“Thanks for reminding me to look up.”
At this point in my life, few games hold any particular sway. Every great while, a game like Uncharted 4 releases and proves that the industry is still full of life. As a reviewer of games, differentiation seems to be a bygone word from my career as a teacher. While it’s still an important part of education, there seems to be less and less differentiation in the video game industry. After all, what business model actively promotes straying from a proven, profitable course?
The RPG genre is no stranger – and, perhaps, is the biggest offender – to repetition and a lack of innovation. Series like Final Fantasy or Tales of… or even Dragon Age, each at one point refreshing and new, have sunk into the annals of overuse. Where Final Fantasy VII redefined the way gamers viewed RPGs, Final Fantasy XIII garnered a sense of betrayal from its loyal fan base for allegedly becoming what the series used to stand against. Tales of… has fallen into its own course of re-skinning games; it seems every entry into the series revolves around a similar plotline with a new set of characters. Even Dragon Age, BioWare’s beloved RPG flagship, offers very little innovation to a genre that isn’t overpopulated but feels too congested.
Enter The Legend of Heroes. I’ve dabbled in the series before, and I’ve enjoyed my time with Nihon Falcom’s quietly popular series. Heck, I’ve even recommended Trails in the Sky as one of the top 10 games under $20 on Steam. Fully diving into The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is a decision that I’m not only glad I made but one that I’m grateful for. Over the course of its 80ish hour story, I never once lost the inspiration and joy I felt from the inception of the game.
Trails of Cold Steel certainly falls prey to some of the JRPG norms that I did, admittedly, bemoan in this article. But even in addressing these norms, Trails of Cold Steel found a way to infuse life into a tired system, making the experience feel fresh. At heart, Trails of Cold Steel is a game about a group of gifted students chosen to be members of Thors’ Academy’s Class VII, a trial mixture of students born of common and noble birth with an affinity toward Orbmentation (new technology). Together, the students are groomed for life after the academy and are sent on numerous field studies across the Erebonian Empire to gain an understanding of the way the world works.
What particularly struck me about Trails of Cold Steel as I played it was its low key narrative. This isn’t a story about saving the world. You aren’t sacrificing your life to become a hero. No full blown war or tyrant is attempting to destroy your life. No, you’re simply students who find themselves a little too involved in the political tensions of their country… and the terrorist attacks of the Erebonian Liberation Front (though these are well planned and often so spaced that you almost forget they haunt your country). And for this, I am extremely grateful. As I wrote in our top 10 video game clichés, save the world plots are one of my biggest video game pet peeves.
In fact, I can’t remember a time where I’ve been happier in the past decade playing a game than with this one. Cold Steel nurtures a relationship with its characters and world that’s hard to rival. The political intrigue and structure of its military and school felt real (in as close to what ‘real’ can be in a fantasy-fiction game). And yes, there is a ton of dialogue and reading necessary for this game, but here, it is a virtue. The game and characters are so well written that it’s a natural and flowing experience. It’s the type of game that utilizes the common tongue and phrasing that today’s society wields, enabling the dialogue to have that much more of an impact.
Oh, and the soundtrack. What is there to say about it? It’s as near a perfect fit for a soundtrack as any that I’ve heard. As is popular with The Legend of Heroes series, Falcom’s composition team masterfully crafts each note with care and precision in order to match the emotion, conflict, and relaxation of Class VII’s adventures.
But all of this preamble is nice and all, I know; but how does it play? To answer: Trails of Cold Steel runs without flaws. Released for both the PlayStation Vita and the PlayStation 3, Cold Steel finds itself limited graphically but boundless with creativity. This game is also an example of the Vita’s capability of running smoothly alongside the PS3. Outside of one city (Roer) near the end of the game, Cold Steel runs at a steady frame rate without any choppiness on either system.
The battle system in Cold Steel is an upgraded resemblance of what Trails in the Sky utilized (the games, by the way, are related, and this is a continuation of that story). In Trails in the Sky, you played as cutesy sprites on a blocked map (in a similar style to a strategy RPG), Trails of Cold Steel updates its visuals into ‘normal’ people, and, therefore, changes its battle system. Before you begin battle, however, you can sneak up behind enemies roaming the map and surprise attack them (and, if you use the correct character, you can stun them). In doing so, you allow yourself a triple advantage, where they begin damaged, and you earn a few free attacks. Be careful, as you can be stunned, too. You can still freely move around the map in combat (though if you only choose to move, you will utilize your entire turn) and battle in a similar fashion, but Cold Steel allows you to run anywhere within your reach (as opposed to a set number of block locations). Characters can use Orbments (magic), skills, regular attacks, and S-Skills (ultimate skills that utilize all of a character’s CP). New to Cold Steel is a link system, where you can link characters together, and they have the opportunity to use link attacks, which deal increased damage (this eventually turns into rush attacks and full party combo attacks, too).
Your link abilities increase as you become closer to your classmates. In order to do so, you can quest with them, spend bonding points with them, and play Blade with them (a card mini-game). With each link level, you and your partner(s) gain new combat abilities. For example, some characters learn a finishing blow that will kill enemies if their partner attacks and only a sliver of health remains. Others include a first aid when you get damaged, or a defensive ability, where you rush in front to block damage dealt to your linked partner. Links and abilities differ based on which character you’re linked with, and you can successfully cultivate all relationships, so you’re never left hurting when you’re inevitably split on your field studies.
I could ramble on for quite some time about Trails of Cold Steel. With this entry into The Legend of Heroes saga, Falcom created something truly special. The believability of the world and characters, the attachment to the people of the empire, and low key storyline build a memorable experience. With Trails of Cold Steel II announced in America for a September 2016 release and a Trails of Cold Steel III set to release in Japan soon, the series continues to have a bright, expository future. With the waves of anxiety ridden games I’ve worked through, Trails of Cold Steel won my heart with simplicity and most sincerely welcomed freshness. As Alisa tells Rean after a heartfelt conversation, “Thank you for reminding me to look up”; I want to thank Trails of Cold Steel for reminding me to continue to enjoy the industry and genre.