The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel
Many traditional role-playing games get a bad rap for taking too long to let you experience the best they have to offer. Whether it's poor pacing, tutorial-heavy introductions, or a repetitious structure, the entry barrier can be difficult to overcome. With Cold Steel, I was eager to jump back into combat and exploration throughout the entire journey. That's what makes it such a delight - every component is so well-done and wonderfully paced that no part outstays its welcome, making The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel one of the most absorbing JRPGs I've encountered since Persona 4.
Trails of Cold Steel puts you in the shoes of Rean Schwarzer, a seemingly normal guy starting his first day at Thors Military Academy. The gameplay capitalizes on its academic setting; you take written and combat exams, socialize with classmates, and go on field trips to learn more about the dangers of the world. All of the school activities fold well into all of the other systems, creating an entertaining loop that makes the game hard to put down. It immerses you in student life, while also giving you worthwhile reasons to engage with it. For instance, socializing with your classmates grants you bonuses in battle and doing extra tasks for student council gives you beneficial items.
The characters and story start off generic, but learning more about the different personalities and the world reveal many intriguing threads. Rean is in the first class to ever to not segregate noble and lowborn students, and the tension is palpable from his first day. Whether the students are of aristocratic blood or not, they all have interesting backgrounds (some were adopted into royalty, others have parents who worked their way out of commoner status) that add to the already heated social divisions of Erebonian Empire.
The narrative explores the betrayal and sacrifice that comes with politics, reminiscent of a Suikoden game, and the communication system allows you to build relationships, similar to Persona's social links. I always looked forward to free time because it allowed me to see a different side to my classmate allies. They all have secrets and personal issues to confront, and exploring these in greater depth was one of my favorite parts of the game. All this is wrapped in fantastic dialogue that makes characters come to life.
When you're not socializing or running errands, you're fighting through a mysterious schoolhouse or traveling to new lands to confront bigger baddies. The dungeon-crawling is broken up in a clever way, only making you tackle a few floors at once (usually three). Same goes for your field trips; you're only assigned a few quests and usually one or two of them are required to proceed in the main story. Even if you hit a difficulty wall, you have an out with an option to start the battle over with weakened enemies.
Unfortunately, some of the fetch quests (especially the optional ones) are a bore and the old school isn't that intriguing to explore, but you're not spending a lot of time on either. Field trips are more exciting because they usually take you to one of your classmate's hometowns, allowing you to see the different life they've lead from others. These usually contain the biggest twists in the story and the most memorable battles.
The combat features one of my favorite traditional battle systems to date. You can have four characters on the field at once, and can sub in any of your two supports during any turn. The turn order is listed in the corner, but randomly certain bonuses (and later penalties) can be granted, guaranteeing a critical attack or restoring health, crafts, or magic. Order can be influenced by upping your speed, casting time, or canceling opponent attacks with an unbalance move. So much strategy goes into it, which makes every victory rewarding.
Placement and movement is also important. You can move combatants out of the area of an oncoming magical attack; placing them in different areas on the battlefield ensures no enemy attack can target more than one at a time, but limits your ability to cast group buffs. Linking characters to build relationships grants bonuses, like them blocking attacks or healing you in a time of need.
All of these systems don't even factor in the customization. All classmates have basic skills that they learn as they level up, but you can equip orbs that provide abilities and bonuses on your party members. I reveled in having this much control over building my group and giving them the skills I felt benefited them.
Trails of Cold Steel may not turn the genre on its head, but it does almost everything well. It is the first game in a trilogy, and Xseed has already confirmed the next game is coming to North America. After this delightful entry, I'm on board to see the next move.