Combat is turn-based and takes place in an arena which you can spend a turn moving around. Take the Materia system from Final Fantasy VII, mix in the social dynamics and interaction from the later Persona titles, a cast of eclectic characters, and throw it into a rich fantasy world suffering from relatable real-world issues, and you have The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel.
This is the latest port of Cold Steel, having originally been released on the PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 3 back in 2015, then on PC in 2017. Additional touches have been made in this version specifically including additional voice recorded lines, a turbo mode which speeds up gameplay, and all the previously released DLC all packaged together in one bundle.
Taking place after the Trails in the Sky arc of the Legend of Heroes, Cold Steel tells the story of Class VII at the prestigious Thors Military Academy located in the Empire of Erebonia. Focusing primarily on the adopted son of a Baron, Rean Schwarzer has to hold together Class VII as they are forced to contend with not only foes that would do them harm, but also one another’s long-held societal divides and prejudices.
Erebonia is home to a society that has split its population into either a ruling noble class and a commoner class. This has caused a widening rift with both sides being at odds with each other and it’s this divide that has given rise to the overarching trouble that Class VII will have to fight against. This conflict presents itself even within the boundaries of the main party as well in a more intimate setting between the Mechias, the gun-wielding commoner, and Jusis, son of one of the great houses of the empire. Seeing how the relationship between these two evolves from disdain to mutual respect of one another, was a highlight of the bond that Class VII shared. Exploring the history of this resentment between each other’ social standing through their own backstories, led to some incredibly powerful and emotional moments, dealing with some truley heart wrenching and dark moments.
The rest of the main cast add their own emotional touches to the story and with such varied personalities from one another, add a richness to this world. From the musical Elliot who contends with having been forced to attend a military academy by his war hero father instead of pursuing his dream of music, to the stoic sword-maiden Laura who must contend with her own prejudices on who is or isn’t a good person based on her views of what “honor” is. All while being under the tutelage of Class VII’s instructor, Sara Valestein, a young bodacious woman who loves to flirt as much as she loves a cold beer, with the combat skills that have made her a legendary fighter.
The supporting cast of characters is incredibly strong as well that you will be hard pressed to not find at least a few that will make you smile and cheer for. Perhaps you will find yourself cheering on the determined and hardworking Towa, student class president, as she contends with mounting tasks pasted on to her by Instructor Sara. Or maybe progressive leather-clad lesbian Angelica as she flirts and tries to get with the entire female body of Thors when she isn’t riding her orbal motorcycle is more your cup of tea. I’ve played a lot of RPGs in my time, and I can easily say that Trails of Cold Steel has some of the best and most developed side characters I’ve encountered.
Combat is turn-based, monsters appear on the field allowing you to choose when and if to engage, and choosing which classmate to spend your time with to develop their links with is all here. By improving links between characters when paired in combat, they will be able to take part in follow-up attacks and provide other forms of assistance. Eventually, you can even perform a Persona-like All-Out attack, with all members of your current party ganging up on the enemies in spectacular fashion.
Magic (referred to as Arts in this game) is handled through the Quartz system, very similar to the previously mentioned Materia system from Final Fantasy VII. By equipping these small round colored orbs on a character, they will gain access to Arts, stat buffs, and even allow their weapons to inflict ailments on enemies when they attack. These systems are nicely designed and presented such it is easy to take advantage of the vast amount of customization and freedom it gives players in tailoring their team to their playstyle of choice. The game also promotes additional playthroughs to explore different playstyles by including a New Game + option that will allow you to select various options of things to bring over from one playthrough to the next!
The systems in place manage to hold up incredibly well if turn based style is your thing. Enemies appear on the map so it is your choice whether or not to engage with them. Combat takes place in an arena where each enemy and character takes a turn to move around the arena, attack, or use items. Arts have a casting time and aren’t instantaneous, while Crafts, character specific attacks can be used right away and use a resource CP, is gained by attacking normally with a character.
Many times when playing an RPG, I find that you can quite easily get away from utilizing a foe’s weakness and instead just bludgeon them repeatedly to win. It was a nice surprise to see that Cold Steel makes exploiting weaknesses, protecting yourself from enemy-specific threats and utilizing the tactical link system is almost paramount to tackling boss fights and even some enemy encounter groups.
Combat and running around the games large open environments and dungeons feels slow, but thankfully this PlayStation 4 remaster is blessed with a Turbo Mode, speeding up all aspects of gameplay by four. This makes playing the game a much more enjoyable experience.
