There was a time when the term RPG meant really only one thing, at least for kids and teens in the 90’s: Final Fantasy. Now the term is probably more synonymous with Bethesda and Bioware games, the “western” style of RPGs, with the eastern take being some-what of an endangered species. The “JRPG” as we know it is mostly relegated to older consoles and portables. Even popular JRPG franchises like Final Fantasy have adopted a more western style of real-time combat. Others settle for takes on the MMORPG, like the Xenoblade series, which is also more of a western creation than an eastern one.
That old style is hard to come by, either because it doesn’t sell well or the perception exists that gamers today don’t want to play a game where combat is largely turn-based and the game unfolds in a mostly linear fashion. There are, of course, some exceptions as Nintendo’s Fire Emblem, a tactical RPG but a genre that still largely adheres to the same constraints as traditional JRPGs, and Atlus’ Persona series still garner a lot of attention. In the case of Persona, it’s been a long time since Persona 4 was released, but Persona 5 is finally set for release in the spring so we’ll get a good idea of how popular the JRPG can still be.
Some developers are keeping the genre alive, and Nihon Falcom is one of them. Falcom has been around almost as long as video games have been and Falcom was one of the first Japanese developers of RPG computer games. Falcom has never had much exposure in the US and if I had to guess, the developers most popular title is the Ys series. If you had a Sega CD then you may know them for Popful Mail, one of the few Sega CD titles worth playing. Falcom’s most popular franchise for a longtime in its native Japan was Dragon Slayer, which was basically on par in terms of popularity as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, for a time. The Legend of Heroes franchise splintered off from Dragon Slayer in the mid 90’s and has become a franchise all its own, and possibly Falcom’s biggest. It has slowly made its way out of Japan, first with the Trails in Sky series on Sony’s Playstation Portable. Trails of Cold Steel is the most current, and Xseed has handled the western distribution for the first two titles which have been released on both the Playstation 3 and Playstation Vita.
Trails of Cold Steel was first released in Japan in September 2013. It wouldn’t see a US release until December 2015. Of course, by then the Playstation 4 was out and selling well, but apparently the game has been successful enough for Xseed to continue bringing the series to the US with Trails of Cold Steel II arriving in the summer of 2016. The third game in the series is still in development for the Playstation 4.
My exposure to Trails of Cold Steel has been via the Playstation Vita, with some play taking place on the even less popular Playstation TV peripheral. As such, I can’t compare it to the PS3 version, but from what I’ve seen the two look similar, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the console version performs a little better in terms of frame-rate. The game, and its sequel, supports the cross-save functionality so if you wish to buy both versions you can save between the two. Trails of Cold Steel is my first exposure to the Legend of Heroes franchise, but it’s my understanding it contains same narrative homages to the Trails in the Sky games without being a direct sequel.
The game takes place in a fictional setting called Erebonia where opposing factions are quietly trying to seize political control of the region. The main conflict is between the Noble Faction, those who have ruled via birthright, and the commoners who have risen to high-ranks via political means. There’s no active war taking place at the game’s onset, but it becomes clear throughout that tensions are high. Complicating things is that a terrorist organization has shown itself whose motives are unclear at first. They seem to want to stir the pot and challenge the empire, but naturally you have to play the game to learn more.
Caught up in all of this is Rean Schwarzer. Rean has just enlisted at Thors Military Academy, a prestigious academic institution that welcomes students from all social classes. Historically, Thors still recognizes a student’s class standing and organizes its dormitories appropriately, but Rean has learned he is to be a part of Class VII, a new experiment by the academy that is forcing nobles and commoners to work cooperatively. Rean’s class contains an eclectic mix of students, both male and female, and naturally conflicts emerge. Part of the game’s narrative is working to resolve these conflicts while advancing the storyline and building relationships. Class VII contains nine students, four boys and five girls, and the games structure unfolds in such a fashion that the player is rarely in control of more than five students at any one time, with Rean being the clear main protagonist.
