Back in December of 2015 — well into the current generation of consoles — The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel released on the PS3 and PlayStation Vita. Many folks championed the game as one of the best JRPGs on their respective consoles, but some, like myself, never got around to it until recently. That’s mostly due in part to the newly released PS4 version, which adds 50% more English voice-overs and includes all of the paid DLC released over the years. There’s also the addition of a turbo mode, which still plays the dialogue at normal speed, but makes exploring, backtracking, and slow combat animations fly on by to save some time.
This lengthy, slice of life JRPG puts you in the shoes of Rean Schwarzer, who has just arrived at the prestigious Thors Military Academy for his first day of class. Throughout the years, Thors has become a legendary facility that prepares a select few of the nation’s youth for a lifetime of war. Fun! Within the game’s rich fiction lies a class system, which segregates Thors’ students between commoners and nobles. However, this year is different. The newly-named Class VII has been created and will overlook the class system in favor of bringing together students with a high aptitude for the ARCUS system (basically a fancy smartphone that lets you apply FF7 materia and use magic and stuff).
As you can imagine, Cold Steel mostly focuses on the student’s backstories, sends them off on field studies to learn about different nations and government policies, and doing battle against big baddies. If you’re familiar with something like Persona, then you’re in the right place. You have days when you’re given questions to answer in class, quests to undertake in order to assist the student council president, friends to build affinity ranks with, and a mysterious old building on the campus that offers dungeons to delve into once per month.
It’s a slow-burn JRPG, which isn’t something I usually enjoy, but there’s so much world-building going on and the cast is so unforgettable that I truly appreciated the slice-of-life story beats. They were a nice contrast to the linear dungeon crawling scenarios and turn-based battles within.
This is a big boy, though, clocking in around 75+ hours for a single playthrough. There’s plenty of incentive to play it a 2nd and 3rd time as well since you can’t reach max affinity with every classmate in a single run (which unlocks new scenes) and New Game+ allows you to carry over progress each time.
It’s kind of hard to do that, though, since the finale is so spectacular that you’ll immediately want to jump into the sequel. Because damn. Cold Steel 2 is something else entirely.
As I mentioned above, the story of Cold Steel serves as an introduction (outside of the Trails in the Sky series on PSP) to a massive world full of rich history. That being said, the pacing is definitely on the slow side. There’s a lot of student life going on, warring military factions, learning about cultural differences between students, struggles between nobles and commoners being put into the same classroom, and, of course, some late-game surprises that blow the damn roof off the place.
Rean is a typical JRPG protagonist in that he’s a do-gooder who just wants to improve his swordsmanship, make friends, and find himself over the course of the game. That’s not to say he’s full of cliches, though. Rean is a good boy, but he struggles with things like self-worth, self-doubt, and spreading himself too thin to make everyone else around him happy instead of focusing on #1.
Each of his classmates have their own personality quirks and ideals that distinguish them from one another, like the scrawny musician Elliot, who was pushed into joining a military academy by his high-ranking father, and their light-hearted, roll-with-the-punches instructor Sara, who means well, but maybe enjoys alcohol a little too much. They’re a fun bunch and watching them interact and grow over 75 hours is a real treat.
When a JRPG puts so much stock in the storytelling, I obviously don’t want to ruin any surprises (big or small) because that’s 90% of the fun here. I will say that the slow pace may turn people away, even veteran RPG fans, but it’s worth sticking around to see how it all plays out — especially since Trails of Cold Steel 2 cranks everything up to 11.
While you’ll definitely spend plenty of time exploring and questing, I’ll define “gameplay” here as the combat system. Moving around and talking to people isn’t exactly riveting material to write about, though it’s certainly fun to do in-game.
Thankfully, though, the turn-based combat system is incredible. Honestly, it may be the best it’s ever been, and I didn’t think anything would top Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE… yet, here we are.
In traditional turn-based fashion, you issue commands to your four-person party through various menus and the turn order is determined by everyone’s speed stats. Like Final Fantasy X, the turn order is clearly displayed on the screen and is updated in real-time as cast times are taken into consideration, speed-related debuffs are applied, and actions are taken, so you can always plan accordingly without worrying about the enemy being a nuisance.
