When I was in high-school, I never fought monsters – hell, my class would collectively lose their minds if a stray dog wandered through the gates.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel
Platform: PS3, Vita (reviewed)
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: NIS America
When I was in high-school, I never fought monsters – hell, my class would collectively lose their minds if a stray dog wandered through the gates. I also never really got along with the other students, although in hindsight, being in the chess club and board-gaming circle probably didn’t help my chances of fitting in with the cool kids. Oh, what a time of angst, warring cliques, and awkward moments with your latest crush! High-school ain’t no walk in the park! So perhaps the true fantasy in this game is that the teenage protagonists of Trails of Cold Steel all seem to be fairly well-adjusted, happy-go-lucky individuals. Good for them.
If I sound a tad bitter, it’s not because Trails of Cold Steel isn’t a great a game. No, it’s just that I’ve been busy running around collecting ingredients for Mr and Mrs Townsfolk’s warm egg soup, or rescuing Tiddles the cat from the tree next door – plus a seemingly endless stream of more side-quests that begins to feel tiresome real quick. In fact, there’s so much of this dilly-dallying about that it isn’t until around the 25-30 hour mark that the game truly starts to fire up. It certainly doesn’t help that it isn’t until then that you encounter a villain! Admittedly, it is nice not to have to worry about saving the world like so many other JRPGs, but it definitely feels odd to have such a long time devoted to nothing but school excursions.
I’m in two minds about this – on one hand, I just want to get out there and slap some monsters around, but on the other, I’m fascinated by the way the game slowly but surely shapes the world around me, not to mention the greater story that unfolds amidst it all. Once you get used to the slow pacing, Trails of Cold Steel does become an engaging romp with a cast of lovable characters and rich political landscape. It just takes a damned long time to get there (hint: you’ll be well into Chapter 3 before things start to pick up – so stick with it!). What I found especially interesting, is that rather than concentrating solely on a nasty villain, or a threatening major power, the story focuses on classism. The social issues between nobles and commoners take centre stage as members of different social classes mingle during their studies. Alongside the backdrop of political turmoil and military power struggles, Trails of Cold Steel forms an intriguing underlying story – a slow burn, for sure, but one that is unique and refreshing.
When it comes to the nitty-gritty stats and levelling, Trails of Cold Steel largely sticks to genre traditions. You always feel in control of your party’s development, slotting ‘Quartz’ into a personalised grid per character to unlock abilities and extra stats. While nothing ground-breaking—it’s not too dissimilar to Final Fantasy VII’s ‘Materia’—the quartz system provides a constant source of tinkering and customization. In addition, there are a variety of ‘Master Quartz’ which further governs stats and abilities, and carries game-changing skills which drastically alter how each character performs on the battlefield – this, too, can be levelled up, creating even more decisions for how you load up your team.
Battles themselves are snappy and satisfying. There are no random encounters to bog you down—or leave you feeling constantly on edge—and initiating combat is as simple as whacking the enemy with whatever weapon you have on hand. It’s a turn-based deal, but it’s heavy on position-based strategy and clever use of area damage. What I found particularly engaging was how differently each member of the main party plays during these fights. Nobody seems to fit into a set class – you don’t have typical fighters, healers, and mages. This is perhaps due to the healthy amount of customization given to players at the start thanks to the quartz system, but also because the cast serve multiple roles and play off each other’s strengths and weaknesses in a fun and interesting way.
It’s a shame the early-game is so tedious, because Trails of Cold Steel eventually ends up being pure JRPG comfort food – it hits all the right notes, and begs to be marathoned. With the long slogs of text, and the lack of direction, Trails of Cold Steel mostly just suffers from poor pacing. The social interactions and school-life drama fill in the gaps slightly, but it won’t be enough to captivate everyone. Those who can and do put up with the dry plot, however, will be rewarded with a robust experience which easily rivals the best RPGs on the Vita. The characters will grow on you, just as they slowly bond within the game itself, and the behind-the-scenes tension will reach boiling point – it just demands a lot of patience.
Disclosure: A review copy of Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel was provided by the publisher.