The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III (PS4) - ReviewThomas Froehlicher , posted on 06 January 2018 / 10,595 Views
Three years is a long wait, especially when it comes to the Trails of Cold Steel series, which has the habit of ending each entry on major story reveals and unbearable suspense. But fan patience has been rewarded, at least for those who are happy to import, because The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III has been available for PS4 in Japan since last September, so the saga is now back on track and being given absolute priority by Falcom.
Notice: Given the numerous connections between the various Trails of Cold Steel stories, this review may contain spoilers for The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel I & II.
Si vis pacem, para bellum. Giliath Osborne, the Chancellor of the Elbonian Empire, doesn't forget the old maxim despite the end of the civil war depicted in The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II. As this proverb goes, to maintain peace you must prepare for war. That's how Rean Schwarzer, the main character of this trilogy (which isn't one anymore), starts his professional life as an instructor at Thors Military Academy, from which he's recently graduated. He won't feel any nostalgia, though, since he's immediately appointed in campus n°2, an extension of Thors, built West of the capital.
Thors' second campus is famous for receiving rebellious and unpredictable personalities, and yet has the duty to turn everyone into perfect members of the imperial security forces. As a former student of Class VII, a group known for its heroic actions in the past, Rean is tasked with being the main teacher of a new generation of Class VII, this one being as heterogeneous and unruly as the group in Rean's time. You find Kurt, the youngest son of a fallen family; Yûna, a transfer student from Crossbell who resents imperials (Crossbell is a small state occupied by Elbonia at this point); Muse, an aristocratic girl spending her time trying to seduce her teacher; Ash, a talented but insolent thug; and... Altina, the girl prodigy who was your rival so often in Trails of Cold Steel II!
Needless to say that, with such weirdos, campus life is lively. Other members of the academy are just as strange and fun, especially Headmistress Aurelia, who we saw very briefly in the previous game, but who's granted a major role fitting her extravagant personality in this game. The Trails of Cold Steel series is always impressive because you actually follow several classes over the academic year: every NPC has its own background, little habits, school club, personal quest, and so on. There's so much life and content to be experienced in school parts, and they also have their share of nice surprises like unexpected duels and a flurry of side events, sometimes hilarious, sometimes emotional.
Progression is quite similar to the first Trails of Cold Steel because it re-uses similar story cycles, with various phases common to every chapter. You'll always have a rich school part composed of classes, combat challenges, and free time to spend a moment with your favorite party members. The second part happens on the field, with first a couple of random quests to be cleared with new Class VII, and later members from former Class VII (so basically Trails of Cold Steel II characters) will join you for a chapter finale, where events and battles intensify greatly. Trails of Cold Steel III chains its events and its narrative a lot better than in the first game, and thus avoids making the same mistakes... except for one. Unfortunately, the game is entirely linear, whereas the second episode wasn't. It's impossible to visit the places you have been to before in the story, and there isn't a bonus dungeon either, through which you could have enjoyed the combat system and the characters a little more. Again, Trails of Cold Steel II did provide that, so it's a little disappointing to find it cut this time around.
Don't worry about playable characters, though, because Trails of Cold Steel III strongly delivers on that. In addition to the first and second generation of Class VII, Falcom has some special attention for series fans at large by including a whole range of guest characters who, although not staying with you for very long, are a real blast to play as. You'll find, among others, Tio from Ao no Kiseki, and Tita from Trails in the Sky. It's absolutely amazing how the developer keeps giving presents all game long, with famous characters in ideal positions. That's where the Trails of Cold Steel arc fully sets itself in The Legend of Heroes saga, since there are many links to past games. Knowledge of those gives a different and very interesting view of the scenario.
The story is also impressive; long enough (100 hours of play) for each of the 25 main and 40 secondary characters to get decent screentime and their own share of the narrative. The game goes as far as dividing your party members into several teams so that you can enjoy all of the characters to their fullest. It seems simple but it's proof of Falcom's dedication to make the best of its renowned character design. Let us be clear here: in terms of characters, Trails of Cold Steel III blew away my wildest expectations. And by having far less DLC and a lot more in-game content, including numerous costumes, the company proves it cares about the player experience.
