Nihon Falcom’s Trails of Cold Steel is one of those series I wish got more love. Falcom has made a name for itself with its long-running Ys franchise, which helped pave the way for action/RPGs, but its equally-fantastic Trails series, part of The Legend of Heroes brand, has never received the same recognition. After Trails of the Sky hit North America in 2011, nearly seven years after it first launched in Japan, hardcore RPG fans realized they had been missing out something special. The game featured charming characters and an alluring and detailed world. It had a classic feel that reminded you of your favorite traditional RPGs of yesteryear, but it also wasn’t afraid to take chances and modernize the genre.
After the Sky trilogy was complete, Western fans were then treated to the Trails of Cold Steel series, which added a school backdrop, complete with social elements and improved turn-based combat. After two fantastic entries filled with surprising reveals and epic battles that had the students do everything from partaking in crazy mech duels to stopping a civil war, we’re about step into the third part of the four-game arc. I had the pleasure of playing the first five hours of the game and so far it’s shaping up nicely, full of callbacks and reunions with past cast members alongside new mechanics and locations to make the series feel fresh.
A New Class VII
Past entries have centered on Thors Military Academy and its special Class VII, with protagonist Rean Schwarzer leading the way while uncovering his own mysteries about what he thought was a seemingly normal life. For those who need a refresher, Rean’s class was the first to ever to not segregate noble and lowborn students, which is a big source of tension in the first game. The second game had our heroes working together to stop the Erebonian civil war, and Trails of Cold Steel III picks up about a year and a half after these events.
“After Trails of Cold Steel II, we see that [Chancellor Giliath] Osborne is alive and well, and now holds all the power,” says Nihon Falcom president and producer Toshihiro Kondo. “He is currently carrying out a campaign of invading foreign lands to increase the Empire’s territory. As for Rean, he is caught up in the events that happened at the end of II, and—as the Awakener of Valimar—is following Osborne’s orders. Internally, though Osborne has quieted the noble faction, their activities will be further examined throughout the events of III.”
Those are far from the only new developments: Rean and his peers have now graduated from Thors Military Academy, meaning they are taking their first big steps into adulthood and trying to figure out their lives. Part of the fun is seeing the different roads the characters we’ve come to know and love have traveled. Rean is still the protagonist you control, but he has a bit of a different role this time around: instructor at a new branch of Thors Academy. The new branch is populated with outcasts and misfits and Rean leads a new “Class VII” with only three members initially (you keep running into a few other characters that will most likely join up with you later).
For now, there’s Kurt Vander, a determined young man who excels with twin blades, Juna Crawford, a gunner who formerly worked at the Crossbell police academy and isn’t afraid to speak her mind, and Altina Orion, a mysterious girl created in a laboratory that we met last entry and can manipulate a black combat shell. “The new Class VII has students whose pasts diverge beyond the distinction of class, including some who were formerly involved with Ouroboros—the villains—like Altina, and a noble who is hiding from his former responsibilities,” Kondo explains. “In various ways, these students have more ‘complicated’ backgrounds.”
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Cold Steel III’s opening hours showed an interesting dichotomy between the three classmates. Growing up in a lab and being treated like a weapon means Altina struggles with human interaction and rarely considers options outside the most logical avenue. Kurt and Juna have a relationship very similar to Rean and Alisa in previous games, as both are trying to prove themselves and run into a few misunderstandings along the way. Throughout the first chapter, there’s plenty of funny moments between the cast as Rean tries his best to play professor and has reunions with members of the previous Class VII. “While the main characters of this tale are Rean and his students, you might remember that at the end of II, the former members of Class VII made a promise to each other,” Kondo says. “They are all now working in various parts of the empire, doing their best to fulfill their ends of that promise. As Rean and his students begin to travel across the empire, they will run into familiar faces, and we’ll see what they are up to.”
In many ways, there’s a weird déjà vu with Trails of Cold Steel III. The game is filled with callbacks and appearances from characters throughout the Trails series history. It feels like a big class reunion; many times I’d recognize a character then jog my memory for their role in the story that has unfolded so far. Let’s just say there’s great reward for longtime fans beyond Trails in the Sky’s Tita Russell and Agate Crosner appearing. In addition to many surprise cameos, you also often stumble upon people, places, and things from previous games that bring new revelations and twists. Trista Radio, anyone?
The parallels to the first Cold Steel entry where Rean was stepping onto campus for the first time and brushing shoulders with his new classmates are ever-present, right down to Kurt and Juna bumping into each other in a similar way to how Rean and Alisa did. It’s a fun trip down memory lane, and if you ever need a refresher, there’s a handy backstory option on the opening screen to lookup certain characters and events.
A New Principal Heats Things Up
While things seem par for the course for the school experience, Rean’s new academy harbors its own mysteries – from the get-go something seems a little off, such as the administration willingly throwing students into dangerous, barely survivable situations. The school’s principal is also none other than Aurelia Le Guin, who was the general of the Noble Alliance during the civil war in the previous entry. Le Guin is a bit of a wild card as she retired for unknown reasons; Kondo even refers to her as “a very intense person.” Le Guin doesn’t sugarcoat things and sees value in preparing students for the worst circumstances.
