Sequels like The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II are a rarity these days. This lengthy, incredibly in-depth follow-up to the first game is essentially the second half of the story. Most of the key plot points that were set up in Trails of Cold Steel are fully explored here, with an absolutely massive cast of characters adding significant weight to every twist, turn, and revelation.

It's not all that often that we get to say this, but playing the first Trails of Cold Steel is a necessity before you jump into Trails of Cold Steel II. Again, this is as direct a sequel as sequels get. While there is an option on the main menu that lets you read up on the story to this point, it's little more than a reminder. The series has so many plot threads running through it that you simply must have experienced the original title in order to fully enjoy Trails of Cold Steel II. There's just no way around it.

Plus, if you've played through the first game, you'll feel right at home here. Not much has changed in Cold Steel II, from the presentation and structure to the battle system and gameplay loop. Heck, you even end up going back to locations from the original, adventuring through them all over again, but make no mistake -- there's still more than enough new stuff to keep you occupied, especially when it comes to the sweeping narrative.

But before we get into that, it's important to note that in order to talk about the story in Trails of Cold Steel II, we're going to have to allude to some spoilers from the first game. If you're fine with that, then feel free to read on.

The story starts off slow, with protagonist Rean having to pull himself back together after the closing events of the last game. Separated from the rest of Class VII and with Erebonia now completely caught up in the chaos of civil war, it takes a good fifteen or so hours before the plot really starts to push forward. But, having played the first game, this methodical opening acts as a period of reflection, as the sequel slowly but surely gets Rean -- and you, the player -- up to speed.

Once the stakes have been established, Cold Steel II rarely breaks pace. You know who all of the major players are in the civil war, and Class VII is at the very heart of the action. Beat after beat, the story enthrals, a catalogue of villains, both old and new, attempting to put a stop to Rean and the gang. As we've come to expect, the character writing is generally excellent, and although things do get very anime in this sequel at times, you can't help but sit back and enjoy the ride.

The story's still just about the strongest part of the experience, then, but developer Falcom deserves huge credit for its ability to tie up the many, many narrative threads that originated in the first game. For a role-playing title that's often so complex in its storytelling, constantly jumping from one scenario to the next, it does a seriously impressive job of breaking the plot down into manageable chunks.

So what's new in Cold Steel II? Well, for starters, the sequel feels a lot more like a traditional Japanese RPG. This is primarily due to not being tethered to the academy from the first game, which acted as a base of operations. Instead, Rean and friends find themselves travelling across the empire in a much more free-form fashion, especially later on. This newfound freedom is key, as you get to choose your party members and decide where to go.

Exploration is a much bigger part of Cold Steel II. There are some vast environments to traverse here, complete with their own secrets and side missions. Now don't get us wrong, this is still a largely linear title, but unlike in the first game, there comes a point where you're let off the leash and you're allowed to proceed at your leisure. Those who found the original Cold Steel somewhat stifling will definitely appreciate this change, and it actually helps reinforce the idea that Class VII has matured as a group.

Moving on, it's worth mentioning that the sequel does turn the difficulty up a notch. Don't fret too much if you're here for the story as there's still an easy mode, but things are definitely trickier this time around. This is partly because you start the game at level 40, with many of the techniques and abilities from the latter stages of Cold Steel carrying over. As such, you're given access to myriad tactical options right from the word go -- yet another reason to play the first game before jumping in here.

In combat, the link system has also been expanded. 'Overdrive' lets you queue up three powerful attacks without interruption, potentially turning the tide of battle. Alongside incredibly damaging super moves and a broader arsenal of automatic link strikes, overdrive almost feels like overkill, but it's hard not to appreciate the destructive force of Class VII, especially since some of the sequel's tougher boss fights can really push the limits of your party. All in all, the combat system's still nothing particularly special, but the added depth is always welcome.

With a superb story, characters, and rock solid Japanese RPG gameplay, it's hard to knock Cold Steel II, as was the case with its predecessor. However, the title does have one niggling, unnecessary issue that we hope gets fixed, and that's the frame rate. Even on a PS4 Pro, the game suffers from some wild stutters, usually when there's some kind of mist or fog on-screen. Most of the time it's running at a silky smooth 60 frames per second -- as you'd expect from what is essentially a port of a Vita release -- and so the drops are clear to see. Not at all game breaking given the frequency of the dips, but still very unfortunate when the game looks as basic as this to begin with.

Conclusion

Trails of Cold Steel II is everything that you could want from a sequel to the first game. Although experience with its predecessor is nothing short of a necessity, this unapologetic approach to sequel storytelling is what makes Cold Steel II so compelling. It's remarkable how such a huge cast of characters can come together to deliver such a memorable narrative, and it's all thanks to the in-depth world building that Falcom has seeded over the course of two games. As far as turn based Japanese RPGs go on PS4, Trails of Cold Steel I and II are genre essentials.