On the trails again…
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is a role-playing game localized for us by the fine people at XSEED. It’s the first in the Cold Steel series of Trails games, and serves to tell us the tale of a young teenage boy named Rean who enrolls into a military academy known as Thors – assigned to the mysterious Class VII.
A school meant to teach you about war and tactics, Thors Academy (and your enrollment in Class VII) pretty much drags you into the middle of things right away as you’re put to use learning by doing. As you progress through the story however, the details are filled in – and your missions become more and more important.
Interested? Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves…
The story often had so many things happening at once that it was difficult to even focus on the main plot. You’d start to learn something about the main story, then something strange would happen and you’d be left with more questions (on top of all the other questions you already had going in). This happened so much in the game that it got quite frustrating. Considering I felt that the game drags on a bit too long for my liking, having all these side stories happening and distracting so much from the plot was a letdown.
Along with that odd choice of progression (or lack thereof), I noticed that the game seemed to have that cliché “everyone must say something” shtick. During any story portion where the characters would talk, everyone had to pipe in and say something. This wouldn’t bother me as much if I actually had a connection with more of the characters, but there’s a lot of them in the game; making it quite easy to just not care about certain ones.
With all of that in mind however when I finally got near the end of the story things really picked up and I was hooked, wanting to find out what was going to happen next. If they kept this feeling throughout the game I think it would have been better at holding your attention. It seemed early on that Trails was also trying to get a somewhat Persona vibe with social links where you could use bonding points to experience moments with your classmates, but ultimately it fell a little short and wasn’t anywhere near as good as how Persona 4 felt in terms of bonding. I was always left wanting more to happen between the characters. I was hoping that this would help me to like more of the characters and sometimes it did work but mostly it did not.
A lot of the game involves doing minor quests as well as a main quest to advance the story. Each month your teacher sends you on a field study to a new city with a select group of your classmates. In these cities you do quests for the days you’re there and of course something happens each time. This repetitive mechanic can get a bit old at times, which is something that I wish they would have changed up a bit more. That said however, new locations and being forced to explore the city you’re in was a good way to see interesting and new places.
With most Japanese RPGs the gameplay is pretty similar but of course with different little twists and mechanics. Trails of Cold Steel is no exception to that. You can free roam the city where Thor’s Military Academy is located (Trista), and when you visit other cities you can do the same. When you’re in a dungeon or on an out-of-town road you will have monsters that roam around, visible on the screen and the map. If you get spotted by one they will charge you, though if you’re sneaky you can use your weapon to stun them from behind – gaining an advantage in battle. Keeping that in mind can really help you out in time when you’re needing to farm and don’t have many items to heal with.
The battle system is very similar to any RPG that uses a time based attack system. Basically you have portraits on the side showing from top to bottom who attacks first. Some arts (magic attacks) can take longer to cast so they will push you down the list while other attacks like basic attacks and skills require no casting time. Keeping this in mind is very important as you get further in the game as more elements are added to the time gauge. Sometimes the bar will have an icon next to a portrait that signifies a certain status boost. These can vary from a 10% heal to a instant kill hit. By using arts or your S-Break (Special) attack you can change the order of the time line therefore making sure the enemy doesn’t get the health boost.
Role-playing games normally have a lot of deep mechanics, and of course that’s no different here. To use your arts and special abilities they have a device called the ARCUS. This device has slots in which you can place orbs called Quarts, thereby enhancing your status or adding arts. By using these Quarts effectively you can really compliment certain character’s strengths, so it’s something to look into right away when starting the game.
No RPG would be without weapons, armor, and accessories to upgrade – and, once again, Trails takes a pretty normal route with the idea. You can either buy new weapons and armor, or you can upgrade your weapon using U-Material. One major flaw I noticed in the game was whenever you’d go to a new town and you’d have different classmates with you; your partners accessories and quarts would be unequipped. Considering how often you travel to new cities with new classmates having to constantly re-equip a lot of the gear can get annoying. I see why they might do it though, as you may have really good quarts you want to keep with you – but they should have added a “lock” option to negate this, or some other sort of work-around.
Graphics have never been an overly important aspect to me when it comes to video games, so I didn’t really have an issue with Trails of Cold Steel’s slightly dated look. Being that it’s a port of a title that was released in Japan over two years ago you can hardly expect the graphics to be stunning, however the game has some frame rate issues and long loading times that could have probably been cleaned up a bit – and weren’t. While it’s true that the Vita can do better than what’s offered here, you can’t expect a complete overhaul when porting a title like this – so what we’re seeing is acceptable, if not polished.
The sound in the game has equally numerous moments of being both really good and annoying. The best part of the sound system in Cold Steel has to do with discovering a new area. Whenever you’re in a new place the music changes, something that reminded a lot of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (which is my favorite game of all time). The music for each area is well chosen, and every time I ventured somewhere new I felt like the music was a part of the discovery – setting the tone for your exploration.
Now for the bad; for some reason whenever they want everyone to yell something together (like a group affirmation such as “RIGHT!”) the audio is over-powered and poor sounding. The mix seems off as it both breaks the volume range it’s supposed to occupy, and cracks like improperly compressed audio. This kind of oversight in quality control is very annoying, and though it doesn’t “break the game” with regards to experience it’s something you should be aware of.
Another important thing to note is that Cold Steel includes an English voice-over, but doesn’t include the original Japanese voice-over in any way. While it’s nice to cater to the English-speaking world and those who prefer to listen to the game, the lack of the original voice-over is bound to upset some – including our Editor-in-Chief Kyle.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is a long game with many ups and downs. If you’re looking for a deep role-playing game to sink your teeth into then it might be up your alley, but with frame-rate issues and a convoluted story it’s not really something I can recommend to the casual player – or those who need perfection.