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The Playstation 3 was first released for sale in 2006. Nearly a decade after its launch, its lineup of notable new game releases has been thinning out, as gamers proceed to move onto newer platforms. It can be easy to overlook games that are released late in a system’s lifetime, which is unfortunate, as some of the best games on a system often end up coming out during this period. For fans of JRPGs with impeccable writing quality and fully-realized worlds to explore, it would be wise to look into this December 2015 release, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel.

Trails of Cold Steel sees the series take a close-up look at the Erebonian Empire, which lies north of the Liberl Kingdom (the setting for the earlier Trails in the Sky games). Unlike Liberl, Erebonia is a gigantic nation, rife with classism and the injustices that it brings forth. Just below the royalty in power, the noble class is afforded rights and privileges which are openly denied to the common folk. This discrepancy in society has been the case for quite a long time, and not everyone in the country is happy with the current division of social status. On one side of this conflict is the Noble Faction, which consist of noble families (including the Four Great Houses) who insist on remaining true to tradition, and keeping the social classes as they are. Opposing them are the Reformist Faction, who consist of commoners who strive to eliminate differences in class, and are slowly gaining power in Erebonian politics. Tensions are high between the two factions, and it’s this conflict that serves as the undercurrent for one’s experience when playing Cold Steel.

It is in this setting that Thors Military Academy, a highly-regarded Erebonian school, introduces a new classroom of students that goes by the name of Class VII. The other classes at Thors are segregated between noble and commoner students, but Class VII is purposefully made up of students of varied backgrounds, including both nobles and commoners. This is understandably a controversial move, which causes much confusion and uproar, both inside and outside the class. Cold Steel‘s main character, Rean Schwarzer, is just one of many new students to Thors who becomes a part of this new Class VII. While all of Class VII’s students are important to the story in their own way, it is through Rean’s eyes that the player will experience the story first-hand.

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Trails in the Sky‘s protagonist, Estelle Bright, was by far one of my favorite characters I’ve ever seen in a story. Coming off of a lead character as interesting and entertaining as her, Rean has some big shoes to fill. Unlike her, Rean is a fairly mellow, easy-going person, albeit with his own issues to work through. Outside of the main story, he kind of fills the role of being a blank slate for the player to project themselves onto, to some extent, though he’s still a unique character with his own place in the world, along with a personal journey of his own to head forth down. I do think he’s a more interesting character than he might come across as initially, and his voice actor, Sean Chiplock, does an impressive job with his role. Ultimately, I still prefer Estelle as a lead character, but Rean is no slouch. Many of the other main characters in Cold Steel are also great in their own way; in particular, I really enjoyed the personalities and acting of fellow Class VII student Laura S. Arseid, for her balance of maturity, honor, and personal ambition, as well as that of Student Council president Towa Herschel, for being possibly the cutest character to ever exist in a video game.

This game does take place primarily in a school setting, which is a big change of pace from the more standard adventure feel that Trails in the Sky had. I personally am indifferent to high school settings in general, but I think it works well here. One thing that helps make this stand out from the typical high school is that Thors Military Academy is… well, a military academy. There will be combat, and occasional tasks that require you to investigate ruins or depart on “field studies”, which play out much like visiting a new area in a more typical JRPG. These trips feature new places to explore and quest in, as well as help the player to gain a deeper understanding of the Erebonian political climate as you travel from area to area. It’s pretty formulaic in execution, but I found it to be done well. There is a nice balance between the two, which prevents either the school-focused side, or the adventure-focused side, from wearing out their welcome.

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Thankfully the game makes it blatantly clear when you’re about to pass any “point of no return”, so that if you wish to finish up any side quests or find any hidden items before moving to the next area, you are able to do so. This is a welcome change from Trails in the Sky, where there are a good amount of easily-missed quests that only can be found by purposefully breaking away from the main story in places where it doesn’t feel natural to do so. This more easily allows the player to play through at their own pace, and not have to constantly worry about taking a step down the wrong path before they’re prepared. At first, the ways in which this game’s design and setting differ from Trails in the Sky might feel jarring, but when you get into the groove of things, it becomes clear that this is indeed a Trails game, and if you enjoyed Trails in the Sky, you will likely enjoy Trails of Cold Steel as well.

