The PS3/Vita Trails of Cold Steel 1 & 2 recently received an HD port on PS4 (as of this writing, the second game is still to be released in the US) and I thought it would be nice to relieve the first two original releases, and serve as a prep for those that have not played the titles.
Trails of Cold Steel is an RPG series by Nihon Falcom. It takes place in their Legend of Heroes storylines, which is a series of games that feature independent stories and arcs within the same gaming ‘world’. The first game fleshes out and sets the exposition of the story, and the second both continues the story and leads to an even larger climatic plot point. This particular story takes place in the Erebonian Empire, a militaristic land with a class system in place. Four major family houses that make up the upper echelons of the noble class have rallied together to withstand the political advances of a coalition of commoners, one whom has become Chancellor.
The prestigious Thors Military Academy, the setting for the preliminary exposition of the story, forms Class VII. Class VII is a mixed social class of students whom embark on various adventures throughout the empire. The purpose of the class is to show the students the various dynamics of the empire and, as should be expected, become players in the power struggle between the nobility and commoners.
The player takes control of Rean Schwarzer, one of the students of Class VII and the game’s protagonist. Rean has a rather massive backstory that fleshes itself over the course of Trails of Cold Steel, but in the interim he serves as both a head and bridge of Class VII, his actions driving the class at pivotal points in the story.
Rean and his classmates are tagged to perform various field studies throughout Erebonia. These consist of Rean and a selection of his classmates proceeding to a particular town or city, something besieges or ills said town or city, and Rean & his companions are tasked with resolving the issues. Along with the main quests tasked to the player there are various side quests and also hidden quests. While just the essential quests are required to advance completing the side quests allows for a higher rank, which will reward the player as they advance along the story.
When not on a field study trip, Class VII has their atypical school life sessions that consist of studying for lessons & tests and also performing various activities on campus. These include test battles and exploring an old school house located on campus, which plays a large role in the story. Rean also has opportunities to participate in special events with select characters, which are purposely limited in chances to force the player to pick favorites.
The RPG elements play out like a typical turn-based RPG. The two most noteworthy elements are randomized buffs, which can affect both players and enemies, and the Link System, a key function that the player has to build over time. Class VII uses a weapon system known as Arcus, which not only allows them to communicate with one another outside of battle but also attach various quartz (orbments) onto that can provide various buffs and special arts & attacks. As you can imagine there are also various characters tailored for specific roles; close battle melee, long ranged attacks, offensive and defensive magic spells, etc. Most of the battles consist of ensuring you keep running tabs on positions of the party and eventually, when you strengthen the Link System more among the party, who works well with whom.
Parties are not something immediately changeable by the player, but eventually more choices are given as to whom can be brought along. Even characters whom are not immediately members of Class VII will eventually join Rean and can also be selected to join in battle. The game has a tremendous among of character development, although arguably a good handful of characters flesh out better than others and further some character’s stories are not even touched upon in depth until later titles.
So where are the criticisms? And you also want to know where’s the cringe?
This game is SUPER trope & cliche’ laden. It’s actually astounding, and kind of hard for me to explain properly unless you go through a full play through. The narrative doesn’t play out like a JRPG but more feels like you’re watching a sword-play anime of sorts. What you come to realize is the party is never in any sort of real danger. Story scripted events play out with an initial sense of woe or benevolence, only for them to resolve by a chance encounter with a character or similar heroics that save the day. It happens CONSTANTLY (I’ve also come to learn, having now played Tokyo Xanadu, that this is moreover a common Nihon Falcom type thing with their games).
I also feel most of this possibly plays into my feeling of how the narrative seems to jump-progress; it’s almost episodic. The side quests, most of them basically serving as vessels to interact with all the side characters, are also filled with lots of additional tropes and cliche’s. Every trope, genre, fetish (just look at each lady’s socks; knee-highs, garters, lace. Every one of them is different), cliche’, is explored in some form.
