It feels like the release of Trails of Cold Steel 3 on the Nintendo Switch has gone a little under the radar. Sure enough, on June 30th the latest chapter of Rean Schwarzer’s exploits as the Ashen Chevalier has added to the growing collection of excellent RPG titles ported to the console including the likes of The Witcher 3, Skyrim and Dragon Quest XI. However, I find this particular port just a little bizarre.
The possible reason for the lack of any noticeable hype or expectation, is that the target audience for Trails of Cold Steel 3 on Switch appears to be roughly the size of a Covid-lockdown wedding guestlist.
I think Nihon Falcom have half-heartedly tried to engineer Trails of Cold Steel 3 as an entry point of the series, as it reverts to a similar school-based format as the first game. But for all the wordy exposition, frequent flashbacks, and the lengthy plot summaries available on the title screen, it just isn’t enough.
Not only are the stories of Cold Steel 1 and 2 pivotal, but the Trails in the Sky series is referenced regularly, as are the events of two titles based in Crossbell, as yet unreleased in the west (with the exception of fan-translated ports). Trails in the Sky isn’t strictly necessary but several characters from its handheld trilogy either join the playable party as guests, or play fairly prominent roles in the story.
Studying the plot summaries for the Cold Steel games in detail won’t do the experience justice. The greatest charm of Cold Steel is in its characters, whose optional bonding events with main protagonist Rean throughout the first couple of games serve to enrich their character arcs and reinforce them as a thoroughly likeable bunch you can’t help but root for.
I played the first two entries of Trails in the Sky and Trails of Cold Steel before tackling Cold Steel 3, and I still felt underprepared when the political climate of Crossbell kept arising in conversation. The notion of starting Cold Steel 3 without any preceding games under your belt is simply unthinkable. It’s like starting the Harry Potter books on Order of the Phoenix, or tuning up for Avengers: Infinity War having not seen anything of the MCU before. Though you might enjoy the ride, plenty of nuances along the way will whoosh over your head to leave you disoriented and unfulfilled.
Now don’t get me wrong. Trails of Cold Steel 3 is a fantastic game. It has a superb turn-based battle system, and some of the best world-building and cast lists currently in the genre. If you haven’t actually played any of the titles before, I’d wholeheartedly recommend them – starting from the beginning! My full review of the PS4 version is here, scoring 8.7 out of 10 and in fact one of the few issues I had was actually that the long periods of dialogue, bonding events or non-battling sidequests would have fit perfectly on a handheld device that’s easy to fire up on a whim. The fact I played the first two on the Vita only added to this feeling.
It’s these slower-paced moments that make this deep, fully-realised world all the more immersive. You follow Rean’s exploration of differing regions and cities, all with their own distinct backdrops and colourful characters. To underline how big the Trails world is, it’s worth pointing out that the Cold Steel entries are set in Erebonia, an entirely different country to the setting of the Trails in the Sky games, Liberl, whose locations are mentioned but not explored. This is massively to its credit, but such an enormous overarching setting is difficult to get your head around without the other games to put it into context.
Now if the Switch version had been released first, I’d likely have shelled out some additional mira to play on the go. RPGs of this ilk work so well on handheld devices, such as Persona 4 Golden on the PS Vita, or Xenoblade Chronicles 2 on Switch. As an adult RPG player – and I’m sure many can relate – I’m increasingly encumbered with actual real-life responsibilities. The Switch’s readiness to be launched from Sleep Mode taking you back to the exact point you left it within seconds, is a breath of fresh air, and one that allows you to make steadier progress through these 80-hour-plus adventures without neglecting family duties. And 80 hours is probably on the short side of a Cold Steel 3 playthrough.
I really want more people to play Trails of Cold Steel. It’s a brilliant, underrated series that doesn’t get the attention it deserves at the expense of RPG goliaths like Final Fantasy, Persona and Dragon Quest. But its consistent quality and regular releases over the last few years warrant it being at least mentioned in the same breath as these household names. Based on Japan’s release dates, it’s four massive, lengthy titles released in just five years, comparing very favourably to the series I have mentioned above, though admittedly the development is undoubtedly streamlined by the usage of mostly the same characters and gameplay mechanics.
Unfortunately, in this instance I can’t recommend Trails of Cold Steel 3 to first-time players on the Switch until some sort of bundle including the first two titles come over as well. This doesn’t seem out of the question, as Nihon Falcom’s president Toshihiro Kondo has not ruled out the back catalogue of Trails games being considered.
The question I’m left with is this: who would actually buy Trails of Cold Steel 3 on Switch? You have to at least have played the first two Cold Steel games, which means you likely own a PS Vita, a PS3, or a PS4. If you own a PS4 and were interested in the game, the chances are you were already committed to picking up a copy upon its PS4 release.
So I guess unless you’re a seasoned Trails player who somehow happened to miss Cold Steel 3 or someone who wants to replay it on the go, we’re left with… err, people who played Cold Steel 1 and 2 on the PS Vita/PS3, have a Nintendo Switch but haven’t got a PS4.
So, if you’re one of the five to ten people falling within this remit, the excellent Trails of Cold Steel 3 is available on Nintendo Switch here. Enjoy!