It can be hard to recommend an extremely long video game to someone. We all only have so much free time in our lives, and for people who already play plenty of video games or lose themselves in other kinds of entertainment, it can be difficult to justify slotting a huge new game into that busy schedule. The Trails of Cold Steel series is a perfect example of this. It can be hard enough just to justify playing the first game, being a massive 80-hour JRPG.
The sequel is an even tougher sell, with an identical run time and the added caveat of needing to have played the first one in order to understand it. The latest game, The Legend of Heroes: Cold Steel III is perhaps the hardest sell of all, though. On top of a beefy run-time and required knowledge of the last two games, it also, somewhat hopelessly requires thorough knowledge of video games that haven’t even been released in English yet.
See, the Trails of Cold Steel games are a subset of the much larger and long-running Legend of Heroes JRPG franchise. This didn’t matter much in the first game, which was an entirely separate storyline with brand new characters. The ending of Cold Steel II, however, threw in the twist of having a pair of protagonists from the Japanese-only Ao no Kiseki series show up and drop some story bombshells. Now, the aftermath of that reveal is being experienced full-force, as Cold Steel III features a massive number of ties to previous Legend of Heroes games.
If you’ve only played the Trails of Cold Steel games, you won’t be entirely lost. The narrative still primarily focuses on Rean Schwarzer, military academy student turned reluctant war-hero and mecha-piloting chosen one. Nearly two years after the events of the last game, everyone from Class VII has gone their separate ways and Rean now sees himself as the professor of a brand new Class VII in a separate branch of the school.
On top of a new Class VII roster, the previous Class VII characters return to engage in the action of the story, on top of a massive amount of supporting characters and villains. For fans of the series, it’s wonderful to see these characters continue to grow and develop, and following the ever-growing geo-political turmoil of the Cold Steel world gets more and more rewarding with each release.
The charm of the Legend of Heroes series has always been the depth of characterization for each and every person in the game. Every NPC you meet has a name and a story, and as each new game comes out, those NPCs grow and change along with you. The wrench that’s been thrown into things this time, though, is that there are also plenty of characters and locales from other Legend of Heroes games showing up in Cold Steel III.
Even if you’ve played every localized Legend of Heroes game, the crossovers here involve Japanese only games, meaning you likely won’t be able to appreciate any of the cameos, easter eggs or narrative bombshells relating to those games. Cold Steel always worked wonderfully as a single, incredibly long and densely developed world. With the interweaving of so many other game series now, though, it’s nearly impossible to appreciate the charm of the game outside of Japan.
It also doesn’t help that the pacing of each chapter in Cold Steel III reverts to the repetitive nature of the first game. Each chapter is split into two parts. In the first, you engage in mundane school life activity like attending classes and going errands for townsfolk, until eventually you and your team are ready to go on a field mission where the actual big battles and dramatic plot twists happen.
It’s a mind-numbing loop that, in a game as long as this, makes things feel even more dragged out than they already are. Worse still is the fact that the game is no longer open-ended and non-linear in nature like the previous game. You’re stuck on a straight path and can never revisit prior locations or explore the world freely.
Once you’re in the battlefield, though, you’re reminded of the other great aspect of this series. Combat in Cold Steel has always been deep and rewarding, and that only continues here. The core of battle operations remains mostly unchanged, with fights still taking form as turn-based affairs where characters can change their position on the field on any of their turns. There’s a bevy of added mechanics, though, that create some interesting extra layers to battle.
Enemies now have a Break Gauge, which acts as an armour bar that decreases the damage and staggering they experience until you deplete it. Certain attacks have better break ratings than others, requiring you to strategically pick your moves so as to deplete that gauge and leave your enemy open to deadly blows as quickly as possible.
There’s a variety of other new systems, too, like brand new mech battles where all of your teammates pilot giant robots alongside you, or combination Combat Link attacks where two or four party members can partner up to deal extra damage to a staggered enemy. There’s an incredible amount of depth and variety to the combat in Cold Steel III that helps keep things from feeling basic or repetitive, and the addition of a one-click Fast Forward feature even lets you breeze through back-tracking segments or grinding sessions. It’s a shame that the same attention to detail wasn’t placed into the graphics of the game, which still looks like a late PlayStation 3 release despite being a PlayStation 4 exclusive.