If you’d told me a week ago that there was a JRPG out there that combined some of my favorite aspects of the genre, whilst managing to avoid many of its pitfalls, I’d have called you a liar. It’s a broad church, after all, and every franchise rightly endeavors to do its own thing. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel, a subseries of Falcom’s The Legend of Heroes franchise, expertly blends several distinct styles of JRPG goodness into one impressively cohesive package.
Set in the Erebonian Empire, which is portrayed as the antagonist in previous subseries, the story follows Rean Schwarzer, a first-year student at the prestigious Thors Military Academy. The school is where most of the game takes place; between missions, where you’ll be sent all over the empire, Rean and the other eight members of the newly formed Clash VII will attend quiz-style lessons, go fishing and even explore an ever-changing dungeon beneath the grounds.
There’s a lot to do and learn right from the start, and the game’s explanations can be a little overwhelming. Fortunately, everything is compiled in a handy notes section for easy review. At the start of the game, though, you’ll be expected to take in a lot of information very quickly, though to its credit the game’s slower-paced style means you can go at your own speed and figure things out. It didn’t take me long at all to get the hang of everything, but the speed at which you’re introduced to new concepts and terminology can be a little much.
Curiously, the game’s opening section, taking place far into the story, doesn’t tell you much about the game’s mechanics at all. You’re powerful enough to beat the enemies in that prologue with ease, but this is a series that delights in its complex mechanics; for new players, being thrust into combat with almost no explanation of the deeper gameplay is a very off-putting start. Once the prologue is over and you advance to the main game proper, you’re quickly bombarded with tutorials and advice. It’s a little heavy-handed and could have benefited from being a tad more concise.
Ironically, your school life actually makes up a fairly small portion of the game. When you’re not on a mission, conducted under the guise of field trips across the country, you’ll attend a lesson or two, possibly followed by a multi-question exam later in the term. If you answer correctly, you’ll earn academic points towards ranking up in the school, which earns you rewards with every new level. When you have a free day, you’ll be granted a certain number of opportunities to bond with your classmates. These take the form of social events similar to the Persona series, and becoming closer with the rest of Class VII allows you to perform better alongside them in combat.
Speaking of the combat, it’s by far the central part of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel. Not only is it clear how much work went into designing the battle system itself, but most of the other game’s mechanics feed into it somehow. The aforementioned bonding scenes allow any two members of Class VII to perform stronger and more useful Link abilities – done by partnering them up during battle or in the Tactics menu – providing certain conditions are met. Characters with a Level 1 Link will, for example, execute a follow-up attack if their partner lands a particularly punishing blow on an enemy. Even the fishing minigame’s rewards are almost entirely battle-focused.
The combat itself is built upon a turn-based system, but with a certain freedom of movement involved. Characters can be made to manually relocate elsewhere on the battlefield – annoyingly, this takes up their whole turn – and certain abilities, like some of Rean’s sword skills, can put them on the opposite side of an enemy from where they began. Early on, it makes little difference where you are or where you move to, but later fights can be made significantly easier by learning how to best stay out of your enemy’s range.
Actually taking the fight to your enemies is a fairly flexible affair, with many different weapon types and elemental damage to choose from. You’ll have to manage your CP, which allow for Craft abilities and each character’s ultimate move, and the EP that must be spent for Arts. On top of that, enemies can have weaknesses against the four types of weapon damage, such as strikes and slashes. If properly taken advantage of, these weaknesses can be used to stagger enemies, interrupting any Arts they’re charging and allowing a linked ally to perform a follow-up.
The numerous systems and myriad moves – not to mention each character’s unique skills – can be a little daunting at first, but it all comes together rather well. In addition to everything else, each character carries a device called an ARCUS, which can be imbued with quartz gems to learn new abilities. It’s similar in concept to Final Fantasy VII’s materia system, but the abilities only belong to a character for as long as the quartz is equipped. Swap it out for something else and the first quartz’s abilities are lost. Each ARCUS device has a very limited number of quartz slots at first, but you can exchange sepith, another type of gem earned from defeating enemies, to unlock more. There’s also Master Quartz, which provides buffs at the start of battle and provides characters with yet more useful abilities. Only one of these can be equipped at a time, and they level up through combat to provide more bonuses.
If all of that sounds like a lot, it’s because it can be. Despite how unhelpful some of the tutorials can be, combat is very intuitive from the beginning and only gets more fun as the game progresses. Each of your nine characters has their own core competencies, which you can choose to augment or turn them into a more jack-of-all-trades fighter, depending on which quartz you give them. Refreshingly, the result is that every party member is just as viable as the rest, so you’ll never be disappointed to find that your personal favorite just isn’t as useful as the others.
Compared to the complexities of the battle system, the story of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel seems almost basic – at first. It’s quite slow to start, with the first two chapters (about ten hours of gameplay) focused mostly on life at the academy and the emerging political disputes between two imperial factions. There are little hints here and there that point towards something darker behind the scenes, but the game’s early stages are fairly tame and uneventful. Fortunately, the excellent characters help keep things interesting, and their interactions and growth as a class are expertly written.
The bigger the cast of an RPG gets, the more likely it tends to be that at least one of them won’t match up to the others. Some party members here are more interesting and fun than others, sure, but in terms of quality of character, they all adhere to a fairly similar standard. There are a few disappointing JRPG tropes at play – young schoolgirls with huge breasts, the boozy and somewhat creepy teacher, the stalkerish fat girl, etc – but overall the cast, from the main group to supporting characters, rarely disappoint.
As for its presentation, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel can be a little inconsistent. The battles, especially the Super Craft techniques, are stylish and impressive to behold, full of vibrant color and fluid animation. On the other hand, some of the lesser-used locations can appear bland and repetitive, with what few details there are often copy-pasted to make the area look more alive. Character animations in cutscenes are noticeably wooden, and there are a few obvious areas that could have done with a little more attention: doors will open as if by magic as a character approaches, and after battles your party members will move to put their weapons away, only for them to disappear from their hands without explanation. Even a little flourish to show they were conjured from some magical ether would have been more suitable.
Although The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel does wear its last-gen origins rather openly, it’s only a few instances of lackluster presentation that come close to letting the overall experience down. Complex, intriguing characters and, despite a slow start, a narrative full of twists and turns combine to provide one of the strongest JRPG stories in recent years. Coupled with a combat system that’s enduringly fun throughout, plus dozens of hours of gameplay to enjoy, Trails of Cold Steel leaves many others from its genre in the dust.