Azure’ serving as a stand-alone and sequel saw release across multiple platforms in Japan but never made it over to the west, whilst first part in their new trilogy ‘Trails of Cold Steel’ has seen a relatively recent release. The ‘Legend of Heroes’ series gets a great deal more complicated than that however, spawning titles from the era of the Sega Mega Drive that originally span out of a series called ‘Dragon Slayers’. With all this going on, the real question is ‘can you walk into Trails of Cold Steel as a newbie?’ and the answer is a resounding yes. These games are all uniquely accessible to new players with Trails of Cold Steel laying its own set of characters and locations down to play in with occasional nods to series continuity.
Graphically the game doesn’t feel like a late title for the PlayStation 3, but given its cross-save features with the Vita one can forgive a little roughness when the realisation comes that the whole experience also plays through the Vita’s tiny screen. There are no compromises here, what you see on the PS3 is recreated in its entirety on the Vita and the game looks great for that system. Players on console will be distracted by vibrant design choices and a well-structured world that has lots of small details placed in such a way as to give it a lived-in feel. The style is certainly based on that of an Anime, with visuals similar to that of a Ken Akamatsu manga (Love Hina, Negima, etc) and plays to those strengths, making character’s seem distinct at a glance but never over-complicating their designs. If you dislike the anime style however this may not be the game for you, as much is made of the games anime-cliché opening at the games outset before settling into deeper political territory.
Audio is an interesting blend, musically the title has a passable but not amazing soundtrack that takes a back-seat to the games characterisation and writing. You’d be hard pressed to remember much of the soundtrack with the exception of a battle theme, but you will remember scenes between characters which are served brilliantly by an unobtrusive but complementary background tone. At times the balance can be off on this, with voice work caught too low to be heard over a rousing piece of ‘go get them’ style music, but for the most part it’s a well-balanced piece of design. Voice work makes use of many familiar anime talents with the curious exception of the lead character, who is voice in some sequences but not others, leading to a strange disconnect with him at times. Interestingly the original Japanese dub has speech in these scenes, so the choice is very puzzling on this. His voice, though well-acted, also seems a little older than his character is portrayed until you get used to it. Personally I found that turning the voices off (as there is a full range of sound settings available) kept the immersion and fixed the music volume issue as well.
Story is the high point here, with Trails of Cold Steel managing to take a simple and well-used trope of a school class and elevate it through strong writing, clever scenarios and characterisation. You play as a young man named Rean who has enrolled as a first year student in a military academy. Upon arrival you discover that you red uniform is uncommon, with upper and lower class students traditionally clad in white or green by tradition. Part of a new trial class of mixed class, you and your fellow red-dressed teens are each given a strange piece of technology that allows you to increase your combat proficiency when working in tandem with a teammate, and begins the process of breaking social barriers – at least within your small group. What could be a plodding story set around a school year is given depth by implementing several mysteries (a school building serves as a recurring, evolving dungeon) and excursions to different parts of the empire in which the title is set. The real strength however lies in the characters around Rean, who each have deep backgrounds to discover and interesting motivations/secrets of their own. Dialogue, even from NPCs, is never throw-away and always helps to build an enlarging picture of the environment and characters within it. Sadly this is the first part of a new series however, and players need to expect a cliff-hanger finale that sets up the future release of Trails of Cold Steel 2.
Gameplay is a solid mixture of elements we’ve seen before, with few surprises but it does strike the perfect balance between simple and complex, with sub systems never over-complicating the title. Battles are turn based with 4 members of the party in the battle and an additional 2 able to be swapped in and out at your whim, these chosen from a larger pool of characters. Each character has a specialism, be it close combat, movement around the environment or ranged attacks/magic and their unique qualities make them all feel very different in your party. Special attacks are split into Arts, which come from orbs equipped into a special device that you need to unlock progressively for each of them, and Crafts, which are innate talents learned as they level up. Stat boosts and effects can also be found and piled into the orb system, allowing for a good amount of customisation and items/equipment can be purchased and upgraded, but the real strength of battles is in the games link system. Links between two characters allow for critical hits to trigger the option to have the linked character’s partner perform a free bonus attack on the same target, leading to quicker battles and eventually unlocking more powerful bonuses in addition to this as bonds between characters evolve in a manner similar to a Visual Novel. Each character also unlocks a super powerful attack that they can call upon if they have enough Craft Points stored up (100 to be exact) but that only unlock through plot based events in the games narrative. You win experience and elemental crystals from enemies that you trade in for new orbs, cash and unlocking slots for orbs as you progress. It’s the interlinked and rewarding nature of these systems that keeps the game feeling fun even in its later half. Outside of combat the game follows the school year but doesn’t force a timer on you in the same manner as an ‘Alchemy’ title. This enables you to experience a great many quests and subquests around campus or on location on school trips as well as sharing limited personal events with the other members of the class. A number of minigames including fishing are included, and food items can be cooked to create powerful special items mid-dungeon. Pressing square at any time outside of a dungeon area shows a quick-travel menu that allows you to jump between locations on the same map easily, and saving anywhere allows for quick play or grind sessions and allows for accessibility rarely seen in a JRPG. DLC does exist but none of it is essential and it’s sadly all throw away costumes for characters and cash drops.
Overall, the strength of this games writing elevates it to the level of instant classic. The games systems are fast and fun, and the graphics, though simple, allow for cross play on the go, further making this title accessible to players. I can’t recommend it enough and can only hope that this series continues to see the love and care in translation that this first entry has received.