Review: The Legend of Heroes—Trails of Cold Steel III

The Infinity War of JRPGs

Developer: Nihon Falcom

Publisher: NIS America

Genre: JRPG, Role-Playing Game

Platforms: PS4

Rating: T for Teen

Price: $49.99

 

 

(This review will include spoilers from Trails of Cold Steel and Trails of Cold Steel II. You have been warned!) 

There are a lot of reasons why the Marvel Cinematic Universe is so popular right now, but for me there’s one big reason: no previous franchise has been willing to extend a storyline and connect deeply across so many movies, and it paid off. By bringing a decade of effort into one giant finale, they created two of the highest-grossing films ever. Seeing everything come together is just so satisfying. In the world of video games, no RPG series has ever truly tried to do this, until the Trails sub-series of Nihon Falcom’s Legend of Heroes. Trails fans, here we are. This is your Infinity War. How’s the payoff? Keep reading…  

Content Guide

First, a note: there are undoubtedly spoilers in this section. I’m using my best judgment to keep these as vague as possible, but you’ve been warned. Another important point: due to limited access to Bonding Events, I can’t guarantee I’ve covered everything. Most of this is adapted from my Trails of Cold Steel Decisive Edition review, although heavily modified.

Violence: This game is not bloody or gory, but it is violent. Players spend a considerable amount of time in combat against monsters and human antagonists. Much of the fighting seems a bit too much like Canadian hockey or a dwarven bar brawl, where characters are panting but somehow unharmed afterwards, and then just…compliment each other. But still, it’s violent. Towns are attacked and buildings destroyed, and armies fight with many “red shirt” deaths. There is a scene where a group of NPCs try to kill themselves with handguns, but are stopped. 

Sexuality: First, to be clear, nothing explicit is said or shown, other than some informal language. However, the game is constantly suggestive. There are references to girls’ breast sizes, females wearing skirts while climbing ladders or crawling through vents, characters overtly flirting, etc. So, this list is nowhere near exhaustive.

One scene focuses squarely on two characters’ breasts in response to a 12-year-old boy noticing them. As in Cold Steel II, there is a mandatory hot springs scene. However, the women are completely covered by towels even while in the water. There is a primary NPC who is an extremely stereotypical lesbian (complete with leather jacket and motorcycle) who is constantly hitting on all of the girls, and a new villain who also presents as a lesbian and reaches under another woman’s armor to touch her breasts and comment on them in an early mandatory scene. A character who writes yaoi (male-male romance) returns and some vague conversation happens about her being one of “those people” and suggestive descriptions are said. Also, unique to Cold Steel III, players visit a town that is essentially meant to be Las Vegas. There’s nothing more visually suggestive than girls in bunny outfits, but other things (such as hiring an escort) are alluded to. Two female military academy students allow themselves to be captured by sexual predators as part of a sting operation – nothing happens past them getting into the car and then the car being stopped, but the dialogue is gross. 

The main character also has days where the player gets to choose which other characters to have “Bonding Events” with, and it’s basically a light dating sim. By the end, by picking the right characters and bonding sufficiently, Rean can establish the, well, middle of a romantic relationship (previously, you could import information about your choices in earlier Cold Steel games, but as I understand it, the change in original platform—from PS3 to PS4—kept it from being an option this time). Of course, to make this work, he’s overly nice and flirtatious with every single girl in the cast, although the writers make it pretty clear which girl is the “one true pairing”. This is taken to ridiculous extremes in Cold Steel IIIEvery single girl has eyes for Rean and Rean only. I mean, I’m not exaggering: he has “moments” with at least six girls, and I haven’t seen every Bonding Event. 

There are two other issues I find troubling. One of the students constantly and aggressively flirts with Rean, her instructor, and his attempts to shut it down are somewhat feeble. She even tries to use magic to seduce him. The other issue is that the main character is adopted, and his adoptive sister (i.e., her birth parents are his adoptive parents) is apparently in love with him—the “eros” kind instead of the “agape” kind. This is played up in a cutesy way, with several characters acting as if it’s “adorable”. As an adoptive father, I felt a little sick to my stomach every time she was on the screen, since this is basically her character’s entire arc (however, this relationship does lead to the funniest line in the entire Trails series, here in Cold Steel III).

Language: Language is heavier here than in the past two Cold Steel titles. While it’s true that a new company is doing the localization, that’s not the main reason. A returning character from Trails in the Sky and a new character both have serious potty-mouths, resulting in far more language than before. I did not see any f-bombs, but I saw everything else. There are also some references to private body parts using mild informal language (e.g. boobs). 

Spirituality: The game takes place in a monotheistic society; many characters pray—some agnostically, some piously—to the god Aidios. It is mentioned that there is a separate, ancient religion of animism that is seen as something that still has spiritual power. There is also a tribal group of people outside of the main civilization who worship the wind, although one “wind worshipper” becomes a knight of the church of Aidios, somewhat suggesting that the “true” religion of the world is that of the church. The game has a large mythology relating to ancient wars and so on that has a spiritual angle, and comes further to the forefront in Cold Steel III. 

