The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel PC Review

More and more, Japanese publications are looking towards PC as the platform to give their previously released games new life, as further evidenced by Square Enix’s upcoming port of Final Fantasy XV (complete with mod support, a practice still shunned by the biggest gaming giants like Sony and Nintendo). But it’s the lesser-known games that have really benefited with the new PC audience, with cult hits like Bayonetta and Vanquish topping the Steam charts better than they ever did on console, while publishers like Xseed were among the first to put out their once-exclusive console titles to the Windows market. With the success of Trails in the Sky, a niche JRPG with a lot of praise from its fanbase, it was time for another port from The Legend of Heroes franchise, a previously Japan-exclusive series of games from developer Falcom.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is the latest trilogy that takes place during the extensive timeline of LoH, through thankfully features a self-contained setting with only a few references for window dressing. Cold Steel centers around Rein Schwarzer, the newest enrollee at Thors Academy, a military school composed of young students from different continents and social standings. Unknowingly placed into the newly formed “Class VII”, a secret class that recruits the most promising students regardless of their status, Rein and his new classmates must undergo rigorous training that involves fighting against powerful monsters, traveling great distances and completing secret-yet-vital missions to defend their homeland from a bloody civil war.

At a glance, Trails of Cold Steel doesn’t appear any different from your average JRPG: the characters all achieve a typical anime design and typecast personality, the plot features shady teachers, evil empires and a mysterious cat (that, nine times out of ten, has a human persona that is typically a cute girl), and the more the male and female characters’ squabble, the more likely they fall in love.

But in truth, Trails of Cold Steel isn’t any different from your average JRPG…it’s just a well done one. As familiar as many of its story and gameplay elements are, Cold Steel doesn’t seek out to break the mold, but rather strengthen it into a solid foundation. Every aspect feels good and plays just as well, combining many of the best parts from the genre both classic and modern.

The battle system takes on the tried-and-true turn based mechanic, where each party member and enemy takes a turn to make their move, ranging from attacking with weapons or magic, assisting teammates with healing spells and other buffs, using items, and so on. In addition to using the right elemental attack to deal the most damage to an enemy, another key strategy is to stagger them with the right kind of attack, which in turn allows two linked party members to perform a link attack, which in laymen’s terms allows characters to perform an additional attack per turn.

Another key component is the Quartz system, a staple of the Legend of Heroes series; similar to Final Fantasy VII’s Materia system, each character has a finite number of slots that they can attach Orbs into, which give them additional abilities such as offensive magic, healing magic, passive buffs like extra HP, and so on. Additional slots can be opened up using Sepith, which are dropped by enemies and/or purchased in shops, while Sepith is also used to purchase new Orbs. As for the aforementioned link attacks, paired party members can raise the likelihood of performing these attacks (in addition to learning new ones) by raising the affinity between them. The best way to do that is just by spending time with them.

Just like Persona’s Social Link system, Trails of Cold Steel allows Rein to further increase the bonds between his classmates, though the opportunities to do so are limited: during free days, Rein is given a set amount of chances to spend time with a fellow party member, which reveals more about their personalities and backstories, while also raising their affinity level. Affinity can also be raised through other means, such as playing a card game during train rides, which is just one of several mini-games found throughout Cold Steel, including fishing and cooking. Every single mechanic feeds into one another, offering long-term benefits to the overall growth of the party and ensuring that nothing feels pointless. Even interacting with NPCs can open up new sidequests, which are bound to drive completionists insane considering the limited timeframe that they are available in addition to the insane amount of additional dialog: every single townsperson, student and faculty member has their own ongoing story, and their dialog changes at every single point in the story, even during the day and night cycles. This attention to detail is truly commendable and often leads to interesting story beats, but anyone who decides to invest in these additional interactions should best prepare for the game’s length to double as a result, if not triple.

It’s a good thing, then, that the PC version of Cold Steel includes a Turbo Mode as well as frequent auto saving, which were coincidentally two features added to the recent HD re-release of Final Fantasy XII on the PS4. Nevertheless, these additions add a tremendous amount of convenience to the game, in addition to the increased resolution and other graphical effects supervised by Durante (who has become a legend in his own right for doing the work many Japanese devs failed to do for their PC ports). Yet no amount of increased shadows or framerates can do much to improve the dated visuals, which barely look a step above Dreamcast level. The main story and characters won’t exactly win over anyone who has an aversion to shonen-based anime stories, either, no matter how much detail is packed into the dialog.

In the end, Trails of Cold Steel is a game made for specific fans of the JRPG genre, but it also succeeds in nailing down all of its tropes and mechanics, rather than try to appeal to everyone with a bunch of pieces that don’t fit cohesively. Its emphasis on character development and skill trees prove that it has placed its priorities in the right areas, rather than blow its budget on visuals or other superfluous aspects. What it lacks in innovation, it more than makes up for in polish, and the result is bound to leave many fans hungry for the next two installments in the trilogy regardless of whether they play through the main story or follow every side character’s journey to completion.

8 out of 10