I’ve been in desperate need of a good JRPG for a while now. Final Fantasy hasn’t been that great the past 5 years and XV isn’t ’till September, Persona 5 is still six months or so away and let’s be honest, unless the series is a big franchise, most JRPGs nowadays are basically shitty anime visual novels that have a scraped together RPG system in it.
Now I’ve heard of the Legend of Heroes series, in particular the Trails in the Sky series that has gotten a lot of media attention because of the long time it took to translate the first two games into English and getting onto Steam to rave reviews, though I’ve yet to play them. But I saw Trails of Cold Steel on sale for PS Vita and I haven’t used my PS TV since getting Persona 4 Golden, so I figured why not.
Holy shit was that a fantastic decision!
Right off the bat, I absolutely adore the setting choice. It’s like if you took your basic high school anime and added a steampunk element into it, churning out a world where guns and swords can exist together AND you can still go to school with girls in short skirts. Though what I do appreciate is that the game does a very good job of barely sexualizing any of the girls, there’s no way to get even a glimpse of panties at any point in the game, the best you’re going to get is the odd time you’ll see the girls (other than Laura who’s consistent in this) wearing a standard one-piece race swimsuit and the one-time only hot spring moment. There’s no beach scene where the girls pull out their skimpy bikinis, there’s no catching the girls undressing, none of that exists here.
Even the main character has self-awareness and control when one possible ecchi moment takes place:
The plot of the game is simple to start with, you’re a new student attending Thors Military Academy, one of the best institutions in the nation. You’re also one of nine students out of the entire first-year program to be put into a special “Class VII” (even though there’s no Class VI) and that’s where the interest of the game really comes in. This world has the old class system in terms of nobility and the working-class. Classes are separated into their systems, two classes are all nobles, the other three are all lower-class students. However, Class VII is a mixture of both, about half and half depending on where you place a couple characters, but there are three definite nobles in Laura, Jusis and Alisa, while Rean and Machias can kind of go between both sides. It’s a very realistic representation of a worst-case scenario in terms of the upper and lower classes, where there is clearly friction between both sides, the nobles being a bunch of snobby dickheads and the lower class being a bunch of bitter fucks. Though given what the nobles do over the course of the game, I give the lower class a lot more leeway.
Another thing about the plot that shocked me with how well it’s portrayed is in its political undertones. The struggles of a potential war starting, along with various factions fighting for power (aka the nobles being quite pushy) is not only displayed prominently over the course of the game, but displayed with realistic storylines, twists and hidden objectives that don’t insult your intelligence. Normally stuff like this would bore me because when it’s done terribly, it can be extremely tedious. But in Trails of Cold Steel, everything that happens of a political standpoint is done to perfection, you believe it’s plausible and the story is written around it in a way where it genuinely affects the plot and your party constantly, to the point you have to pay attention and can be very interested in it. It’s not some tedious storyline to read into, it’s actually very engaging and interesting the whole way through.
The battle system is pretty polished as well. There are three basic attacks, your normal ‘Attack’ option, ‘Arts’ which are essentially magic spells and ‘Skills’ which are just more powerful weapon attacks. However, while Arts have their own EP bar, your Skills are tied to the CP bar which is also responsible for your special attacks, which you need at least 100 to perform, while having 200 makes the attack extremely powerful. So it becomes a strategic setup for you in how you use each party member. There are of course ways to regenerate CP (Rean and Alisa are good for that, not to mention the Impassion Art), but generally speaking if you want your special attacks ready, you best take it easy with using Skills.
What can be a little frustrating is how the game pretty much never lets you fully select your party until the very end of the game. Throughout the story, your class is cut in half to go on separate assignments related to this special class of theirs. And you have no control over who joins Rean (yourself) on these assignments, so you’re forced to make new parties every chapter. That can suck, especially if you have a party you really like, especially certain members, Eliot is a great healer and Laura’s a powerhouse, so whenever I lost one or both for a whole chapter, I was not a happy camper.
The game really shines though with its cast of characters and not even just limited to your party members. The main nine all have something to offer, some more than others depending on what you’re into and what you can’t stand. I think out of the main cast, Jusis and Machias are really the only two weak characters, relegated to the role of the two boys that can’t stop fighting. Out of all the girls, Alisa is probably the worst, just due to her bratty attitude that she displays especially during the first couple chapters. But in terms of the main cast, there’s a ton of great characters to work with. Rean’s a fantastic MC and not just the usual dumbass guy who’s somehow capable of defending everyone. While the story happens around Rean, he actually figures stuff out instead of waiting for everything to reveal itself to him. Then you’ve got characters like Fie, who’s an adorable badass, Laura who’s an elegant powerhouse, Eliot who’s a general’s son, but very pacifistic and Emma who’s far more mysterious than you could ever know. But other side characters like Towa, the adorable student council president and Angelica, who may be my favourite character ever in a JRPG because she’s essentially the most perverted lesbian I’ve ever seen, they add to an already diverse and interesting cast.
The only thing I can really complain about with the game is the end of this first of three in the series. I won’t spoil it outright, but for those who have played and finished the game, they’ll know what I mean when I say this.
The game does a fantastic job for the first 90% of the game, creating a world where the class system and politics roam as the dominant factors. Yes, there is another faction working against everyone during all this, but they’re kind of the side plot that acts as the game’s villains within the political standoff that is what I perceive as the main plot of the game. By the time all the loose ends seem to be tied up, the game suddenly changes its script completely and becomes something completely different to what you’ve worked towards the entire (for me) 100+ hours played. It’s like they decided to start a new game within this game and not give the player any warning about it. So by the very end of the show, not only has the entire complexity of the series changed, you’re forced to leave it all behind and watch an ending that really comes off like an Empire Strikes Back type of ending and it’s the kind of ending that I don’t think makes sense as the end of a first game. I mean, it makes the second game (which will be out sometime this fall in North America) really interesting, but I left the first game a little ticked off, feeling like I put in the work only to get fucked at the very end. It’s disappointing.
But out of any JRPG that I have played since Persona 4, this is without a shadow of a doubt the best one I’ve played since the PlayStation 2 era. Trails of Cold Steel made me believe that JRPGs are still alive and well and with Final Fantasy XV and Persona 5 coming soon, not to mention I Am Setsuna already out and on my to-play list AND I’ve just started Tokyo Mirage Sessions as I’m typing this…I’m excited for JRPGs again! Because games like Omega Quintet and the many Final Fantasy XIII games, they turned me off of them for a while.
Trails of Cold Steel managed to win my JRPG heart back and they did it without being super ecchi and with the addition of politics of all things! That’s saying something! Play that game if you can, you will not regret it!