The arrival of an English translation for each Legend of Heroes game is something of a wait vs reward game. On the one hand we got this title after the East had already gotten their hands on its sequel, Cold Steel IV, but the game and indeed the series as a whole is of such quality that any Legend of Heroes title getting a Western release is a thing to appreciate.
Indeed, with the announcement that the PSP exclusive titles are getting a localisation and HD release to PlayStation 4, it’s a good time to be a fan of the series. This is doubly true due to the fact that the Cold Steel series is starting to condense the current three narratives into one pushing forward, seeing heavy references to ‘Trails in the Sky’ one through three, and making the central location of the ‘Kiseki’ duology and its characters a big part of the political landscape after the events of the first two Cold Steel games. Do not be fooled, this is not going to be an easy jumping in point for new players, though some have foolishly called it that.
Graphically the leap to PS4 has upgraded the textured and models but the game is still designed around a matching aesthetic to the first two games in the series and uses the same basic engine, which were playable on the Vita and as such made allowances for that system’s graphical capacity. Because of this it’s well designed, distinctive and attractive, without being ground breaking in terms of visuals. This game could have run on the PS3. This doesn’t detract from lusciously designed environments and character details in the slightest, with some fantastic scenery for coastal towns and large monsters that manage to dwarf even the giant mechs on display. Each of the new characters remains as distinctive and recognisable as the cast of Class VII from previous entries, and the full student body become recognisable at a glance before too long, with no NPCs repeated. Menus are slick and the redesigned combat interface pleasing to the eye, with large font sizes on screen to allow for easy reading at all times.
Audio makes good use of sound effects to punctuate largely unvoiced dialogue scenes, however several of the main characters have dialogue that has been recorded for key scenes and this is acted to a very high degree, with some cringe-worthy anime dialogue clichés acted out perfectly for comedic value, whilst those same characters can suffer emotional damage and provoke moving and tense performances. Music is likable throughout, but re-uses many established tracks from prior entries, linking it to the series as a whole bur perhaps undermining the entry as unique in its own right.
The narrative sees the player return to play as Rean, who after graduating from Thors Military Academy along the rest of Class VII has spent two years as the ‘Ashen Chivallier’, piloting a powerful, ancient Mecha on the border as an agent of the government. He’s taken on a role at Thor’s Branch Campus, an offshoot school for gifted but troubled youths and is now the instructor of a new Class VII, made up of some interesting new faces. It’s not long before older faces start to show up to support and further the over-arching narrative, but for the most part the game maintains a steady mix of school-life drama and political intrigue. Politics play an especially heavy role when one of the new class is from the previously independent city-state of Crossbell, recently absorbed into the Empire, and another is a noble from a now disgraced family line, relieved of their duties. It’s an excellent blend, that also benefits from being able to call on characters and plot points from throughout the ‘Trails’ series’ span to really feel like the narrative is beginning to condense from three quite independent stories into a single, streamlined intent. The game manages to keep an upbeat and fun tone throughout, with the translation handling some strictly Japanese concepts extremely well and providing great character insight.
Gameplay is a top-down JRPG set within a 3D environment. Whilst exploring you can freely rotate through the party to play as the character most likable to the player, and pressing X will enable a strike move that can be used to break boxes and deal a surprising stun to enemies (gaining a x2 advantage instead of a standard 1 round) with weaker enemies capable of being destroyed and giving experience without the need for combat. Charging up a tiny meter by doing this successfully adds a new tool to this arsenal, allowing for a strike that deals extra power and gains a 3 round advantage, swinging heavily a battle into the player’s favour. Combat itself is turn based and allows for the use of Arts/Crafts and Attacks as well as positional movement and items, as will be expected from a fan of the genre. Characters make use of a link system that pulls on their relationship status as allies to unlock up to 5 levels of paired actions that are both automated (healing after an ally is damaged or blocked for them) as well as triggered for heavy damage when a gauge is full. New to combat is breaking enemies to stun them, which has huge benefits and enables that gauge to fill up more quickly. In addition to a character specific super move, characters also learn orders which can be shouted in combat for stat-changing bonuses. It’s a truly organic and fast paced turn based combat system that has evolved slowly over multiple games into a juggernaut of features and tactics (without having to dabble in the games massive Arts and Quartz system). A second form of combat takes the form of Panzer Soldat (read ‘mech’) battles which places a focus on locating the right body parts to hit when the enemy mech is in certain stances to prevent attacks, deal extra damage and avoid powerful counter blows. This has also seen expansion to include multiple Soldats in the form of a party, as well as land based characters making a return in support roles by casting spells from the ground. Outside of combat the title throws plenty of quests, optional content and relationship building mechanics at the player to keep the game feeling involved, though some cutscenes can run a little long before you have control again at a chapter’s start/end. Minigames such as swimming and fishing are available, as well as a massively upgraded collectable card game that replaces the simple Blade seen in the last two games. Vantage Masters plays as a fusion of ‘Magic the Gathering’ and ‘Hearthstone’ that can play out in minutes with the right deck and is a genuine pleasure to play.
Overall, Trails of Cold Steel 3 is a fantastic RPG, well worth the price of admission, bringing with is a satisfying New Game + and four levels of difficulty ranging from Hard (strap in to die) to Very Easy (I’m just here for the story) that makes it accessible for anyone no matter their experience with JRPGs. The game also manages to transition the main character from a student to a teacher and not be in any way encouraging student crushes or romances, which exist but are not acknowledged as anything but wrong – a firm positive in its writing. We fully recommend you buy this game if you’ve been following the series or start with ‘Trails of Cold Steel’ with a view to building up to this third title over time.