To add to matters, it appears Rean’s former military academy and his current branch are at odds, creating some extra tension and conflict to navigate. “The Thors main campus is facing a different set of circumstances than it did when Rean and his classmates were enrolled there,” Kondo says. “The biggest change is that there is a different [Thors Military Academy] principal, who is much more willing to toe the government line. Not to say that Dreichels wasn’t concerned about the glory of the empire, but the current principal is much more in-line with Osborne and his regime. On the other hand, the branch campus is actually closer in-line with Olivert’s vision, and with that being said, I think you will be able to imagine the differences between the two campuses.”
If you remember anything about Olivert, let it be that his more pacifist ways are bound to ruffle some feathers, especially Chancellor Osborne and his military dictatorship.
New School, New Town, New Challenges
While it follows a similar format to previous entries, Cold Steel III also has some new locales and situations bringing a different tone and feel. “In the previous games, we mainly explored the Eastern part of the empire,” Kondo explains. “This time, we will be exploring the Western side, and visiting places that have only been mentioned up until now. There are also new areas to explore in existing locations.”
Leeves is the new town housing Thors Branch Academy, and it’s a quaint little spot. It has similar areas to what we saw in Trista, with a chapel, an opportune fishing spot, and a slew of shops. Yes, you can expect the typical clothing and pawn shops, but there are also some new additions. My favorite was Carnegie Books and Games, which has its shelves stocked with tabletop games. This is also where you can go to play the latest popular card game called Vantage Masters.
Previous entries featured the Blade card minigame, where you’d do your best to one-up your opponent by using your mirror and blast cards at the best moments to destroy their progress. Trails of Cold Steel III is all about Vantage Masters. It definitely plays off the popular trading card game scene, where you build your own deck to battle other players to earn stronger cards. From what I played, it looked like a delicate balance between using your attack cards with elemental attributes and special abilities, while activating your magic cards to cause various effects on the field. You only have so much mana and every card has a cost, so you need to use it wisely, but you also restore mana each turn. The more turns that pass, the more you restore, meaning: Plan ahead. Your goal is to get your opponent’s HP to zero. You can get the gist by watching a portion of my match in the video below.
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Thors Branch Academy is obviously the main attraction of Leeves, and you’ll spend a great deal of time walking its halls to either socialize with students or run your own errands. The social system is similar to previous games, where you want to use your free time to improve your relationships, as it not only provides cool scenes but will increase people’s ability to help you on the battlefield. I saw some fun sequences, spanning from Altina trying to figure out which club to join and realizing she’s a natural at swimming to helping Juna with her tennis by being none other than “ball picker-upper.” You can see some of the early interactions in the video below. There’s also a bathhouse in the dormitory, which allows you to hang out with other instructors in your spare time and usually get a free item for doing so.
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Cold Steel III has a slew of new characters to get to know, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be spending your bonding points on your favorites from previous games. Kondo wanted to set the record straight on that: “I’ll also preemptively address another concern that was brought up in Japan before the game came out, ‘What about those characters who we could previously bond with?’ Please don’t worry about that, as you will be able to bond with returning characters, as well.”
Stepping Into Battle
Remember that familiar-but-slightly-different feel I was talking about earlier for Cold Steel III? That definitely extends to combat, which remains turn-based and still centers on positioning, linking teammates for improved tactics, and using their special attacks and magic spells judiciously. Trails of Cold Steel III’s gameplay definitely expands on the series’ already-complex battle mechanics with a break system (straight out of the Ys series) to weaken enemy defenses and Juna being able to change her battle style. Juna’s gunner position is great for ranged attacks and hitting groups of enemies, but if you swap her to the striker, it increases her speed, defense, and attack power on close-ranged foes, best used on one target.
Also new is Brave Order, which allows you to enact tide-changing perks in battle. Every character has their own and they can do everything from reducing damage to cutting the cost of magic. You can only use one of these at a time, but they are key to winning boss battles. For instance, in one of my fights against a giant ogre, the creature used a howl attack that had a nasty side effect of reducing my characters’ defense. The only way to offset it was to use a brave order to reduce incoming damage. Kondo proves my theory true about them being essential to winning the bigger bouts in the game: “If you don’t utilize this system, you are putting yourself at a serious disadvantage, particularly in regards to long boss battles, where skillful use of this system will make a huge difference,” he says. You can watch me learn this the hard way in the video below of the intense ogre fight.
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Cold Steel II introduced mech – aka Divine Knight – battles and those return here. They function similarly to previous entries, where you must block and use your special attacks while targeting specific body parts in order to unbalance them. Brave Points also apply to these battles, giving you new options to consider. You can get a taste of what they entail in the video below. Yes, in true Falcom fashion, except some flashy over-the-top specials to really sell the experience of piloting one of these big hunks of metal.
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Taking A Dramatic Turn
We’ve seen some crazy things happen across the Trails series and the Cold Steel arc has certainly brought its twists. This third entry should follow suit, but Kondo also said “the series will take a very dramatic turn from here on out,” making me even more curious and excited for what’s to come.
While we start approaching Cold Steel’s ultimate finale (there’s still one more game after III), Kondo also made it clear that Falcom is far from done with the Trails series. “While it is true that the Cold Steel portion of the story has come to a finish with IV, there are still many things hinted at in the Trails in the Sky, Zero, Ao, and Cold Steel games that have yet to be revealed,” he teases. “We want to tell these stories, and the fans want to hear them, so we are thinking about the best way to do that in a game.”
Kondo also confirmed the team is working on an “entirely new tale in an entirely new part of the world not seen yet in a Trails game,” and said there would be more information soon. For now, all we can do is wait until October 22 when The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III launches on PlayStation 4. Get ready to be reunited with old faces and also meet some new ones in the process.