Review: The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel

2015 has been a huge year for JRPGs. Titans like Xenoblade Chronicles X, Yakuza 5, Disgaea 5, Story of Seasons, Etrian Odyssey II Untold, Summon Night 5, Yo-Kai Watch, Devil Survivor 2, Lost Dimension have graced our shores and the list just goes on and on. Better still, most of the JRPGs released this year (and all of those just mentioned) have been excellent. Thus, when one comes along that I immediately know — and then through dozens of hours of play even further know — that I’m playing the best one of all, right as the year’s about to tick over to a new one, I know I’ve found quite possibly the RPG of the year. And that game is indeed Nihon Falcom’s The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel.

We recently reviewed Xenoblade X and talked about just how huge that game is. While Legend of Heroes doesn’t have the sheer scope of Chronicles X from a landscape and world size standpoint, the amount of systems, gameplay nuances and activities to engage in here rivals the best 2015 has had to offer. What’s more is that, despite having so many trappings and subtleties to learn, Trails of Cold Steel is a narrative-driven game through and through. In fact, this is one of the most story and character-heavy games in a while.

How Trails of Cold Steel introduces, and then keeps up, with its enormous ensemble roster of nine core characters — in addition to the scores of secondary ones met along the way — is nothing short of masterful. Each one gets screen time to tell their story, to flesh out their personalities, to settle differences with other contrasting cast members…it’s all just so expertly handled. To take a character list this large and know each one so intimately by the time the credits roll is truly a feat that the writing team, and then subsequently the localization team at XSEED, should be immensely proud of. So many games will try to incorporate a large troupe of protagonists, but never succeed in effectively telling each’s back-story and why they’re even a character worth caring about. Here, Nihon Falcom have developed these characters in the most life-like way they could. Aside from the various psychodramas unfolding between cast members, there’s a central storyline that also doesn’t fail to deliver. In fact, the core plot here is one of the strongest aspects.

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In many regards, Trails of Cold Steel feels like a product of the PS1/PS2 era. It doesn’t feel fan-servicey or bubble-gum in its cuteness; this is a game about war, betrayal, duty, honor and love. Effectively all the classic themes that have made up some of the world’s best fiction (and non-fiction, of course) are all on display. This is a mature tale, and one that is as grand as it is interweaving and complex. Fortunately, because it does get rather political, with various nations and factions all vying for one thing or another and having to make deals and then betray those they made deals with, it includes a wonderful journal system that recaps practically everything the player does from a narrative perspective.

Legend of Heroes isn’t just an involved (and sometimes exhaustive) narrative — there’s actual gameplay here too. In fact, there’s a lot of gameplay here. Combat is turn based through and through. There are the usual options here: attack, move about the play-field (though one cannot move and attack on a single turn, so that’s unique to Trails), use items, flee; all the basics, right? But then folks are thrown a curveball when introduced  Craft Skills, Arts and the Tactical Link system. Craft Skills and Arts are similar in that they both are usually specially-learned attacks and abilities that consume some kind of energy. They range from single-target attacks to AOEs to support buffs and debuffs. Where they become especially handy, however, is when reading an enemy’s elemental and weapon weaknesses and lining up those big attacks with the corresponding element and item to dish out big numbers of damage. Tying this with the Link system — a mechanic that lets characters perform team attacks based on their battle formation and sync level, which is enhanced off the battlefield through spending time with various characters — and it’s easy to see that Cold Steel‘s turn-based combat is a system that is kind of on steroids.

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The combat is especially fluid, though, despite its intricacies. It just makes sense: never feeling controller-breakingly challenging or like a walk in the park. It manages to strike a good balance, even for the more typical encounters. And being able to see enemies before going into battle is a nice change of pace from many other JRPGs. Even this, though, has a little twist to it; attacking a foe from the exploration screen can sometimes stun them and allow for combat advantages once players pull the proverbial trigger and engage in an actual encounter with them. These small additions — which admittedly aren’t revolutionary — go a long way in keeping boredom at bay, especially because the game is an easy sixty-hour adventure (and that’s only counting doing the core story quests). More importantly, victories feel satisfying because they do require actual strategy. Figuring out monster vulnerabilities, knowing how to get the most out of a seemingly insignificant strike, so as to turn it into a critical merely by reading which type of weapon monsters are more susceptible to, is plain fun. Battles are also well-positioned; never once did we feel like we were hitting too many battles in a short span of time, just as we didn’t think we ever went too long in a dungeon without one. Again, “balance” is the name of the game in Trails of Cold Steel.

