Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: XSEED Games
Platform: PS Vita, PS3
Release Date: December 22, 2015
ESRB: T for Teen
To say it is surprising that not one -- but two -- The Legend of Heroes games got localized in 2015 is more than an understatement. It was a miracle in itself that extremely patient RPG fans of the original 2011 PSP release, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, got its nightmarishly hard-to-localize sequel, Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter, after a four-year wait from its original debut. But then XSEED managed to pleasantly surprise series fans even more by starting to localize Japan's most current trilogy to the series: Trails of Cold Steel (which I actually imported because of how convinced I was we wouldn't see it localized anytime soon).
The point is, XSEED Games paved the path for Trails of Cold Steel despite all likely expectations.
Trails of Cold Steel diverges from its The Legend of Heroes predecessors in a lot of ways. For one, it completely omits 2D sprite work in favor of complete 3D. Another key difference is the setting. Opposed to the mercenary-ish and on-the-road "Bracer" lifestyle that was featured in Trails in the Sky, Trails of Cold Steel often takes place in a military academy... that is basically a high school. It technically resides within the same world as Trails in the Sky (and the unlocalized Zero/Ao no Kiseki), however, both the main story and primary cast of Trails of Cold Steel are quite self-contained from previous games, minus a few noteworthy cameos here and there.
The narrative itself starts off on the first day of school at the prestigious Thors Military Academy. Opposed to a normal first day of classes, the lead character Rean, and other distinctly red-uniformed individuals, are dropped into Class VII. Quite literally, as a brief introduction turns into a trial-by-fire and surprise trip through a monster-infested underground facility. After some begrudging alliances through the ordeal, and awkward introductions, the students learn that Class VII was made to test the combat aptitude of "ARCUS" units, and does not divide it members by social class or background. Though given the option to back out, Rean and the others decide stick around to see what Class VII has in store.
The actual curriculum of Class VII tends to be divided between school life and the "field studies" to other towns and cities every month. As for the school life in Trails of Cold Steel, it's very reminiscent of titles like Persona 3 & 4, as it was clearly influenced by them. There are "bonds", which are basically P3/P4 social links, that flesh out party members in addition to progressing combat perk unlocks. Even beyond bonds, the great localization helps make the members of Class VII stand out throughout and become surprisingly likable in the long haul, though their early narrative moments may suggest otherwise. Rean can also do odd jobs for the student council that are basically sidequests within the town of Trista. The sidequests themselves tend to be nothing too special but there is an oddly homely sense of world-building that it creates for its denizens by doing unique, but minor tasks.
Then there are field studies which are when the rest of the gameplay elements usually come into play. Day to day Class VII gets a set of tasks to complete during their trip, somewhat similar to Rean's student council stuff, that range from investigation, simple monster slaying, or hearing out the woes of random citizens. Exposition may often be at the forefront of Trail of Cold Steel but the combat, character customization, heck, even the occasional mini game are rock solid.
Much of the basic combat refines upon systems that were introduced in previous The Legend of Heroes titles, yet are frankly more enjoyable in Cold Steel. The turn-based combat is smart and relies on both positioning and learning to manipulate turn phases to one's advantage. The flexible "Orbament" system also returns and allows players to slot "quartz" skills to grant a character many different abilities and stat bonuses primarily in combat, and lends to fairly versatile party compositions.
What unfortunately cripples Trails of Cold Steel the most is its pacing. Trails in the Sky fans likely know it comes with the territory for a series that loves its character development and world-building (going as far as to place multiple optional short novels to causally read about some of it). However, there is an unnecessary slowness for even that. As much as I like the writing, which is outright dense with personality, it can certainly feel unnecessarily long-winded in most contexts. There are plenty of main story scenes that have no problem with going at-length for casual character banter or in-depth about the current political landscape. Which would be fine if the overarching main story did not basically take more than half the game to kick in to actually justify it.
The presentation also faces growing pains with this newest entry. Neither the environments or character models look particularly impressive. The characters models in particular are disappointing compared to their key concept art, with their stiff animations and awkward mouth flaps, making me wish me wish they took the Atelier Shalie route with models that complement it. Though, Falcom does tend to prefer being functional gameplay-wise over showing off visually, the Vita release in particular suffers from noticeable technical quirks. There is an occasionally erratic framerate that rears its ugly head when traversing certain towns and noticeable frequent load times for Vita. To go back to pacing, there is also an odd obsession with lengthy environment pans that bogs down the presentation too.
As with Falcom tradition the soundtrack the JDK band whips up has some awesome rock battle themes, though admittedly, most other parts of the soundtrack don't particularly stand out. The more pleasant surprise about the audio is actually the surprisingly fitting English dub. It is honestly a shame that more of the game is not dubbed, because of how noticeably absent it is during certain story scenes (very likely because of budget). This is coming from someone whom often times turns off the dub outright in many Japanese RPGs.
As numerous as its changes may be, Trails of Cold Steel certainly has the heart of recent The Legend of Heroes titles. The military academy setting did seem like a recipe for disappointment (and shameless pandering), but the charming script and surprisingly likable cast defy initial expectations over time. Unfortunately, at the same time, the unnecessarily slow pace for both its gameplay and storytelling, and occasional technical grievance on Vita, prevent Trails of Cold Steel from reaching greatness. Though it is a promising debut for Class VII, one can only hope that the upcoming sequel capitalizes upon what is built up so strongly in Trails of Cold Steel.
+ Well-written script and cast of characters that have a lot of personality
+ Good turn-based combat system with flexible mechanics
+ Lots of detail towards its world-building
+ Sweet battle themes and solid English dub
- Pacing is very slow at times
- Rather underwhelming 3D visuals overall
- Occasional technical problems on Vita
Overall Score: 7.5 (out of 10)
Trails of Cold Steel is a promising debut for the newest The Legend of Heroes series from its characters and in-depth world, but remains just shy of greatness during the inconsistently paced path towards it.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable Vita code provided by the publisher