When you think of episodic games, you probably think of Telltale, Life is Strange, and the like; relatively short experiences where you can play through an episode in a single sitting. Falcom’s The Legend of Heroes franchise isn’t packaged and sold as an episodic series, but in terms of narrative structure and overarching game design, that’s exactly what it is, only with each “episode” being a full-fledged, 60+ hour game.
That’s not an approach I’d have ever imagined would work, but The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel proved me wrong. Earlier this year, I was blown away at just how well the first game in this particular saga used its lengthy playing time to instill a sense of depth without ever feeling padded out. Now, having played through the second game (of what will be a trilogy), that rings even more true: this story arc could have almost been throwaway if it wasn’t so firmly grounded in the characterisation and world-building efforts of the first game.
(Also, I should note: almost all of this review is talking about Trails of Cold Steel II in relation to Trails of Cold Steel. The games are too closely linked to be able to talk about the second in any meaningful way without plenty of reference to the first. If you haven’t played Cold Steel, I’d recommend at least reading my review of the first game to get some context for this one.)
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II is a story about a civil war, with all the political machinations that come with that. Rean Schwarzer and the rest of Thors Academy’s Class VII are all closely tied to key figures on both sides of the war (though Class VII itself tries to remain neutral), and assuming you played the first game, that pays off in very high stakes that give the war story meaning.
All the time spent going on field trips in the first game, getting to know the towns and people within them, also pays off. In Cold Steel, Erebonia was a mostly peaceful country, growing political tensions notwithstanding; in Cold Steel II, there’s a full-blown war, and the towns and cities you’ve spent so much time in get inevitably caught in the crossfire. This game still has a lot of the light-hearted, character-building moments that made the first game so endearing, but they’re set against a much darker backdrop. Cold Steel II gets really, really bleak at times – but again, because of the work put in over the course of two games to make you really care, it’s potent, emotive sense of melancholy rather than some meaningless grimdark nonsense.
My point is that playing Trails of Cold Steel before Trails of Cold Steel II is vital. Even though it’s arguably better in a lot of ways (more on that in a bit), this isn’t a sequel where you can just jump in. There’s a brief recap of the first game in the main menu, but Cold Steel II is at its best when it builds off the emotional setup of Cold Steel. That’s something that plot summaries can’t begin to recreate.
As I said earlier, Cold Steel II is the second game in a trilogy. As such, even though it wraps up a lot of threads relating to this arc of the story, it still leaves plenty of unanswered questions. It also ends on another cliffhanger, paving the way for Trails of Cold Steel III, which is currently in development. The ending strikes a good balance between making the game feel complete and leading onto the next one, so the wait for the finale won’t be quite so agonizing.
Though gameplay is largely the same, Cold Steel II does make some welcome improvements to the formula. The biggest change is a new battle mechanic called Overdrives: fighting well fills a new gauge, and when it’s ready, a compatible pair of characters can trigger Overdrive mode. Then, for three turns, these characters get guaranteed critical hits, instant spell casts, some stat boosts, and a big burst of healing – it’s a great way to turn the tides of battle. There are also new special attacks for each character, new spells, and even some new party members (though, sadly, most of them are temporary).
In the latter half of the game, exploration also gets some nice improvements thanks to the acquisition of a horse, a motorbike, and an airship. The horse was present in Cold Steel, but you could only ride it in one area; now, after reaching a certain milestone in the game, you can summon it almost anywhere. Likewise, Angelica’s beloved Orbal Bike – previously confined to the realm of cutscenes – is yours to ride, if a steel horse is more your style. The airship you can’t control directly, but you can use it to revisit places you’ve been previously in a way that you never could in the first game. This is put to great use by the numerous sidequests Class VII is burdened with, and it also means you can return to Ymir regularly for a spot of snowboarding.
One of my favourite things about Cold Steel II is how well it bridges the gap between the two games. Direct-sequel RPGs often struggle – it’s weirdly dissonant to start everyone at level 1 again, but letting players bring characters across can be a nightmare to design and balance. Cold Steel II doesn’t let you carry characters across, but Rean starts at level 40. That’s lower than most players would be at the end of Cold Steel, but the story does a good job of justifying why he’s weakened, and he’s nonetheless a lot stronger than at the start of his journey.
Similarly, the story is set up to avoid just dumping a party of 12 characters on the player. Cold Steel II starts with Rean all alone, and the first half of the game or so follows his efforts to reconnect with the rest of Class VII, who’ve all gone into hiding. Aside from the lovely moments that come from these reunions, it’s a great way to reintroduce each character, give them a spot in the limelight, and avoid overwhelming the player with choice about party setup.
All of this builds up into yet another excellent game from Falcom. It’s not a sequel to Trails of Cold Steel so much as it is a second episode, so it’s hard to describe it as better. Rather, Trails of Cold Steel II is a game that expertly builds off the groundwork laid down by the first game, and I’d urge anyone who likes JRPGs to play them both.
Matt received a digital copy of Trails of Cold Steel II from Bandai Namco for review.