Outside of those battles, though, there’s plenty to do. With a cast of nine, there’s much down time that allows folks to cultivate relationships with each of the characters. Evolving relationships during the moments between big story angles is vital to making sure that players are going into each dungeon with a well-equipped team — physically and relationally — in addition to getting to know more about each character’s past. For instance: sometimes players will have a free moment and they will be allowed to talk to two or three characters. They can’t talk to all of them, so it comes down to juggling which relationships, on and off the battlefield, are most important, and which ones can go to the back-burner. As mentioned, this impacts how the fighting plays out, so it really is integral to the experience. Aside from this, Trails of Cold Steel has a metric ton of side-quests to tackle, too. In fact, trying to accomplish them all could easily take the game-timer into the 90- and 100-hour mark. Seriously, this is a big game.

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Because it is a large title, there’s a lot to see. From the dungeons to towns, Trails of Cold Steel is diverse. Many of the dungeons feel distinct from the rest and the game does a nice job of not requiring a whole lot of backtracking. Outside of that, though, the labyrinths are well-designed, though not always aesthetically different enough to keep the dungeon-delving totally fresh. That aside, the core town — the military academy of which the cast is a part — is large and has enough nooks and crannies to keep from feeling tired and worn out a few dozen hours into the endeavor. There’s a whole customization and armor/weapon modification system to play around with, too. It revamps the Quartz system used in the previous Legend of Heroes games, giving folks more depth and options with which to play around.

For those who have only been playing the series in Western localized form, then this will be the first time seeing the franchise built from the ground up with the PS3 tech in mind. In other words, this is the first fully-3D Heroes game complete with 360 degree camera control. Even still, Trails of Cold Steel has a dated look at times. The art style itself is delightful, but the actual graphical fidelity is not nearly as impressive. Characters are a bit polygonal and their animations are especially stiff at times. The game fares far better on the PS3 than when playing on the Vita, but even still, it’s not the prettiest game around. That’s not the say the other non-graphics aspect aren’t good, because the interface, for instance, is clean, streamlined and aesthetically-pleasing.

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What’s far more impressive, though, is the brilliant soundtrack and fully-dubbed voice work. Before folks throw their hands up and scream in agony at the very thought of a game with this much dialogue being dubbed, let me immediately quell those worries by saying this voice acting is the best in any JRPG this year. The actors were directed smartly and they deliver their lines with integrity and passion, as if they took the time to really understand their characters and their motivations. What’s so wild is the fact that there’s so much talking here, and yet it’s all voiced (minus the main character sometimes). It’s just wonderful. Though, the star of in Trails‘ audio department is easily its soundtrack, which gets my nod for OST of the year. It knows how to evoke real emotion from the player, regardless of the situation. Need something slow and weepy? Yep, it can and will do that. Need something upbeat and pulsating in order to fit the tension of a boss battle? Got you covered. Need something light-hearted and smile-inducing while navigating town? It’ll do that. Need everything in between those three compositional themes? You bet’cha, it’ll do that, too.

There’s a cross-save feature here as well, and it works pretty much like all other games that utilize said system. It’s an even nicer feature here because this is a game that can be played on the go without ever sacrificing much. Sure, the graphics are noticeably trimmed down on the Vita and the colors have a washed out look when firing things up, but the mere fact that the game includes the feature is a net-positive.

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Closing Comments
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The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is hands down the best JRPG this year — and that’s saying a lot considering how many great ones have come out in the past twelve months. But what it has that most of those others don’t is heart. It’s been lovingly crafted by a team that clearly cared about the world it was building and then localized by a team that respected that world and delivered one of the best translations in a long while. It tackles tough, sensitive subjects in its narrative, all the while constructing a story that feels fun, compassionate, unique and all the more complete thanks to its large, yet superb, ensemble cast. This is a Nihon Falcom game, so there’s turn-based combat, scores and scores of dialogue, a lot of character management, and the formulaic RPG approach of town-quest-dungeon-repeat, but those qualms pale in comparison to everything else it gets right. If this is what’s in store for us with future Legend of Heroes titles, it’s safe to say that the JRPG genre has a bright future ahead of it.

Summary
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Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel
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