The Legend of Heroes franchise (known in its earlier years as simply Dragon Slayer) has been around for a long time but not widely known in the Western world. It wasn’t until the localisation of The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky on the PSP that the series generated a real English-speaking fanbase. The latest in the franchise is The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel on the PS3 and Vita, which has cross-save support in case you were planning on playing both versions. Honestly, given the tremendous size of the adventure it’s probably not a bad idea to have one copy on the telly and one copy on the go. Trails of Cold Steel is a dense RPG adventure epic that is jam packed with a ton of content. Hours simply burn when you play Cold Steel, it takes place in a rich setting, has a ton of characters, and there’s no shortage of activities outside of the combat. Modern RPGs tend to be all flash and all substance, and while Trails of Cold Steel may lack the production values of something like Final Fantasy, but what it lacks in fancy graphics and visuals more than makes up for with real gameplay substance. It’s rare to find a modern JRPG that gives you a real bang for your buck and The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel does exactly that.
Trails of Cold Steel is situated within the rich and diverse continent of Zemurian, portraying a very realised Empire with a deeply interwoven political structure that enforces a polarising class system on its citizens. The world in Trails of Cold Steel is very self-aware, with so much history and consistency. Of course, all of that serves as the backdrop, and at its core Trails of Cold Steel takes place in the Thors Military Academy, an institution that trains young aspiring adults in combat and academics.
Broadly speaking, in terms of the premise and the way the game is structured, Trails of Cold Steel is pretty much Shin Megami Tensei: Persona taking place in a military academy. Take away Persona‘s hip high school setting and replace it with a military boarding school, keep all the socialising and extracurricular actives, and you end up with Trails of Cold Steel. Quite simply, if you’re new to the genre then Trails of Cold Steel is a fine representation of how deep and engaging JRPGs can be. If you’re a fan of Persona then you absolutely must consider Trails of Cold Steel, it will give you the 100 or so hours you need while you wait for Persona 5.
Trails of Cold Steel borrows a lot from Persona in its design and pacing. You have certain free days to build social links with the huge cast of characters, and engage in other hobbies (like fishing and card games) and studies. Speaking of studies, Trails of Cold Steel has a lore that isn’t presented in a superficial manner, because you can literally read a range of complete books, historical or otherwise, and while such attention to detail tends to get glossed over by players, you can’t help but appreciate the amount of effort that went into making the game world feel truly alive.
Now there is a lot happening in Thors Military Academy, and that includes the mysterious warehouse that provides the customary dungeon crawling action where you explore floors for treasure and loot, and then face a boss at the end of each section. It works exactly like Tartarus in Persona 3 and The Midnight Channel in Persona 4. What’s great however, is that the action isn’t confined to this bland little dungeon as Trails of Cold Steel has you travelling to other locations and fields in the Empire to engage in quests and battles. That’s why Trails of Cold Steel is such an epic adventure, you get to explore so much of the game world and engage with a whole range of enemies and characters. You really feel like you explore the true extent of the game world rather than being stuck in one spot with a superficial sense of size and scope.
Battles in Trails of Cold Steel follow traditional turn-based conventions but they certainly have a nice flow about them, and give you a lot more freedom and strategy when it comes to positioning characters and setting up links between them, and this ties in nicely with the social links you foster during the leisure moments of the game. As you build relationships with certain characters, you’re able to work together with them to perform special double team attacks. Character links are the main distinguishing feature of the battle system in Trails of Cold Steel, and it’s really engaging. The spells you learn as you collect Orbs to upgrade equipment, and then learning special crafts (i.e., character-specific signature moves) help keep battles interesting no matter how many you take part in.
What’s interesting about Trails of Cold Steel is that it does away with the traditional formula of harvesting money from fallen enemies and constantly replacing equipment, instead it has you collecting orbs that can be used to upgrade your existing equipment and to learn new spells/arts. Money doesn’t come too easy in Trails of Cold Steel (a lot of it comes from selling/trading materials farmed from enemies), and for the most part you stick with the same equipment for a very long time.
Trails of Cold Steel is a heavy time sink. There’s volumes of back story that needs to be discovered, there’s a huge cast of characters where each get ample time to shine and develop, and the progression from the first day at the academy and going through all the quests, academic and field exams, socialising, and all the little activities in between… you end up clocking 20 hours only to find that you’re still on Chapter 3.
Now in terms of the characters, Trails of Cold Steel doesn’t really impress with their designs because they all look too familiar and generic, but what they lack in appearance they more than make up for with their colourful personalties. These characters are a lively bunch, and the process involved from the first impression (chances are you won’t like most of them) to slowly getting to know and understand them better, makes each character special. One of the best of the lot is Instructor Sara, a sassy and charming teacher at the Academy who’s tough on the kids but also enjoys flirtatiously teasing them.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is one of those games that can easily fall under the niche acquired taste banner but it really shouldn’t be viewed that way at all. This is a serious JRPG with a lot going for it, more than one review can cover without turning into a mini-novel of sorts. If you want a JRPG that will engage you with a deep interwoven story driven by a huge and well-developed cast of characters, and with no shortage in gameplay variety, then you can’t go wrong with investing in The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel.