I somehow managed to completely overlook the Legend of Heroes franchise until just a few short months ago. I spent many, many hours playing the first entry in the Trails of Cold Steel subseries, and it quickly became one of my favorite RPGs. The compelling storyline, an engaging cast of characters, and its effortlessly fun combat system had me hooked. Here’s the important question: can Trails of Cold Steel II live up to the very high standards set by its predecessor?
The story picks up right where the first game left off, with protagonist Rean Schwarzer separated from the rest of Class VII during a disastrous battle outside the very academy they had come to call home. With the help of Valimar, the giant robotic knight he was just recently able to awaken, Rean is able to flee towards his hometown of Ymir, and it’s from there that Trails of Cold Steel II sets you on your first of many journeys.
When Rean first awakens following his escape, you learn that it has in fact been a month since he was dragged from the battlefield against his will, leaving his fellow students behind. Consequently, these early segments of the game are focused primarily on one thing: bringing Class VII back together. Much like the field study missions in Cold Steel I, these undertakings conveniently put you in a good position to observe the worsening conflict across the empire.
While the first game, for the most part, showed only the heightening tensions between the nobility and the more liberal-minded Reformist Faction, here we have a nation entirely consumed by conflict. Once all of Class VII has been reunited, they quickly decide that it isn’t their place to side with either faction in the war. Even so, the story generally nudges you into conflict with the Noble Alliance regardless, as they tend to be the ones who stand between the party and their families or homelands.
It’s a solid story, and it starts off strong: Rean is alone, cut off from his friends and unsure of what to do. Around him, the empire is descending into civil war. As the situation goes from bad to worse, Class VII will face no small amount of foes, both new and old. It can be a little silly at times – there is no shortage of speeches about the power of friendship – but the story is gripping from start to finish, and the latter half is especially rife with drastic upheaval and wall-to-wall plot twists.
You’ll take control of most of the same characters as in the previous game, but with a few small additions: the Bracer Toval and Claire of the Railway Military Police join your party during early missions to make up for the absent Class VII members. The majority of the game, though, features the same party as before, but a few new tweaks to the gameplay make them stronger and battles more engaging.
Crafts – unique combat abilities specific to each party member – return from the first game, but as everyone levels up these skills will be upgraded, and there are a few new ones to add to your arsenal. There are also new S-Crafts, which are essentially powerful finishing moves, for each character tied to story progression. Arts, the game’s take on MP-draining magic spells, remain mostly unchanged.
Like its predecessor, Trails of Cold Steel II features ability and stats customization through the ARCUS system. Quartz crystals can be used to allow a character to use new Arts or buff their abilities, but only so long as the Quartz itself remains equipped. Cold Steel I started characters off with several orbment slots locked, requiring players to spend the sepith earned in battle to unlock them. This time, characters start with all their orbment slots available, but sepith must now be spent upgrading each slot so that rarer quartz can be equipped.
In addition to standard Quartz, Master Quartz also make a return. Each character may only have one of these equipped at a time, and they can drastically alter how each character performs in battle. Some Master Quartz might enable the faster regeneration of EP and CP, used for Arts and Crafts respectively, while others can confer temporary buffs at the start of battle or provide healing and stat increases once your health falls beyond a certain point.
The flexibility of the combat system certainly does lend it some extra appeal, but it’s no exaggeration to say that battles themselves are just downright fun. Each counter plays out using a turn-based system, with characters using Crafts and Arts to deal damage, afflict enemies with status conditions or even delay their turns. The Rush and Burst techniques – combos between two linked characters or the entire party – return, accompanied by the new Overdrive system: this allows two partnered characters to take three free turns, while healing them both and removing ailments, not to mention making every hit they land deal critical damage and leave enemies vulnerable to follow-up attacks.
In the first game, you were mostly assigned a specific party for each mission, and those who didn’t come with you would level up while away on their own field study. This time, you have free reign to assemble a party from all of Class VII, and you’ll have to ensure you alternate between them all to ensure everyone enjoys the same growth. It still seems to be the case that some characters are a little more viable in battles than others, but everyone has their own unique strengths.
Once again, the Erebonian Empire is where most of the game takes place, with the occasional mention of events taking place in neighboring nations. Disappointingly, most of the locations you visit are repeats of those from the previous game, with very little having changed in the intervening time. The Noble Alliance may have seized control of much of the nation, but it changes little beyond the affiliation of the guards who tell you where you aren’t allowed to go. You’ll visit the same places, handle similar requests for the locals and meet mostly the same people. There are a few new areas, including ancient shrines with a similar atmosphere to the Old Schoolhouse at the academy, but the majority of the game is a retread of its predecessor.
Fortunately, there are a few quality of life improvements that give the sequel an edge. Both horses and the Orbal Bike are available for use during travel, so you can get around the highway regions much faster. The fast travel system has also been expanded to include huge areas like the Nord Highlands; gone are the days of having to travel back and forth over those huge fields. The Turbo Mode also makes a return, so you can speed up cutscenes and gameplay alike.
I was disappointed to see that some of the uncomfortable dialogue that was common in Cold Steel I returns, just as creepy as ever. Rean is frequently thrust into weirdly flirtatious scenarios with girls who are several years younger than him, not to mention his own sister (and I don’t buy the “They’re not blood relatives, so it’s fine” argument – it’s still unpleasant). Also making a return is the stalker girl from the academy, who at one point makes jokes about drugging her victim’s food. Stuff like this serves no purpose and only drags the game down.
Both the first two Cold Steel titles were originally designed for the PS3 and PS Vita, and the unfortunate consequence is that both games look somewhat dated for a 2019 release on the PS4. The main characters’ designs have a nice amount of detail, and ditching the Thors student uniforms for individual outfits lends them greater individuality. Less central characters, however, can look fairly generic and bland, and examining any environment for too long brings into focus an obvious lack of detail.
On the other hand, in-battle animations, especially the lengthy S-Craft attacks, look excellent even now, and other elements of the presentation more than makeup for the aging visuals. The soundtrack is incredible, ranging from somber and emotional to outright hard rock at times. One track in particular, which plays during the aforementioned shrine sections, is wonderfully eerie and haunting. Aside from the occasional cheesy lines of dialogue, the script and voice cast both do a terrific job of lending some serious emotional depth to the darker parts of the story, while also making the more lighthearted and comical scenes more believable when the students find time to relax.
A few minor issues aside, I was very impressed with the original Trails of Cold Steel, enjoying it to the point that I was a little worried that its sequel might not be able to compare. Thankfully, I was wrong: the second entry in the series is yet another incredible JRPG experience. Although its visuals are certainly showing their age in parts, the rest of the game more than makes up for it. The excellent cast and gripping storyline are more than enough of a reason to recommend this, but that’s not all; the excellent combat system is easily one of the best I’ve seen in an RPG, and that alone could put Trails of Cold Steel II head and shoulders above many other entries in the genre.