The classic JRPG experience we all know and love plus an overabundance of QoL features.
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: EU: Marvelous Games, PQube (Retail), US: XSEED
Release date: 29 Mar, 2019
Finally, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is coming to the PS4 with all the bells and whistles that weren’t in the PS3 version. Coupled with a few QoL changes, this is certainly the definite Console Version to get. Especially since, it comes with all the juicy improvements that makes it a much more enjoyable experience.
By the way, you’re in luck. Even though The Legend of Heroes is a long-running and kind of interconnected series, this one is a fresh and easy entry point into it. It is heartwarming to see that while many others have forfeited the classic JRPG design for AAA bombastic experiences, Nihon Falcom sticks to their guns and delivers something lost in modern times. Others could definitely learn from them. Good news for owners of the PS3 version, you can import your save and continue with this superior port.
Rean Schwarzer is our Main Character’s name and even though it sounds like a German-ish last name, I don’t really feel there is anything German about him. It’s a subtle touch but there’s surely more to him than a name. Add the new special Class VII that is put together based on different backgrounds and we get an extra quirky group that grows together. Why is it special? This is because in the world of Trails of Cold Steel people are separated by classes. Commoners and Nobles. It soon becomes clear that we are experiencing the forefront of something extraordinary.
Meticulous World Building
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is a lovingly crafted game that puts every word to use to enrich its world. Aside from the Main Story you can talk to every person at school and get tiny bits of information about them. They might be minute but they are also building smaller stories. Want to know more about the world? Head to the library and read it all up! The devil is really in the details with this game. Aside from that, you can also get to know other characters and bond with them, finding out more of their intricacies. There are many times where I have simply enjoyed walking around, talking to people and exploring.
What makes things even more interesting is the pacing. It’s split up into chapters and each of them consists of two parts. First, you take care of your duties within the Academy. After that, it’s Field Study time to experience the world. This is key because you get to know the Academy and its inhabitants, while the Field Study Missions introduce you to the world in an organic way. You are bonding with the characters by experiencing everything together, be it the people or the influence of politics.
If you are a meticulous player, you will see how time can just fly by. If you are only looking for the Main Story, that’s no problem too because the game helps out plenty to guide you through the path. There are also a few other features that make things quite a bit speedier.
Overwhelming Quality of Life Features and Performance
I can’t help but praise the extras this game offers to make it a much better User Experience. Just like their words, not a single button is wasted. While there is a standard configuration. The two shoulder buttons are customizable. Ready for shortcuts or… the Turbo! Once you experience the speed up, there is no doubt that you will wish for it to be a standard feature, it’s just that good. This is especially so when you go around on a personal exploration campaign, speeding everything up, even the battles and cutscenes! The best thing about it? It’s smart! It doesn’t speed up the music or time-sensitive inputs while in battle.
There’s also much more than a simple Menu where you do some quick equipment changes. The notebook provides a look back at tutorials that appeared within the game, character entries, character talk archives of mid exploration talks and more. Ever had the occasion of having to stop playing the game for quite some time until you have lost the plot after coming back? The Journal has got you covered with small summaries of the story that you’ve completed. Don’t know where to go next? Yep, it’s the Journal again. But…
After a few hours into the game I thought, “Man, walking around and is quite interesting but it can get dull to backtrack”. Then the game slaps me with an elaborate Fast Travel with a Map that even shows you the different accessible events and where the Main Characters are!
Organizing and Engaging in Combat
Enough about that. Let’s talk about the meat and potatoes of the game. First off, the standard things. You can Equip your character, just like other RPG. Upgrade those items by crafting or get new ones altogether. The most particular centerpiece consists of Orbs and Links. Due to Story reasons, Class VII has a special ARCUS that can be equipped with an Orb which heavily influences your stats and special bonuses such as recovering CP (Craft Points) after defeating an enemy or basic elementary buffs.
Links, on the other hand, are dynamic connections between each character and bring additional features. The higher your Bond Level, the more additional extra moves they can add to your standard attack at an Unbalance. Which leads us to the battle system. Overall, taking care of your Equipment is very simple and streamlined. Does that mean…? Yes! You will not be spending a lot of time fumbling around within the Menus and therefore you get a good gameplay pacing.
Do you know what’s also good for the pacing and gameplay? Why, enemies visibly wandering on the field, of course! Stop the thought of random battles immediately. There’s something even better. You can attack to stun them and if you hit them with the right attack/character, you can get up to a Triple Advantage. This means you can attack enemies up to three times without them being able to do anything. Quick disposal is your reward. Be careful. Each character has a different attack. You’ll need to calculate according to the attack speed or sneak up on them from behind to get the full benefits. There’s also a little trick I have found that helps me quite a bit. More about it later, though. Next up is the Battle System.
