Review: The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel [PC]

Leave the Work to Others

If you ask what the best gaming machine currently around is, you’re bound to hear many many people reply with “PC.” What was once the home of tech hobbyists and niche gamers just a touch over a decade ago is now seen as the premier mainstream gaming system. With game-capable PC rigs easier and cheaper to build than ever before, there aren’t many dedicated gamers out there without some kind of capable machine.

The PC gaming boom has led many console-focused developers to port their games over, but there’s one entire genre that has been a major hold out until fairly recently: the JRPG. Between the genre’s console roots, proliferation on handhelds, and the Japanese PC market remaining rather small, many JRPG developers and publishers have either been hesitant or outright decline to bring their games to PC.

Even developer Falcom, once a PC JRPG powerhouse, has mostly moved development to consoles and handhelds. Falcom’s Trails series began its life on PC, but starting from the fifth entry (Ao no Kiseki, or Trails of Azure), the series has shifted away from its home system. The next upcoming entry in the series in Japan, Sen no Kiseki III, is even stepping away from handhelds, with release planned exclusively for PS4.

However, this hasn’t stopped other publishers from trying to give fans what they want. XSeed Games has done a lot of work in bringing these games to the PC market, and has a history of porting over games that never saw a PC release in Japan. After finishing up releasing the Trails in the Sky trilogy in the West, XSeed decided it was time to bring a previously console-exclusive series entry to PC-owning fans.

Nearly two years after it’s original western console release, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel launched on PC via Steam on August 2nd, 2017.

A Plodding School Life

Trails of Cold Steel takes place in the same world as previous Trails games, this time focusing on the Erebonian Empire. Known throughout the continent for its warmongering tendancies, the country is in the midst of political strife. Having long been a classist nation with strict divides between Nobles and Commoners, a new Reformist group is quietly fighting for change.

The real plot, though, mostly focuses on Rean Schwarzer, a new student at the renown Thors Military Academy. While classism has traditionally run rampant here as well, Rean and eight others have been placed in an experimental group known as Class VII – a class that blends together students from every walk of life and social strata.

Much like the first Trails in the Sky game, Cold Steel is all about introducing the characters and building the world. As such, the story here is an incredibly slow burn, with most of the in-game chapters being very formulaic. In each chapter, you’ll take classes, socialize with classmates, explore an old schoolhouse on campus, and then go on a field study to various places around the Empire. The formula is rarely broken, and becomes tedious and exhausting after a few chapters. By the game’s halfway point, about 25 hours in, I was rushing through the school life portions as quickly as I could just to advance the plot.

Really, it’s the school life portions of the game that drag the plot down. It feels like Falcom was trying to copy the popularity of recent Persona games, with the addition of schoolwork, tests, and their own version of social links. The issue is, story and characterization become stagnant during these parts, with even the social link-style events adding little to the characters.

It’s when you’re out exploring various parts of Erebonia that the story manages to become interesting. Learning directly about the various peoples and cultures in the empire brings much more intrigue, and drives character development better than the quick and mostly pointless interactions during school.

Manipulate and Master

Cold Steel plays much like a traditional JRPG, with a couple of twists in its battle system. Progression is mostly linear, with the game’s story bringing you through a series of small environments to explore. Each area usually has its own central city with the typical amenities, along with a series of roads and dungeons to fight through.

Let’s start with the most negative part first, which is once again the school life portions. You have to spend a few hours of every chapter on the school grounds or surrounding city of Trista, with little to do aside from running fetch quests and talking to other students. After completing a given series of tasks, you’re forced into exploring the most tedious dungeon of the game: the Old Schoolhouse. You have to run a new floor of this dungeon in every chapter, each of which is a dull series of hallways with a few branching paths for treasure, with a typically punishing boss fight at the end. This dungeon is easily the weakest portion of the entire game, and I loathed every time I was sent in to explore.

Luckily, the field studies to various areas in the empire are much more interesting. Each region you explore is incredibly unique, with its own character, layout, and dungeon designs. While you do end up in sewers or caves a bit too often for my liking, there’s still enough variety in explorable areas and setpieces to keep things interesting. The only time I really found myself bored was during a visit to a nomadic region, where you have to ride horses through massive and mostly empty maps to complete various quests.

