The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III feels like the beginning of the final episode of an extremely well-written and long-running television series. You start to see the proverbial end of the road for our hero, who will inevitably encounter several beloved characters from previous episodes, not to mention a few tragic moments. And while the game doesn’t wrap up the story completely — that will come in Trails of Cold Steel IV — it’s still a satisfying and deeply engrossing experience that fans of the series will no doubt fall madly in love with when all’s said and done. However, just keep in mind that you should definitely play the previous entries in the Cold Steel series before jumping into this one. Sure, you powered through The Witcher 3 without playing the previous installments, but Cold Steel is a different beast altogether. This will ultimately require you to sink dozens of hours into Cold Steel III’s predecessors, but it’s worth the journey.
I will do my best to keep this review as spoiler-free as humanly possible, as I definitely don’t want to ruin any of the surprises (and special guest appearances) you’ll encounter during this admittedly epic adventure. Of course, I can’t avoid everything, mind you, but I’ll do my best to keep the story-related damage to an absolute minimum. If you don’t want to know anything about Trails of Cold Steel III before you dive into Nihon Falcom’s dense and richly realized world, then you might want to stop reading right here. Know this: If you waited impatiently for the third installment of this series to arrive on Western shores, then I’ll say that every ounce of willpower spent in that endeavor was well worth it. Cold Steel III looks, feels, sounds, and plays like a dream, and waiting for the fourth and final chapter in the series seems like the type of torture you’d wouldn’t wish on your most hated enemies. Or perhaps you would, depending on your level of hatred.
The story begins not too long after the events of Trails of Cold Steel II. The civil war has ended, heroic golden boy Rean (who I’ve questionably outfitted with a pair of garish cat ears) has graduated from Thors Military Academy, and now he’s taking on a different role. Instead of a student, our hero has become an instructor for a different Class VII. However, instead of teaching the best of the best and the cream of the proverbial crop, poor Rean must contend with some troubled students at a poorly respected branch academy. To make matters worse, the principal herself refers to the school as a trash bin, which doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the faculty or the students. Of course, Rean’s a badass, and he accepts his mission and all of the trials and tribulations that come along with it — including the seriously dangerous tasks dumped upon Class VII’s three students. It’s almost as though history has started to repeat itself.
Although the so-called “missions” that Rean and Class VII deal with initially feel pretty tame and a little goofy, it doesn’t take long before the anime-colored fecal matter hits the cold steel fan. Without giving too much away (I promised, remember?), Rean and company soon find themselves in the thick of a much bigger battle, one that will end on a bit of a cliffhanger. Again, without spoiling anything for hardcore fans, don’t expect everything to wrap up before you come to the end of Cold Steel III. In fact, you’ll have plenty of unanswered questions, which will require you to wait for Trails of Cold Steel IV to arrive at some point in the (near?) future. Hopefully, the wait between the Western release of the final installment won’t be as long as the one between part two and part three, as I really need to see what happens to these characters I’ve spent so much time getting to know and love. I really, really hope it arrives soon. I kind of need it.
For better and worse, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III doesn’t mess too much with the formula set forth by the previous installments. The story often moves at a glacial pace, requiring you to read through a veritable mountain of dialogue — some of it corny, some of it captivating — to push the story forward. It’s worth noting that if it’s been a while since you’ve played through Trails of Cold Steel II, then you may benefit from a quick refresher course. Returning characters pop up all the time during the story — even one of Rean’s students makes a joke about how many of his friends show up around the country during missions — and it helps to have a working knowledge of who these people are and how they relate to Rean. Granted, you can breeze through the story without having a deep understanding of how everyone fits into the lore, but it makes for a much stronger experience if you see how and where the puzzle pieces snap together.
Then again, if you’ve played the other two games, this probably sounds like an awesome time. Rightfully so. Cold Steel caters to a very specific type of JRPG fan, one who doesn’t care when the story takes the game away from you for extended periods of time. It helps to think of Trails of Cold Steel as a really good series of fantasy or science fiction novels — you invest in the story, the character, the setting, the history, and all of the connective tissue in between. If none of that sounds even remotely appealing, then you probably need to cut your losses now — Cold Steel III is essentially more Cold Steel, and as such, it will require a ton of your free time. Personally, I loved returning to this world to see how Rean and company have grown, but if the whole rigmarole has become tiresome, then jump ship. Right now. Before you get too deep.
In between all of the exposition, multiple character reunions, occasional boob jokes, and ridiculous anime tropes, you’ll also square off against a host of different monsters, robots, and villains. The combat system doesn’t feel much different than the other games in the series; Cold Steel III utilizes your basic, tried-and-true turn-based system, one that allows you to position your characters around a very limited battlefield. Again, if you’ve played Cold Steel before — or most turn-based JRPGs for that matter — you’ll know precisely what to expect. Truthfully, I love the system, as it provides a fair amount of depth while still being relatively easy to use. You don’t have to dig through a ton of menus to execute the things you want to do, and the battles are breezy and tense without feeling too simplistic.
But don’t let that ease of use fool you, however. Trails of Cold Steel III has absolutely no qualms about smacking you and your party members around like nobody’s business, so prepare to use your noodle when you face off against some of the game’s tougher opponents and bosses. Many of the more difficult foes will drop debuffs and status effects on your team with a frightening amount of frequency, requiring you to carry antidotes and a wide variety of potions and salves to keep everyone in good condition. Even some of the earlier bosses will casually kick you to the curb, so make sure you prepare yourself accordingly. I vaguely remember Cold Steel II giving me some trouble here and there, but for some reason, I feel the difficulty has spiked a bit for Cold Steel III. Regardless, these white-knuckled confrontations make for thrilling encounters, and when you finally take down a boss that previously wiped your party two or three times, that exhilaration is a little hard to match. Just make sure you make use of the system’s new offensive and defensive buff feature — you’re gonna need it.
It goes without saying that I thoroughly enjoyed my time with The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III, but there’s a catch: I love the series. I mean, I really love the series, and I think that’s a huge selling point with the third installment, as well as the upcoming fourth and final entry in this saga. Newcomers will have a very huge barrier of entry, as they’ll need to complete the previous entries before they can enjoy everything that Cold Steel III has to offer. Sure, you can hop onto YouTube and watch recaps or read through an exhaustive wiki to understand what’s going on, but that’s akin to reading a brief summary of Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers and then reading The Return of the King. Sure, you’ll know what’s going on, but you won’t have the same appreciation for the journey. I cannot recommend The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III enough, but you need to start at the beginning if you’re new to the series. It’s totally worth it.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided to us by NIS America.
Nihon Falcom has delivered yet another stellar entry in the Trails of Cold Steel series. If you're a newcomer, you'll need to start at the beginning to genuinely appreciate the whole package. However, if you're a long-time fan of the franchise, then you'll love every thrilling second of it.