The game utilizes a day structure reminiscent of the Persona series. Days unfold at a methodical pace with the player having certain tasks to complete during the day, some forced and some optional, with each day ending when the player decides to end it. Most of these are fetch quests and some are dungeon crawls. Once a month Class VII is dispatched on field studies to different parts of the continent which is when the party is split-up, shrinking the cast of main characters temporarily. Doing so allows the story to play-up inter-class conflicts while allowing the player to experiment with different party combinations in a less intimidating way. It also allows for the story to show the current state of affairs in different parts of the world which pays off later in the game. Also like Persona, Rean can establish bonds with his peers and learn more about them during what the game calls bonding events. It’s not as robust as what is found in Persona 4, or as rewarding, but it is still an effective way of developing characters.
The gameplay is mostly classic JRPG, but with some twists. Navigating the field is pretty traditional and comparable to Final Fantasy X. There’s no throwback overworld or anything, and most settings contain a hub town with branching areas of hostility. Enemies appear on the screen and will react to your avatar by either attacking or running. Avoiding enemies is pretty simple, but of course avoiding conflict won’t help you in the long run as you need to defeat enemies to earn experience and get stronger. Characters can attack enemies in the field, and landing a blow on an enemy’s flank will stun them allowing you to engage the enemy with an advantage. Rean is the main character, but any character in the party can be utilized to navigate the field and they all have different weapons. Certain characters, like the shotgun wielding Machias, can break parts of the environment or attack enemies from a distance. It gives the player a chance to figure out how they would prefer to navigate the world and approach enemies. I typically stuck with Rean as his wide-arcing sword slash makes it easy to flank enemies for an easy combat advantage. Certain large enemies can’t be stunned on the field, but flanking them can still impart a bonus.
Combat itself is like a hybrid of Final Fantasy X and a tactical RPG. Characters can be moved and positioned on the battlefield which is mostly useful for taking advantage of area-based attacks and arts (the game’s version of magic). Four characters can partake in battle at any given time, with reserves able to swap in and out of the active party at any given turn. The order of attack is displayed on the screen so you know when the enemy will next attack, but the order can be influenced with delay tactics and other conventions. Characters typically can attack, use an art, use an item, run, or use a craft. Crafts are basically special attacks and abilities that utilize CP, which is accumulated primarily by attacking and taking damage. Throughout the game characters will unlock special crafts which can be triggered with 100 CP, but are more effective when triggered with 200 CP, which is a full CP gauge. These attacks are basically massive, highly damaging, maneuvers that often can help turn the tide of battle as they can be triggered at any point, allowing the player to bypass an enemy turn.
Characters can also link with other characters, and the more often a character links with another the higher their link level will rise. The main benefit of linking characters is that when one lands a critical hit the other is able to utilize a follow-up attack. As the game progresses more benefits open up, and increasing the link level between characters also opens up other benefits like one character automatically curing another after damage is taken. These link levels are not confined to just Rean and everyone else, but even between the secondary characters. The bonding events open to Rean will increase the link level faster, so naturally Rean will have a higher level with his comrades than they will with each other.
Outside of combat, characters can be equipped with character specific weapons, armor, and accessories. They also have what is called an ARCUS unit which contains slots that quartz can be equipped to. Quartz are essentially materia from Final Fantasy VII. They’ll contain elemental based arts as well as passive abilities and restorative arts. They’re elemental based, and certain slots can only take certain types of quartz. Throughout the game you will earn Sepith from enemies and treasure chests, and Sepith is used to open up more slots on each character’s ARCUS unit to equip more quartz. Each character can also equip a Master Quartz which earns experience like a character and grows throughout the game. These Master Quartz also have a greater impact on a character’s underlying stats and help influence how a character should be played, if they’re a tank, healer, etc. Naturally, characters are predisposed to certain play styles and deviating from that is probably more trouble than its worth, but it can be done.
Being that I am a big fan of both Final Fantasy X and tactical RPGs in general, I naturally find the combat mechanics of Trails of Cold Steel to be mostly excellent. If I had one major complaint it’s that the Crafts are a bit overpowered and easy to take advantage of. At the same time, I also played through the game on the normal setting and harder ones are available so my criticism is some-what empty. For the most part, the combat is addicting and enjoyable. It’s easy to get used to, but also possesses depth, and that’s all gamers really want out an RPG combat system.
