There aren’t many series in the realm of role-playing games that feature titles with continuous narratives. Final Fantasy, Persona, Dragon Quest… most, if not ALL of the new releases from these major players typically arrive as stand-alone experiences. Therein lies the rarity of The Legend of Heroes universe — which contains three unique series under its umbrella, each of which adds to an over-arching narrative from another perspective.
Of those, Trails of Cold Steel seems to be developer Falcom’s primary focus here in the west, at least as far as home consoles are concerned. Over the last year, they’ve localized enhanced ports of the first two games from the PlayStation Vita’s library, released this third installment on PS4 (with a Switch release coming in June, which has a demo available now!), and the fourth and final entry slated to launch this winter.
It continues to be my personal favorite and most interesting JRPG series running today, but after spending nearly 300 hours across all three available games, I’m definitely ready for it to conclude later this year. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense, though, just that there’s SO MUCH going on, it’s all super interesting, but I want to see how Cold Steel’s uber-dense narrative concludes before it all overstays its welcome.
With this being a review of the third game in a continuous series, I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the first two. And if you’re not, I highly recommend you change that. Just know that I may mention events from the earlier games that could spoil things for you. So SPOILER WARNING!
On the narrative side of things, Trails of Cold Steel III picks up a while after the events of its predecessor, which saw most of the original Class VII of Thors Military Academy graduate, following the death of one of their closest friends and a major plot reveal.
The series’ protagonist, Rean Schwarzer, has since become an instructor at a brand new Thors branch campus in the city of Leeves, with his students becoming the next Class VII. Along with being responsible for teaching them, he also must be ready to begrudgingly accept government orders as the Ashen Chevalier and make time in his personal life to meet up with his old classmates. That being said, Rean isn’t the only protagonist this time around, as you’ll often control his classmates while they’re being instructed during field exercises and combat missions.
The narrative continues to be incredibly interesting, combining slice-of-life storytelling with anime-style mech battles and one of the best turn-based combat systems in the genre. Rean’s growth over the last two games is clearly evident, but this also paves the way for new struggles.
One thing the Trails of Cold Steel series does better than anyone else is confidently portraying its grandiosity by expanding the world and constantly introducing and building a ton of new characters without tripping over itself, becoming vapid and confusing in the process.
The pacing is so deliberately slow in order to succeed here, and I’m sure a slow-burn 90+ hour JRPG isn’t for everybody, but the narrative payout is so rewarding. By the end, I feel like I know every student on campus — not just Rean’s, but the rest of the branch campus and each of the towns I visited along the way.
Falcom’s ability to erect such a robust world chock full of interesting and important characters cannot be praised enough. Where most games struggle to make me care about 4 or 5 central characters, The Legend of Heroes has me interested in the lives of nearly 100.
That said, Trails of Cold Steel III, while continuing the excellent narrative of the previous two games, does suffer from feeling a bit too samey to the first, at least in terms of pacing.
The original Trails of Cold Steel introduced Class VII and developed a schedule for them, splitting them up into two groups and sending them off to different cities to conduct field exercises and assist the locals by way of side-quests. You’d spend a day or two in-game building relationships with your fellow classmates, enter an ever-changing dungeon to enhance your battle techniques, then head out to a far-off city to absorb the culture before questing and returning to Thors.
The sequel, Trails of Cold Steel II, was much faster-paced. There were no more field exercise trips since Rean had unwillingly separated from the group, and you spent most of the game reuniting with your classmates via narrative progression. It was refreshing.
Trails of Cold Steel III, however, feels like a carbon copy of the original game. Now, Rean instructs his students, spends a few days building his relationship affinities, delves into an ever-changing dungeon to enhance their combat links, then ships them off to the cities you didn’t to visit in the original game.
These new cities do keep things fresh and the story is always progressing in fascinating ways, but the pacing just felt all too familiar. I get that this is supposed to be the curriculum of a prestigious military academy (why would the schedule be different for a new class in that regard, right?), but this method did feel a bit too similar to the person in control of everything (me).
Clearly, the story continues in its engrossing brilliance, but what has changed from the previous games?
- Combat is different… sort of — The turn-based combat is mostly the same as the first two games, but now there’s a new “thing to do” called Brave Orders. The same five-pip meter in combat that’s used to issue Rush and Burst commands can instead be used to provide party-wide buffs for a specific number of turns. These are all relatively good, but some are SO GOOD that you’ll rarely use the meter for anything BUT Brave Orders. Overall, it’s a worthy addition to an already incredible battle system.
- Gaining the advantage — Similarly to the previous games, attacking enemies from behind while on the battlefield allows you to enter combat with the “advantage.” Now, you can gain an even better advantage by initiating combat with a character’s unique field attack using the R2 button. Breaking objects in the environment, like boxes and jars, fills up two pips and each field attack consumes one of them. These are super useful when unleashed upon dangerous monsters (the ones that usually sound an alarm in-game when you get too close), but they cannot be used against quest monsters and bosses. Still, it gives you more “things to do” out in the wild and the meter required fills up fast enough that you can use them fairly often.
