Even though I’ve just recently started getting into its series, Nihon Falcom’s The Legend of Heroes franchise has been around for decades, spawning a number of different games, ranging from the cult classic The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, to the more recent and more modern looking The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel. The latter, which tells the tale of a group of kids going through the motions of joining in on the war effort by enrolling into a military academy, has just gotten its third release finally localized after two years as a Japan exclusive, while the fourth and last entry has been out in Japan for quite some time, nearly a year.
Heavily inspired by anime and all sorts of manga, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel has a lot of backstory. I have only recently started playing its first entry, and having had the chance to review the third game, it’s clear that the developers take the franchise’s story very seriously, not to mention carrying the plot forward from game to game. Unlike, say, Final Fantasy, Trails of Cold Steel has been on the same story wagon from the get-go, with the tale of Rean Schwaltzer’s rise to fame as the world-renowned Ashen Knight, but not before having to start his course at Thor’s Military Academy during the first and second entries.
Trails of Cold Steel III picks up right after the events of the last game, with Rean having just graduated and making his way through the dramatic events of a war that led to the annexation of new territories to the Empire of Erebonia, where this series within the The Legend of Heroes main franchise takes place in. He’s now about to take a new job at a recently opened branch academy of Thors over in one of the new regions of the Empire. Having formed a new Class VII, which he used to be a part of in the previous games, it’s up to him to put together another group of recruits who are most recently bound to get in over their heads into a lot of trouble. Still, he can also expect to run into many familiar faces along the way.
The game wastes no time introducing a record number of characters who, even if you have been playing these games since the beginning, might have a little trouble keeping up. A lot of the backstory is slowly revealed, as if the devs knew a lot of folks would have trouble remembering who’s who, but it’s still a bunch of names and stories to remember, as it seems Rean’s got buddies at just about everywhere he steps into. On top of that, there’s quite a bit of historical backdrop that just happens to be extremely detailed and frankly really fun to pick up on along the way, which makes it a good thing that there’s so much reference material to check out in the game’s numerous books and data entries. If and when you feel lost, Trails of Cold Steel III offers a substantial research database that you can dive into with detailed recountings of the events of the previous games, along with extensive logs of main cast’s timelines, as a separate option in the menu, along with a log that builds as you play the game and meet, which can be viewed alongside item and monster logs during the game proper.
I’ve yet to play a game with so much baggage, thanks to the sheer quantity of entries that came before it, and even then, at no point I felt overwhelmed. Sure, a little confused most definitely, but never overwhelmed. And yet, playing this game is giving me even more reason to go back and see the events of the previous games later on, even if a lot of what happens in them is explained off during Cold Steel III. It’s all just that good.
For someone like me who’s only played about half way through the first game in the series, it’s surprising just how much of the third one feels familiar and natural to me. Maybe that’s because a lot of the situations Rean gets into at first at downright nostalgic to him, since they’re the same things he went through when starting out at Thors during the first game, as he witnesses new students stepping into his previous shoes, and with him trying on new ones as an instructor. Even though a lot of situations are ripped straight out of the anime book, with a lot of awkward conversations and zanny situations, most felt quite realistic when considering that school’s always like that when starting out, especially with how Rean starts to realize his crazy teacher from the first game might have actually done a pretty darn good job teaching him and his buddies back then.
Gameplay-wise, Trails of Cold Steel III is a straight shot from what came before it. Even though you now play as a teacher, you’re still part of the squad, as the team takes on assignments when out during their usual class trips through the country, and still have to mind school business while on campus, along with the tropes that are signature to the series and to JRPGs like Persona as a whole, that is, a lot of relationship and character development through dialogue. Tons of it. While I wouldn’t say these games are more drama than actual playing, the balance between the normal goings on of a dungeon crawling role-playing game and a character-driven one is in no way 50-50. I tend to favor the personal workings over the combat sections of these games for sure, but that doesn’t mean Trails of Cold Steel III is a slouch when it comes to clashing swords or any of its assortment of student weapons, no siree.