Each student attacks with their favored weapon, like Rean’s katana, which deals one of four types of physical damage (slash, pierce, etc.). Enemies are typically weak to one of those and exploiting it can cause them to become unbalanced. Enter the linking system.
One playable character can be linked to another in combat (four fighters, so two linked groups of two). Should one of them unbalance an enemy, a follow-up attack can be prompted with a flashy animation on the screen and a simple press of the X button.
Your link level with each student can be increased, which opens up new passive link abilities, like small heals after receiving damage or taking hits in place of their friends. Leveling up links takes a little while, but the reward is always worthwhile since certain boss encounters can be pretty challenging on the default difficulty setting.
It doesn’t stop there, though.
Every third link attack allows you to initiate a dual attack for some hefty damage, but eventually, an ability opens up that allows you to forgo said dual attack in favor of all four party members rushing in at once.
So not only do you want to be strategic about your party composition (since you always want to be targeting physical weaknesses), but you’ll want to apply materia-like “orbments” that allow the use of magic, increase raw stats, and apply debuffs. Each weapon type has a slot for a “master quartz” that levels up through combat, which determines the player’s stat progression and provides passive benefits like increased EXP gains or restoring mana after landing killing blows. On top of that, each master quartz has a number of empty slots where you can apply said orbments.
The easiest way that I can explain it is that orbments are basically materia from Final Fantasy VII and master quartz passively give super helpful combat benefits and determine the equipped character’s stat growth. With me still? It’s a lot, I know, but the game does an admirable job easing you into everything so it never feels overwhelming. I probably just suck at explaining things.
What makes Cold Steel’s combat system *feel* so cool, though, is that something is always going on. You’re getting flashy prompts on the screen for follow-up and all-out attacks, you’re building link levels, you’re attacking to fill up a meter that lets you interrupt enemies with devastating, anime-as-hell abilities, unbalancing baddies to delay their turns, and it makes a traditionally slow battle system (not in a pejorative sense, of course) appear anything but. All of the battle animations feel agonizingly slow, but thankfully turbo mode is just a button press away. All hail Lord Turbo.
With The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel originating on the Vita and PS3, it goes without saying that you should probably adjust your visual expectations accordingly. However, it’s obviously improved on the PS4, runs at 60fps, and has that distinctly charming Falcom look that’s beginning to feel like comfort food (if you’ve played Tokyo Xanadu Ex+ or Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, then you know what I’m talking about).
The folks at Falcom do a great job at putting the J in JRPG, emphasizing their inspiration from anime and manga. Cold Steel has a heavy focus on experiencing this gigantic world and it manages to confine the player to mostly linear maps while still feeling epic in scale. You’ll play around in rural towns, nomadic tribal cities, and bustling metropolises, which are all connected by a basic railway system.
Everywhere is constructed in such a way that feels grounded in cultural beliefs and customs, but the next town is always just a train ride away. Have I ever mentioned how much I love riding trains IRL? Because I do. A lot. And it’s not as if the design of the train is something groundbreaking — it’s just a neat take on traversal that I haven’t experienced in-game before, and visually pairs well with the overall “anime” look of the game as a whole.
I mean, you have this futuristic scenario where students at a military academy can use magic through smartphone apps, yet you get around by train or on horseback. It’s a hefty dose of Industrial Revolution realism in an otherwise anime world, and it just works because it makes the world feel so fucking gigantic.
Overall, Trails of Cold Steel is never hindered by its slow pace and did a stellar job welcoming me into this interesting world. With Cold Steel 2 taking place immediately after the events of the original, it’s been very difficult to critique them as different games. Pacing-wise, they’re night and day, but if slice-of-life RPGs are your thing and you’ve yet to experience the Legend of Heroes games, then, by all means, give this a shot. Just know the sequel puts the pedal to the metal and the narrative cash-out is 100% worth investing in.
It’s lengthy and rewarding, and its unique take on turn-based combat is the best I’ve experienced yet. I’m sorry, Tokyo Mirage Sessions — there’s a new queen in town.
I’m of the belief that review scores are an antiquated idea and choose to do without them here at Cheap Boss Attack. Hopefully, you found the above review helpful enough to aid you in your decision on whether to purchase the game or not. For what it’s worth, I bought this game at full price and played through it at my own pace — it’s not a publisher-provided review key, nor a game I rushed to meet an embargo.