The battle system will be familiar to Trails in the Sky veterans. Fights are turn-based, with a focus on movement and positioning on the battlefield. The turn order is always prominently shown on the side of the screen, and manipulating this order quickly becomes key to being successful. Certain turns on the timeline offer perks (guaranteed critical hit, health restoration, etc) that can easily be penalties if your enemies get them.

Through the use of attacks that can interrupt enemies, magics that require a certain number of turns to cast, and powerful “S-Craft” attacks that allow you to act instantly, you have many options to manipulate the flow of battle to your advantage. Smart planning can make standard encounters move quickly, but boss fights are often brutal and require you to plan ahead and change out your tactics on the fly to survive.

Most of your character customization comes in the form of “Quartz,” various skill- and stat-granting items you can attach to characters a la Materia from Final Fantasy VII. Those who have played Trails in the Sky will be mostly familiar with the system, although there are a few major changes. For one, you can no longer “create” skills by lining up certain Quartz in your setup. In Cold Steel every Quartz offers a specific skill, stat boost, or both, so if you want a certain skill, you need the Quartz that provides it. New here is the addition of “Master Quartz,” of which each character can only have one equipped. These Quartz level up through usage, providing their own skills and unique modifiers as they increase in level. There’s still plenty of strategy required in planning the best layout, but knowledge of past series entries won’t always prove useful here.

So Many Options

Graphically, Cold Steel looks stunning on PC…if you keep in mind that this game was developed for the PS3. Falcom is not a developer often seen for its graphical prowess, and the original PS3 game was rather underwhelming in presentation, with little detail and flat character models.

However, the amount of polish that XSeed brings to the table can often make this port look like a whole new game. There’s a whole suite of graphical options available to tinker with. While this is standard in most games developed for PC, JRPG ports are often lacking. With everything from up to 8x MSAA and super-wide resolution support to even an adjustable field of view, the options here are everything a PC gamer could ask for. The graphical setup even includes explanations for each option, along with videos showing the effect each option has on the graphics.

At maximum settings with 60 FPS, the game runs impressively smooth with even the simpler environments looking better than anything the original PS3 release offered up. There’s still some small issues that carry over, like the character models seeming to have flat painted-on faces and some iffy animations, but the vast increase in fidelity here easily makes the PC version of Cold Steel the definitive one.

Ups and Downs

For the famously music-forward Falcom, I honestly found the soundtrack of Cold Steel underwhelming. While heavily orchestral, much of the music is rather understated, and I hardly noticed it even during the more intense moments of the game. Unlike nearly every other Falcom title I’ve played, I can’t really name a specific standout track.

Luckily, the voice acting fares much better. XSeed added a massive number of newly voice-acted lines for the PC release, although to be fair, I was unable to tell the difference as it’s been nearly a year since I’ve played through the PS3 version. The performances themselves, though, remain impressive. The voices fit each character perfectly, adding a great amount of depth and nuance to the text. While I’m prone to eventually skipping voices as I progress in a game, I never thought once of doing so in Cold Steel, and that’s not even because I needed to hear them for a review – I always made it a point to listen to them during my initial playthrough on PS3 at its launch.

Best of the Meh-st

For me, Trails of Cold Steel has been one of the weakest entries in the Trails games released in the west. The expected slow burn decreases to a crawl here at some points, and the impressive plot moments later in the game are dragged down by the repetitiveness of the school life portions earlier on. While still having a stunningly in-depth story, great character development, and excellent world building, I always felt that it paled in comparison to Trails in the Sky.

While the same issues are still present in the PC release (the story and gameplay are unchanged after all), many nagging presentation issues were cleaned up to the point that I found myself enjoying this release quite a bit. With nearly non-existent load times and a much more attractive presentation, the PC port of Cold Steel is much easier to pick up and get in to.

This title was developed to be an entry point for newcomers to the series, but I would still highly recommend playing the first two Trails in the Sky games first. Not only will it prepare you for the kind of experience here (a focus entirely on character development and world building), but you’ll be able to appreciate the callbacks in this game more, as well as catch some of the foreshadowing set up in the original titles.

Overall, Cold Steel is an incredible JRPG, but somewhat disappointing taken in the context of its own series. The repetitiveness of the school life portions is the greatest offender – the game really comes into its own when you’re out of the school environment and exploring Erebonia. Still, if you’ve been on the fence about giving this game a shot, the PC port is easily the definitive version.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by XSeed Games for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.