Nihon Falcom’s The Legend of Heroes series established itself in Japan in the late 1980s with Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes, which initially released on the NEC PC 8801. However, although the series saw numerous Western releases including localizations of the PSP remakes of The Legend of Heroes III, IV, and V, the games did not gain a sizeable Western fan base. The series wouldn’t catch on in English speaking communities until XSEED localized the sixth game in the series, Trails in the Sky, for the PSP in 2011. Following a subsequent PC release of the English localization of Trails in the Sky, the game quickly became a cult classic among JRPG fans due to its heavy emphasis on its characters and world building. Four years after Trails in the Sky’s original English release, XSEED released Second Chapter, the sequel to Trails in the Sky that picks up right after the game’s cliffhanger ending.
Two months after the English release of Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter, XSEED released Trails of Cold Steel for the Playstation 3 and Vita. While Cold Steel isn’t a direct sequel to Trails in the Sky, it takes place 2 years after the events of Second Chapter, and moved the setting from the Liberl Kingdom to the neighboring Erebonian Empire. Players had encountered Erebonian nationals in Trails in the Sky, and a war between Liberl and Erebonia made up an important chunk of the game’s backstory. Trails in the Sky offered players a glimpse into the political conflicts brewing in Erebonia, however, much of the country itself remained an enigma. Trails of Cold Steel gave fans the opportunity to explore a fleshed out Erebonia with the same attention to detail that drew people to Trails in the Sky.
Players could be forgiven for thinking that they were in for a drastically different experience with Cold Steel than they had been with the Sky games. While Trails in the Sky opened with the quiet life of the main character Estelle, her father, and her adopted brother Joshua, Trails of Cold Steel begins with an en medias reis sequence that immediately thrusts players into combat with a full party. While the early hours of Trails in the Sky were framed by the low-key adventures of Estelle and Joshua as they worked to become Bracers—questing mercenaries in the Trails universe—Trails of Cold Steel was set in a high school with events seemingly pulled straight out of Persona. At face value, Cold Steel had thrown away many of the traditional JRPG trappings that had made Sky a cult favorite in favor of more contemporary mechanics.
Once Trails of Cold Steel fell into its rhythm, however, its Persona-inspired façade faded away to reveal a game that wasn’t too far removed from its predecessors. The basic structure of Cold Steel is the same as the Sky games: each chapter has a central hub with a main quest to follow, along with several side quests that the player can complete at his or her leisure. At the end of each chapter, the player is ranked by the amount of quests they completed, and given a final grade for the “assignment” if playing Cold Steel, or given a higher Bracer rank if playing the Sky games. While the beginning hours of Trails of Cold Steel gave the impression that school life would play heavily into the structure of the game, in practice it had no strong effect on gameplay. Rather, the school served the narrative function of providing a reason to bring together characters from diverse economic and social backgrounds, and the conflicts that arose between the party characters as a result were indicative of the larger socio-political issues at play in Erebonia. In-between major story hubs, the player can spend time with party members and important NPCs to learn more about them, however, the majority of backstory and character growth for most characters is found in the main story.
Combat, too, is similar to Trails in the Sky. Coming into contact with an enemy on the overworld triggers combat on a separate screen. Attacks, skills, and spells have ranges that require proper maneuvering and positioning to use. Each character has a special move that they can use to “steal” a turn at will once enough Craft Points have been built up through dealing and receiving damage, rewarding forethought as turns will sometimes give bonuses like guaranteed critical hits or health recovery. Where Trails of Cold Steel differentiates itself from Trails in the Sky is with its “linking” system. By linking party members, players can follow up attacks for bonus damage. Using a damage type an enemy is weak against increases the chance of a follow up attack, and after enough follow-up attacks, the player is given the option of using a group action similar to the all-out-attacks from Persona. Each character also has their own unique actions that they’ll use to help their linked partner, such as finishing off an enemy close to death or automatically healing their partner. As the story progresses and the party characters overcome their differences with one another, they gain the ability to form links.
The biggest draw of Trails in the Sky was the amount of detail it put into developing its setting and characters, and in that regard, Cold Steel doesn’t disappoint either. Persons, entities, and even side quests that were nothing more than flavor text for the world in Sky are fleshed out in Cold Steel, rewarding fans who enjoyed the history created for the continent of Zemuria in Trails in the Sky. Conversations between certain Cold Steel characters reference events of previous games without making knowledge of those events crucial to understanding the main story. Each region visited in Cold Steel is given lengthy explanations of its local government, economic strengths, and place in Erebonian society. Party members, too, are given large sections of the game’s main story in order to establish how the life they were born into in Erebonia contributed to their worldview and values, and how they resolve conflicts with other party members arising from their conflicting points of view is an important part of each of their story arcs. Although the main focus of character development in Cold Steel is on the party characters, numerous story important NPCs in the world are given development comparable to main characters from other RPGs. Even “generic” town NPCs are given more attention than your average JRPG, with dialogue that changes after every major story event and mini-storylines to follow throughout the game. Some “generic” NPCs even return from Trails in the Sky.
While Trails of Cold Steel portrays itself as a JRPG abandoning its traditional roots in favor of social mechanics popularized by Persona, in reality it’s a game that strongly retains the elements that drew people to the Trails series to begin with. This 70-hour game is filled with every bit as much world building, character development, and narrative focus that its predecessors were, which is great news for fans worried that Cold Steel’s school aesthetic came at the cost of what drew them to the series to begin with. Fans of the Sky games owe it to themselves to check out Trails of Cold Steel, and an upcoming PC release featuring additional voice acting will be the perfect accommodation for those who do not own a Playstation 3 or Vita.