The Legend of Heroes series is renowned for having some of the most detailed stories and one of the widest array of unique and well-developed characters in the RPG genre. Previous games were unusual for having almost every character, from shopkeeps to minor town civilians, be uniquely named and have their own constantly developing stories. Deep lore and storytelling like that comes at the cost of a slow and patient build-up, though, and that holds true with the latest title in the series to be localized, Trails of Cold Steel.
Legend of Heroes games, like many Japanese game series, often take a long time before they are translated and brought overseas. Trails of Cold Steel is the first of three games to make the jump, with both PS3 and PS Vita versions arriving on our shores, and thankfully Marvelous USA and Nippon Ichi have promised to bring the remaining two over in a timely fashion.
As the first of three chapters, Trails of Cold Steel doesn’t shy away from taking it’s time and slowly laying the foundations for the story and the world in which it takes place. This is a game with plenty of cutscenes and dialogue, and a lot of tutorials. With the slow pace of the game, I found myself still doing basic tutorial interactions and simple fetch quests, despite having well over 5 hours into the game at that point.
Many comparisons are made between this game and Persona 3 or Persona 4. Much like those games, Trails of Cold Steel has a day-to-day calendar system with events, activities, character bonding missions, and even tests and exams, on top of the usual monster-fighting and dungeon-exploring. However, unlike those games, Trails of Cold Steel lacks the unique flair and quickly gripping character and story those games featured.
The main cast in Trails of Cold Steel are incredibly cliched, and although the game dives into their backgrounds in later chapters, the broad archetypes you’re presented with in the beginning only serve to make the characters harder to like. Trails of Cold Steel and Persona 4 are both incredibly long anime-style RPGs with social aspects, yet the stark differences in world building and character development only highlight the glacial pace of Trails of Cold Steel.
Thankfully, the gameplay mechanics of Trails of Cold Steel kept me engaged through even the slowest moments. Trails of Cold Steel has a lot of systems and tools to explore, but they all come together in a fluid package. Combat sees you controlling a maximum of four party members in a turn-based combat zone, in which you can move freely and line up attacks when it’s your turn. You load into combat by running into enemies on the field, and can attack or be attacked by them to gain certain status changes once the battle begins.
Characters have basic attacks, but there are also magical abilities called Crafts and Arts. Crafts occur in the turn you use them, using up Craft Points in order to deal elementally-charged attacks. They add another layer of depth to combat because their attack zones are always different, and the game allows you to precisely choose where you’ll be attacking. Some Crafts are circular AOE attacks, while others are head on attacks or even buffs for your nearby teammates, which force you to make tough tactical decisions. Arts are similar, but as more powerful magical abilities, they take a turn to charge up before their effects occur.
What Crafts and Arts characters have access to are affected by Quartz. These orbs are equipped to each character in unlockable slots, with some offering new abilities, while others give stat boosts. There’s more than a little tinkering to be done to find the optimal Quartz layouts.
On top of this there are other minor but important combat systems, like the ability for characters to counter dodged enemy attacks and link up with buddies for additional attacks and combos. Everything gels together to create a fun and engaging combat experience that keeps you thinking inside and outside of battle. It’s tactical and precise feeling gameplay that meshes with the similarly careful pacing of the story.
Character models are well made and capture the essence of the designs you see in the anime-style opening movie, but environments, especially the pale and boring dungeons, certainly leave a lot to be desired. Trails of Cold Steel has luscious greens and gothic architecture, but not much else. Variety in the types of environments and colors you see in the game would improve the look of the game drastically, but nearly everything in the game is the same green pastures and gray buildings that struggle to engage the player visually.
Much like the contrast between story and gameplay, though, the differences in the quality of visuals and audio are significant. The game features a full English dub with a great cast that felt right at home in the characters and story they were working with, and the music of the game, while not as unique as what you’d find in Persona, has great bits of bombastic orchestra and strong rock guitar that really make the moment sometimes.
Despite my gripes with the game and the struggle to make it through achingly slow opening chapter, the care and detail that went into the game is clear to see, and I know there are JRPG fans that live to appreciate the kind of meticulous detail that this game contains. Trails of Cold Steel wants you to strap in for the long haul, and as the first of three chapters it’s not afraid to take its time. If you want a JRPG that isn’t afraid to soak you in story until you’re nothing but wrinkles, this is absolutely the game for you.
Version tested: PlayStation Vita