The Legend of Heroes franchise can best be compared to an epic fantasy series. A multitude of characters participate in an elaborate, political plot that features extensive character growth in a fleshed-out world. If you take the time to really dig into the world you will find yourself greatly rewarded for it. Trails of Cold Steel II is no different.
First, it cannot be stated enough that you have to play the first Trails of Cold Steel before even thinking of picking up this sequel. Trails of Cold Steel and Trails of Cold Steel II aren’t exactly sequels, per sé, so much as two halves of the same game. Skipping the first game would likely leave any new player confused, frustrated, and completely blindsided by the sheer volume of backstory needed to fully enjoy this game. It may seem like quite a feat to play through two 60+ hour RPGs, but it is well worth it. With all that said, this review will only contain very light spoilers for both games.
Trails of Cold Steel II begins one month after the tense ending of Trails of Cold Steel. The protagonist Rean Schwarzer finds himself separated from his friends and stranded in an unknown land. As Rean travels across the country he slowly reconnects with classmates and mentors while discovering the motivations behind two warring factions. The game will have you going to new locations as well as towns and cities visited during the first game. While I loved seeing how recent events had effected every city I returned to, there was also a bit of environment fatigue as the game recycles some fields while changing only the location of a few chests and the available enemies.
The story here is great, but the characters are where the game truly shines. More character development is in store for a majority of the characters. So much for some that characters with less of a role here or characters who grew the most in the first game might pale a bit in comparison. Among the changes to characters I greatly appreciated were the redesigned costumes for the main cast. Because they were stuck in their school uniforms for a majority of the first game, having every character in unique and well-designed outfits at all times in Cold Steel II absolutely thrilled me.
Even NPCs have mini story-arcs throughout, and rediscovering familiar faces to see how they are handling the events of the game is legitimately touching. The writing between these games is strong enough that every time I saw a minor student NPC reappear I was excited to know what they had been up to and what will be next for them.
Mechanically, the game is largely the same save for an additional set of new features in both the combat systems and field exploration. While a battle still sees the player making combat links and launching crafts, artes, and normal attacks at enemies, the new Overdrive system adds another layer of power to your strategies. Drawing from a gauge that builds up with battles, the overdrive gauge, once activated, allows a pair of characters to act for three turns uninterrupted, guarantees an unbalancing effect on foes, instantly casts artes, AND restores 30% of their HP and EP as well as 30 CP. In a game that could already be fairly easy, the multitude of accessible game systems in place allow you to form a monstrously powerful team fairly easily, making the four difficulty options almost insignificant.
For those of you who completed the first game and disliked the new variety of battling introduced near the end, know that the system has been improved here. While I can’t go into too much detail for fear of spoiling Trails of Cold Steel, just know that they are still present in the game and the system is mostly the same, but the battles themselves are generally easier and more fleshed out than they were before.
Thankfully, some numbers for battle have been shifted around as well, as crafts are not nearly as powerful as they were in the first game, and artes have been given a pretty good buff. Having both of the main forms of damage being viable allows for much more diversity in strategy. One adjustment that I’m not too fond of is the lowering of accuracy stats across the board. While missed hits were occasional in the first game, here it feels like most characters have a default accuracy of about 75%, causing way more failed hits than I felt were fair and forcing me to mitigate the misses with valuable accessory and quartz slots.
There are pros and cons in the changes to traversing the world as well. Blue trial chests are located at certain points in the game. These new additions force two predetermined characters to take on a group of more-difficult-than-average monsters in order to unlock the ability for the pair to enter Overdrive when linked. I found these to be fun optional diversions that allowed me to really beef up any party combination I wanted. In a change for the worse, Trails of Cold Steel allowed you to attack monsters on the map to stun them and gain an advantage in combat but Cold Steel II made the same tactic exponentially more difficult to pull off. The stun inflicted on an enemy in the first game presented enough time to circle behind the enemy, attack, then enter combat with a bonus, but the stun time has been lowered here, making it more difficult than it’s worth to try and maneuver behind an enemy. I missed you, triple advantages!
The graphics of the game are largely the same as in Trails of Cold Steel. While text, the HUD, and most environments work nicely with the Vita’s resolution, character models still can seem occasionally blurry, especially when compared to what I know the Vita can pull off. Character cut-ins for special attacks and overdrives, however, are as crisp and attractive as ever. Some character models do have reworked, smoother animations, resulting in fewer awkwardly stiff cutscenes than were in the first game. The framerate is generally more solid here than it was in Trails of Cold Steel, but it still can chug a bit in larger cities and environments.
As with most Falcom games, the soundtrack for Trails of Cold Steel II is fantastic. Because it uses many tracks from the first game, the OST here is notably shorter. There are still plenty of new tracks to discover in the game, though, and not one of them is a dud.
Trails of Cold Steel II also offers a New Game + that will allow you to experience more of the story, with the option to make different choices, fast forward through sections you don’t care to see again, and play through a sidequest exclusive to NG+.