Review

What’s so great about the Trails series?

I went over the key points in my Trails of Cold Steel review, but they’re worth going over again. Right from the beginning, with Trails in the Sky, this series excels in the most important way for a JRPG: storytelling. The stories themselves are not especially innovative or clever (though they’re good), but the characters bring the world to life. In particular, Cold Steel III delves deep into some backstories that fans have been waiting on for a while. And I’m not just talking about the protagonists, either; every NPC has something new to say after almost every event. (No wonder it’s taken so long for Cold Steel III to arrive!) 

All of this dialogue contributes to a heavy amount of worldbuilding as well. Zemuria is a place with a rich history even before the events of Trails in the Sky, and much has happened since then. One thing that I found strange in Trails of Cold Steel was the lack of connection between the “new” mythology shown there and the other ancient histories explored in Trails of the Sky. I’m happy to say that Trails of Cold Steel III does a great job making the entire series feel like one unified world. 

While that’s my main draw to the Trails series, it gets just about everything else right, too. Combat is clever and interesting, blending some timed elements and manipulation of turn order into the basic shell of a turn-based RPG. Players have an immense amount of freedom in how they want to play: between difficulty settings, a Turbo Mode (it’s back!) that doubles exploration speed and quadruples combat speed, an insane number of NPCs to chat up, and a plethora of side quests, players can rush through in 30-40 hours or dump 80-100 hours into each game. It gets the basic “Quality of Life” stuff right as well, such as the ability to save anywhere. But most importantly, if you want deep, involved character interaction, this is the best series out there.  

What’s new in Trails of Cold Steel III?

Rean is now an instructor at Thors Academy’s new “branch campus.” This is a great way to bring back the feeling of the first Trails of Cold Steel and the rhythm of the academic calendar. It makes the game feel nostalgic right from the outset, while bringing in plenty of new faces and characters. As a professor myself who experiences that bittersweet change each year as students graduate and new ones arrive, I found myself right at home.

Gameplay itself has only received modest changes, and that’s a good thing. There are two new changes to combat, and both are seamlessly integrated. As before, players can accumulate BP by attacking with the right weapons. However, these could only previously be used for joint attacks. There is a new “Brave Order” system that allows you to use BP to issue party-wide boosts. The most important byproduct of this new system is that there are Orders that boost Arts (magic attacks). Ever since Trails of Cold Steel revamped the Magic equipment (Orbments) system from Trails of the Sky, Arts haven’t been nearly as good as Crafts (physical special moves); it seemed like overcorrection from Arts being overpowered in Trails in the Sky. Brave Orders indirectly bring them back to the forefront while giving players flexibility and tough decisions. It’s great.

The other new change is the “Break” system, where you can meet the conditions for an enemy to be completely debilitated for a certain period of time, much like in Octopath Traveler. I haven’t dug into this as much, in part because I played most of the game on Very Easy, and enemies Break all the time without much effort. By the way, the game has five difficulties, and allows you to switch back and forth at any time. The amount of customization in these games is far above most other JRPGs.

Is this a good jumping-in point?

Yes and no, but mostly no. The game operates like a “soft reboot” of the series in terms of gameplay, because of the return to life at a military academy. However, in terms of plot, this is more like watching Infinity War as your first Marvel movie. I mean, everyone is back.

I mentioned above how much I appreciate the storytelling in Trails. I also find it incredibly satisfying how willing they are to connect storylines across several games, and this is game eight out of nine to take place on the contintent of Zemuria. But the original Trails of Cold Steel was designed to be a point where people could jump in fresh, and there’s no real reason to start here instead of there. Both Trails of Cold Steel and Trails of Cold Steel II received brand new PS4 remasters earlier this year, and those are likely the best versions of those games we’ll ever get. This really is Chapter 3 of the Trails of Cold Steel “book”, not a separate game.

While you can understand this game without playing anything else, you’ll “squee!” more during this game if you start at the beginning. And for the really hardcore JRPG fans among you, I recommend you do as I did and start all the way back with the Trails in the Sky trilogy, which is all available on Steam (they’re graphically dated, but otherwise they hold up very, very well). Quite a few characters return for the first time since that trilogy, and it’s a real treat to see them here. Just like Infinity War, you’ll only appreciate every little touch if you do your homework. But tackling the Cold Steel series first and then the Trails in the Sky trilogy is fine as well, and about the equivalent of watching The Legend of Korra before Avatar: The Last Airbender.

But what about the Crossbell arc? 

