The Legend of Heroes series has seen many releases over the years, though not as many in North America as we would have liked. XSEED has amazingly been able to, and not without their fair amount of trouble for it, bring us the first two third of the Trails in the Sky Trilogy on the PSP / PC and the newest first entry of Trails of Cold Steel on Vita and the PS3 in which the second part is almost here. By almost I mean September 6th a week away from today almost. Being a huge fan of the Sky Trilogy I jumped into the Cold Steel one with the same excitement and while they are fairly different from one another, one is just as good as the other. Just to be noted upfront that this is a Vita only review as Trails of Cold Steel was not compatible with the PSTV.
The major reason for the mentions of the previous entries is because these two trilogies are nothing alike and the possibility of disappointment by going in and expecting more of the same is a big possibility. Unless you’ve played neither in which case what are you waiting for? The scope of Cold Steel versus Sky is different in just about every way from characters, locations, story, and visuals. There are some cameos but it’s hard to tell with the upgraded graphics change from one to the other. The only thing really linking them together other than being in the same world, which is nice as the concepts and terminology stays the same, is the concept of their battle systems using what are known as Crafts and Arts (more below).
Trails of Cold Steel follows the story of Rean and the rest of Thor’s Military Academy Class VII. Unlike the other classes which are separated by social classes and lineage, Class VII is a test in order to bridge the gap between these various social classes of the “average peoples” and the “nobles that sit above them”. Tensions from the outset between a few are high as some hide their backgrounds while others made a huge deal about where someone came from. Banded together whether they like it or not, passing and failing their school year relies heavily on each others actions.
With the above in mind, Rean has his work cut out for him. Each month will see its own set of field work, tests, lessons, and free time that are all important in order to not only demonstrate what has been learnt, but also establish friendships to better help operate as a unit. While in no where near as in depth as say the Persona series for interpersonal relationships, Cold Steel does a well enough job at integrating these moments with the overall events unfolding and the missions that take place over the course of the school year.
This structure lays out the flow of Cold Steel giving a few moments to breathe in between the larger segments but never outright boring you inside of a classroom. Classroom sessions are over rather quickly before giving you a bit of free time in order to get to better know some of your classmates and support staff (such as the class president) before heading out on a monthly field work assignment where the major bulks of the game will take place.
Using the time to get better acquainted with the others in your class will be important as it doesn't just add a bit more to the overall story and experience, it also affects character’s performance together in battle. All being given what are known as ARCUS, two people can link their battle potential together in order to do more damage with follow up attacks or defend one another, as long as they like one another of course. Participating together in battle, hanging out during free time, and playing cards with one another on the train ride between class assignments will raise these statuses which as friendships depend make combat that much easier as there are more options available.
These combat options range from being able to perform a follow up attack to eventually being able to shield an ally so that they don’t take an enormous amount of damage. This comes in very handy especially considering that normal attacks don’t do as much as I feel that they should but that’s also where Crafts, S-Crafts and Arts come in. Crafts are character specific abilities that use CP in order to be used in which up to two-hundred can be stored. When the threshold passes one-hundred, and the skill to do so is unlocked, any character can perform an S-Craft that lets them act at that particular moment regardless of initiative for a flashy and impressive move. If the CP gauge reaches two-hundred then the S-Craft unleashed is even more powerful.
Arts compared to Crafts are in a different field both in terms of usage and acquisition. Orbs, which are shiny round objects that contain what is essentially magic or skills, can be installed into the ARCUS. Fire, Water, Air, Earth, Healing, Darkness magics can all be used and take away from a character’s max EP which increases with every level up. Using spells is a highly effective method of combat as some spells are downright nasty to be on the receiving end of. Whether Arts of Crafts however, proper timing of these actions is extremely important as they can be interrupted, and thus, a character has been charging up for nothing though the same applies to the enemy.
Both of these abilities as well as the linking are all done on a 3D battlefield with each participant has their own movement radius. Having evolved a bit both graphically and system wise, Cold Steel has done away with the Square Grid approach that Sky used and has instead gone with a free movement approach. Characters in battle can either attack or use Crafts and Arts in order to hit the enemy. Each attack type is clearly shown by a circle or line that makes it easy to line up your enemies for maximum efficiency. Having battles drag on in any case is generally not warranted but some enemies are faster than the party and know how to do damage.
With both characters and enemies that can move around the battle map, there will come a time in which one of your party members ends up in a precarious situation sandwiched between multiple enemies. This can happen from them having moved up to attack or having been pushed into the line of fire from a larger enemy or an ability. Regardless of the reason moving them out of the way should be the first thing that they do. If at all possible however moving should only be done if an attack cannot move them out of their location as once a character moves, that’s it for their turn.
As mentioned ending battles fast is always a good idea. While the party is moving through an area the lead character, who can be any of the four selected for the main line, can attack both objects and enemies. Objects will break and maybe hand out an interesting item while hitting enemies can be a bit trickier. Hitting an enemy straight on may give the party the advantage for what equates to a single round. Hitting them from behind however can give about two or three rounds worth of attacks before they even get started. Where things become a bit tricky is hitting the enemy and then trying to circle around in order to get more turns out of it. Sometimes this this easy to do while other times it may not even be worth it. With all of this in mind however make sure not to miss as the inverse is just as possible with the enemy able to have an entire round to attack while your party remains helpless.
There is a fair amount of battle that occurs but there is also a fair amount of character interaction and well paced cutscenes. This may be a bit of a contradiction but Cold Steel starts off both with a bang and slowly at the same time. The bang comes from starting with everyone at level fifty and not knowing what the hell is going on with some crazy enemies coming out of nowhere. What’s going on? Who are these people and why is only one of them not in a uniform? Everything will be answered because the beginning of the game is really near the end. Going back to the beginning is where things can feel a bit slow while everything comes together and all of class VII gets introduced to one another and their teacher. From this point everything slowly falls into place and Cold Steel finds its stride with the formula that it set out: Classroom, Free Time, Dungeon Crawl, Monthly Assignment.
With all the love there are some issues that did somewhat grated on me at times. One of these was the weird balance of Rean’s voice acting. The voice actor chosen for him was perfect but not all of this dialog was voiced while the rest of the cast was. One person could be vocally talking alongside the text yet Rean would only have text a good half of the time. It can create a weird vibe since it makes the experience feel a bit disjointed since you know he can actually talk unlike a silent protagonist. While there is getting some used to it, it remains a bit weird. The other issue that took some time getting used to is that while skills can be skipped in battle, it can actually take more time to skip them than letting them run through their animations. For everything that Cold Steel provides however these were minute issues compared to the rest.
Trails of Cold Steel gets off to a slow start in order to find its bearings but once it gets going it delivers a solid experience. While taking a different direction from Sky which centered on Estelle and her journey, Rean and the rest of his class’ journey was just as enjoyable. With the second chapter coming out next week, there really isn’t much time to wait in order to continue on this newer tale of the Legend of Heroes.
Sony PlayStation Vita
Nihon Falcom Corporation
Sony PlayStation 3
Super Side Note
I normally wouldn’t link outside the site but in this case I really fell in love with, and wanted to mention how much, the First and Second Chapters of Trails in the Sky that can be found over at DigitallyDownloaded.net which were written late last year from the PSP versions that I played through the PS Vita. Trails in the Sky were the sixth, seventh, and eighth (still to be finished being localized) entries into the series and Trails of Cold Steel are the eleventh, twelfth, and upcoming thirteenth. A few have been skipped in order to localize the most recent first. There’s a possibility of localizing the middle ones later on which I really hope that they do.
Review by Pierre-Yves