The Battle System
The Battle System is a traditional turn-based type that shows your turns ahead of time. A most prominent example is the Final Fantasy X CTB System. In Trails of Cold Steel, it comes with a twist. Occasionally, there are random effects that occur on an actors turn. Yes, even enemies. Be it healing a little bit of HP, reducing the magic cost to Zero or Critical attacks.
Magic is strong and requires some time for casting. Fast attacks come out immediately and are also quick back in line for the next move.
The character innate special attacks are Crafts and require CP. Not only do they unleash AoE attacks, but they are also instant. The catch is, you will need a little bit more time before it’s the characters turn again. As the CP gain is quite generous, you will most likely use them freely. This is a major plus because what good are special attacks if you can’t use them regularly?
Elemental weakness and status affections are obviously part of the package and can be observed with pressing Square when targeting at an enemy.
Later on, S-Crafts will join your repertoire of attacks. They are the ultimate ace cards and are usable at any time. Even on the enemies turn. The catch is, you need at least 100CP and the Max 200CP for the buffed up version. That’s not all though. It also takes a long time for the character to recover from that attack. So make sure you make that attack count because you’ll lose the character for one or two turns.
Despite the existence of a formation, the actual fight is dynamic. The actors are moving on the field. So the usage of AoE attacks do require some additional thought to pursue the best course of action.
Wait! You are probably thinking about the Links I mentioned before. They are also an important part of the Battle System. At any point in your turn you can link up characters, so don’t panic if you haven’t done so in the menus. So what do they do?
There’s an Unbalance System in here that gives different enemies and different characters proficiencies and resistance to four types of attacks: Slash, Stab, Strike and xxx. The higher the proficiency and lower the resistance the more likely is it to initiate a Link Attack with your linked up character. This is completely free additional damage.
Keeping things Fresh
Repetitiveness gets a reduction by introducing random elements. For one, every enemy except boss battles are on random settings. You never know what kind of enemy set up you’ll get outside of the initial on-field enemy. There are even some minor random elements within the battles. At random times you or your opponent can get special effects like HP recovery or guaranteed critical attacks, keeping you thinking at all times to optimize the created situation.
A little trick of how to get the initiative
About that neat little trick, I mentioned before. When you are on the field there’s a trick how you can get a back hit even if you are attacking frontal. Slow characters will not be able to do it but luckily our Main Character Rean Schwarzer can! To do that you need to hit them and circle around that enemy while they are stunned. Keep moving and hitting until you are at the back and then BOOM! You get the hit from the back.
Your Difficulty of Choice
If you fear a high difficulty, don’t fret. There are multiple difficulty options, including easy. My run on normal wasn’t overly easy and came with quite a few challenges. For a more relaxed journey, feel free to use the easy option, as there are no repercussions for choosing it.
Graphics and Sound
As you can expect from a PS3 generation game port, it’s not exactly eye candy. The best way to describe it is with one word: Serviceable. Don’t expect constant huge cinematic set pieces to fill your playtime, there won’t be. Instead, it’s all about the exposition of the characters and the world around them.
The presentation has a little bit of retro charm. It looks well enough and doesn’t really detract from the experience. On the technical side, I can only say that it plays like a dream.
The Auditory Senses are also in for a treat. I have yet to find a bad tune in the whole game. The soundtrack contributes heavily to the mood of the game. It really feels like an integrated part of the experience. The other good news is it offers you both English and Japanese dubs.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 1 takes me back to the time where I had the most fun with JRPGs. It wasn’t the big bombastic cutscenes that pushed me to go further. It was the small intricacies, world building and interesting characters that kept me going.
The new gameplay feels streamlined in a good way. There’s no feeling of getting stuck or the need to waste humongous amount of time to organize your characters. It just flows like water.
I also need to emphasize how this game is a poster boy of how to do improvements (load times!) and add something like the Turbo Booster that enhances the experience. If you are in search of a classic JRPG experience with hours upon hours of quality playtime, this game is an Autosave for sure. Even if you’re not looking for one, keep a close look at this game.
Reviewers Note on Playthrough: Due to unforeseen time constraints and meticulous exploration, I wasn’t able to finish the game by the time of publishing. Nevertheless, the game has proven to be an absolute delight.