Cliffhanger endings in video games rarely elicit good emotions or happy thoughts. Some might relish the gnawing curiosity that comes with a dramatic twist ending, but the side who don’t appreciate that feeling always end up being more vocal. It’s hard to talk about the ending to Halo 2 without acknowledging the nation-wide wave of anger that came with it. Still, when those cliffhangers do end up getting addressed, it can lead to some of the most satisfying moments in gaming, and Trails of Cold Steel II is built around delivering that kind of satisfaction.
First and foremost, this is a game that absolutely requires you to have played the first one before-hand, which came to European PS Vita at the start of this year. Many game sequels are about expanding and evolving and drawing in new-comers. This game does not want newcomers. It’s a direct continuation of the first game, and despite an encyclopedia of character backstory and chapter summaries of the first game provided in the main menu of this title, you’ll most likely end up lost and unengaged if you never gave the first game a spin.
More importantly, though, this game does nothing drastically different from the first game. There’s no major leap in gameplay or graphics that warrants someone to jump into this release. If you’re interested in this game, and haven’t played the first one, I highly recommend playing the first one instead.
If you’re a newcomer and still reading this review, either out of staunch curiosity or even staunchier defiance, I’ll avoid major spoilers. Trails of Cold Steel follows the black haired sword-weilding protagonist Rean Schwarzer, the leader of Class VII, a group of talented students from a military academy who find themselves in the middle of a heated civil war. There are a wealth of characters and factions to keep track of, as well as twisting and tangling alliances and betrayals, as well as a healthy dose of JRPG goodness in your talking cats and giant magically-powered mechs.
The first game followed the beginnings of Class VII and Rean Schwarzer as their leader. It had you plodding along through a lot of slow exposition, and a lot of even slower school-life moments. It was a mountain of introductory prologue story that culminated in one short, sweet moment of engaging story. With 60 hours of introductions out of the way, Trails of Cold Steel 2 comes out the gate running, with pacing and story progression that blows the first game out of the water.
Your circumstances in the story of the 2nd game lead way to a lot of changes in the way the story itself progresses that are a breath of fresh air from the monotonous pacing of the first game. Instead of a consistent pattern of school-events, dungeon-exploration and resolution, you find yourself on a much more naturally flowing path of progression that also has you exploring a much wider variety of environments and locales. Some of these locations were even in the first game, and it’s interesting to revisit them under the new context of the 2nd games story. A wealth of new and returning characters are also developed throughout the game, but it comes at the cost of your Class VII crew having way less time in the story than they did in the first game, which comes off as an odd sacrifice.
The narrative of Trails of Cold Steel 2 packs in all of the action, development and suspense that were so desperately missing from the first game. Most importantly, the protagonist himself has a lot of great moments that veer away from the stereotypical JRPG protagonist tropes, and he finds himself actually questioning why he deserves to have such conveniently supportive friends and so many conveniently timed life-saving events happen to him, and it’s a huge breath of fresh air….that is then swiftly roundhouse-kicked out of your gut by the ending.
While I’ll avoid any specifics about the ending, I will say that the epilogue scene will probably be lost on 90% of the people who play this game, considering it won’t have the intended impact on you if you haven’t played the Legend of Heroes game Ao no Kiseki, which has yet to see any kind of localisation. It’s an awkward moment where bigger things are implied about the story of this game, but they’re things that simply don’t exist to players outside of Japan.
Beyond the vast narrative improvements in Trails of Cold Steel 2, there’s very little new here to address. There are a handful of new gameplay elements, such as a new combat system allowing characters to chain multiple attacks together in the same turn. It’s a minor addition to an already massive turn-based battle system with full 3D movement. The combat offers enough customisation, character variety and strategic depth to keep you engaged even if you’re not a fan of the narrative.
On top of the deep combat, there’s a new mode that sees you hiring students and workers from your school through a menu management system to engage in various off-screen quests and roles. It’s similar to the management of Mother Base in Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker, and it’s just one more thing to keep you engaged during the lengthy runtime of the game.
Audio and visuals stay consistent from the first game. Unfortunately, that means that Japanese audio is once again not featured in this release. While the English voice cast does an amazing job, featuring engaging performances from voice actors like Sean Chiplock, Ian Sinclair and Kira Buckland, not having the option to experience the Japanese audio is always a big disappointment. In random scenes where one character is voiced but the rest aren’t, it also makes you wonder if the original audio would have been more fleshed out.
That consistency also means that the graphics, for better and worse, are identical to the previous game. Character models are vibrant and well realised, but everything else is a mess. Environments are blocky and their textures are fuzzy. While the wider variety helps makes the visuals slightly more engaging, their dated appearances are still a let down.
Trails Of Cold Steel II feels less like a sequel, and more like the second half of an incredibly rich JRPG experience. There’s a lot to take in between both these titles, and it can feel like a slog at times, especially with the first game. Cold Steel II does a great job of making that slog worth it, and delivers with an action packed story and a consistently challenging gameplay experience. It’s a hard sell for anyone who wouldn’t normally play a JRPG, but for fans of the genre it’s a cut above a lot of other modern examples, and for fans of Cold Steel I, it’s a must-buy.