It’s time for Under Your Radar! This time, we’ll be discussing The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel (Eiyū Densetsu: Sen no Kiseki in Japan). This is a timely one, because although I played it on Vita, the PC port launches today. It released in 2013 in Japan on PS3 and Vita, but the English release by XSEED was in 2015.
It’s the sixth game in Falcom’s Trails series, and the start of the Erebonia arc. Said arc has two more games, Trails of Cold Steel II and the upcoming Trails of Cold Steel III. The fourth and fifth Trails games take place simultaneously to this one, in the neighbouring city-state of Crossbell, and you get an in-game calendar that allows you to line up the events if you’ve played both arcs. At the time of this writing, it is one of the only three acceptable entry points for the series, alongside Trails in the Sky and the yet-unlocalized Trails to Zero.
You play as Class VII, a special sixth class (not a typo) created at Thors Military Academy in Trista, Erebonia by one of its princes. Unlike the other five classes, which are solely for nobles or solely for commoners, Class VII is a mixture. This is off-putting to some of them at first, because the Erebonian Empire has a very notable class structure. One of them is effectively a foreigner, even. The main character, Rean Schwarzer, is a baron’s son by adoption, being found abandoned in the mountains as a kid.
Trails of Cold Steel follows a very simple pattern for its story. You have period where you focus on school life, and periods where you’re out in the field.
In the former, you go around Trista, spending time with your classmates to get to know them better (although you have to pick and choose on your first playthrough), do some sidequesting that’s effectively student council work pushed onto you by choice, and then explore the old schoolhouse. The old schoolhouse appears to be changing its shape at regular intervals (though it is not randomly generated at this point), and is performing some manner of test, which is bizarre and merits frequent exploration in-story. Clearing a floor will advance the plot. For the first game, this is your first and final dungeon.
In the latter, Class VII is split into two groups. You only get to play as whichever side Rean is on, and the groups go to different places in the empire. Each location visited highlights the tension between the nobility and commoners, which is ready to erupt at any moment, as well as tensions with the neighbouring Republic of Calvard and Crossbell. Both Erebonia and Calvard claim Crossbell to be part of their countries, and Crossbell itself is asserting independence. Effectively, Erebonia is looking at imminent conflicts on three fronts if anything goes wrong. A terrorist group, in addition to series villain group Ouroboros, are trying to start a war for their own gains.
Of course, it just so happens that all members of Class VII are connected to important people in the country, which leads to having personal stakes in each conflict, as well as learning more about most of your classmates along the way. Most. You learn nothing about Emma until the very end of the game, although you can piece part of it together very easily. Rean has his own share of baggage as well, generally involving whether or not he should be the next Baron Schawarzer, as well as his lack of confidence in his sword skills and some other things that get into spoiler territory.
You can romance a character (or befriend a guy, but let’s be real here), with some options even being outside of your class, although the game really wants you to pick Alisa.
Much like the end of Trails in the Sky, a huge twist drops at the very end of the game, leading into a sequel. You can carry over you save data, too. Like with Sky, this maintains continuity, with side characters you’ve met before remembering you, and the game does acknowledge your romance option, though it doesn’t hold you to it.
I felt the story was very effective in making me care for the characters. The little after-combat interactions between linked characters really helped inject some personality into things. The game also did a great job setting up the sequel, but of course it isn’t perfect. For one thing, while I like the pace of the game, some may find it to be too slow, which is the way this series designs its narratives. Case in point, after what appears to be the final boss, there’s a good hour of story before a real final battle shows up to close things. The closest comparison would be the Persona series.
While some may criticize the lack of Japanese voice acting in the English release (for licensing reasons), I feel that the English actors nailed all of their characters rather well. The only criticism I have, really, is that a handful of them clearly didn’t know the series and were trying to act a smidge too anime with their intonations and otherwise in their delivery, but these would all be ironed out by the sequel.
An issue with the voice acting that’s actually the fault of Falcom on the Japanese end is that some scenes have Rean voice acted for the first quarter of it, then suddenly he’s all text while every other character in the scene is voiced. Falcom did this to save money, but they refused to edit the code to allow that to be voiced in the English version despite XSEED being willing to get that voiced. For this reason, the issue is replicated in the English voice track, although the PC port lacks this issue because XSEED did the porting job themselves.
Another minor gripe is that the game does not tell you that there’s a fast-forward button for cutscenes. This is because it was patched in later for the Japanese release, but the English version lacks the explanation too. Given Falcom’s unwillingness to help with the voice acting code, I’ll willing to peg this issue on them and not XSEED.
