The third chapter in Nihon Falcom’s beloved role-playing franchise arrives on Switch. Portability for the title is largely an accomplishment, even if a few concessions had to be made.
Platform: Switch, previously on PS4, PC
Developer: Nihon Falcom, Engine Software
Publisher: NIS America
Release date: June 30th, 2020
Price: $59.99 via digital download
Availability: Nintendo eShop
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 some of the work of the Russo Brothers, the industry hasn’t quite mastered the art of simultaneously contributing to a larger lore while weaving its own compelling story.
Beating Middle Chapter Syndrome
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 scant closure, but the follow-up presented a tender pay-off that absolved the developers.
While You Can Start Here, Please Don’t!
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-chapter’ 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 the two preceding 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 necessarily 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 likely miss a few references. Another issue emerges for players who don’t own a PlayStation 4, PC, or PS Vita, the trio of systems that hosted Cold Steel I and II. Publishing rights to these predecessors are still presumably held by XSEED, but so far there’s been no mention of Switch ports. As such, you’ll need to own at least one other hardware platform to get the complete experience with this iteration of Cold Steel III.
The Ashen Chevalier Still Makes Hearts Flutter
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.
Building up to Cold Steel IV
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.
Grinding at Super Speed
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 (or key presses) 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.
ARCUS II V3 is the Mech for Me
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 allows for a bit of quartz slotting that help suit your preferred approaches to battle.
Side-Questing as a Full Time Job
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.
Dr. Peter “Durante” Thoman’s programming prowess elevated the PC port of Trails of Cold Steel III. Fortunately, some of that wizardry made it into Engine Software’s Switch Port. First, the bad news: the framerate target has been halved to a modest 30fps. Typically, that goal achieved during combat, which helps keep encounter feeling lively. But like the Vita ports of Cold Steel I and II, towns can stymie the Switch. As such, expect to witness sporadic dips when draw distances reach out. In handheld mode, Image quality compares favorably to the PS4 iteration, although the absence of anti-aliasing becomes more noticeable when the system in docked.
Pleasingly, the Switch iteration retains the dual language option, offering both Japanese and English voice acting. But given the colossal size of the game’s script, expect a portion of conversations to be spoken. Last, turbo speeds are an analog stick click away, with the port permitting players to speed through some of the more tedious aspect of the game.
Following a laborious localization process, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III’s arrival on Switch 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 supporters 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 lead up is this rewarding, patience shouldn’t be completely daunting.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III was played
on Switch with review code provided by the publisher.