To keep interest high through the story cycles, the narrative does raise a certain number of questions and provides answers very progressively. For example, you'll find out about Rean's role between Trails of Cold Steel II and Trails of Cold Steel III little by little, eventually coming to know the circumstances of his military action for the Empire. The history of Elbonia is detailed on numerous occasions, in a very dark and sometimes moving way. The truth about Rean's childhood is fully revealed and you'll know a lot more about Emma's family too. Other characters' pasts also come to light, Claire's and Sharon's especially, sometimes leading to striking outcomes. And yes, the masked man's identity is unveiled. The narrative, however uneven and dense, is amazing to the point my stomach jerked in excitement. But that's not all, because Trails of Cold Steel III also features a renewed sense of humor. Witnessing how the events of Trails of Cold Steel II come back to bite Rean and Altina is absolutely hilarious.
Some characters raise new mysteries for the future, especially Muse. She's the party member who's keeping the most secrets about herself. The story does give two important hints, but her motives remain a big question mark and she might play a major role in the fourth game. About the transition between Trails of Cold Steel III and Trails of Cold Steel IV End of Saga - unfortunately it's as brutal as in Trails of Cold Steel I. You're left burning to know what happens even two minutes after the last screen, it's almost unbearable. The first pieces of information, art, and screenshots now being revealed for The End of Saga are valuable to anyone who has finished and enjoyed this third game.
The battle system is a big deal in the Trails of Cold Steel series, and even more so here because Trails of cold Steel III makes radical changes. It's still turn-based, with free roaming in the fighting area, and battles are still about using CP (to trigger physical abilities) and EP (to cast magic) wisely to find the perfect balance between attack and defense. Another common point is that enemies have weaknesses relative to weapon types, so when you strike with the right weapon you have a chance that your buddy (the character that is linked to the one you control) will deal an extra blow, earning you precious BP.
While BP can still be used to unleash simultaneous attacks of two or four characters, they now have a new role of critical importance: orders. These work exactly like in Valkyria Chronicles, in that they can boost your stats for a couple of turns. Orders are quite varied, in both attack and defense, and there's at least one per character. The effects are so significant that orders are a real game changer for the battle system as a whole. For example, Altina's Noire Crest reflects every attack for four turns, Laura's Valiant Hearts boosts damage by 60%, and Yûna's Sledge Hammer triples break damage. Yep, you read that well; Final Fantasy XIII's infamous system is borrowed yet again, this time in Trails of Cold Steel III! Each opponent has a break gauge which, once depleted, will cancel his/her turn and make him/her extremely weak to your assaults.
Quartz management is as time-consuming as ever. Being the base of your strategy, you'll have to carefully review the wide range of potential effects (stats up, use of certain magic, inflict abnormal status, shorten spell casting, etc.) in order to make your team as powerful as you can. Here, again, finding the perfect balance between attack and defense is key to victory. You could even say that in Trails of Cold Steel III the preparation before battle is as important as the decisions you make during the actual fight.
Trails of Cold Steel III doesn't just passively inherit the system from the previous game either. It adds the option to equip two Master Quartz instead of one. Master Quartz grant special abilities to one party member (for example, the orb Sophia can revive a fallen character and Thor increases chances to inflict an abnormal status) and combining Master Quartz will allow you to ultra-specialize your characters. Combining Sophia and Oberon (which prevents all status ailments), for example, allows your healer to save the day in every circumstance, while Thor and Orobo (which increases damage dealt to weakened enemies) create the ultimate jammer capable of crushing monsters in no time. There are countless strategies like that and thus there's deeper tactical gameplay in this entry. Rare or super-rare Quartz are also rife in chests and quest rewards, to the point that you can comfortably have a well-equipped party for the final stages.
Those major changes soften the challenge, with the player getting additional means to achieve victory and resist against unforgiving bosses. By the way, you can really tell that Falcom lowered difficulty after chapter one, so that it's more in line with recent games like Tokyo Xanadu or Ys VIII Lacrimosa of Dana. The difficulty level can now also be changed at any time, except for Nightmare which gets locked if you dare to choose it. It's also worth noticing that Emma's S-Break is changed from offense to defense, our beloved witch being now able to nullify all damage for some time too.
