Publisher: NIS America
Platform: Switch, PS4, and PC
Release Date: June 30, 2020
ESRB: T for Teen
One would think school days were behind The Legend of Heroes series after just about everyone graduated at the end of Trails of Cold Steel II. Yet, sure enough, Thor's Military Academy is back in session. With a new set of students as well as branch campus location Trails of Cold Steel III attempts to blend familiar and foreign ground all at once for returning players. Which makes sense as the long running role playing game series finally makes the long overdue shift to modern hardware with its newest port being on the Nintendo Switch.
Just like the previous Cold Steel games it places the main character mantle on Rean Schwarzer once more. Rather than him being a student this time around, however, he has quickly decided to become a teacher in spite of the war hero moniker "Ashen Chevalier" that he obtained just a year beforehand. Also, because of his teacher position this time around, Rean makes it clear that he is more of a guiding hand for the new faces of Class VII rather than the primary focal point of it, at least initially.
Despite being the third entry the title does a surprisingly good job at initiating would-be newcomers to the series rich history. It also take its' time to develop the plucky new students of Class VII through meaningful arcs to slowly reintroducing many familiar faces that have mostly already gone through their own. The Switch release even attempts to go the extra step by having exclusive chapter by chapter recaps of the previous Cold Steel entries right on the title screen. Regardless of one's established familiarity though, many of the game's best moments are through the countless interpersonal exchanges in Cold Steel III. Be it optional bonding events, or deliberate main story scenes, it is a treat to see someone like the incredibly haughty punk Ash start to show his genuine compassion over time, in his own awkward foul-mouthed way, and plenty others see a similar level of earnest growth over time including instructor Rean himself.
Of course, this measured character-focused approach most certainly comes at the huge price of downright glacial main narrative pacing for many returning Trails players. At times coming across in a way that seems to actively avoid addressing important story threads that have been lingering across multiple games and subseries (some dating as far back as the Trails in the Sky entries), even when certain important elements are almost literally staring the player in the face. It is all the more frustrating when the story finally goes into a no holds barred state of narrative escalation only to abruptly end on more or less the most fiendish cliffhanger in the entire series, which admittedly already had a fairly high bar. The only real solace to the cliffhanger being that, well, Trails of Cold Steel IV is being released so soon after.
With all that said, it is easy to forgot that there is, well, traditional role playing gameplay. Even amid the often hours long gaps between questionably paced story beats or interpersonal exchanges that enriches it cast. For instance, a somewhat understated strength in all Cold Steel releases are its rock-solid and rewarding combat system. Placing an engaging emphasis on cleverly interrupting enemy attacks or manipulating the turn-order. The third entry improves the formula even more by the entirely new feature called "Brave Orders" that is centered around activating strong player buffs at key times to really change the flow of a fight. While Brave Orders are certainly an enjoyable strategic addition it is far from a balanced one, unfortunately. Certain order combinations are so overpowered that it becomes quite easy to stunlock late game bosses into no more than a single turn total. Making it somewhat temping to dabble with higher difficulties for that reason alone.
What Trails of Cold Steel III brings the most to its gameplay systems are actually in the form of huge quality of life additions than outright new elements, however. Though originally introduced in the excellent PC ports of Trails of Cold Steel, the tremendously welcome "high-speed mode" speeds up anything from combat, on-foot traversal, to the occasional cutscene animation that is just a little too slow is one of the most obvious inclusions. But even then, returning players are likely to quickly notice the more subtle, but welcome, aspects more relationship building events that don't require the precious usage of limited bonding points or the slick UI interface in and out of battle.
One would be remiss to not make the direct comparison to its PS4 counterpart, however. Which, admittedly, if one is only looking for a PS4 vs Switch pure technical comparison then there is not not much room for discussion. The PS4 release is easily better with nearly doubled frame rate fidelity, smoother textures, or superior audio quality. If one is transitioning directly from the PS3 and Vita releases of Cold Steel I and II, then the Switch port becomes far more impressive in comparison improving not only visuals but dramatically improved load times as well. It is just a shame that in docked mode that a lot of visuals are noticeably more blurry compared to its portable friendly form.
Yet, even being fully aware of the compromises it makes for portable convenience what truly makes any Cold Steel III Switch port recommendation far more murky is its tendency to outright crash a random points. If it only happened once or twice it would not be really mentioned at all, but because it happened several dozen times from start to finish the Switch port becomes far harder to consider for even the most tolerant of players. The only rhyme or reason I could find behind its straight up crashing problem is that it seemingly only really happened in bigger towns and not in dungeons. Plus, without a single patch in sight months after its release, it becomes far less of a passive warning to "save very often" and more of a big cautionary tale of being fully aware of the Switch port's near game-breaking problem during the course of a tremendously long RPG experience, almost regardless of the quality of the game itself.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III is both forward-moving in various quality of life enhancements for the series in terms of gameplay and also somewhat clumsy in its attempt to create room for its new setting and cast during its massive campaign. With a main narrative pacing in particular that occasionally borderlines a glacially paced seminar only to randomly slap the player with sporadic moments of character and world-building brilliance. It becomes a tricky RPG proposition to recommend for anybody that is not already more than knee-deep in Trails fandom that already know that they want to see the sub-series story arc to completion, especially with its fiendish cliffhanger.
But, for however much one may want to talk about the game itself, the discussion is almost completely supersede by the necessity to point out the dodgy Switch port itself. For its disconcerting frequency to outright crash at random points can easily be a deal breaker for even for the most staunch fans of portability, especially with no patch in sight several months after release. Unless one is a Trails fan that simply has not gotten a PS4, or capable enough PC, Trails of Cold Steel III on Switch can easily ignored by its far more reliable counterparts on other hardware.
+ Great interpersonal moments that either fleshes out its new cast of characters well or puts a welcome new perspective on the many returning ones
+ Fairly noticeable visual and interface step up from the previous two games
+ 'Orders' add a fresh strategic dynamic to what was an already rock solid combat system
+ Very portable friendly in handheld mode (unlike some recent first party Nintendo games...)
- Glacial main narrative pacing and absurd completion time that struggles to earn the player's patience level it demands
- Clear technical compromises compared to the PS4 version with a surprisingly high chance of random crashing in certain areas that are unique problems to the Switch release
- Certain 'Orders' can wholly trivialize a lot of the game's bosses
- Visuals do not quite upscale well in docked mode and look rather blurry
Overall Score: 6.0 (out of 10)
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III on Switch quickly warps the discussion of a forward-moving, but very frustratingly paced, RPG entry in the series into an almost easy skip on the system entirely due to unpredictable technical problems that make it prone to crashing at any time unlike its PS4 counterpart
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable Switch code provided by the publisher.
Edited by barrel