Ah, shoot. I said that Trails of Cold Steel III was the eighth of nine games (Trails of Cold Steel IV, the final in the series, was released last year in Japan). Yet I’ve only mentioned the Trails in the Sky trilogy and the Trails of Cold Steel quadrilogy. Well, America got screwed somewhat. In between lies two games called the “Crossbell arc” – Trails from Zero and Trails to Azure. Those games were never released outside of Japan.

The problem is that the Crossbell arc happens concurrently with Trails of Cold Steel and Trails of Cold Steel II. In Cold Steel, it’s completely irrelevant, but it feels like a big hole in Cold Steel II when (huge!) concurrent events are poorly explained. Cold Steel III, however, takes place after the conclusion of the Crossbell arc. And it has a huge impact.

Characters from the Crossbell arc are major players in Cold Steel III, and essentially an entire early chapter is devoted to connecting the Crossbell arc to the Cold Steel series. This leaves American fans a dilemma: play Cold Steel III now and hope it makes sense, or wait for games that might never arrive (fan translations are in the works, but I can’t comment on their quality or legality. Nihon Falcom has expressed vague interest in bringing them over, but I can’t imagine anything official happening for a few years)? 

I’m not sure who to blame about the missing Crossbell games. But given that we’re stuck in this situation, I will say that I think Trails of Cold Steel III toes the line the best way possible. Yes, a considerable amount of the Crossbell arc is going to be spoiled for you, because Cold Steel III takes the time to explain enough for the plot to make sense. But they don’t explain everything—and in fact, it’s often enough of a tease that it just makes me want to play the Crossbell arc even more. There are some dramatic scenes in that chapter that I felt had “sufficient punch” with what we knew, and it might be my favorite part of this game. 

I heard people were worried about NIS America doing the localization, though. How is it? 

Look, let’s lay this bare. I’ve never played anything in the Ys series, but it’s well-known among JRPG fans that the initial localization of Ys VIII by NIS America was not great. But after that, NIS America apologized and completely redid the script (and voice work!) for no extra charge to players. Frankly, that takes guts. Furthermore, they let Trails fans know early on that they hired talent from XSEED that worked on past Trails games to work on Cold Steel III. They literally could not have done more to assuage our fears.

Of course, localizing a Trails games is no small task. As I mentioned above, NPCs say new things all the time. Look at this list of the longest video game scripts, ever and see how many Trails games are on it (I believe this list predates Cold Steel III and Cold Steel IV, otherwise they would both be on the list, and Cold Steel might even be the longest series). One of the translators for Trails in the Sky SC almost committed suicide over the immense burden of the task. What’s my point? That it’s a bit crazy to expect a perfect translation here. 

How is the translation, then? Not perfect, sure, but very, very good. Yes, I found a few minor typos (and NIS America is already working on a Day 1 Patch to address discovered typos). And I suspect that if you go back, the older Trails titles have some lingering typos too. But what’s most important is that it feels right. Obviously things have changed and the story has progressed, but the dialogue and voice acting (entirely the same cast, as far as I can tell), is just, well, right. Rean still gives sappy speeches all the time, Towa is still optimistic and spunky, and so on. I’m actually also very impressed by both how well the new characters are handled, and how they bring to life characters from Trails in the Sky who receive full voice acting for the first time. They did their homework.

Final word: I want NIS America to localize Trails of Cold Steel IV. Please, I’m begging you. Don’t leave us hanging. 

You’re gushing an awful lot. Surely there’s something bad about this game? 

There are minor things. Like, really minor. I get stuck in a corner every time I’m supposed to drive an orbal car or bike, then just give up and walk. When Celine the cat is with me, I keep talking to her on accident instead of opening a treasure chest or swinging my sword. There are still too many lines missing in voice acting — too many one-sided conversations where only one person is voiced. But that’s no different than how Cold Steel and Cold Steel II were. 

I guess my only other “compaint” is that we’re reaching critical mass on the number of characters. There’s an entirely new set of students, on top of all the recent graduates of Thors and the original Class VII, on top of all the characters from Trails in the Sky and the Crossbell arc. I lose track at times, and I’ve done the homework! For brand new players, it’s all the more reason to start at Trails of Cold Steel or Trails in the Sky

What’s the final word, then?

For franchise newbies, you should really start at least with Trails of Cold Steel, if not Trails in the Sky. For long-time Trails fans, rejoice. I’ve never seen been so satisfied to see a series coalesce. I enjoyed it more than Infinity War, even. Now bring on Endgame. Give us Trails of Cold Steel IV!

 

The Bottom Line

Everything comes together in Trails of Cold Steel III, satisfying invested fans and offering up one of the best sequels in JRPG history.

 

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Derek Thompson

I've been a board game reviewer since 2011. I love card-driven games and party games. I have a Ph.D. in Mathematics and teach the subject at Taylor University in Upland, IN. My wife and kids are my favorite gaming partners.

1 Comment

  1. Cody Armour on February 7, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    Only a professional could have written a review this great.

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