Hollywood invests extraordinary amounts of time, talent, and wealth to sustain their film franchises. Occasionally, these resources go unrewarded, with efforts like 2017’s The Mummy, which was so preoccupied with launching spin-offs for Universal Pictures that it forgot to deliver a compelling narrative.
Even power players like Disney have struggled, with 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story blemishing the beloved property with an empty backstory based on one of its most interesting characters. Save for the Russo Brothers, the industry hasn’t quite mastered the art of simultaneously contributing to a larger lore while weaving its own compelling story.
Undoubtedly, Tachikawa-based Nihon Falcom seems to have a handle on the apparently arduous undertaking. Nonsequential releases and some shoddy localizations aside, The Legend of Heroes series has been progressively increasing in quality since its inaugural outing, 1989’s Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes.
Encompassing five distinct arcs with multiple games across each sub-series, Falcom has repeatedly demonstrated adeptness with dual-function storytelling. Entries in the Trails in the Sky and Trails of Cold Steel metaseries function as absorbing standalone chapters while also revealing pieces of Zemuria’s complicated, conflict-prone history. Sure, Cold Steel might have ended on a cliffhanger that delivered much closure, but the follow-up presented a tender pay-off that absolved the developers.
As the third entry in a quartet, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III is faced with telling an engaging tale while setting things up for the final installment, which would be precarious undertaking for many studios. Set a year and a half after the events of Trails of Cold Steel III, the follow-up eludes the extraneous feel of ‘middle-entry’ syndrome, with the delight of seeing returning characters, the introduction of a new cast, the gradual escalation of tension, along with muted reminders of the first two Trails of Cold Steel games.
Familiarity with those two titles is a near-requisite. Sure, the title does it’s best to acclimate players with encyclopedic summaries of characters and setting. But synopsis is reductionist, and you’ll undoubtedly miss many of the gratifying details and callbacks if this is your starting point. But given that Western players still aren’t privy to localizations of Zero no Kiseki and Ao no Kiseki, even diehard Trails followers will likley miss a few references.
Like any respectable epic, Cold Steel III’s post-civil war situation draws comparison to the past and establishes context for conflicts to come, with Erebonia’s annexation of Crossbell and North Ambria, dwarfing the landmass and population of once-rival, The Republic of Calvard. With the seeds of resentment planted, Cold Steel III surveys imperialism from a multitude of perspectives. While the plotline could have easily descended into preachy finger-wagging, Falcom’s scenario writers are too clever for that.
Naturally, the content is assessed by a multitude of key players. After graduating from Thors Military Academy, protagonist Rean Schwarzer is recruited as a Class VII instructor for a branch campus. As such, Cold Steel III is poised to evoke recollections of Rean’s younger days, when many of classmates recognized his concern for other and his potential for leadership. And yes, the Ashen Chevalier remains a magnet for affections, and there might be moment when you wish the writers didn’t have to remind us.
Unsurprisingly, several additional harbingers suggest the potential for conflict. Following family tradition, Crown Prince Cedric’s matriculates at the main campus, where the curriculum is becoming increasingly militaristic. Meanwhile, the branch campus is beginning to look a lot like an outpost for outcasts. While we might expect Rean’s reputation to earn respect from the new Class VII, two recruits take issue with his involvement in the war, creating some tensions that evoke the class issues of Cold Steel.
Safeguarding expectations, the five new Class VII students are distinctive, exhibiting the kind of idiosyncratic demeanors that makes watching their interactions so gratifying. But expect to not quite feel satiated by Cold Steel III’s backstory and arcs. Although there’s enough pulp and pensiveness to make the game’s trek satisfying, it’s evident that Falcom is holding exposition back for the final installment. That said, witnessing Ream’s detractors have a slow change of heart is fulfilling. And seeing Rean’s old classmates lend a hand will unquestionably delight series followers.
The bulk of your time as instructor involves field exercises that impart enough lessons and combat training to help the new recruits grow. It’s here that you’ll discover a few key additions that Falcom has made, which contribute to Cold Steel III’s success. One of the most beneficial is the change to the user interface. Simplified button mapping streamlines the turn-based encounters with directional keys and face buttons issuing commands.
Turbo Mode, which allowed players to fast-forward through the PlayStation 4 and PC remakes of Cold Steel I and II is integrated now, offering a convenient technique to power-leveling. Not that you’ll need to grind. Save for some boss battles found in the first two chapters, the game rarely feels punitive permitting you to freely shift across four difficulty settings (there’s also a nightmare mode for all you wonderful masochists). Pleasingly, the series fast traveling system has been augmented, allowing you to instantly revisit a dungeon or field to conveniently acquire a quest item. Obviously, it’s disabled if you need to enter an area to trigger exposition.
Score a critical in battle with an attack or craft and you’re given Brave Points. These can be spent by issuing a Brave Order, buffing the entire party in the process. It’s a useful addition that contributes another tactical option since different characters extend their own distinctive party assists. Yet, another ‘Break’ mechanic is the addition of meter that exists under each foe’s HP bar. Deplete the Break Gauge and you’ll greatly increase the amount of damage your party dishes out and puts an end to the enemies’ buffs. Miserly players like myself might even opt to take to the road with only the essentials, depleting the meter to trigger item drops.
The growing bond between Rean and his mech Valimar, was absorbing, leading to pay-offs where you’ll take on enormous opponents. This time out, the students of Class VII get their own Panzer Soldat mechs, allowing for some spectacular battles that allow for their own distinct forms of strategy. While Cold Steel has consistently favored prebuilt characters over customizable party members, the third iteration ARCUS II allowing for a bit of quartz slotting that help suit your preferred approaches to battle.
Expectedly, there’s always a multitude of activities that vie for your attention. If you feel the urge to take a break from the main storyline, there’s always a multitude of side-quests that habitually offer a plethora of dividends. Vantage Masters updates the game of Blade, adding a deck-building component to the card-based recreation that’s too robust to be called a mini-game. Naturally, fishing makes a return, challenging players to tweak variable like line tension and hook style in hopes of landing a prize catch.
Leaving the PS Vita behind, Trails of Cold Steel III was built from the ground up for the PlayStation 4. While the game’s scope is undoubtedly impressive, occasionally details divulge its two-year-old age, with the occasional drop is framerate on a PlayStation 4 Pro or the occasional low-res environmental texture. Fortunately, these blemishes are trivial enough to overlook.
Less pardonable is the lack of additional voice acting for the Western release. Former publisher XSEED augmented re-releases with additional dialog, eliminating the schism between spoken dialog and on-screen text. On the upside, NIS America’s localization is largely skillful, capably capturing the meaning of the original, massive amount of text.
Following a laborious localization process, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III arrival in the West is a reason for celebration. Validating Nihon Falcom’s ability to tell both an engaging solo story and build on a multifaceted meta-narrative, it would be hard to imagine series supporter finding anything but inconsequential flaw with this outing. Instead, the countless hours spent returning to Erebonia are poised to construct the kind of salient memories that only the most paramount properties provide. Waiting for the fourth installment is going to be testing, but when the experience is this rewarding, patience shouldn’t be completely daunting.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III was played on
the PlayStation 4 with review code provided by the publisher.