- Mech battles aren’t lonely anymore — Unlike the previous games, the occasional mech battle takes place with a party of two or three. The battles have the same mechanics, with unused characters acting in supporting roles while you focus on attacking the correct body parts for combo strikes, but Rean teaches his new students how to pilot Panzer Soldats of their very own.
- Class VII is smaller — In the earlier scenarios, Class VII only consists of three students. After certain narrative events, two more are added into the mix, for a total of five. This is far smaller than the original Class VII, but it does give each of them a lot more screen time to dig into their characters. I loved getting to know the new students, their motivations, and their combat styles (especially Juna, who could switch between ranged and melee attacks to exploit different enemy weaknesses).
- Fishing is better — Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that I have a deep love for fishing mini-games in RPGs. This may be my favorite yet. I don’t want a fishing sim or any sort of frustrating mechanics (I’m looking at you, NieR), just a fun distraction that rewards exploration. Fishing spots in the previous two games only allowed you to cast into them a set number of times, which is no longer the case — you can fish as much as you want, as long as you have Fishing Bait in your inventory, which is cheap to purchase. After casting your line, a spinning wheel with three different colors appears and tasks you with stopping it on one of them, as opposed to an empty space. The color just determines the size of the fish, not the type. After hooking one, you just hold down the circle button to reel it in, releasing it whenever the “tension” icon appears. The larger and rarer fish put up a good fight and can easily break your line, but now you can purchase permanent fishing upgrades that do things like increasing your reeling speed, slowing down the spinning wheel (making it easier to hook the big ones), and other invaluable things for fans of mini-game fishing.
- Orbal enhancements — The Orbal system from the previous games returns, but now you can equip a 2nd Master Quartz. You don’t get the full benefit from it, but this does allow for some devastating combinations. For example, I had one student using a Master Quartz that drastically increased the amount of damage dealt by counterattacks, with another that increased the likelihood of being targetted by enemies. By equipping armor, accessories, and quartz that focused on evasion, I eventually got their dodge rating up to 100%. This didn’t fare well against magic users, but they could single-handedly evasion tank everything else on their own. For another student, I combined two Master Quartz that awarded so much CP in a battle that they could use their immensely powerful S-craft after just a handful of turns. Again, this is another welcome addition to an already brilliant battle system.
- The old Class VII shares the spotlight — While Trails of Cold Steel III focuses on a brand new class of students, Rean’s old classmates remain in contact throughout the game and sparingly appear during field exercises to bolster your ranks as playable characters. This was a fantastic way of introducing and building up the new class while keeping me up to date on my old favorites from the first two games. One chapter may have you pairing the new students with Elliot and Gaius while the next partners them with Sara and (best girl) Fie. It really is the best of both worlds.
- Choppy auto-battles — For the most part, Trails of Cold Steel III runs great. That is unless you’re using the auto-battle function together with high-speed mode. In that case, the framerate becomes abysmal. It doesn’t really matter since it’s just an auto-battle that you’re clearly not paying attention to (everything else runs fine), but I thought it was worth mentioning. Let’s be honest, though. The default speed of the game’s battle animation is WAY too slow and I can’t bring myself to NOT use high-speed mode during combat.
- Better visuals — Since Trails of Cold Steel III isn’t an enhanced port of a PlayStation Vita game like the first two, it’s obviously going to look better. The character models are especially more detailed, made ever apparent during the game’s flashbacks that use screenshots from the older games. It’s nice!
- No more trap chests — *shrug*
Basically, Trails of Cold Steel III takes the original game’s pacing and enhances the series’ formula in some really great ways. In that regard, this is probably my favorite game of the three so far.
Since you get to spend time with students old and new, I never felt the need to compare the two classes or decide which I liked more. And not only does Rean get to battle alongside the new Class VII and his old classmates, but also old favorites like Instructor Sara, Towa, and Claire, alongside brand new playable characters that are important to the story.
I grew up loving the Final Fantasy series and expanded my horizons with the likes of Persona, Star Ocean, Wild Arms, Breath of Fire, and Dragon Quest, but at this point in time, I honestly think The Legend of Heroes is the best JRPG series going today. Falcom has delivered three incredible, continuous games in the Trails of Cold Steel, and I’m so damn invested that I can’t wait to see how it all comes to a close this winter.
If you’ve already played and enjoyed the first two games, you already know you need to experience this one. If not, but now you’re interested, I highly recommend you do so. There is a very detailed overview of the first two games that greatly refreshed my memory before diving in, but I don’t think it’s enough to confidently say you’d be fine starting with Trails of Cold Steel III.
This is where I think the game is going to run into some problems next month when it releases on the Nintendo Switch. I wish they’d release all three there, but if this is a person’s first foray into Cold Steel then they’re going to be plenty confused for a good 90 hours. If that’s the case, I hope you have a PS4, a Vita, or a PC that can run them.
Otherwise, yes, this is an A+ game with very little to complain about as a fan of the series. It’s as close to JRPG perfection as you can get.
*A digital PS4 review key was provided by the game’s publisher, NIS America, so thank you to them for supporting Cheap Boss Attack!