Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: XSEED Games
Rating: T for Teen
For whatever reason, I took a nearly decade long hiatus from video games. Since jumping back, I’ve discovered that I missed a lot of great JRPGs—and in the case of Trails, an entire series! While Trails of Cold Steel is meant to be an easy jumping-on point for newcomers, I instead chose to first play the incredible Trails in the Sky trilogy just prior. Does Trails of Cold Steel maintain that same level of excellence? Let’s find out!
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.
Violence: This game is not bloody or gory, but it is violent. Players spend a considerable amount of time in combat against monsters and against 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. Also, someone is murdered.
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.
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 beginning of a romantic relationship. These actions can have minor consequences in the sequel if you load your prior save (although they are not binding; Rean can pick different people to bond with in the sequel). 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 is the “true.” From my Googling, uber-bonding with the men doesn’t result in anything more than super duper friendship. However, 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.
Beyond all this, there are two specific things in this area that bother me for personal reasons. First, from the beginning of the game, the instructor for Class VII is incredibly inappropriate with the students, not only due to lackadaisical teaching and constant drinking, but she also flirts with underage students. Towards the end of the game, as part of the bonding events, Rean can begin his own set of advances in return. As a college professor, it should be plain see why I find this incredibly problematic.
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 the sister’s best friend often encouraging her behavior and scheming up ways for her to make advances. 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.
Language: There are several instances of “lower tier” cuss words (d–n, h–l), but no other cuss words that I noticed. There are 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. The game has a large mythology relating to ancient wars and so on that has a spiritual angle.
To me, there are two broad types of JRPG fans. There are people who want to do every sidequest, level their characters to 99, find every item, and maximize their time with the game, often putting in 100-200 hours into one title. Then, there are people who like me, who enjoy the systems of the game, but are primarily looking for a good story. I’m happy to say that Trails of Cold Steel Decisive Edition has a lot to offer both camps.
Combat in Trails of Cold Steel is a natural evolution of the same turn-based system found in the Trails of the Sky series. Combat is primarily turn-based, and somehow the Trails series accomplishes the same trick as Final Fantasy X, which is that they manage to make turn-based combat feel fast and frenetic. There are new “Link” attacks that allow players to benefit from connections developed between characters with bonus actions, and that comes with a small timed element, as do S-Crafts, big attacks with long animations that can interrupt turn order. I always appreciate how Trails ties changes in combat and gear into the story, and this time around, players have new upgraded ARCUS units to cast Arts (spells) from. However, this has led to the one change I dislike from Trails in the Sky: Arts customization is now much simpler than before, and as a result, each character has access to far fewer Arts at a time.
Trails of Cold Steel is a fairly linear quest; areas provided for exploration are fairly bounded and offer very little extras beyond treasure chests to find. However, the game offers a large variety of things to do other than exploring the countryside of Erebonia. NPCs are very chatty, and very frequently change what they say. Side quests are directly provided from the Academy in which the characters are enrolled, meaning you don’t have to figure out how to start them; they just show up. And if you are were a type A student like me, this might even guilt trip you into doing more side quests than usual.
Another place for customization in each character’s play is Bonding Events, which happen on certain days within the game. Players have a certain number of points to spend bonding with different characters, and do not get enough to bond with all students equally. These provide some intimate moments with main protagonist Rean and his classmates as well as a few other characters, and it’s a nice touch. Kind of. This is a huge divergence from Trails in the Sky, and while I see why some players would really enjoy it, and I did have fun with it, in the end I wish it was not there. Let me explain.
What made the Trails in the Sky trilogy some of the best JRPGs of all time was not the story—nothing in the Trails series is particularly innovative in the plot department. What made it so special was the storytelling. The characters are the most talkative, interesting, developed, lovable cast I’ve ever seen in a JRPG. Their relationships have true depth, particularly the love story between the two main protagonists. In Trails of Cold Steel, by giving the players so much freedom, the game refuses to really commit or call back on previous bonding events or even general in-game events, because of the need to cater to how the player chooses to use Bonding points. What happens, then, is that player freedom results in shallower relationships. If I wanted freedom of choice, I’d play Skyrim or another open world game. I’m playing Trails for the characters, and I’d rather they commit to certain relationships (particularly since one relationship is somewhat pushed on the player anyway) and tell the story with the full depth of characterization it deserves.
On the other hand, the last customization option in Trails of Cold Steel is something I find truly wonderful, and the reason why the PS4 edition of the game is the only one to get: Turbo Mode. Turbo Mode is amazing. Simply by pushing L2, players enter a mode where everything is animated at 2x speed, except combat, which is animated at 4x speed. I played the entire game this way, and for someone who really wanted more story and less exploration and combat, it was wonderful. I will be incredibly disappointed if Trails of Cold Steel III does not have Turbo Mode. Of course, another way to speed up the game is to play on Easy Mode – and I found this Easy Mode much more appropriate than the ridiculous Easy Mode of the Sky trilogy, which had bosses doing 1 damage. Here, you do have to put some effort in against bosses, but you can run past most overworld encounters and do fine.
There are other updates as well. The PS3/Vita version is lacking a lot of the added voice acting and other features from the newer Steam version, but the PS4 version then went one step farther with even more voice acting (although some conversations still are awkwardly missing some). The graphics have also been remastered in HD, but they still look like a fantastic PS3 game, not a PS4 game. This didn’t really bother me any; nothing looks awkward, and it was still an impressive jump from the 2D Sky trilogy.
Despite my complaints, getting back into the world of Trails was pure joy for me. Seeing cameos and full arcs from Sky characters felt really rewarding, even though I agree you really could start with Trails of Cold Steel. Players get to explore an entire new nation on the continent of Zemuria here, but the amount of world-building done not through traveling but through pure dialogue is incredible. The character writing has always been central to the series, and although I find it weaker than before, it’s still incredibly strong. The game does end on a huge cliffhanger, but fortunately, JRPG fans should have so much fun here that they’ll be eager to play Trails of Cold Steel II regardless of any obligation to see the story through.
The Bottom Line
Trails of Cold Steel takes the foundation laid by the Trails in the Sky series and improves on it in many ways, and the Decisive Edition is the best way to experience it.