The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel has been quite the tetralogy and an immensely ambitious one too. Imagine if Shin Megami Tensei: Persona had the rabbit-hole content density of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim; that’s basically what The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel achieves—and very successfully so on all accounts. The localisation journey of this series has been a long one, initially starting out on PlayStation platforms where it gave the late PlayStation Vita quite the RPG showcase, before completing the rest on Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4. For Japanese players the tetralogy is fully complete, with our side of the world getting both Trails of Cold Steel and Trails of Cold Steel II in 2016; now in 2020, we finally get III—with IV due for a localisation release sometime in 2021.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III takes place only a couple of years after the dramatic events of its predecessor. For consistency’s sake, you can get the previous entries remastered on PlayStation 4 along with this new release; but if you are playing on Nintendo Switch (which is the version being reviewed), then you’re sort of thrown into the middle of a pretty epic story. Thankfully, an option in the main menu provides a backstory to new players—presented as a text-heavy encyclopedia of sorts. Ideally, a dramatically edited video-highlights package would have been far more effective; but, understandably, these games take place in a rich setting with genuinely dense lore. Unless you’ve kept up with the series, prepare to set aside a few hours just for reading.
Trails of Cold Steel III once again follows the adventures of series’ protagonist, Rean Schwarzer. Having achieved heroic status at the end of II, in III he now moves onto to his most thrilling challenge yet: academia. That’s right, after all the success achieved at such a young age our hero decides to become a professor of all things. “Those who can’t do”, as they say.
Still, it isn’t just about teaching classes and navigating university workloads, as Rean quickly finds himself on the battlefield in no time—only now serving as a mentor to his ragtag group of students. For those following the series, it’s cool to see some growth and evolution in Rean as a character—a far cry from most JRPG protagonists who never grow beyond the emotional maturity of a middle school student. The cast of characters here is enormous and, whether playable or non-playable, no one in this game feels inconsequential to the game world and overarching narrative. That’s perhaps one of the things the series has done consistently well: methodically building a world where all the moving parts, however minor, matter in the grand scheme of it all.
Going back to the Persona comparisons earlier, Trails of Cold Steel III gives players an opportunity to get better acquainted with the enormous cast thanks to some light dating-sim elements—where you need to develop social links with select characters. These fun little character arcs add more depth to an already rich setting and lore, and progress made in relationships also translate nicely to other gameplay areas.
When you start getting into the game, the first thing you’ll appreciate is the combat system; even when we live in a world where the theatrical battles of Final Fantasy VII Remake have set a new benchmark, Trails of Cold Steel III has one of the the most layered and ingenious turn-based battle systems in the genre. Imagine if the battle system of Persona 5 had additional layers of depth and that’s basically what you get here. Each of the characters have their own intricacies in terms of skills and special attacks, and when they start linking together for some team-based attacks things get far more dynamic. Just when you’re getting used to all the spells and craft skills in all their epic attack animations, it doesn’t take long for you to start piloting mechs with their own set of combat mechanics. There is a lot to enjoy about the battle system; but, for players who might find it all too overwhelming, the auto-battle system works like a charm. This is one AI you can trust.
Combat aside, the level of depth in gameplay systems and character customisation is quite staggering. There’s alchemic cooking, and there’s all sorts of orbs to collect and customise—which can be equipped to characters to gain different battle buffs and boosts. No system in Trails of Cold Steel III feels like a superficial afterthought, as everything in the game has been comprehensively designed—as if each aspect of the game was designed by a different sub-team within the larger development team. “Everything including the kitchen sink”, as they say.
Then when you step into the expansive game world, things get far more dense and layered—almost like the JRPG equivalent of Skyrim. The attention to detail here is admirably staggering, even something as simple as full-length books—of which there are many—to discover, to the point where there is a dedicated shop just for it. Then there is a card game which goes beyond the simplicity of a mini-game distraction, as it goes into serious deck building with matches spanning several rounds of strategic card play mirroring Magic: The Gathering. All of these distractions are before the endless list of side quests and main objectives. Put simply, you will never run out of things to do in Trails of Cold Steel III.
This is an epic quest that really delivers a carefully paced narrative, one driven by a comprehensive lore and no shortage of memorable characters. As substantial as the gameplay segments are, this game is filled with hours of cutscenes—most of them fully voiced. As a production it impresses, but the only thing holding it back in 2020 are the graphics. Understandably, this series was conceived with the PlayStation Vita—on which it was quite the technical showcase—but understandably the core graphics engine looks rather dated at this point. Still, the art style and character designs are engaging, and the environments demonstrate a careful attention to detail.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III is unquestionably one of the most content-packed and thoroughly designed RPGs available, and that’s even in the presence of games like The Witcher III, Dragon Quest XI, and Final Fantasy. This may initially feel like it is a niche little RPG with dated visuals, but anyone willing to step in will find an ocean-sized RPG epic to lose several hundred hours of their life into.