Technologically speaking, Trails of Cold Steel offers little to get excited by. It’s a PS3 game, that even by PS3 standards, is unimpressive to behold. The main characters all look good, but the settings are small and bland. The game uses an anime style that is mostly pleasing to look at, and there’s even a few instances of actual anime used to enhance the story-telling. Xseed’s localization is pretty good, with lots of veteran anime voice actors onhand to give the game a professional sound. The music is also excellent, though at times can get a little too repetitive. There were some frame-rate dips in combat, and some slowdown as well. It’s mostly cosmetic though and didn’t affect my ability to deal damage or anything.
The game’s approach to story-telling is pretty consistent. Trails of Cold Steel is often serious, but also inserts a lot of humor into the mix. Some of the humor can be fairly juvenile with there being an abundance of gay jokes, or instances of male characters being spooked by something gay. Interestingly, lesbian characters are approached in a completely different manner and are often depicted as sex-hungry perverts. These characters are also accepted by their peers, so in one sense the game is progressive, but in other respects it feels like a sixteen year old heterosexual male wrote portions of the scripts. I didn’t find any of this offensive, but at times I felt like I was older than the game’s target audience. There are also numerous jokes about breasts, especially directed at the Emma character who is depicted with a large bust even by video game standards.
The main plot unfolds very methodically and in a very linear fashion. That more than anything is probably what is most likely to turn off a modern gamer accustomed to Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect. The game’s plot is a slow burn, and finding every available side quest in a given day often requires you to speak with every NPC you come in contact with, some of which won’t give up their quest on the first try. I took my time with the game, and it took over 80 in game hours for me to complete. Part of the reason why the game moves so slowly is because it is the first game in what is projected to be a trilogy so it’s possible future games in the series will unfold at a brisker pace. Of course, I won’t know for sure until I finish the sequel (which I am actively playing).
Completion of the game unlocks a new game plus, a pretty common convention in modern games. During the first play through, it’s impossible to see every bonding event in the game so completists will need at least two play-throughs. Players can also save a cleared game save to carry over into the sequel. For the most part, carrying over a save just gives some bonus items depending on Rean’s level and rank at the game’s conclusion. There’s also an opportunity to establish a more romantic relationship with the game’s female characters that also appears to carry-over. The game definitely steers the player towards one character in particular, and I took the bait figuring I would experience the story the developers most want to tell. I’m not sure if other characters take on a romantic relationship with Rean or if it’s more a friend type of thing, but it’s nice to have some variety in the gameplay experience. Since the characters are all teens, don’t expect any Bioware styled sex scenes or anything, it’s mostly puppy love.
Playing Trails of Cold Steel often made me think of Persona 4. As I spent more time with the game I thought of that game less as ToCS has a very different tone than Persona. It definitely borrows a lot from that game in its setup, and most of the stuff it borrows it does not improve upon and kind of half-asses. That, however, is really the only main fault I found with the game. Sometimes the characters did frustrate me, as they tend to be so unfailingly nice and pure, I’d like to see an edge to at least some of them even if the main protagonist is as dull as a butter knife. There’s also a twist at the end of the game that felt rather forced and unnecessary, but I can’t say it really affected my enjoyment of the game. It also closes with some hints at what’s to come in the sequels with a positive spin on the gameplay. I do appreciate the wide scope of the game’s narrative, and it has a very ambitious feel to it. Hopefully Falcom can deliver on that front.
If you like the JRPG genre and have a Vita or PS3 handy, I do recommend Trails of Cold Steel. I do recommend with some trepidation as the series is unfinished, and there’s no promise the third game in the series will be released outside of Japan at this time. Its predecessor series, Trails in the Sky, was never concluded in the US and I’ll be disappointed if the same happens here. Though for now, I’ll enjoy what I have. Trails of Cold Steel isn’t the next big thing by any means, but it’s a game that’s done pretty well and gives hope that the JRPG is not a dying genre.