The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel, or just Trails of Cold Steel as it's more often referred to, is a turn based, character-driven role-playing title from Japanese developer Nihon Falcom. It's a story of friendship and war, all told from the perspective of Rean Schwarzer, a newly enrolled student at the prestigious Thors Military Academy.
Trails of Cold Steel first launched in Japan on the PlayStation 3 and Vita in 2013, before being brought West a couple of years later. Back then, the game was already making waves within the hardcore Japanese RPG community, but with the PlayStation 4 in full swing by the time Rean's tale reached North America and Europe, it barely received recognition outside of those dedicated circles.
With this PS4 remaster, the hope is that Trails of Cold Steel will finally get its time to shine, and while we doubt that it'll set the market on fire, the game has everything that it needs to succeed among fans of the genre. Make no mistake: this is an excellently judged, engrossing RPG that deserves much more success than it's likely ever going to get.
It's the world building and characters that really set the title apart. Taking place within an empire that relies heavily on its military strength, the games does a stellar job of feeding you information about the setting and its history. You'll learn of the empire's legendary founder, its current standing with other nations, and its rigid social class system.
Even at the academy, students are split by birth. The nobles get a swanky set of apartments, complete with maids and butlers, while the commoners have to settle for standard student digs. Social structure is just one of the many themes that Trails of Cold Steel tackles, making for a surprisingly thoughtful experience. Coupled with the superb world building that we mentioned earlier, you quickly begin to realise just how much effort has been put into making the Erebonian Empire feel like an established setting that's steeped in history and tradition.
With such a great sense of time and place at the game's heart, its characters are able to embed themselves with little to no effort. Rean is thrown into Class VII with eight other students, and you'll want to forge relationships with every one of them. While at first it can feel like a few of them lean on tired anime tropes, dig a little deeper and you'll find an outstanding cast of characters defined by their believable motivations, dreams, and flaws.
The writing, though wordy, conveys an impressive amount of personality. Simple conversations reveal depths that you perhaps didn't think some characters had, and this doesn't just apply to Rean and his pals. Indeed, you could write a full character study on just about every secondary member of the cast, and again, it's this attention to detail that really helps sell the world and its inhabitants.
This even carries through to the optional side quests, most of which have their own stories attached to them. You may just be completing a standard fetch quest, but the game's always eager to contextualise, giving Rean a meaningful reason to see things through. Additional dialogue and character interactions go a long way in making even the most mundane of tasks feel important and worthy of your time.
Speaking of time, Trails of Cold Steel runs on a calendar system, not unlike the Persona games. Your stay at Thors Military Academy is broken down into days, weeks, and months, with main story events happening at set points. It's not quite as regimented as Persona's system -- you don't get to pick and choose activities every single day -- but there are times when you're free to hang out with your friends or go off and do your own thing.
And yes, by spending time with your allies, you gradually get to know them better. Each and every member of Class VII has their own set of unique bonding scenes, and while you'll want to see them purely for the character development, they also have a more practical purpose. You see, as you grow closer to one of your classmates, their combat abilities improve, allowing for more powerful and more reliable link strikes.
As hinted, combat is a turn based affair, and link strikes add some welcome flavour. By exploiting enemy weaknesses and knocking them off balance, you leave your foes vulnerable to follow-up attacks from your allies. Very quickly, tactical thinking becomes a crucial combat component, and this is emphasised by the sheer breadth of offensive options that are available to you -- especially later in the game.
Attacks can have all sorts of additional effects, and knowing when to use different abilities is key. Adding yet more depth is the fact that you can customise each party member with quartz -- items that grant specific magical spells known as arts, or provide immediate stat boosts. Think of the quartz system like materia in Final Fantasy VII and you're on the right track.
Now, this all sounds fairly complex -- and it is -- but the game does an admirable job of easing you in with tutorials and a nice, steady difficulty curve. On that note, it's worth mentioning that there are a range of difficulty levels available from the get-go, the easiest of which being a great place to start if you're primarily here for the story.
All in all, the combat rarely wows, but there's no denying that this is a rock solid battle system. If it was attached to a lesser title in terms of narrative then we may have a problem, but as it stands, it's a well made and engaging system that rounds off an already great role-playing package.
However, for everything that Trails of Cold Steel gets right, it's important to note that the game does not look good. This is pretty much a straight port of the PS3 and Vita title, and it really shows. Although the art direction certainly holds up and the character designs are spot on, there are some woeful textures on display here, and some of the menus and 2D portraits look way too blurry, especially on a larger screen. Besides the obvious bump in resolution, locked 60 frames-per-second frame rate, and nonexistent load times, it's a shame that more hasn't been done to bring the visuals, in particular, up to speed.
If you're a fan of Japanese RPGs and you missed out on Trails of Cold Steel the first time around, we can't recommend this PS4 port enough. Between its brilliant world building and fantastic cast of characters, this is a slow-burning story that refuses to let you go. While the game does plod at points, it's hard not to sit back and appreciate just how much effort has gone into making this world feel so rich and interesting. Add a rock solid turn based combat system to the mix, and you've got all the makings of a genre classic.