Only a few years ago, the console role-playing game seemed to be in peril, its existence whittled down to a few decisive hit points. Pundits predicted that a combination of escalating production prices, dwindling audiences, and a rise in mobile gaming would eventually form the fateful coup de grâce. But much like role-playing’s resilient protagonists, the genre has bravely fought adversity, and is even enjoying a mild renaissance. From Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance, Tales of Zestiria, Stella Glow, and Lost Dimension, RPGs might not have the massive following they once enjoyed, but they are hardly scarce.
As inspiring as quality is, it’s the wave of quality that’s truly invigorating, with many contemporary efforts riding a crest of craftsmanship. The latest example of this trend is Nihon Falcom’s The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel, a recent release for both the PlayStation 3 and Ps Vita. Building on their success with the incessantly charming The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky series, Cold Steel persists Falcom’s ability at cultivating engaging battle mechanics, an interesting cast of characters, and a game world which truly feels alive. While Estella and Joshua might not be around for this one, Trails in the Sky’s verbose characterization, as well as a healthy amount of Persona 3-inspired mechanics, are likely to win the affections of role-playing aficionados.
An extended prologue introduces players to the game’s sizable cast of characters. Seen through the eyes of the amiable Rean Schwarzer, Trails of Cold Steel centers on the formation of Thors Military Academy Class VII. As a co-ed class comprised of both nobles and commoners, there’s plenty of tension when the nine members are first united. Jusis Albarea, born in one of the four noble families of the Erebonian Empire continually bickers with Machias Regnitz- who’s persistently resentful of the birthrights given to the ruling class. A slip-up during training puts Alisa Reinford in an embarrassing position atop of Rean, causing the young blonde to treat the protagonist with contempt. Then, there’s Fie Claussell, who’s an agile and fierce combatant, but continually shirks her studies and acts indifferent toward the rest of the class.
Like most RPGs, Cold Steel doesn’t skimp on metaphor, with the frictions of Class VII replicated on a larger, geo-political scale that threatens to plunge the Erebonian Empire into civil war. Adeptly, the game manages to keep the multiple levels of conflict interesting. Even more remarkable, is the title’s handling of its extended cast. While there’s a slight reliance on trope for characterization, through expended exposition and dialog, Class VII’s student body is given complexity and their social rapport that remains compelling through the title’s 50+ hour playtime. Adeptly, Falcom delivers backstory for each member of its cast, weaving an intriguing tapestry of likable characters. For some, the game’s tendency toward copious amount of inter-character conversations might be off-putting, but like Tales in the Sky, this is Falcom’s method of world building.
Like Persona 3, your schedule is split between dungeon crawls and free time where social bonds can be nurtured. The former sends adventuring parties skulking through slightly spartan interiors, confronting the sporadic creature and even more infrequent boss. While rooted in RPG convention, Cold Steel makes a number of shrewd design decisions to ensure that combat doesn’t plunge into tedium.
Beyond your basic physical attacks and ability to use items, each character has an arsenal of Arts and Crafts that are dominant enough to dumbfound any Etsy seller. The source of your Artistic arsenal is found in orbiments, small boxes given to each cadet where any obtained pieces of quartz can be installed, much like Final Fantasy VII’s Materia system. Experimenting with different types of orbs produces a wide array of effects, it’s up to players to exploit those perks, with 23 different status effects adding intricacy.
For most players, Crafts will be especially gratifying, with players able to summon a variety of area-of-effect kill zones that can deliver anguish to a group of adjacent enemies. Eventually, characters will learn the S-Craft, a strike that is not only exceedingly powerful, but can also be used at any time regardless of the turn order. Beyond two different energy pools for Arts and Crafts, the other significant difference is that Crafts are character-specific, where cadets gain access to authoritative abilities during the duration of the campaign. With quite a few elemental elements, learning the weakness of each type of monster endows Trails of Cold Steel with a pleasing dose of longevity.
Once back on campus, battling is complemented with bonding with your fellow cadets. Naturally, you don’t have an unlimited amount of time to build rapport, with players able to build rapport with two or three characters. The limitation forces you to determine which bonds are the most essential, and since your affinity with different characters has a significant effect on combat, Trails forces some thorny decisions and forces you to live with them. Ream’s role in the student council in the impetus behind a slew of optional side-quests. Given the magnitude of these errands, it’s conceivable that dedicated players could stretch Trails of Cold Steel playtime past the hundred hour threshold.
Beyond the occasional austere environment, the title largely excels in Legend of Heroes’ transition to the third dimension. Character design is especially pleasing, with each cadet sporting a richly detailed academic wardrobe, with attire that ranges from stylish blazers, slacks, leggings, and skirts. Likewise, Class VII members express a broad range of emotions, bolstering the game’s sense of sentiment. Nihon Falcom’s melodic dexterity shines here as well, with Cold Steel delivering a number of memorable pieces. The game’s only real aural fault is the reliance on an English dub; while the quality of the voice acting is respectable, too many male characters have a similar speaking style.
Beyond the ability to cross-save between the PlayStation 3 and PS Vita iterations, the developers included a number of additional elements to improve the experience. Except for in the middle of dialog sequences, players can save at almost any time. Random encounters, a role-playing relic, have largely been removes, with visible enemies that can sporadically be avoided. Lastly, the addition of an multi-faceted, in-game encyclopedia is a worthwhile addition, supplying everything from a larger map, to a notebook system which details quests, character bios, dialog, and even battle stats.
While the game’s verbosity might not agree with all gamers, there’s no denying that The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is one of the better role-playing experiences of recent history. Demonstrating Nihon Falcom proficiency with role playing, the title’s mixture of absorbing combat and poignant characterization is destined to delight fans. As long as the genre continues producing titles of this caliber, role-playing is poised to remain resilient.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel was played on the PS Vita with review code provided by the publisher.
Platform: PlayStation 3, PS Vita
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: XSEED Games
Release date: December 22nd, 2015
Price: $39.99 via retail or PSN, $49.99 for Lionheart Edition