You could be forgiven for not having heard of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel, and for not giving it a second glance in the store. “The Legend of Heroes” isn’t exactly a title that commands attention, and the name Falcom sure doesn’t carry the same weight as something like Square Enix or Atlus. This isn’t a powerhouse franchise like Final Fantasy or Pokemon, especially outside Japan, where localisations have been few and far between.
Which is a shame, because Trails of Cold Steel is, without a doubt, one of the best JRPGs I’ve played in years. It’s not a game that pushes boundaries; it’s a game that knows what makes the genre great - deep combat, interesting characters, a compelling narrative - and commits to a standard of excellence in every respect.
Trails of Cold Steel takes place in Erebonia Empire, a country with a rigid class structure where tension between the nobility and the working class’ reformist faction are growing ever more heated. Against this shaky political backdrop, the prestigious Thors Military Academy decides to trial something unheard of - a class where social standing means nothing, where highborn and lowborn stand on equal footing.
At the centre of this Class VII is Rean Schwarzer, a young man who seems to symbolise everything that the group is meant to stand for - a commoner who was raised as a noble after being orphaned at a young age. Throw in the heir to one of the Four Great Houses, the lowborn son of a key figure of the reformist movement, the daughter of Erebonia’s biggest technology corporation, and a foreigner from a country with no class system of any sort, among others, and you’ve got a recipe for a whole lot of tension.
This backdrop lends itself to one of the most fascinating, interesting plots I’ve seen in a game in a long time. It’s slow-moving, even by JRPG standards, but it’s this pacing that allows such an intricate and compelling story to develop. At the grandest scale, it’s a tale of political intrigue to rival Suikoden; at its most personal, there’s a complex network of interpersonal drama that calls Persona to mind.
At the heart of this all is the best cast of world-saving teenagers I’ve seen in a long while. Everyone begins as some sort of archetypal anime character - the silent protagonist, the love interest, the haughty aristocrat, the quiet bookworm - but these are just masks, and over time, you get a look at what’s underneath. There’s a lot more to every character than first meets the eye, and ever-so-gradually getting to know them over the course of the adventure has been, for me, the highlight of the game; even more than the captivating plot and deep combat system.
Trails of Cold Steel touches on pretty much every theme under the sun, from class conflict, corporatism, to nuclear warfare...
Much of the narrative heavy lifting is done through Class VII’s monthly field trips, wherein the group is sent abroad to some far-flung corner of the Empire to help the locals, and learn about them in the process. Sometimes, visiting the home of one of Rean’s classmates will give them some time in the spotlight; other times, you’ll simply get to spend some time in one of the Empire’s many towns - and see how the political machinations of the higher-ups affect people on the ground. It’s in these that Trails of Cold Steel touches on pretty much every theme under the sun, from class conflict, corporatism, to nuclear warfare, and it does so with a kind of effortless grace.
The tasks Class VII are given on these field trips vary greatly, from hunting monsters to helping a fashion store test some new sneakers. A lot of these are the kind of quests that could be derisively written off as “fetch quests”, were it not for the game’s self-awareness in addressing their purpose. Simply put, “fetch quests” exist for the sake of worldbuilding - they guide players to places and people they’d otherwise ignore - and his is something that the characters in the game come to learn themselves after questioning the apparent pointlessness of some of their tasks.
There’s plenty of fighting to be done, too, and this is just another area where Trails of Cold Steel excels. A simple turn-based battle system is given an impressive amount of depth through a number of systems that complement each other wonderfully.
Tactical Links let two characters partner up and assist each other, with new options opening up as each relationship grows (through battle, as well as Persona-like social events at school); using these to their fullest is very often the difference between victory and defeat. Positioning and turn order are also very important, with plenty of moves that affect both, while finding and exploiting weak points - including weaknesses to status effects, which most enemies will have, even bosses - will make your life a lot easier.
Winning battle happens as much before the encounter starts as it does in the action starts, and how you set up your team will have a big impact on your chance of success. A typical RPG equipment system is made interesting by a general lack of funds in the game, meaning you can never afford all the best gear on offer, and have to make choices. As well as their native abilities (“Crafts”), all characters can use a form of magic (“Arts”), but the Quartz that enables these skills is plentiful and varied while each character’s slots for them are few.
Really, there’s almost nothing bad to say about Trails of Cold Steel. There are mild technical issues on Vita, like long loading times and noticeably low frame rates, but it’s nothing that’s going to ruin the experience. You’ll also need to set aside a whole lot of time for it - upwards of 60 hours, and probably more like 80 for most - but it never feels padded out, which isn’t often something I can say about even a 10-hour game.
If you like JRPGs (and maybe even if you don’t), you’ll want to find time for this game, though. Falcom haven’t tried to reinvent the wheel, because they wheel doesn’t need reinventing. Instead, they’ve set out to make the most magnificent damn wheel they could, and have succeeded with flying colours.