In terms of typical RPG expectations there’s not a massive amount of exploration segments or real grind moments. The difficulty ultimately remains very low, and dying in boss battles gives you an option to replay it at a lower difficulty (you’re given more rounds of attacks and advantages for status buffs). While there is some cringe there’s no moments of fan service – ok… there’s a few – or other seemingly WAY out there cringe moments. Some boob jokes aside that are sprinkled through the game, typically at the expense of Emma (as Glasses is Best Girl), everything kind of just progresses how you’d expect a lower difficulty JRPG to.
As mentioned the first game is incredibly linear. So linear it’s almost painful. You’re really not allowed to deviate much from the given story and progression, and even when you can it’s largely due to character selections which give slightly different narratives. Otherwise you progress the same way regardless of how you play through. And get ready to look at some very dull locations, as outside any of the towns and cities everything is very dull and repetitive. Hell to be honest even the towns and cities can be repetitive.
I will say that I enjoyed seeing both 3D characters alongside 3D portraits when characters engage with one another, but wow are they really stiff. You also can tell Nihon Falcom was focused more on the female side of the characters, as Class VII’s female characters pose and move in ways that easily ID them individually, while the male side (and to be honest ALL the males in the game) appear to utilize the same animations. If you were expecting Final Fantasy levels of character animations then you’re playing the wrong game… The English voice over work by English localizer XSeed is a bit of a mixed bag. Laura’s voice actress really sounds like she’s trying to lay out a tough-girl accent, and Rean’s voice actor sometimes doesn’t put enough emotion into the lines when it’s needed. Other characters though have voice over work done that I feel really fits their characters’ well, such as Instructor Sara who has a lot of enthusiasm that works well and the voiced rivalry of Jusis and Machias sounds very believable.
The absolute one thing though that just kills me about this title – and I’ll preface I don’t think that this is a spoiler necessarily since Nihon Falcom themselves push this in their promotional material – the final battle of the first game basically means you HAVE to play the second. Not only does it end on a massive Mount Everest sized cliffhanger – no exaggeration – but it also introduces an ENTIRELY DIFFERENT battle mechanic in the form of mecha fights that serve as a key element in the second title. It’s almost as if Nihon Falcom knew what they were doing ending the first game where they end it, and were like “Oh yeah; now everyone HAS to go out and buy the second game.” ‘Cause mecha fights!!
It’s no exaggeration that if you were to try and play the second game without playing the first that you would be utterly lost as to what is going on. I’m not even certain a trek through a synopsis or Wikia page would help.
The second game is not a wasted romp however. In addition to introducing a slew of gaming mechanics and useable characters to the story the narrative really opens up to the player. While still relatively linear the player is given (eventually…) a lot of freedom on where to send Rean and his group, and being able to explore Erebonia near unhinged is nice. It does involve a lot of back tracking, since the second game utilizes most all the same locations and settings as the first, but how you progress is at least opened a little.
Other than the introduction of some new mechanics as mentioned, the second title is game play wise the same as the first. It does actually take a little longer to complete, simply because there are so many places opened to the player simultaneously that it means the player will have to speed a lot of time running around places to complete side quests (there’s also another set of quests I won’t spoil here, but become a treat for players that came to know various students at Thors).
So are these buys?
With the recent HD ports now on PS4 and the expanded voiced lines by XSeed (most of these appeared in the original PC port of the title), I’d say the current titles would not be wasted buys. However if you’re not the type of person that cares about special editions then I would just purchase the regular versions of each. Replayability is fairly tangible here in that there are rewards for replaying these titles once completed, however I personally have not returned to the first title for another full play through (I do have some ‘strategic saves,’ since part of the story is of Rean woo’ing over his fairer sex classmates and ultimately choosing one he most clicks with, which also reward PSN achievement trophies). Completing the first game does allow the player to carry over some select features to the second title. If you’re not the type of person that really cares about more voiced lines and HD formats The PS3/Vita versions are also not wasted buys and quite easy to find cheap with the HD ports being released. The third game in the series on the PS4 utilizes an updated gaming engine and interface, which also will carry over to the fourth title (both of these titles have yet to see an English release and it’s currently not known if they’ll come stateside although Nihon Falcom has expressed interest in an English release).
We do need more Rean piloting mecha Nihon Falcom.