The story of Rean Schwarzer continues in Trails of Cold Steel III as the often obnoxiously nice protagonist finds himself back at school, only this time, he isn't a student. After graduating from Thors Military Academy following the events of the second game, Rean now leads the all-new Class VII as an instructor at a freshly constructed campus. At first it feels a little bit like the plot has been reset, but after just a couple of hours, it becomes clear that this is still a direct sequel -- a narrative that requires knowledge of the previous Cold Steel games to properly appreciate.

And this is really the biggest sticking point that so many potential players have with Falcom's series. If you haven't played Trails of Cold Steel and Trails of Cold Steel II, then you're going to be lost, especially when returning characters start showing up every ten minutes. Cold Steel III does include a written recap that can be viewed via the start menu, but as you'd expect, it doesn't have anywhere near the same impact as playing through these 60-hour adventures for yourself.

Getting the most out of Trails of Cold Steel III requires considerable investment, then, but the good news is that this latest tale does not disappoint. Clocking in at roughly 80 hours, Cold Steel III is another engrossing character-driven journey, but it's elevated by better pacing, more meaningful character moments, and an improved battle system. In short, it's a cut above what's come before, and that's high praise.

The game's structure is rather rigid, with Rean and his students' monthly field exercises acting as story chapters, but this allows the pacing to ebb and flow quite nicely. You'll come to appreciate the relaxed atmosphere of the campus before you're sent off on another mission for the Imperial Government, and when certain story beats do reach their climax, it always feels like the stakes are higher than ever.

We won't spoil anything here, but the game does a great job of funnelling previously unresolved plot points. The Erebonian Empire's civil war may be over, but as always, plans have been set in motion behind the scenes, and it's not long before familiar baddies start popping up all over the place. This is where members of the old Class VII enter the fray, as Rean's pals from the first two titles lend their aid throughout the story. Fans will no doubt enjoy seeing their favourite allies take action, and every reunion's got an emotional edge to it.

It just goes to show how well developed many of these returning characters are. Its huge, in-depth cast remains Cold Steel's greatest asset, and its ability to not only reintroduce, but build upon existing personalities is truly impressive. Sure, some characters do rely on tired anime tropes (villains in particular), but it's not enough to take away from such an expansive and well connected web of relationships.

Cold Steel III's world building is top notch as well. Rean and company's field studies take the group all around the Empire, and each new location has its own story to tell. Through main missions and optional side quests, you get to learn more about the land and its people, giving way to a distinct sense of place. Couple this with so many likeable, well-rounded characters, and it's hard not to fall in love.

It also helps that the world's got a better sense of scale this time around. Cities like the technologically advanced Crossbell, and Ordis, with its glistening blue buildings, are made up of multiple bustling districts, while the monster-ridden wilderness offers plenty of opportunities for exploration. Each field study feels like its own carefully curated adventure, and all of them top things off with a story revelation or suitably epic boss battle. Usually it's both.

The way that Cold Steel III balances its quieter moments with scenes that would make even the most boisterous anime blush is impressive. Not many games can jump from believable conversations between old friends to giant robot battles so easily, but Cold Steel III does it time and time again, and somehow, the escalation is always intense. It speaks volumes to how well realised the game is as a whole, but we suppose this is what happens when you've had three whole instalments (more if you're counting the entire Legend of Heroes library) to construct such a robust fantasy world.

When you're not being swept away by the story, you'll be getting into turn based battles with beasts and baddies. The combat system's core components remain in place as you're given access to standard attacks, character-specific abilities, and magic spells of your choosing. Cold Steel has always been reasonably tactical, but now, with the addition of the break gauge, it feels like the system has finally found its identity.

Alongside an enemy's health bar, their break gauge depletes every time that they're attacked. When it hits zero, they forfeit their next turn, and you're encouraged to hit them with everything that you have while they're in a weakened break state. This new mechanic means that timing the use of your most powerful techniques is more important than ever, as you can even stop bosses from unleashing devastating attacks if you're able to break them before their next move. With the right reads, you can take even the most fearsome foes apart with perfectly timed assaults, and it's incredibly rewarding.

Orders are another new addition, bringing an extra layer of strategy to each skirmish. Orders are party-wide buffs that can be applied on any of your turns, and throwing out just the right order at just the right time can turn the tide. There's an enjoyable risk and reward to orders since they're tied to your brave points -- currency that's also used to activate team attacks -- so it's all about spending your points as effectively as possible.

Lump all of this together with characters that you can customise with magic and equipment to suit your needs, and you've got all the makings of a thoroughly engaging gameplay loop. When you're watching cutscenes play out you're looking forward to getting back into the action, and when you're knee-deep in a climactic boss fight, you can't wait to see where the story goes next. Simply put, Cold Steel III strikes a consistently brilliant balance.

Given just how good Cold Steel III is, it's a bit of a shame that the visuals still look so dated. Built from the ground up for PlayStation 4, this latest entry is a clear improvement over its PlayStation 3 and PS Vita predecessors -- and their PS4 ports -- but aside from its detailed new character models, the game struggles to impress. It's frustrating to think that some people won't give the Cold Steel series a second look based on graphics alone, but ultimately, we'd take an engrossing RPG with great characters and systems over a visually stunning but hollow experience.

Conclusion

Trails of Cold Steel III is the best game in the series so far. You're going to have to play the first two titles to get the full picture, but you'll be rewarded with one of the most enjoyable RPG sagas in modern gaming. This latest entry strikes a near perfect balance between story and gameplay, all while juggling an ever-growing cast of great characters and an in-depth, hugely rewarding battle system. Cold Steel III is JRPG joy from start to finish, and it sits alongside the likes of Persona 5 and Dragon Quest XI as one of the PS4's finest.