You need to bear in mind that we're talking about an RPG where bosses heal and strengthen themselves constantly, on the top of be able to wipe out your entire party at points. In light of this the tweaks to the battle system are more than welcome and rebalance the series entirely, making it more enjoyable than ever. Major boss fights lead to a frenzy of counters, turnarounds, and crucial choices. Trails of Cold Steel III is turn-based greatness like you've rarely experienced before.
Mechs battle were already quite a thing in Trails of Cold Steel II, but Falcom still managed to surprise on this front. Rean is no longer the only one controlling mechs; his pupils will fight alongside him as a team with their own robots. There can also be several opponents at once, which makes the confrontations more strategic, as you need to observe who's targeting who, and thus use defense, counter, and interruption at the right time. The basics are still the same - you target the enemy's weak spot to chain dual attacks and get BP. With 5 BP, the 3 allied units launch a powerful combined attack. Of course, now that there are as many as three allies, robot-riding rivals or fantastic creatures deal more damage and play at a faster pace, making encounters very tense.
Trails of Cold Steel III is still an exhaustive RPG in terms of side content, the major novelty being the card game which is elevated to a whole new dimension this time around. Trails of Cold Steel II's Blade is replaced by Vantage Master, which is no longer based on luck but is a real card strategy game, as in some Final Fantasy games. It's actually pretty complex: the goal is to deplete the HP of the opponent's Master Card, but there are many ways to do so. Lots of cards of different types are on sale in various shops in Elbonia, from common cards that have little power and range to some that can attack from the back row, heal another card, double the attack points, etc. Just organizing the deck demands a great deal of time. It's an impressive game within the game that can hook you for hours.
As usual with Falcom nowadays, fishing is also on the agenda. The good news is that you can now fish as other characters besides Rean (even though that's limited to the new Class VII). The system changes here too: you no longer need several buttons, since everything is done with circle. On the other hand, the game introduces a resistance factor on the fishing line, so if you pull the line too much it can break or your fish may escape. You need to be smart and release the pressure from time to time, as well as buy stronger pole parts in order catch all of the different fish.
It wouldn't be a Trails of Cold Steel game without the traditional dates with your friends either. Rean will have the opportunity to deepen his relationship with his pupils, or he can invite his former comrades to come to Leeves (the town of campus n°2). Given the high number of available characters, Trails of Cold Steel III introduces a present system very much like the one in Onimusha 2 (for those who remember it); Elbonia's shops are loaded with special items likely to please one of Rean's friends, so be prepared to shed a significant amount of Mira (Elbonia's currency) if you want to max all of your friend levels and get the traditional trophy reward for doing so. The cherry on the cake is that dialog scenes now take place in a nice first person view.
So what are the downsides? Well Trails of Cold Steel III isn't exactly technically impressive on PS4. The first few minutes will likely make you wince, in fact, so old is the engine and outdated the animations. This could be forgiven if it was a port of a correct PSVita version, but this time there's no Vita version at all. In going from multiplatform to PS4 exclusive, Falcom simply didn't invest enough resources to improving the graphics. True, this entry is certainly prettier than the first two, with more details on the clothing, nicer modelling, and some facial expressions. But generally speaking, the lack of a PSVita version isn't really justified and Trails of Cold Steel III still feels cheap at times (the Crossbell part, for example). That said, Falcom's design is still one of the best in the genre - main characters look pretty good, as do their skills and magic, which guarantees impressive fighting scenes.
In becoming a PS4 exclusive, Trails of Cold Steel III suffers in technical comparison with most major JRPGs on the platform. But JRPG fans who can look beyond the dated graphics will discover a tremendous wealth of characters, gameplay, story, and an overall world that you can happily dive into for dozens of hours. It's also a shame the game's so linear, but the shocking reveals and plot twists make it a thrilling entry in the series for fans.
This review is based on a retail copy of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III for the PS4