The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel Review — Play The Hits
You could be forgiven if you'd never heard of the Legend of Heroes video game series before now. Much more popular overseas than it is here in the States, it's a 30-year old franchise that is incredibly rich and deep, spanning multiple different story arcs that are all carefully weaved together so that they fit into a single narrative.
Now that the PlayStation 3 is long-dead, and the Vita is on life support, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel has gotten a rerelease on the PlayStation 4. So is this re-release of a 2013 JRPG worth a look (or second look?) Well, if you're looking for a beautiful time-suck of a game crammed full of side quests and a bunch stuff to do, the answer is yes.
The most jarring thing about starting this game as a newcomer to the series is that, like many role-playing games, it drops you into the game in media res, with a full party and a ton of abilities already learned with the implication that you should be at least somewhat familiar with the game's many, many complicated combat, equipment, and social systems.
You'll see meaningless words like "sepith" and "orbment," and the screen will be filled with nonsensical icons. Random words and status effects will pop up during battle and you won't know what anything means. It's stressful, and can make you feel like you'll never really get to grips with the game.
Dropping in like this is overwhelming, but don't fret. The opening scene of the game operates somewhat like a sandbox, allowing players to get comfortable with the game's advanced systems without any explanation before getting a tutorial later on.
It's a smart and interesting way for a deep game like this to help players learn its complicated battle systems. Sure, it's a bit scary and it's a tad frustrating when the opening sequence ends and you're back to level 1 with 80% of your battle and menu options locked until you complete a tutorial. All this really means that once the game introduces a system to you, you'll have some limited experience with it already and won't be completely confused.
And hoooo boy, are there a lot of systems to master in this game.
Battles in The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel crib elements from other role-playing franchises, all to great effect. Like in more strategic RPGs, positioning during battle is incredibly important. You'll be aiming area-of-effect spells while trying to spread your party to avoid getting hit by them yourself.
You can also elect to skip your turn entirely to move freely around the battle area. Many tougher fights will necessitate this, as you'll want to retreat and heal up as characters get low on health or unleash a powerful spell or attack. (Hilariously, the game's systems for magic and special physical attacks are called Arts and Crafts respectively.)
There's also a link system that allows party members to follow up on other characters' normal attacks depending on the type of weapon they wield and the opponent's vulnerability to said weapon. Get what I mean about the complex nature of this game yet?
Altogether, this makes battles feel more akin to Dungeons and Dragons encounters than they do to other JRPG battles. It's fresh (weird to say for a game that first came out 6 years ago) and makes battles more satisfying when you surround a particularly tough baddie and are just able to wail on them. The way your team has to coordinate attacks is reminiscent of Persona 5, which is high praise given that that's my favorite JRPG of all time.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is the first in a story arc that takes place in the Erebonian Empire, and if you haven't played any of the other games in the series before, be prepared for a game that is extremely lore and politics-heavy. The main, overarching story is one of political rebellion and the trickle-down effects of that rebellion to the cities and towns of the empire.
All this is to say that the main story of this game could be a turn-off, especially for folks who are just being introduced to this world. The game seems to expect a certain amount of familiarity with the lore, and it makes the barrier for entry, at least story-wise, pretty darn high.
That said, the overarching macro-level story isn't what most folks will gravitate to. The most rewarding parts of the story revolve around the relationships that the main character, Rean, has with his classmates.
You see, Rean, as well as a whole bunch of other high-school-aged kids, have been admitted to a military school as part of a special class of problem-solvers. The most engaging parts of the story revolve around this class, how they clash with each other and their instructor, and how they all grow and mature together.
To be clear, it's full of the requisite amount of JRPG/anime tropey-ness: there's a classic tsundere character who spends the first few hours of the game mad at the main character over an accident, the tall, dark, and handsome tank, the haughty noble and the fiery revolutionary, the Serious Business Swordswoman... you've met all these characters before if you've watched a, adventure anime or played just about any other role-playing game.
And though it's a bit disappointing that so many of these characters are a bit cliched, it really is a joy to use some of your free time to get to know them and increase your social links.
Like the Persona games, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel follows a gameplay loop where the player has "free time" between missions and quests. During free time, players can do odd jobs, explore, and crucially, to choose which characters to further a relationship -- which in turn, affects what bonuses you'll receive in combat. It's a well-worn mechanic, and it works to great effect here to throw some of the dense macro-level lore into relief.
- Immensely satisfying and complex combat
- Dual audio means if you hate the English VO, you can just use the Japanese one
- The interactions between classmates are often legitimately charming
- The overarching story assumes familiarity with the world, making it difficult for newcomers to feel engaged
- The visuals are lacking
- Classmates can feel trope-y and shallow at times
- The game ends on a cliffhanger, so be aware that if you get invested, you'll be in for the long haul
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is as classic of a JRPG experience as I could imagine, from its dense intertwining systems to its 50+ hour play time, to its inexplicable inclusion of cooking and fishing mechanics.
And when I say "classic," I mean that in both a good and bad way.
The visuals, although upgraded from the PS3 version to support 4k monitors, clearly come from a previous generation. A fast-forward turbo function (available throughout the game, even in cut scenes) is a great touch to help blaze through lower level encounters, though it's a bit of a heavy-handed option since it literally just speeds everything up. It can make the controls a little difficult.
The game's well-written and the voice acting is passable, but you'll find the occasional typo. Some of the side missions are pretty great in terms of scope, and some require you to get cold medicine for a priest too lazy to get it himself. It's a mixed bag, like most of the best JRPGs are.
By this point, you likely know whether or not The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is for you. If you're not a fan of JRPGs, look elsewhere. There's not much here for folks who don't love the genre. But if you do, this game will scratch an itch you didn't even know you had.
[Note: A review copy of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel was provided by Nihon Falcom for this review.]