Once in a while, an RPG comes out that reminds me why I love playing them. Trails of Cold Steel may not try to redefine the genre, but the solid adventure contained within is one that any RPG fan should go on.
The journey begins with the simple premise of a young man (named Rean) arriving for his first day at a military academy. Soon after the brief introduction, it becomes clear that his class is composed of a specially selected group. Each member of this class has a unique personality which offers a great deal of liveliness to the overall atmosphere. Some students are lazy and some study hard while others are either bursting with energy or simply too apathetic to care. The diverse cast makes every scene a joy to watch especially when the story evolves to incorporate plotlines much bigger than the classroom. To push along the story, each chapter has the class journey to a new part of the continent where they witness aspects of what makes up the various nations. Daily life in simple fishing villages contrasts with corrupt politicians and even terrorism. The fact that the down-to-earth scenes are mixed in with more dramatic plotlines makes the story engaging from start to finish.
To help flesh out the world of Trails of Cold Steel, a talented English voice cast delivers characters' lines. Thankfully, the translation is extremely well done. Being able to hear each distinct voice really helps make it all feel real. On top of this, the phenomenal soundtrack ushers in a layer of atmosphere that makes every moment shine. Some songs are so catchy that they'll get stuck in your head for days. Visually, it's not that impressive but you're probably not going to play this for next-generation graphics anyway. Don't get me wrong, it looks good but many other similar RPGs have much better graphics.
Trails of Cold Steel is broken up into a prologue, six main chapters, and a final chapter. The prologue acts as a tutorial for both teaching you how to play and introducing you to the world while the final chapter basically wraps everything up and leaves room for a sequel. Each of the six chapters has the same general layout that involves spending some time around campus, testing your battle skills in a practical exam, and going on a field study trip. Of course, no two chapters are the same but after repeating this formula a few times; I started to grow tired of it. I always looked forward to what was coming next, but knowing that I'll have to do the same basic things again and again made me take a few days off here and there once it started to feel repetitive.
Whether you're around campus or in another town, there's always a lot of work to do in the form of quests. These range from slaying certain monsters, finding specific items, or simply talking to the locals. Trying to accomplish everything is nearly impossible without a guide because some quests are completely hidden. Once you move on with the story, you can't go back. Considering there is so much to do in any particular location, your only options if you want to achieve everything are to either use a guide or talk to every single person and explore every little nook and cranny. Even then, it's so easy to miss something that you'll probably still not complete it 100% on your own. In the end, this can get rather frustrating for perfectionists and it could have been remedied by allowing you to revisit previous parts of the adventure. Instead, the story keeps moving linearly forward as a few quests remain unfulfilled.
Speaking of quests, many of them are satisfying to complete yet some are just plain tedious. For example, slaying a tough foe to save a local farm feels great while talking to a succession of a handful of people scattered around town can be downright boring. It's cool that there is such a wide variety of quests to take on but the tedious ones really take away from the fun factor. On a positive note, being able to navigate the maps is easy with obvious markers being placed at all points of interest. You're also given the option to fast-travel between notable locations. Now that's how you complete quests with style!
Finally, let's discuss the battle system and character growth mechanics. Characters can freely move around the turn-based battles while unleashing arts and crafts on their foes. These abilities along with simple attacks can damage a single enemy or all of the enemies within a circle or line. It reminded me a lot of Chrono Trigger (which is a good thing). You gain craft points as you fight that can be used to perform crafts or extremely powerful S-crafts after you save up enough. On the other end of the spectrum, energy points can be used for arts but they will run out so you have to use them carefully. Additionally, characters can jump in to assist attacks if they're currently linked. If you want to gain an advantage right off the bat then you can try to strike enemies on the field before battle and confront them from behind. When you factor in enemy weaknesses, status effects, and many other components, these battles require a ton of strategy. Once you begin to master the battle system, being rewarded with experience multipliers feels just awesome.
Characters grow through many fundamental RPG features such as equipment, levelling up, etc. However, many unique aspects are implemented as well. Not only do individuals grow, their relationships between each other also flourish over time. The more activities they do together, the more likely they are to assist each other in battle. Individually, each character has their own customizable quartz setup. This acts similarly to Materia in Final Fantasy VII where you equip various orbs that provide stat increases and allow you to perform new arts. Setting up your party to be battle-ready is an involving process that makes battles much more rewarding.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is a great RPG that any fan of the genre will enjoy. It may have a few minor issues when it comes to linearity, missables, repetition, and occasional tedium but the overall journey is nothing short of memorable.
- + Satisfying strategic battle system and involving character growth mechanics
- + Endearing characters with an engaging story
- + Fantastic music and voice cast
- - Story progression is linear with loads of easily missable content
- - Structured chapter layouts get repetitive
- - A lot of quests are downright tedious