Rean Schwarzer returns for Trails of Cold Steel 3, the third instalment of the Legend of Heroes sub-series. But he’s older, wiser, and donning a badass new trench coat as an instructor at the recently-opened Branch Campus of Thors Military Academy.
Since the previous game, Rean’s exploits as the country’s heroic “Ashen Chevalier” have earned him a celebrity status that proves both a blessing and a curse. For every fan mobbing him for an autograph, there is a cynic branding him a glory hound. Rean’s new Class VII contain some of the latter group, and Rean soon finds himself at pains to prove himself as an instructor.
It’s fair to say Trails of Cold Steel 3 isn’t exactly easy to pick up and play. Despite already playing the two predecessor titles and the connected Trails in Sky series (well over 200 hours of collective playtime), I still found myself underprepared for my latest venture into Erebonia. You see, there are also two games based in the Crossbell region whose events are referenced frequently. The catch is they are yet to be released outside of Japan and it’s a challenge to play them in any English form.
In light of this, Trails of Cold Steel 3 is a poor entry point to the series. If you’ve never played any Legend of Heroes titles you are better served picking up the Cold Steel I and II bundle on PS4, as too much will simply go over your head. The other titles aren’t strictly essential, but it’s a nice novelty to have the characters you’ve seen elsewhere join your party for a couple of hours.
The main menu contains a section where the previous game’s plots are summarised, with pictures and voice-overs preventing you from skipping ahead too fast. I’d strongly advise, even if you have completed the previous games, to give these a careful read before continuing.
Once all the pieces are set and the introductions are complete, Trails of Cold Steel 3 settles back into a classic formula. Namely, spending time around the Academy’s town completing some quests and hanging out, a bit of fighting, a field exercise lasting a few days where the stakes build to a climactic battle, another battle involving giant robots, an interesting plot development, and repeat in a new chapter.
This is enjoyable enough, but sometimes feels a touch too predictable and takes away any shock factor for the majority of the story. No matter which powerful foe your party is forced to lock horns with, it often turns out everyone is “holding back” or just having a bit of fun before everyone walks away completely unscathed to hatch another evil plan.
This leads me onto an interesting conundrum for any direct JRPG sequel – how do you stop characters strong enough to save the world last time around being overpowered from the start? Trails of Cold Steel 3 half-heartedly explains Rean’s low starting level (surprise, he’s holding back) but doesn’t bother so much with the previous members of Class VII, who pop up to help throughout the field exercises.
Though Rean may have tempered his fighting abilities, he has unwittingly unleashed a force more powerful than anything else in Erebonia. Namely, his power to make any female person instantly smitten with him, from nothing more than a passing glance. There are literally about two characters in the entire game who haven’t fallen for him. One of them is a lesbian, and the other is a cat.
Nonetheless, for all the furore surrounding his every step it’s the same old Rean. Oblivious, chivalrous, and with a scary sister complex. You’d think an instructor of a prestigious military school wouldn’t be roped into such tasks as finding pets and delivering mail, but he can’t help himself. By extension, I found myself unable to turn away from any optional quest no matter how mundane, lest I miss the precious bump to my Academic Point (AP) score and the invaluable perk it could unlock at the end of the day.
But much of the game is spend exploring the highways and dungeons, and battling monsters within the excellent turn-based battle system. The game’s opening section, like the first Cold Steel game, dumps you right into the heat of battle in the latter half of the story, leaving you just long enough to be overwhelmed with the umpteen different battle elements forgotten since playing the previous game. Thankfully, when the tale properly starts, it isn’t long before everything is spoon-fed once again, and within a couple of hours it’ll all be as good as new.
Characters take turns in a Final Fantasy X-style order system, which can be manipulated with numerous skills that speed up allies or slow down enemies. If you are canny enough, you can get through most battles without losing a single hit point.
Each character has the choice of normal attacks, items and magic skills known as arts – dictated by the materia-esque orbments equipped by the character. They also possess unique abilities called craft skills, allowing each character to differentiate themselves from the next and providing you a genuinely difficult conundrum when multiple party members are available. For instance, to decide whether to favour a speedy, close-range character with strong evasive skills over a slower ranged fighter who can stay out of trouble and hit multiple enemies.
Meeting certain conditions during battle can win you bonus EXP, such as being ‘unscathed’ from the battle, killing an enemy with a counterattack, or ‘overkilling’ an enemy by finishing them off with an attack that significantly exceeds the amount of HP remaining. Another way to score big bonuses is to frequently exploit enemy weaknesses, unbalancing them and allowing a follow-up link attack which increases battle points. When battle points are filled, the whole party can chip in with a devasting ‘burst’ attack on all enemies.