When you aren’t putting down enemies, your time is spent wandering around various towns, cities, and the Thors Academy grounds helping out people and spending time with your classmates. This time you spend with your fellow Class VII friends is incredibly important to do as well since this game adopts a similar Social Link-like mechanic in the Tactical Combat Link. During your rare free time, you will have the option of spending time with one classmate at a time, which will further flesh out their unique backstories and increase your Link Level with them. By increasing the bond you share with the characters, you will unlock special abilities when paired in combat with that specific character, such as them counter-attacking when you get hit or automatically healing you when low on health. You are even able to eventually team up together in a rush attack when you stagger enemies.
It wouldn’t be an RPG if there weren’t some fluff to enjoy when you want a break from the main story. Fleshing out your time in Erebonia, you will be able to cook food, fish, play the card game BLADE, and help out citizens of the empire. These can net you all sorts of awards from items to rare Quartz that give you some rare Arts. Playing BLADE with your classmates in Class VII will even help improve your link connection together.
Having originally been a Vita and PlayStation 3 title, this enhanced port on the PlayStation 4 doesn’t elevate the visuals to a level you would see in a modern JRPG, but that doesn’t make this a bad looking game either. The game runs at a constant and smooth 60fps, with a higher resolution which together makes the vibrant and varied locations of Erebonia pop. Magic and special attacks fill the screen with dazzling displays of power with high-resolution character art accentuating them.
Music is as varied as one can expect from a Japanese RPG, with dramatic melodies inspiring hope or feelings of tension to whimsical silly tunes for more lighthearted and silly moments. Unfortunately, no orchestral soundtrack here, but the music still does a great job and there are some genuine fantastic tracks I came to love during my playthrough. Fans of Japanese dubs will be happy to hear though, that you can freely switch the original Japanese voices from the menu screen!
Where Cold Steel gets hung up is on its formulaic approach to gameplay. The game is split into multiple chapters with each one following closely the same sequence of events. You run around fulfilling various side missions and tasks of characters around Thor’s campus and the surrounding city, spending time with your fellow party members. These tasks tend to consist of taking item A to person B and return to the quest giver to turn in the quest, and then you will end that portion by exploring the mysterious old school house dungeon. From there your class gets divided and sent off to another city for study, where you fulfill more tasks ending in another dungeon with a boss at the end. It’s unfortunate that you get no say over which group you team up with for these field studies either since outside of brief mentions, you have no interaction or knowledge what the rest of your classmates struggle with or have to push through. You only see the perspective of the team you are forced to journey with. Then, the chapter ends and you return to Thors to do it all over again. Don’t expect to adventure back to any locations either, as once you finish with a chapter and leave the town or city, that’s the last you will see of it this game.
It isn’t that I find the characters and their stories to be lacking, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. In current times where people in the real world have such difficulties getting along with one another or even bothering trying to see things from someone else’s perspective, it’s a little heartwarming to see it on display so prevalently here, even if it does happen to be in a colorful fantasy world. My issue is that had they been presented in a different fashion, and not in such a formulaic way, it would have come off better and not turned into a slog.
For all my gripes with the repetitive nature that Cold Steel presented its story to me in, I found the contents story, world and characters I found to be an interesting and emotionally spirited affair. The time you spend with each of your classmates, bonding with them and struggling through hardships during your field studies, come to have an especially enormous payoff at the end of the game. The final chapter of this game, while starting off on the sillier and more light-hearted side, quickly explodes and resolves with one of the best endings to an RPG game I have ever played. Your emotions will run wild with moments of shock, sadness, hope, and excitement leaving you exhausted by the time the credits roll. Leaving you with little closure and a gaping wide open cliffhanger leading into the sequel.
Despite my belief that the structure of the story leaves a bit to be lacking, and the presentation leaves much to be desired when compared to other RPGs of modern day, don’t let that deter you from sinking your teeth into Trails of Cold Steel. The depth in the Quartz system and Tactical Links give players a plethora of opportunities tailor your characters to the playstyle of your choosing. The story and characters will stick with you, with an ending that will make you rabid to play the next entry. Luckily, this next entry releases next week so you won’t have to wait, and as this is only the first part of a 4-part series we have a lot left to see out of the students of Class VII.
For our more in-depth break down of the mechanics and systems of the game, check out our Professor RPG Primer HERE
This game was reviewed on a Standard PlayStation and PlayStation 4 Pro systems with a review code provided by the publisher.