Review | The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III
The Legend of Heroes series from Nihon Falcom has a pretty long history. It dates as far back as 1989, but the Trails subseries started in 2004. It isn’t easy to have a franchise span over that many years, and sometimes its even harder to have one continuous story. In 2019, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III brings the seventh installment of the Trails series. It also changes publishers in the West and marks the first game built from the ground up on the PlayStation 4. Is this a game you can jump into? Or do you need to go back and play the six previous titles?
Trails of Cold Steel III may be part of a larger series, but it’s really only the third entry in the story it’s telling. Part of a tetrology, Cold Steel III actually takes place after a time skip from the previous game. The game follows Rean Schwarzer, the main protagonist of Trails of Cold Steel. A practitioner of the Eight Leaves One Blade style, he was the leader of Class VII at Thors Military Academy. After the events of Trails of Cold Steel II, he became known as the Ashen Chevalier, graduating from his class. Now a year and a half later, he begins an instructor job at the new Thors Branch Campus.
It can be a little overwhelming with such a rich history built with this series. Tons of characters from games past and with even more new characters joining the cast, it’s a lot to process. Luckily, there’s a backstory guide built into the game, detailing the events of the previous two titles. Not only does it give a full summary of the plots, but it also gives information on all the key characters, the world building, and more. While it’s not the same as actually playing the game, newcomers that want to know more about the previous games have this resource available. It also helps that, despite being a third entry in a series, the game presents itself like everything is new.
While Rean is teaching new students, he runs into several of his old classmates, friends, and even former enemies. Despite the history he has with these characters, the game always presents them like the player is meeting them for the first time, or at least the first time in a long time. Trails of Cold Steel III also has several flashbacks, helping to create a picture for those that haven’t played previous games. Of course, a player will have a deeper understanding and attachment to this story if they play all the previous games. Unfortunately, not all of them are easily available outside Japan, so it shouldn’t be an expectation. It should be appreciated that a lot of effort went into the game to help players familiarize themselves with the history.
While this game is part of a larger story, it’s basically part one of a two part narrative. The main plot is full of detail and exposition, building this world even further for players to explore. The pacing is a little off, but it starts to pick up about halfway into the first chapter. Even then, the main plot is easily sidetracked by the heavily encouraged side-quests. If Rean wants to rank up as an instructor, not to mention get compensated for his work, players will have to perform a lot of activities on the side. This can be as simple as finding a lost cat, or defeating a group of enemies. It makes each chapter take a long amount of time, but the rewards tend to be worth it. Fans of the previous games should be familiar with it by now.
On top of fulfilling requests, there are moments where players will explore the Thors Branch Campus. This feels a lot like Fire Emblem: Three Houses, as players can use this time to bond with students and staff, fulfill more side-quests, and overall become a better instructor. There’s also the card game, Vantage Masters, which adds another little distraction to the pacing. It’s a lot for a JRPG, and it adds several hours to the game, but it handles itself well. It rarely feels like a chore, and when it does, luckily, there’s the fast-forward button for dialogue interactions.
Now, that’s mostly how the game plays outside of combat, but how does it play in more intense situations? Well the battle segments for Trails of Cold Steel III are easily the best in the series. Utilizing a turn-based system, party members will move around on a battlefield to fight enemies. The placement of both characters and enemies add a lot to the strategy, as this can determine how many targets get affected. Command menus will use the D-Pad or analog stick, as well as all four face buttons. Each button is assigned to different functions, including attacks, items, crafts, and orbal arts. Players will have energy points for orbal arts, and craft points for their craft abilities. It all works well and makes for a deep battle system that only gets more interesting on higher difficulties.
Battles continue to get more complex when other elements get introduced. S-Crafts are special character abilities that deal massive damage, and better yet, they can be activated at any time a player has 100 or more CP. This can easily change a situation where several enemies will attack in a row. Another feature is the Orders command, which allows players to set a temporary order that buffs the party in exchange of bravery points. This can be vital in many situations, especially boss battles. Finally, there’s the Combat Link system. When enemies are unbalanced by an attack, it allows for an Assist, Rush or Burst attack at the cost of bravery points. Assist and Rush attacks bring a linked character in while the Burst attack involves the whole party.
Overall, the combat system is engaging and makes for a challenging battle. There’s also the Panzer Soldat battles, where players will engage in mechanized combat. It takes some of the depth away, but still makes for a nice change of pace. Each battle will help to improve the bonds between characters, level them up, and earn Sepith. Using Sepith will help to improve a characters ARCUS, which allows players to equip Quartz orbs. Think Materia from Final Fantasy VII, except not applied to a weapon. These orbs will improve stats, give new abilities, and make a character much stronger overall. Spending Sepith will unlock more orb slots for each character, which can take a long time of grinding to fully open them all. The ARCUS can also equip Master Quartz, which will level up and improve stats as well.
One thing that makes the Trails of Cold Steel series interesting is how important items and shopping gets. Players will be encouraged to not only buy items from shops, but also exchange items to get better ones. There’s even gifts that players will find at specific shops, which will help to improve bonds with other characters. Items in battle are also incredibly useful, especially on higher difficulties where early battles are tougher. Food also makes for a valuable option, as players will find recipes to craft their own food items. There’s even characters that will reward you for collecting information, like books found in shops. It’s a nice change of pace when comparing to other JRPGs where items are practically useless.
Getting to the presentation of Trails of Cold Steel III, it’s easily the best in the franchise. The visuals are a clear step up from the previous game, even if it doesn’t take full advantage of the PlayStation 4 hardware. The game also has new anime cutscenes that look much better than the animated images in previous games. Trails of Cold Steel III also brings back the majority of the English voice actors despite switching publishers. For the most part, the voice acting is excellent, with a standout performance from the voice of Rean, Sean Chiplock. While some voices can be a bit irritating, they never overstay their welcome. This is largely due to the fact that most of the dialogue presents itself using text.
While text dialogue isn’t usually a problem, there is one thing that is worth mentioning. Players of the previous games may already know, but there are moments when characters will talk, fully voiced, only for other characters to respond with text. It’s pretty jarring when it happens, and makes for an inconsistent presentation. One moment, everyone will be talking together using full voice acting. In another, Rean will accept a phone call from an old friend, using their voice to talk to a silent Rean. We wouldn’t expect a game with this much dialogue to have full voice acting, but it would be nice to have it in the same scenes at least.
Another part of the presentation that feels off is the use of letterboxes in the cutscenes. Normal gameplay takes full advantage of the screen, but during every story sequence, there will be thin black bars on the top of bottom. It doesn’t hurt the game overall, but it’s an odd decision nonetheless. Luckily, the game more than makes up for it with the amount of detail it has. Practically every NPC is unique in appearance, character designs are full of variety, and towns feel warm and inviting. For those that enjoy it, there’s also a bit of fan service in the game. As for the music in Trails of Cold Steel III, it also sounds great, fitting every situation perfectly. It’s also worth pointing out the excellent fast travel options, making quest completion a breeze.
Whether you’ve been a fan from the beginning or you’re starting out now, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III is a fine JRPG. It may have an overwhelmingly rich history, but there’s plenty of elements in place to help newcomers. It improves on the previous entries both visually and fundamentally, and tells a fun 60+ hour story. While the presentation has some blemishes remaining from previous entries, it still shines through here. It may be a long wait till Trails of Cold Steel IV, but Cold Steel III can keep you busy for a long time. If you really want to get a better experience, it may be worth picking up the first two Trails of Cold Steel titles too. Both are available on PlayStation 4 (albeit from a different publisher), and can help establish the story better.