Falcom’s The Legend of Heroes franchise has gained a lot of steam in the west over the past couple of years. Specifically, Trails of Cold Steel has captured the hearts of many and has led to a breakthrough title in the series, Trails of Cold Steel III. This 3rd entry marks a pivotal point in the franchise, bringing story elements from Trails in the Sky Trilogy and the yet-to-be localized Crossbell games (Zero and Ao no Kiseki) into a Trails of Cold Steel’s centralized arc. For newcomers, this may seem intimidating but the Cold Steel series is definitely a solid place to start with! With the previous two Cold Steel games available on PS4 and PC, these are accessible JRPGs which stories lead us to the events that are about to unfold. This also marks the debut of the Trails series on Nintendo platforms with the Switch.
A New Class VII (spoilers)
Erebonia sets the stage for the story of Cold Steel where players follow Rean Schwarzer, a former student of Thors’ Military Academy. Taking place a year and a half after Trails of Cold Steel II, Rean is newly graduated and moves to Leeves, site of the new Thors Military Academy Branch Campus. Rean is renown as the Ashen Chevalier, a war hero for his efforts in the Erebonian Civil War. At the age of 19, Rean is the new Class VII instructor at the Branch Campus while still maintaining obligations to the Imperial government.
Inner conflict brews within Rean after the discovery of his true father, Erebonia’s Iron Chancellor Gilliath Osborne, during Cold Steel II. Rean is tasked (mostly forced) into taking on missions from the Imperial government due to this event. On top of this, Rean has lost control of his “inner ogre” powers while protecting civilians during the Northern War. This war took a toll on Rean and his fighting capabilities with Valimar the Ashen Knight. Despite all that, he’s looking forward to growing with his new Class VII and regain control of the ogre power. Rean needs the strength of his new companions, former Class VII teammates and more as threats are beginning to converge.
As previously mentioned, Cold Steel III is a turning point in the series where elements from the Trails series come together in the greater overarching story. Ouroboros is organizing a massive campaign, Crossbell has been annexed and the Special Support Section is scattered. The stories of Lloyd Bannings from the Crossbell games along with Joshua and Estelle Bright from Trails in the Sky are starting to intertwine with the plot of Cold Steel. Meanwhile, Gilliath Osborne is driving his own motives across Erebonia and preparing for a war against the neighboring country, Calvard. As players progress through the story of Cold Steel III, more threads are weaved into the greater plot at hand. This sets up some huge implications later in the game.
The Evolution of Trails
Trails of Cold Steel III broadens the series’ scope with a more detailed world to explore. For example, Crossbell is explorable in HD for the first time with this entry. The game uses an improved engine which makes Cold Steel II look dated in comparison. Upgrades in visuals, locations and amount of content packed in each chapter makes this a noticeable leap in the series. Falcom Sound Team JDK brings the heat again with their excellent soundtrack and score. Along with a top notch performance from the voice cast, side quests include some voice acting and character cameos from other Trails games. These side quests also include more main story tidbits and flesh out characters in unique way. Bonding events further develop character relationships with Rean.
The Academy scoring system returns with a few new additions. In this scoring system, Rean gains points based on side quests and main quests completed in each chapter. His rank as an Instructor increases with more quests and chapters completed, rewarding the player in return. This time, getting to S rank in both chapters and the overall Academy scoring system is easier due to quests being more streamlined.
The series signature Arts and Crafts are present with new Break and Order mechanics. Attacks deal damage to an enemy’s break gauge and once drained, enemies are stuck in stunned state for a turn. The battle point system finally serves a greater purpose in the series, allowing for Order commands with Rush/Unite attacks. Orders use the Battle Point in return for buffs and health recovery. These new additions greatly improve an already solid turn based system. Divine Knight and Panzer Soldat fights are crazier than ever since the previous game coupled with the improvements!
The ARCUS system returns and has been upgraded to ARCUS II this time around. With the upgrade, players no longer need to upgrade every single slot to fit certain quartz. This streamlines the orbment system and allows players to be more creative with their quartz loadout. This is important as quartz allows characters to gain more arts, stat buffs and special perks under minor restrictions. It’s a welcomed quality of life improvement over the previous Cold Steel games where upgrading ARCUS took much longer.
In general, Trails of Cold Steel III felt easier on the normal difficulty compared to the previous two games. It’s most likely due to the more accessible nature of the game and less time needed to grind levels. It’s a more fair game where the right party lineup and quartz layout will devastate enemies. However, the new Break system introduces some risk and reward where players can be aggressive to land more critical hits.
Trails Debut on Switch
As mentioned before, this is the first game in the Trails series to release on Nintendo platforms. Although diving into the 3rd installment of the franchise isn’t recommended, players may still find enjoyment. The “Back Story” feature allows players to catch up with characters and events of both Cold Steel I and II. However, back stories for the Trails in the Sky Trilogy and Crossbell games aren’t present. This will leave players lost with references scattered all throughout the game.
The Switch version runs at 720p 30 fps in both docked and portable modes. The overall gameplay is great and looks very sharp in portable mode. It’s really solid on a bigger screen but players will notice some jagged edges. In addition, there were some loading glitches so hopefully patches fix that upon release. Overall, its a strong showing for the first Trails game on the Switch.
An Unfinished Journey
With the end of Trails of Cold Steel III, players are greeted with the cleared save data option. This is for New Game+, another staple feature of the series. The series aims even higher with Trails of Cold Steel IV and Hajimari no Kiseki. The world of Trails is heading into a major crisis and characters from across the series history will have to answer the call. After Cold Steel IV releases this fall for PS4 and next year for Switch/PC, a new beginning awaits for the Trails series.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III is an excellent JRPG that strives to be newcomer friendly and another awesome game for fans. The Switch version delivers great visuals in portable and docked modes, but keep in mind that it does have a few graphical downgrades from its PS4 counterpart. That being said, Trails of Cold Steel III is among one of Falcom’s strongest JRPG games yet. The story of Rean Schwarzer heats up while bringing past characters into the present story, setting up an epic conflict across the world of Trails. Coupled with an excellent soundtrack, fun combat system and insane story twists, Trails of Cold Steel III is a shining example for JRPGs going forward. This game sets up big expectations for Cold Steel IV and fans are going to be in for another wild ride!
Disclaimer: This product was provided by NIS America for this review. Thank you for the opportunity to review The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III! Trails of Cold Steel III is out now for PS4/PC and releases on June 30th for Switch.