The Complete Newcomer's Guide to the Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel

by Dustin Bailey,
The opening hours of Trails of Cold Steel are slow. It's schoolside drama in an elite military academy, one which happens to be at the center of a shifting society that's reconsidering its positions on social class. It's full of characters at every point on the spectrum of social hierarchy put in close proximity with each other and forced to think about what the circumstances of their birth truly mean to them. The first two, five, ten hours are all about building the world and placing the cast firmly in the midst of its most important questions—sure, there are wars out there, nations out to tackle one another for pride or gold, but those are things you witness from afar through the lense of gossip or newspapers.

Even as an absolute newcomer to Legend of Heroes, the process of unravelling the strands that tie the world together has been fascinating. Cold Steel presents the most traditional of fantasy stories, one that's set up less for rollicking adventure and more for letting you live among an alternate history and its society. Yeah, I'm sure I'll need to save the world by the end—but that eventuality is far, far down the road. Instead, I'm asking the local ceramics-maker how the clash of social spheres is affecting their business.

But even through the mountains of dialog, there hasn't been a single tedious second. That's the incredible trick that Trails of Cold Steel pulls off. A PS3 game that launched after the PS4, it looks hardly better than a remastered PS2 title—yet with its dated graphics and limited budget, it presents a world more compelling and believable than most any RPG it stands in the shadow of. There's always more to discover, and that sense of discovery is one I've scarcely felt in this genre since the 16-bit era, when I would make the rounds in every new town, talking to every single NPC to gobble up the details of the world. Each location here is narrow in scope, but filled with life and character. You'll rarely run into a character without a name—even for the most random of townsfolk—and everyone has a place in the world around them and feelings about how they fit in.

Nihon Falcom games are known for having what can only be described as “heart.” There was a point at which they stood alongside the likes of Square and Enix as one of the most prestigious developers of Japanese RPGs, but that time has long since passed. Compared to the studios that developed the mainstream successes of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, Falcom's catalog feels a little more boutique. Their narrow niche isn't helped by the fact that their two best-known franchises—Ys and Legend of Heroes—are deeply tied up in years of lore and story development that makes digging into those games as a newcomer incredibly intimidating. It's lucky, then, that Falcom has taken to getting their back catalog on PC, where it can live on and maybe—just maybe—find the audience it deserves.

The Legend of Heroes has roots running all the way back to Japanese PCs of the late 80s, but the series in its current form got started with the 2004 release of Trails in the Sky. That spun into a trilogy known as the Trails in the Sky arc, which was followed up by a duology in the Crossbell arc, and now we stand in the midst of the Cold Steel trilogy—the third entry of which is set to hit Japanese PS4s in just a few months. English releases for most of those games have come years too late—the third Trails in the Sky game was localized earlier this year, a decade after its initial release, and the Crossbell games remain untranslated—which certainly has a part to play in their relative obscurity here.

The connection between those subseries is their setting, a fantasy world filled with political intrigue, and each fresh start wipes away the cast to a new ensemble in a new location and a different point in the timeline. Trails of Cold Steel marks the start of the most modern section of the series, and it does present a welcoming window for new players. References to long-past wars and heroes in distant lands feel more like detailed world-building rather than wink-and-nod references to fan-favorite characters—not that I'd have any idea who those characters are, anyway.

You and your classmates (read: the protagonist and additional party members) get into the wider world through field trips to various towns and bits of countryside. Everything feels intimate, which is partly code for “these areas are small,” but also indicative of how much detail is poured into those tiny locations. If there's a complaint to be had, it's that the quests tying together that exploration—school board mandates separated into required and optional tasks—tend to be repetitive and not especially interesting on their own merits.

Doing battle with monsters in the field and a selection of underground dungeons goes by briskly, and the combat offers enough depth to be satisfying without bogging down the pace of exploration with too many systems. You're forced to pay careful attention to turn order, since certain abilities will require a bit of time between the command being issued and executed, and you've similarly got to consider positioning to both use and evade area of effect spells. Locking down that strategy and wiping out hordes of enemies in one or two carefully-considered attacks is satisfying over and over again.

Party members build links to each other that unlocks new abilities as their relationship develops, opening up new options during certain combat conditions. At the first level, an attack that unbalances an enemy can be followed up with a bonus attack from a linked ally, giving you greater opportunities for more damage. The links between you and the rest of the party can be built up via Persona-style optional events, where you're forced to choose which characters to spend your limited time with, learning their backstory while simultaneously boosting their abilities in combat. It's not quite as deep as the social links tend to be, but it offers some nice connection between the characters in the story and in battle.

Trails of Cold Steel is an unusually good game built out of incredibly usual components. In a year that saw the release of RPGs as impeccably stylish as Persona 5, this game seems positively quaint—but that's part of the charm. The core cast looks like an ensemble indistinguishable from any school setting, but they're well-rounded characters who evade their tropes and keep on being surprising. The setting seems like any other fantasy world, but for the depth and breadth of its history. There's no special hook to the combat system, but every piece fits together for an engaging whole. There's an alternate world where Trails of Cold Steel might have been a widely-regarded classic of the early PS2, and if you've been glancing at the Legend of Heroes series through its myriad editions, it's worth taking a closer look. It's a slow game, but if you've got the patience to enjoy its gradual unraveling, there's plenty to love.

discuss this in the forum (7 posts) |
bookmark/share with:

Feature homepage / archives