“This isn’t the time for talking,” says one of the students of Thors Military Academy, before the characters are thrown into combat. Usually I’d be fully behind ditching the dialogue in favour of some good old-fashioned monster fights, but unlike some RPG series before it, this game somehow manages to make the talking – and there is a lot of talking – just as engaging as the combat. Listen to the ‘X button’ rejoice at not being pummelled as I try to skip through all the dialogue!
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel follows Class VII, a newly formed group of eight students and one tutor in the fictional Erebonian Empire. The story focuses in particular on Rean, the slightly reluctant leader of the group. Unlike his classmates, Rean hasn’t quite pinpointed what exactly he’s interested in or wants to do. Whereas the others are defined almost entirely by a few personality quirks and one particular activity they enjoy (such as music or reading), Rean opts out of committing to being so easily defined and instead chooses to use his time at the school to figure out what he wants to do.
Like other games of this genre, Trails of Cold Steel has built in mechanics that allow the player, as Rean, to build bonds with other students in his class. These bonds then strengthen their combined abilities in combat. This was used brilliantly in games such as ‘Fire Emblem’ and it works on a smaller scale here. Not only does this give the player a feeling of some agency in what happens and exploring the significance of various characters within the story, it also gives interactions a bit more depth. By watching these relationships develop, the other characters stop being quite so two-dimensional and start to instead be revealed as layered and interesting people. All of this serves to strengthen the fictional world and the people in it. It doesn’t take too long in the game to start feeling attached to these people and your role in their future.
Must a fall into a dungeon end with Rean coming to with his face in the breasts of a female classmate?
That’s not to say that the games story and characters are perfect. There is a slightly confused attitude towards the female characters that I found trying. Where the male characters are introduced like characters in a fun TV show, the female characters and their identities are revealed by slow, panning shots up their bodies which – because of the questionable designs of their uniforms – are completely on display. Having watched various anime series and played other JRPG’s, I’m aware that this depiction of female characters is far from uncommon (and I should also say that portrayals of male characters are definitely not without their issues too!). Still I feel it’s important to point out that this objectification of young school girl characters, for me at least, did not feel okay. Whilst the female students are still strong, intelligent and in some instances much more powerful an ally than Rean and his male friends, there are still moments of dialogue and story which seem unnecessary and only serve to undermine any positive elements of their characters. Must a fall in to a dungeon end with Rean coming to with his face in the breasts of a female classmate? Why do the writers feel the need to really labour the point about a secondary character being a promiscuous lesbian? Does their tutor really need to talk to her male students about how much she wishes she had a man in her room keeping her company? In terms of this game, at least, I found these moments to be exasperating.
If you’re still with me at this point you might be gesturing frantically at your screen and asking why I haven’t even mentioned gameplay yet. Well, that’s kind of how playing the game might feel too. Any potential player of Trails of Cold Steel will have to be ready for the cutscene and dialogue heavy experience that so often come with games that are trying to create such a detailed and vast world. This focus on story rather than gameplay isn’t a bad thing, though, and I believe that in the case of Trails of Cold Steel it works incredibly well. The game itself is very well written. Much like similar games such as Final Fantasy before it, there are moments of drama and emotion that might be too much for some players, but if you’re interested in this genre of gaming it’ll be right up your street.
Enemies can be seen on the map as well as in front of you, and are often just one creature walking around, waiting for someone to pounce on
As for the elusive gameplay, to sum it up: I really, really enjoyed the combat of this game. Whilst I am a fan of Final Fantasy, turn based combat hasn’t managed to hold my interest much in recent years, but this game really has managed to create an engaging and fun turn-based battle system. Powered by orbs, each character has the ability to either attack (usually slashing the enemy with a nicely designed weapon), or use arts and crafts (which whilst sounding cutesy, usually comes in the form of pretty devastating magical attacks). Attacking ‘normally’ is a viable option in certain combats and can be boosted by the use of combat links. If two characters are linked (a tactical decision made by the player) and one lands a hit, there’s a chance that the other character will get an opportunity to attack too. This sounds super obvious and simple, but combat linking is actually quite integral to really beating down some of the bigger boss monsters in the game.
How you enter combat also can seriously affect the outcome of a battle. Enemies can be seen on the map as well as in front of you, and are often just one creature walking around, waiting for someone to pounce on. As soon as that enemy touches you, you’re in the battle. If you can hit the enemy back before this happens, there are ways to make it stunned which can then give you an advantage in the battle itself. This often comes in the form of causing a lot more damage, or boosting Rean and his classmates. It’s really worth doing, especially considering how much it sucks if the enemy has the advantage (read as: you’re not gonna get your first turn for a very, very long time). In a rather embarrassing turn of events, I once got crept up on by what can only be described as 15 Koromon from Digimon (think a cute rugby ball with a face) who then proceeded to beat me up, one tiny and weak attack at a time. Not quite the style I was going for.
The game doesn’t just string these combats together via one storyline. There are also “free days” throughout the story where Rean can explore the school grounds, purchase items, talk to characters via bonding events and complete extra quests. Some quests will be story driven, but there are optional ones too. I didn’t find all of these quests particularly interesting as many seemed to involve a lot of running back and forth between conversations, but someone with a better attention span than me might find these a bit more satisfying . They do add to the immersion of this incredibly detailed world, though, so they definitely aren’t a negative aspect of the game.
As well as quests there are also activity clubs available at the school, such as fishing and cooking. There’s nothing spectacular about these parts of the game and they are optional to pursue. Someone very interested in this fictional world and super into these sorts of mini-games would potentially find a lot of fun in completely these activities and earning their rewards.
The appearance of the game does leave a little to be desired, but part of that may be in part due to the fact that the game was actually originally released in Japan in 2013. It looks and moves a lot like something like Final Fantasy XIX, and maybe that might bring out some nostalgia for people but for me I really just wanted it to look a bit more like it’s really great animated intro. There’s a great theme song which sets the tone for the strong musical score throughout the game (which can be heard on the game’s website). There’s an art to making good combat music (there’s a reason people are still obsessed with the music of Final Fantasy) and this game has some great tracks throughout.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is a really, really enjoyable game. It’s not perfect, by any means, but for anyone who likes a strong narrative in their games, or enjoys falling deep into fictional worlds, there’s definitely a lot to be found here. The game box should really read: “Come for our great story, stay for our addictive combat system”.