There’s quite a bit of depth to dig into when it comes to the combat encounters that go down in the game. The four party member system is similar to the turn-based JRPGs you’re bound to have played before, as everyone fighting takes their turn attacking or doing whatever action they do, sometimes even going more than once per turn, which helps keep things dynamic and somewhat terrifying throughout the game, since you’ll be fighting a lot and often when out on missions. There are element attacks, called Arts, which can be freely equipped and used by placing orbs down in a Quartz board that you slowly unlock new slots for as you progress through the game. The more you level up, the stronger these powers get, and the more varied they become. You can still use actual weapons, though, and they are quite effective since their attacks are instantaneous and don’t have a cast time like magic. The same goes for special powers that can serve in both offense and defense, depending on the character’s skill and specialization.
I could spend ages going through the ins and outs of the combat in Trails of Cold Steel III, and even though it serves the game well in delivering a lot of challenge and strategy, including a LOT of grinding here and there, it goes without saying that it’s not entirely unique, and is quite easy to get into even though there’s a lot to take in at first. Things never get as complex as other JRPGs you might have played, and although the game doesn’t pull any punches during boss fights, with a lot of cheap attacks that easily wipe your party out in one hit and such, it’s never unmanageable, nor anything that a little bit of grinding, better application of your available skills, or a mix of the two won’t fix. And quite differently from previous entries, you rarely have a lot of party members to juggle and figure out who best fits in with who, since story-wise your team has way fewer units than before. Still, there are a lot of moments in Trails of Cold Steel III throws you into teams with characters you’re not initially familiar with, which although a little confusing, helps keep things fresh.
That’s not even mentioning the moments where you get the ability to use mechs, which in this franchise are called Panzer Soldats, and have a fairly different way of approaching combat, since you have to mind varied targets within a single enemy. Since Rean’s the Ashen Knight, he has access to one of the game world’s most powerful mobile suits — to borrow a term from fan-favorite Mobile Suit Gundam — and the rest of the class usually jumps into other random models you constantly see around the world. I would’ve loved to see more of an emphasis on this model of combat since I’m a particular fan of mechs, but there’s enough of it in the game from time to time that’s been satisfying me, for sure.
Having made the jump from the first game straight to the third, it’s quite jarring how great this current entry looks. The first The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel started out as a PlayStation Vita game which eventually made its way to the PlayStation 3, and it certainly looked the part, even with the recent remaster overhaul it got for its PlayStation 4 and PC release. Trails of Cold Steel III is the first game to be exclusive to the current generation, and the upgrade is quite noticeable: character models are much more detailed and expressive, not to mention the world as a whole.
While not quite as a looker as say, similarly named Tales of Berseria, Trails of Cold Steel III is still quite a looker, so much so that it’s going to be a little hard going back to the original games after this, that’s for sure. Still, it’s weird noticing a lot of similarities between this and the previous entries, though, like buildings looking pretty much the same among towns, and the general lack of variety when it comes to character designs — lots and lots of boys and girls with the same frame and clothes, only with differently colored heads of hair all throughout, obviously in secondary roles, as the main cast has its own distinct look, of course — but hell, this is quite an upgrade overall.
The Trails of Cold Steel games are no strangers to having gigantic campaigns, spanning dozens of hours, and they surely pack a lot of content to warrant such long runtimes, and in this regard, this third entry does not disappoint. For anyone looking for a game that they might get through quickly before moving on to whatever’s next, Trails of Cold Steel III is definitely not that. But truly, if you have played the previous games and are getting to this one at this point, you’re bound to know what you’re in for. However, if you’re like me and are crazy enough to jump into the deep end of the pool without adequate preparation, it’s still worth a warning that this will take you a long time to beat, even more if you decide to 100%. There are activity lists out the nose that aren’t inherently required for getting through the game, but are most definitely worth partaking thanks to their valuable rewards and story beats that can easily go unread or unwatched if you decide to bee-line through the main campaign.
It’s clear that Nihon Falcom has but a lot of care and effort into making The Trails of Cold Steel series quite an epic one to be sure, and although it could be considered niche when compared to the more well known franchises from Square and Bandai Namco, this now NIS America-published franchise — that fell to Xseed in the past, but no more — is an excellent and juicy sequence of JRPGs. Trails of Cold Steel III won’t change your mind if you haven’t gotten into any of the previous entries, but if you’ve loved them, or are just getting into them, there’s a lot here to enjoy. I’m very much looking forward to seeing this through, getting back to the older games and hopefully be day-in-day with the series by the time Trails of Cold Steel IV gets around to the West.