Triumph in Threes
Throughout my stay here at BitCultures, I’ve had the opportunity to review a plethora of games, ranging from AAA titles like The Division 2 to super indie games. Each brings its share of innovations and frustrations, brilliant concepts or failed ideas. I’ve played games I’ve never heard of that significantly impacted me as a gamer, and I’ve played games I’ve been hyped for that left me rather disappointed. Perhaps the most influential – for me, of course – of all these games and series during my BitCultures tenure, however, is easily the Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel series.
Since the first game in the Cold Steel saga, I have been hooked on the tale of Rean and Class VII. I enjoyed the realism of storytelling here, the focus on characters rather than extravagant set pieces. For the most part, the dialogue felt natural, which enhanced the characterizations. The second part followed suit, but spent more time detailing the war – which was entertaining and interesting in its own right – than it did on characters. For me, the second entry suffered due to this fact because Cold Steel’s strength lies with its ability to create wonderful characters.
Trails of Cold Steel III picks up after Rean and his friends graduated from Thors Military Academy – after they put an end to the civil war that ravaged Erebonia. Each member of the original Class VII went his or her own separate way. Rean, our protagonist, continued to aid the Empire, as he is now the Ashen Chevalier and hero of the civil war. After the game’s dramatic opening, which sets us into the climax of the plot as each of the previous game’s had done, we switch back to Rean as he readies for his first day as an instructor at the new branch of Thors Academy.
We’re treated to a reunion of familiar faces and interesting new ones, though the new students of the branch academy sometimes fall into cliche, pre-built characterizations. There’s always the moody one who behaves in a particular manner, for example. Still, Trails does what Trails does best, and that’s create a slew of new, memorable characters. In some senses, with the diminutive size of the new Class VII, Trails of Cold Steel III works as a character study of sorts. Rean is the unlikely hero professor – someone wholly uncomfortable at being the center of attention and worshipped among the Erebonian commoners. Altina came from the same facility as Millium but views life and her purpose differently. Kurt is the nephew of Zechs Vander and brother of Mueller, characters from the previous entries. He struggles under the weight that comes along with the Vander name. Juna is young lady from the recently annexed Crossbell, and as such, holds the Erebonian Empire and, particularly, Rean Schwarzer, in contempt. Of course, other players make major impacts onto the story, too, and the interactivity between Class VII and Rean compared to the other students and Rean is really an interesting approach to building characterization. I’m not saying the idea hasn’t been done before, but the depth of narrative in the gaming industry is still in its toddler phase, so it’s always intriguing to see this type of effort and growth.
Once you start to peel back layers of exposition and jump into the meat of gameplay, you’ll find that Trails of Cold Steel III is vastly improved over its predecessors. The entire game experienced a makeover, from the menu screen to the battle UI, everything looks shiny and new – let alone innovative, particularly from the standpoint of the Legend of Heroes series. Combat is very similar, but characters can sling orders using BP, alongside their traditional co-op attacks. Engaging/sneaking up on enemies before battle has been updated, too, with the need to use attack points to earn a ‘triple’ surprise attack. You’ll still get your double initiative should you attack from behind, but R2 is the key. And since you’re expending points (replenishable, of course), the game involves a bit of strategy in choosing which targets to fully exploit.
Visually, Cold Steel III is an improvement over its older siblings. Character models are polished, facial expressions are much more expressive, and the scenery and accessories of characters now interact with each other more. When sprinting, for example, the tails of Rean’s jacket quiver in the motions. As I’ve recently re-played the original two via their PS4 remasters, it is a noticeable difference that does make the experience prettier. Alongside visuals, the Legend of Heroes franchise has always featured strong sound direction. And once again, it does not disappoint. Not only is the soundtrack a wonderful composition, but the voice acting continues to add depth to characters in a meaningful way. Life just wouldn’t be right if Rean wasn’t Rean (nod to voice actor Sean Chiplock for doing such a bangup job).
Truly, if you’ve never had the opportunity to experience the Trails of Cold Steel saga for yourself, there’s no better time than the present. All three games of the series are available on PS4 (with a 4th coming in the near future, I hope). Fans of intricate storytelling and superior character building will fall in love with Cold Steel III. There aren’t many games that do it better, and this one has the potential to be BitCultures game of the year.