A group of students crash through a monster-ridden facility. But they’re too late. The giant cannons are about to be deployed, and completely level an entire city. A desperate cry rings out for them to stop. The screen goes black. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel certainly knows how to get your attention. But you’ll have to survive for 50-odd hours of set-up if you want to know what happens next.
Cold Steel is the most recent trilogy to come from the long running series The Legend of Heroes. Originally releasing in the west on PlayStation 3 and Vita two years ago, it’s taken until 2017 for the first game to hit PC. Similarities can be found from previous titles, due to being set in the same world and era, but a new location and a fresh set of characters make it easy for newcomers to get settled in.
We follow Rean Schwarzer as he enters Thor’s Military Academy. Here, classes are normally separated between commoners and nobility. In true anime fashion though, Rean finds himself in Class VII, which has brought nine students together from mixed backgrounds. At first, the students struggle to shoulder their differences, yet prejudices begin to shift as they learn about each other and the world around them.
For all the school student niceties, a darker plot bubbles underneath Cold Steel‘s surface. Drips of information concerning politics, history, and mysterious characters hit me with a strong desire to keep playing and find out when everything was going to explode. Fair warning, it does take a while for anything to really happen. By the time it finally does though, things really start to pick up the pace.
Having said this, a number of events go on for too long, or come across as unnecessary filler. Sure, the reason for these often becomes clear later on, but lessening a few could have ironed out some of the pacing issues. Similarly, the constant bombardment of new information and characters can be overwhelming. Many people are introduced for a mere two lines of dialogue before disappearing for another 10-15 hours of gameplay. I really struggled to remember the significance of certain family names or historical places. I sort of wished I’d been keeping detailed notes as I went along, in an attempt to keep up.
All the facts and characters do work to create a world that’s filled with life. Unfortunately, this leads to our heroes of Class VII getting left behind in all the detail. They all have their own personalities, secrets, likes and dislikes, making them easy to relate to. Yet there just isn’t enough time dedicated to them. Moments when they decide to reveal their pasts are always rushed out in one gulp. So by the time the fourth class mate sits down for their little heart to heart, the whole thing feels more generic than emotional.
The story is divided into chapters, which further splits into school and field studies. School hours have a rather Persona vibe to them, as you sit through classes, take exams, spend time with friends and get a spot of fishing done. During free days, the student council posts requests through Rean’s door. These have him running around after people, as well as exploring the school dungeon. A lot of these are optional, meaning you’re welcome to ignore them and rush through to the story. Alternatively, if you really want to fill your boots with the lore building, it’s possible to talk to every NPC in the hunt for extra hidden quests and knowledge.
Meanwhile, field studies are all about performing tasks across the country to help out the locals. Here Class VII works to understand how the politics and class divide affect that area. There’s a wonderful amount of variety here, as one moment I’m helping out at a market place, and the next I’m trekking across the land on horseback. Of course, the main story also builds-up during these excursions, with Class VII constantly bumbling into enemy plans.
It’s not all running around and fetch quests; there’s plenty of fighting to be done too. At a glance, the battle system looks like a traditional turn-based situation. However, Cold Steel includes a number of little knickknacks to help keep things interesting. For one thing, classmates come with their own unique weapon and craft abilities. While everyone slots into the usual attack, support, and healing roles, many mix and match. So while Machias normally deals damage with his shotgun, he can also shoot friends with a healing bullet. These crafts use up craft points (CP), but I often found it was a good idea to save them, as the big all out attacks – S-Breaks – need a whole CP bar to use.
More interesting is the “Arts” system that gives characters use of elemental magic, at the cost of EP. These actually come in the form of quartz stones that can be equipped to unlockable slots on each weapon. This allows characters to be built up and monsters tackled, however you see fit. Focus on giving your team the best attacks on offer, have everyone able to heal, or equip the quartz that lets you see treasure chests on the map. It was really useful to be able to change up a team’s abilities based off the enemies I was going up against.
My favourite aspect of Cold Steel’s battles is the Link system. Essentially, bonding with characters, both in and outside of battle, causes your social link with them to rise. During battle, if an enemy gets staggered by hitting their weakness, linked characters can perform a follow-up attack. While simple in nature, the closer the bonds you make, the better your link becomes. Classmates end up automatically blocking and healing each other, really pushing the feeling of fighting with a group of friends who are looking out for each other.
Unless over-levelled, enemies don’t fall too easily, so it’s important to actually look at their weaknesses, rather than attempt to plow through. Bosses in particular make for a satisfying challenge. In fact, I often lost a couple of times before discovering a good enough tactic to defeat them. Losing is never frustrating though; just a case of picking yourself up and trying again with something new.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is an interesting beast. The world is full of juicy detail and there’s no shortage of things to do. There are times where things get too focused on pushing setup, essentially sacrificing time with the story and protagonists. However, no matter what happened, my curiosity was piqued to see what would happen next, and I had the fun combat to keep me company in the meantime.
This review is based off a PC version of the game, which we were provided with.