Truth be told, I had approximately zero experience with the Legend of Heroes franchise prior to being assigned The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II. I’m not even particularly familiar with the output of developer Nihon Falcom, outside the Ys franchise, and that I think I owned Faxanadu at some point. Normally, this is the type of assignment I would gracefully decline, but I decided to stick around this time. The JRPG franchise comes highly recommended, including from our own Jowi Meli, and lack of familiarity shouldn’t automatically rule me out of reviewing something.
Thankfully, for newcomers such as myself, Nihon Falcom included an overview of the first Trails of Cold Steel, so I at least had a broad idea of the plot. Trails of Cold Steel II picks up shortly after the events of the previous entry, with Rean Schwarzer awakening up from a month long coma. Still feeling the effects of the betrayal he and the rest of Class VII experienced, Rean must come to terms with the war that has enveloped his world. On top of having to deal with that and locate his friends, he must also learn more about Valimar the Ashen Knight, the mech he learned to pilot at the conclusion of the previous title.
Despite the amount of tropes found in the plot (uncontrollable anger, creepy brother/sister relationship), I found myself invested in the plot of Trails of Cold Steel II. This isn’t because the story itself is anything special, but rather because the interactions between Rean and the other students in Class VII are handled so well. I know I’m not getting the full picture on any of these characters due to my lack of familiarity, but I can still appreciate how well Falcom has sketched out their relationships. Seeing how these teammates come to terms with the civil war is also a fascinating aspect of storytelling.
And while I ended up enjoying the plot of Trails of Cold Steel II, it does take a good amount of time to get going. I would say that the first dozen or so hours are lethargically-paced, at best. During this time, you are mostly focused on reuniting Rean and his friends, so the excellent character interactions are placed on the back-burner. And I don’t even want to go into the snooze-inducing prologue you have to plow through. From weird interactions with your sister to corny interactions with mother and father, it’s a real slog. Things do pick-up the more time you spend with the game, but for those first few hours, I was really regretting taking this review on.
The combat engine in Trails of Cold Steel II is your standard turn-based strategy system. If you are familiar at all with the JRPG genre, you’ll be able to understand most of the mechanics here. You move around a 3D arena, dishing out either physical or magic-based attacks. Nothing too out of the ordinary.
The biggest difference between this title and others is the use of Orbments for each member of your party. Typical Orbments come in a few different varieties, with some granting you access to different attacks, while others provide attribute buffs. You can equip several at a time using the Quartz system, and there’s a good amount of depth in outfitting you and your party members with these powers.
Another way the RPG differentiates itself from the rest of the pack is the Tactical Link system. As you develop the relationships between your party members, you can “link” two of them together in order use different attacks. While this system was present in the previous entry, the sequel introduces the Overdrive system that can only be used once bonds are strengthened. This tactic allows two teammates to chain together multiple attacks in a row, as well as being able to instantly cast spells, instead of having to wait.
This is a blessing in boss fights, which can be challenging even on the lower difficulties. I’m not ashamed to admit I got smoked by Xeno and Leonidas during my first attempt fighting them. And even if it seems game-breaking in a way, I never felt that using overdrive tilted the odds too much in your favor. Like casting a powerful spell or maximizing a critical hit, it’s just another way for players to masterfully plan out battle strategies.
Outside of battles directly involving Rean and company, Trails Of Cold Steel II also features mech combat. This was apparently introduced at the end of last Legend of Heroes, but I’m going to assume it’s more fleshed out here. Mech-based battles still maintain the basics of the battle engine, but you can instead target different parts of your enemies. Depending on where you strike, you may stagger a foe, which can lead to a quick follow-up attack. Tactical Link even comes into play, as certain allies can give Valimar, Rean’s mech, a new ability to use.
When battles aren’t being waged, Rean still has a variety of things he can do. Every town features their own unique NPCs, which is pretty impressive if you think about it, so talking to these folks helps flesh out the world. Exploring each town will also open up sidequests, which add even more time to the already sizable length of the story. You can also fish in various locations around the world, as well as learn different recipes in order to cook helpful meals. And once you unlock the airship, which also doubles as your HQ, you can travel to and from each location quickly. Most importantly, this cuts down on the amount of tedious treks you have to take.
Unfortunately, since The Legend of Heroes: Trails Of Cold Steel II is a PlayStation 3/Vita release, it does not look particularly great in 2016. The world you explore is filled with ugly and muddled textures, and to be honest, it struggles to even match most latter-gen PS3 titles. The character models have their charms, particularly if you are into over-designed JRPG characters. They do look much better in 2D drawings than they do as 3D models, however.
While the game may be hard to look at, it at least sounds very good. The English voice acting is solid, and the score does a great job of setting the scene, whether it be walking around snow-covered Ymir or doing battle against monsters. There were some slight performance issues I noticed, but nothing that’s going to ruin your dungeon crawling experience, though.
For fans of the franchise, The Legend of Heroes: Trails Of Cold Steel II is a no-brainer. It’s a content-rich adventure that features excellent, if traditional, JRPG mechanics and wonderfully scripted character moments. Coming from where I am, though, as the non-fan, I’m a little more hesitant to give a recommendation. The plot can be a drag at times, and I’m sure the development of Rean and the rest of Class VII probably seems more natural for does familiar with them. There’s a really good JRPG here, but one that probably would be better if you start with the original Trails of Cold Steel.
This review was based on the PlayStation 3 version of the title, which we were provided with.
The Legend Of Heroes: Trails Of Cold Steel II is a content-rich adventure that mixes excellent JRPG mechanics with wonderfully scripted character relationships. For those unfamiliar with the series, though, it may be best to start with the original.