The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel initially released in North America on December 22, 2015 for the PlayStation 3 and PS Vita systems. Now under two years later, this sprawling JRPG – and the first of a trilogy – has finally arrived on the PC. I adore the first two games that have thus far been localized, and I so couldn’t be more excited to see this series reach a wider audience. To that end, I’d like to share a few reasons why Cold Steel is worthy of your attention.
It’s a great port!
There’s always some nervousness when a console game, particularly an older one, gets ported to the PC. We expect each release to meet certain standards, or at the very least to run and look well on modern hardware. Instances of locked internal resolutions, low performance, and limited graphical options have let us down in the past. Thankfully, none of those issues plague the near perfect port of Trails of Cold Steel. XSEED teamed up with Peter “Durante” Thoman, who many may know as the modder behind Dark Souls’ DSFix, to deliver the definitive version of the game.
The configuration tool includes a host of features. The resolution is unlocked, and both 16:9 and 21:9 aspect ratios are supported. Ultrawide gamers can rejoice! I’ve been running the game at 3440×1440, and gameplay and dialog cutscenes correctly expand to fill the sides of the screen. Framerate options include 30 FPS, 60 FPS, and unlimited. You can adjust anti-aliasing, five shadow settings, enable unlimited draw distance and high-quality depth of field, change what type of button prompts are displayed, and disable intro videos. But my favorite addition is the customizable turbo mode, allowing players to speed up the game with the press of a button.
Performance has been mostly flawless. The only noticeable errors I experienced were some tutorial windows displaying Dual Shock prompts when I was using an Xbox controller and the rare instance of the new depth of field effect displaying incorrectly. They occurred so infrequently as to be forgettable. What isn’t forgettable is the addition of more than 5,000 lines of recorded dialog. The original release had some odd breaks for its voice acting. Some characters would talk while others in the same conversation would be simply have bare text. XSEED went back and filled in those gaps, and even spruced up some old lines, giving us a 50% increase in spoken dialog compared to the PlayStation 3/Vita versions.
Setting & World Building
Richly developed worlds are hallmarks of The Legend of Heroes franchise, and the Trails of Cold Steel trilogy is no different. Set in the Erebonian Empire, Cold Steel features a divided, industrial nation struggling for identity. The land is split into four provinces, each governed by a noble house. A great deal of time is spent on the topic of populism and how the people fare under a system brewing with potential conflict between the reformist and noble factions. It’s all handled rather deftly, in large part due to how the game is staged.
You play as Rean Schwarzer, a first-year student to the Empire’s prestigious Thors Military Academy. His aptitude places him in the newly-formed Class VII, a group of eight other students comprised of commoners and nobles. Such of combination of social classes is a first in the academy’s 230-year history. Class VII quickly introduces players to varying backgrounds and competing ideologies, which are continuously explored as the game progresses, but it’s the activities spent as a student that really shape players’ understanding of the Empire.
As a member of Class VII, you’ll attend classes, answer questions from instructors, explore the academy grounds and nearby town, take practical exams, and go on field studies throughout Erebonia. These fields trips and their associated tasks serve to teach Class VII, and by extension the player, about the lands and people around them. They were my favorite parts of the game, as Cold Steel used each field study to reveal an ongoing, interesting crisis and challenge the preconceptions of its cast.
That said, while I reveled in Cold Steel’s world building, the game’s overall pace does not move quickly. A lot of hours can go by without any big happenings. Not all questions are answered by journey’s end, either. This is, most definitely, the first of a hearty trilogy.
Trails of Cold Steel handles its large ensemble, from the nine likeable members of Class VII to the wealth of supporting characters, with aplomb. Every member of Class VII has his and her own reason for joining the academy. Some want to find themselves. Another joined to exert independence. Others still bring with them the prejudices that threaten to tear the country apart. It’s quite the diverse group of personalities, and they’re not always in sync with each other or even themselves. Seeing them overcome those very conflicts is what gives Cold Steel its heart.
More importantly, the characters and how they respond to their personal demons feel believable. That’s not to say tropes of the genre don’t exist in the game. They’re just ultimately dealt with in a way that makes moments of immaturity come across like the honest awkwardness of young adults. As a result, it’s difficult not to feel invested in Class VII. I cared about these characters, and I can’t wait to see how they develop over a trilogy that spans multiple years.
Beyond the main story, you can strengthen your bonds with Class VII and other characters of the academy by spending time with them during “free days.” Anyone who has ever played a Persona game will be right at home with these mechanics. Not only do bonding events have gameplay implications for party members, they can also influence some later scenes. You can’t see every bonding event in one playthrough, however, so I recommend settling on a few of your favorite characters first.
Combat & Customization
The third pillar that makes Cold Steel such a good JRPG is the strategic depth of its combat system. Battles are turn-based, but they’re fought in open arenas that allow for a certain freedom of movement. You’re constantly – at least in harder encounters – repositioning characters to avoid or unleash attacks as well as managing skill resources, waiting for the right time to unleash powerful S-Craft abilities that completely drain one of your two energy pools, exploiting elemental and status effect weaknesses, countering enemy resistances, manipulating the turn order of friends and foes by ambushing enemies on the field or via abilities, and meeting conditions to follow through with party member assists.
I could spend paragraphs on the nuances of Cold Steel’s gameplay, yet none of the systems feel overwhelming. Instead, combat strikes a good balance between complexity and difficulty. It’s immensely satisfying to set up the conditions to shut down an enemy. It’s equally enjoyable to barely survive a tough boss’s onslaught. And it’s explicitly because you’re given a lot of tools and easily available information to play with. It all just flows well together, which keeps every battle interesting rather than boring.
Each party member carries his or her own weapon type and unlocks specific Crafts (instant-cast abilities) as they level up. Their stats also dictate their combat role. But there’s still depth in how you build your party. By assigning earned “quartz” into a limited number of slots per character, you’ll gain passive bonuses and time-delayed, magical abilities called Arts. So while you can’t turn a mage into a frontline fighter, you can sharply define how that mage will operate.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel has quickly become one of my most anticipated trilogies. And this first game’s PC release turns an already great game into an even better one. Anyone wants to dive into a mature world in the middle of an industrial revolution, and to watch its large cast grow over potentially three titles, should check out Cold Steel. The more support it gets may even hurry an announcement of the third game’s North American localization.
A copy of the game was provided by the publisher.