The longest-running Japanese RPG series you’ve never heard of, The Legend of Heroes began a new arc of its subset Trails series in 2013, starting with The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel on PS3, which developer Nihon Falcom subsequently ported worldwide to the PS4 in 2019. A school-based life simulation JRPG, Trails of Cold Steel follows Rean Schwarzer and the whole of Class VII as they join Thors, a prestigious military academy, and has you live out their lives starting from the beginning of their first school year.
I hope you enjoyed your time at school as Trails of Cold Steel is going to take you right back, flood you with lore, test you in an exam and then place your results on a board with all the other students. Isn’t immersion wonderful?
The school is the perfect insular setting to allow the story to focus on Class VII’s relationships and plays out a lot like a season of anime episodes, with the game’s visuals, lengthy conversations and a slow-burn slice of life theme very much aiding that experience. You learn about your diverse classmates’ lives in great detail, visiting their largely eEropean-styled hometowns and families on your field trips that allow the characters to learn about the huge divisions and inequality in society.
It’s a slow and incredibly meticulous ride that becomes ever more engrossing, adding layer upon layer to its story with each passing chapter. Your days are divided into mornings and afternoons and give you plenty of ways to use your time however you wish, whether that’s completing the main or side missions, building social bonds or taking part in other activities such as cooking, fishing or playing cards; there is a tremendous selection of things on offer to keep the player amused.
The social bonding events, which share a similarity to the Persona series, vary from going shopping with classmates to listening to them play music and have the dual effect of unlocking battle abilities between the two characters and building a rapport with them. While the events don’t affect the main story as a whole, your choices do affect certain scenes in the game adding a nice customizable touch to the experience. Unfortunately, the number of possible events is more numerous than the number you can choose each day which forces those who wish to experience them all to replay the game through New Game+.
It isn’t just the school-based characters that are given the time to develop, however, as the game’s forays into the outer world provide a world-building that few games are able to match, with nations given a history, maps and political parties. There are countless influential groups attempting to change the world at large, with the game providing a weight to their importance and brilliantly hanging the unease of potential conflict over the story’s head while contrasting it with Class VII’s safe and comforting school environment.
Dungeon-crawling, synonymous with the genre, is basic and accessible allowing you to lower the difficulty of the battles after each lost encounter. The turn-based combat system builds upon the system used in the series’ previous games and requires that you fight opponents in a small area, where you can manoeuvre yourself into strategic advantages as well as working separately to attack opponents. The addition of group actions in both attack and defence as well as the ability to initiate special moves at any time, add interesting tactical elements that can decimate opponents with effective timing and planning.
Despite the game’s duration providing a great platform for its storytelling and world-building, it’s too long, forcing themes to repeat unnecessarily. As a result, Rean and his group of rather serious classmates are constantly re-evaluating their lives in the coming of age story, giving ‘inspirational’ speeches with eye-rolling frequency and leaving nothing inferred. This in addition to the story waiting until its final hours to figuratively blow off the academy doors, suggests the 60-hour text-heavy title is trying too hard to set up the series’ story arc. Having said that, the ending did have me at the edge of my seat and I’m very intrigued to see how the story progresses in the sequels.
Unfortunately, while Trails of Cold Steel‘s remaster does receive some improvements – in resolution, frame rate, dual audio and further voice acting – it’s the right solution to the wrong problem and does very little to prevent the already basic assets, animation and NPC mechanics from feeling woefully outdated. Low-quality textures affect the small and sparsely-filled maps, robotic character models interact poorly with the environment, and towns with ‘huge bustling crowds’ equate to 5 very similar looking NPCs walking around in circles. Another addition is a Turbo Mode which gives you the ability to speed up the remaster’s cutscenes and slow pacing. It also acts as a ‘run’ button, but somehow manages to animate your character nauseatingly fast and can’t be adjusted.
Trails of Cold Steel‘s remaster might just be the best version of the game, but the developer’s barely passable effort makes it hard to recommend as a repeat purchase, with the Japanese audio being the only worthwhile addition. For anime and JRPG fans who haven’t ventured onto Class VII’s campus, it’s an easy recommendation with its excellently crafted world likely to inspire many to embark on the 4-game journey. While its niche appeal might deter a wider audience, those who do give it a shot are unlikely to come away disappointed, despite its rough edges.