Combat in Cold Steel is very much along the lines of the previous Trails games – you have physical melee attacks; orbal arts (magic) which you can cast, at the expense of waiting for a spell to charge up (as well as using up your Energy points/EP); and special attacks known as “crafts”, which draw their power from Craft points/CP (refilled by giving or taking damage). The one major new addition that shakes up the whole system, is the Arcus Link system that is new to Cold Steel. Via this system, your party members can link together (represented by a glowing line on the ground that connects them), which represents their movements and actions being in tune with each other. This starts out as a simple addition initially, in that sometimes when one character makes a physical attack, the enemy will be knocked off balance, which allows their link partner to jump in and make a free follow-up attack. As each character’s link bond levels up, they gain more and more link abilities, such as automatically healing their partner or making a counterattack when their partner is hurt. Later in the game, this extends into yet another addition to the system, which involves Bravery points (one point gained for each unbalancing link attack you initiate). When you get enough Bravery points saved up, you can choose to do a Rush attack instead of the standard single link attack, which is much like the group attack craft ability from Trails in the Sky SC. Utilizing these various link abilities is key to succeeding in combat, and dramatically adjusts the focus of the battle system from the more traditional balance of simply basing your tactics off of each character’s individual strengths (be they physical or magical in nature).

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These aforementioned Arcus Links between each pair of characters can be leveled up either though battling together while linked, or by engaging in various social activities together, outside of combat. This plays into the school setting, as there will be various opportunities to hang out with a classmate, help them with a social issue, or even study together. As you take on these opportunities to bond with a classmate, their link level with Rean will increase, which improves their effectiveness in combat, and potentially can have a major effect on a certain story thread late in the game. The story will by and large be the same, no matter who you bond with the most, but it’s a nice little feature that adds a significant amount of replay value, in order to see all the bonding events you might have missed out on during your first play through.

The orbment system (for new players to the series, this is basically the magic customization system) resembles Final Fantasy VII‘s Materia system even more than before, as each character now has a master quartz, which can be leveled-up over time to unlock new spells and passive abilities. There are additional master quartzes which can be bought or found, but I found that most of the default master quartzes that each character has are already pretty effective. Rean’s master quartz in particular has a special ability that allows him to regenerate extra CP for every enemy he kills, which makes it remarkably easy to use his crafts over and over and over again, with little time (if any) needed to regenerate his CP afterward. I played the game on Normal, and didn’t feel the need to heavily customize my party’s orbments, or experiment with new master quartzes. Normal difficulty is perhaps a little too easy; I might suggest playing on a higher difficulty than Normal if you really want a challenge, though the lower difficulties’ presence is appreciated for those players who are mostly into this for the story.

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Cold Steel‘s overall presentation is a big shift from the previous games, as you have fully-3D graphics for the first time in the series, as well as character designs that are realistically proportioned. Alongside the sound effects and music (which as usual, meets Falcom‘s high standards for being catchy and dynamic), there is also voice-acting for many of the lines in the main story; previous games had voice acting during battles, but it’s now present during cutscenes and conversations too. Oddly, Rean rarely has voice acting, even when other characters do in any given scene; I found this to be very strange, and that it kind of hampered the presentation. It’s especially a shame, since I personally like his voice acting when he does have it, so scenes where Rean is the only character without voiced dialogue are a letdown in that regard.

Technically speaking, this is a much more polished release than Trails in the Sky SC, which was the last English-localized game prior to this. The game runs very smoothly for the most part, albeit with occasional framerate dips during particularly busy environments, such as those of Chapter 2. This game isn’t pushing any boundaries as far as graphics tech goes, so the frame rate dips are particularly unusual. It’s possible this might be more impressive graphically when played on the Vita, since any graphical imperfections would be less noticeable on a smaller screen, but I don’t own a Vita so I can’t compare the PS3 version with it. There are also a few typos here and there, particularly late in the game, but they didn’t ruin the experience for me. By and large, the localization succeeds in living up to the high standards XSEED has established with the previous Legend of Heroes games that they’ve brought out in English, and technically this release is an improvement.

As a Trails fan, I love the several tie-ins that this game’s story has with Trails in the Sky FC and SC. Unfortunately, since none of the Trails games in between these games and Cold Steel have been localized in English as of this writing, there are likely other story and character tie-ins that were lost on me during my play through. Still though, the main story is very easy to follow along with, even if this happens to be one’s first exposure to the Trails universe. On its own terms, I grew to love Thors and the surrounding town of Trista, and seeing how the same characters changed and grew over time with each passing day. If you’ve never played a Trails game, this is an okay place to start.

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Trails of Cold Steel, like its predecessor Trails in the Sky, is a slow burn. It takes its time to flesh out the world and characters, so it can take awhile to really get going, but when it does, it charges full-speed ahead. If you have the time to dedicate to a lengthy, gigantic JRPG with political intrigue and a dose of charm, go ahead and give it a try.

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