When I first started this column, I envisioned it as an outlet – a place to share my love for old and quirky RPGs that most people overlook, and nothing has changed. I still enjoy finding a new underdog RPG to try, I still love sharing them with others so they get the attention they deserve – it’s time to move over Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest! So I present to you my latest addiction – The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is a part of the overall Legend of Heroes universe, but stands alone. There are references to other games in the series (most notably the Trails in the Sky trilogy and the Japan-only Crossbell games) but they aren’t necessary to enjoy the story. Cold Steel stands on its own merit as one of the best JRPGs I’ve played in many years.
Cold Steel takes place in Erebonia, a place only mentioned in passing in the other games. The player takes on the role of Rean Schwarzer, a young, new student of the Thors Military Academy. Upon his arrival at the academy, Rean finds himself placed in the experimental and controversial Class VII, which mixes students from nobility with commoners. Students are placed in this class based on their preliminary testing results with the ARCUS, a device that allows people to link in battle to increase combat effectiveness. Simple enough, until the differences between the commoners and nobles begins to bring the tension. That is a huge part of what drives the story and develops the party (which are almost all available from the beginning of the game.)
Cold Steel follows a fairly linear path, though the way it allows you to go about that path doesn’t make it feel forced. You typically start a chapter with a list of tasks to perform for the student council (this is a school, after all), followed by a trip to the Old Schoolhouse, a sort of urban legend on the campus. Beneath the schoolhouse is an ever-changing labyrinth filled with monsters. This area takes on a feel similar to Tartarus or the dungeons from Persona 4, albeit with a bit more puzzle solving. After you explore a level, you come to the boss of the floor. The mystery of the Old Schoolhouse is a long-running plot within the game. The dungeons can become a bit tedious, but they are never long, so I never felt burnt out by them.
After exploring the Old Schoolhouse comes your practical exam. This is issued by Instructor Sara, your drunk, crafty, insanely powerful teacher. These can consist of anything from a simple boss fight, to fighting members of another class or your own, to even fighting Sara herself (good luck, you’ll need it.) After the practical exam comes the field study. This is the meat of the game. Class VII is split into two groups, and each group is sent to different places in Erebonia to learn the ways of the world. This usually consists of more quests, which can range from mundane “Kill X number of monsters” to deep, complex quests that tease out the plot and hint that all is not well in Erebonia. Usually the end of a field study brings the end of a chapter. It almost tricks you into thinking you have control of your time (and you do to a certain extent.)
Combat in Cold Steel is fairly typical. In areas where enemies appear, you can choose which member of your party you want to play as. Each member has a different style and weapon, and these weapons can be used against the enemies on screen before you engage them in battle to initiate surprise attacks and also deal a bit of damage. Once you’ve entered battle, the party is spread out in an arena of sorts. The characters move around this arena to attack. This brings a bit of strategy, because area-of-effect spells have greater effectiveness depending on your position on the battlefield. As you attack you build up CP, which once full you can use to execute an S-Craft attack. These flashy attacks deal major damage and often cause status effects. These can be used at any time, whether it’s the player’s turn or not. These can really turn the tide of battle. There is also the Tactical Link System. The ARCUS, as I mentioned before, allows users to link in battle. How powerful the links are depends of what you do outside of battle, where you can initiate events with other party members that reveal a bit of that character’s personality. It feels like a watered down version of Persona 3 and 4’s Social Linking. Most of the plot points revealed through the links are fun, and the payoff is well worth it. If you hit an enemy weakness in battle, a character you’ve linked with will often jump in to assist you in attacking. Figuring out where you need to be, what kinds of attacks to use to initiate link attacks, and when to use S-Crafts makes for an incredibly strategic, but not overwhelming experience.
The graphics in this game are quite good. I only played the Vita version, so I can’t speak for the PS3, but the visuals ranged from great to gorgeous. There were quite a few fairly noticeable frame skips, but this mostly occurred (for me at least) during cutscenes, and it never took me out of the game. The character models are well designed and show a lot of expression for what they are. The different cities you visit are all well designed and show a lot of diversity. The game is a joy to explore.
Musically, Cold Steel stands above most games. Falcom is known for its soundtracks, and Cold Steel is no exception. Rather than go more into it, I’ll just post the standard battle theme, which quickly became one of my all-time favorites:
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is a must buy for JRPG fans. The story is excellent, combat is strategic and fun, and the game is just overall a joy to behold. Oh, and the sequel is dropping later this year, so now’s the time to get into the series. Cold Steel is an instant classic.