Trails of Cold Steel 3 also introduces a couple of new aspects to the battle. Firstly, brave orders, which can be activated at any time during a turn by consuming battle points, and allow effects lasting a set number of turns such as reducing damage or boosting attack power. The other addition is the ability to ‘break’ enemies, stopping them in their tracks for a number of turns where additional damage can be dealt and each hit yielding a link attack, boosting your battle points further.
As a result, the player ends up having so many advantages over the enemy it sometimes feels frankly unfair on the poor monsters. On the rare occasion you end up in a tight spot, you can, say, instigate a battle order that heals the party or temporarily reflects all damage, or perhaps break the enemy to buy yourself a few free turns. You could even use an S-Craft – a killer move unique to each character that you can use at any point with the R1 button, providing your character has enough craft points.
If none of those happen to be available to you, then God forbid, you can use an item to heal everyone. I played on normal difficulty and didn’t get a single game over, probably using about 3 items throughout. In all honesty, I regret my choice of difficulty and players of the previous Cold Steel games may want to pick a tougher setting.
The other side of the coin is the swiftness of battle allowing me to actually make steady progress through the game every time I sat down. Make no mistake, Trails of Cold Steel 3 is long. My complete playthrough clocked in at around 90 hours, and whilst I completed virtually every optional quest, I rushed through a lot of the battles with the skip function (skipping attack animations – something more RPGs should include) and used a ton of fast travel.
A few hours of that were sunk into minigames. Following proudly in the footsteps of the likes of Triple Triad (Final Fantasy VIII) and Gwent (The Witcher 3), Trails of Cold Steel 3 introduces Vantage Masters, a wonderful card game far more complex and satisfying than its predecessor Blades. On top of that, you’ll no doubt be dusting off Rean’s trusty fishing rod to catch fish that somehow always come with useful items.
The length is mostly down to the long spells of meaty dialogue, sometimes a bit of a chore but regularly light and amusing. No JRPG fan will be a stranger to cheesy lines and corny pep talks, into which Trails of Cold Steel 3 heavily leans, with a disproportionate number of scenes ending with the entire group of characters yelling “Yeah!” at the same time. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if Trails of Cold Steel 3 was playing it for laughs.
But the thing is, no matter how many times you roll your eyes at a cliché we’ve seen a million times before, eventually Class VII’s camaraderie will wear you down. The cast of characters, and how they interact together, is such a pleasure to behold that by the end you’ll be right there shouting “Yes, sir!” with the rest of them, fist pumping at Rean’s latest motivational speech.
Deep as the world is, it’s the characters that truly make this series great. Even the ones seeming one-dimensional at first glance end up having fleshed out backstories and motivations. Trails of Cold Steel 3 also does an excellent job of balancing the new Class VII with the old, giving everyone their own chance to shine.
Like the previous couple of games (and, ahem, the Persona series they blatantly rip off), Rean gets a limited amount of time in each chapter to spend with characters of your choice, allowing him to increase his bonding rank to yield numerous rewards in battle. For instance, if your characters are tightly bonded buddies, one may counter-attack an enemy when the other is struck, or automatically heal them when they are inflicted with a status ailment.
It’s a simple but neat tool that gives the player additional motivation to spend time fleshing out the characters and their relationships during the slower, text-heavy sections of the game.
Though enjoyable, it’s in these moments I found myself most missing a PS Vita version of the game (or a Switch one, which is due for release). As a fully-fledged adult, I regrettably don’t have as much free time for gaming as I’d like. And when I sneak an hour away to fire up the PS4 to not fight a single battle, I wonder whether these moments would have been best completed in smaller increments, allowing my lengthier sessions to focus on the action.
I’m reliably informed the amount of text in Trails of Cold Steel 3 dwarfs (pun intended) even the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and you’d think that would be enough content for anyone. But honestly, despite spending 90 hours with the cast I missed them as soon as I finished. It’s the sort of RPG that leaves a void in your life when it’s over, such is the immersion in the huge, fascinating world.
If, like me, you already made it this far into the series, the chances are you are invested in the story and characters already. In that respect, Trails of Cold Steel 3 can hardly disappoint. Falcom’s formula is still a winning one, once again providing a great blend of traditional and modern JRPG elements. Any fan of the genre with a lot of spare time should not hesitate to indulge.