One final problem I have with the game is that they make a very blatant cut near the end of it. Shortly before you gear up for the final dungeon, the story starts jumping ahead with a monologue explaining everything that changed, rather than showing you what changed. It even monologues over what should have been a playable visit to Rean’s home in Ymir. In fact, Ymir is hidden in the game’s data, despite not being visited until the sequel. It turned out that Falcom ran out of either time or money and had to remove this section to make into a drama CD, which is still canon to the story despite not being shown in the game. Mercifully, XSEED translated the dialogue of the Drama CD on the game’s website, but it’s too bad it couldn’t be inserted into the game itself somehow.
As an aside, I find it very amusing that not only is the lead character from the in-game book Carnelia a real character in the game’s plot, but he’s playable in the sequel. This was hilarious foreshadowing, as said book was in Trails in the Sky, the very first Trails game, fully readable. Although Trails in the Sky the 3rd confirmed this as well, that received an English release nearly a year after the English release of Cold Steel II, and 2 years after this game.
The gameplay is largely like Trails in the Sky, with a few changes and significant rebalancing.
Of course, as in earlier entries, you spend a lot of time out of battle, helping people on sidequests, which drop lore. You can feel free to ignore most of these, but then we get to the combat.
You can attack enemies on the map, or not, and the battle starts. You have a party of 4-6 (sometimes 7 for plot reasons), and 4 stand on the map at any given time. You can swap them out during your turn, but the swapped character will have a longer wait time for their next turn. You move your characters around on their turns to position themselves, and attack. Aside from the basic attack, you can use Arts and Crafts. There are additional effects tied to various turns of the battle at random, which you can see in advance. You can manipulate the turn order to get the good effects for yourself and leave the bad ones to the enemy.
Arts are the spells of the game, which you gain access to via the Orbment system. This has been significantly simplified compared to earlier entries, with the various quartz just directly giving you arts instead of managing the amount of each element. There’s also a Master Quartz that you have equipped at all times. This levels up over time, granting various bonuses that can be very game-changing, and also grants additional arts. Arts take time to launch after use, and have various different attack ranges, which include a straight line, hitting a specific enemy, hitting an area around a specific enemy, hitting a specific set area that doesn’t move, and hitting the whole map. Of course, there are healing ones as well. Pretty simple, right? However, due to the waiting time and the buff to crafts, arts are not nearly the bread and butter that they were in Sky. In fact, I found myself rarely using them, except to heal.
Crafts are skills unique to each character, and launch instantly. They can have all sorts of effects, such as delaying the enemy’s turn, healing over time, giving various stat buffs, and things of that nature. They deal significant damage, and unlike arts, can unbalance the enemy. Unlike arts, which use a normal MP bar (labeled “EP” in this game), crafts use CP, which is gained by attacking and being attacked (in addition to some items restoring some over time), meaning crafts are always on hand if you need them. Furthermore, if you exceed 100 CP (of a maximum of 200), you can use an S-Craft, the ultimate craft for each character. This can also take the form of an S-Break, which immediately takes the next turn for the character to use their S-Craft, which will usually deal a ton of damage, although some heal you or perform other support effects. Using an S-Craft spends all CP, and doing so with 200 CP increases the effect of the craft.
New to series is unbalancing, although I suppose linking should be covered first. You can link any two characters (although some are prevented by plot until the characters get along), allowing the characters to support each other. The extent of the support depends on their relationship, but unbalancing is the use that will appear the most. Every enemy has a certain level of weakness or resistance to different kinds of attack, such as slashes or stabs. Every character’s weapon has a certain rating on each attack type. If these match up well, you can unbalance the enemy, allowing an additional attack by the linked character. Do so enough times, and team attacks happen, dealing even more damage. Some crafts will force an unbalance, even when otherwise not possible. Mastering linking is key to quick victories.
Overall, while this combat system and its buff to crafts (which are overall much stronger and have better attack ranges than Sky) gives arts the shaft, it’s very quick and enjoyable to play. Definitely the best version of this series’s combat thus far.
And, of course, the music is on-point. Don’t be Defeated by a Friend! being one of my top picks from this entry.
For story reasons, the final boss fight of the game uses a completely different combat system that honestly isn’t very fleshed out in this game, and would be expanded upon significantly for the sequel. I really didn’t like it here, but did enjoy it later on. I can’t really get into it without completely spoiling things, however.
A cast of characters you grow to care about, in a world that has been masterfully fleshed out, together with fun combat. What more can you want?