The Legend of Heroes is an RPG series from Nihon Falcom that, until recently, was only available in Japanese, but XSEED Games has just brought the first title, Trails of Cold Steel, Stateside. The result is an extremely well-made and excellently-localized JRPG that nonetheless shows its pedigree as a 2013 PS3/PS Vita release.
Trails of Cold Steel takes place in the military fantasy-themed Erebonian Empire. The game puts you into the perspective of a young Rean Schwarzer, who has just entered Class VII of the Empire’s Thors Military Academy, and encounters most of the classmates who will be his companions for the game’s combat and story. Trails of Cold Steel leans heavily on traditional JRPG tropes for its narrative, marrying a distinctly high school-esque environment with more nuanced socio-economic class musings, and feels familiar in its storytelling.
The formula for Trails of Cold Steel’s gameplay is likewise conventional. As you progress through the game’s expansive world and story, you’ll take on quests, fight monsters, engage in social activities, do some light crafting, go fishing, play a fun card-based minigame, and upgrade your characters’ abilities and equipment. Trails of Cold Steel’s systems will be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s played a JRPG (or, truly, any roleplaying game) in the past ten or so years, but they are each of them implemented intuitively and with such clarity as to make them still compelling.
Combat is turn-based, and, as we’ve come to expect from JRPGs, dependent on your social relationships with your NPC compatriots. Apart from engaging in basic attacks and utilizing items, you’ll be able to employ different Arts (magical abilities) and Crafts (special skills) when fighting monsters. Arts are made possible by the use of magical devices called Orbments, and can be switched out by collecting and exchanging resources called Quartzes. Crafts, on the other hand, are particular to each of your party members and culminate in epic special abilities. Furthermore, you’ll want to build your social relationships with your party members by hanging out with them when you have free time, to increase the power of your Link abilities with them in combat.
Specific features of note are Trails of Cold Steel’s excellent user interface and localization. Getting around the world is extremely streamlined with the game’s use of instant travel, and the main “Camp” menu and informational “Notebook” are wonderfully user friendly and inclusive. Trails of Cold Steel is also impeccably localized, with phenomenal voice acting and a clear effort to make the story and world accessible for Western markets.
As well-made and well-localized is Nihon Falcom and XSEED’s JRPG, there are several things that muddy its potential. Aesthetically, it’s undeniably a PS3 game from two years ago, and while the character models and environments are serviceable, the series doesn’t have the weight of, say, Persona 4 Golden to encourage players to be more forgiving of antiquated visuals. What’s more, a lot of the music sounds like it’s better suited for a free-to-play city builder, and devalues the mostly top-notch audio and voice acting. Furthermore, as genuine as the game’s story and characters seem to be, they unfortunately follow so closely to genre conventions that they often come off as feeling contrived. You’ll likely find yourself rolling your eyes at unnamed NPCs chewing scenery and plotting the world’s demise, and at your companions vocally withholding information about themselves so that they can reveal more at some later time. It doesn’t help that there is an interminable amount of plot exposition through dialogue, which, depending on your preferences, can test your patience and attention span.
In many ways, Trails of Cold Steel’s JRPG trappings and gameplay struggle to remain relevant in an evolving genre. Yet, paradoxically, it’s the game’s conventional approach that makes it appealing, a reminder of the formula that has made JRPGs so popular, with several ease-of-use additions here and there to make it more accessible in the contemporary milieu. If you’re looking for something new to play on your Vita or PS3, you’d be hard-pressed to do better.
GAMEPLAY - 8 Trails of Cold Steel’s combat is JRPG gameplay at its finest, and there’s a ton of exploration and activities to do, although most of it feels familiar.
VISUALS & SOUND - 7 Trails of Cold Steel looks like a 2013 PS3 title, and although the voice acting is outstanding, the visuals are outdated and the background music can be off-putting.
POLISH - 10 Nihon Falcom and XSEED Games have done an excellent job in developing and localizing Trails of Cold Steel for a Western audience. The game’s presentation is clean and free of localization inconsistencies.
LONGEVITY - 10 If you like what Trails of Cold Steel has to offer, there is a lot to do here that will stand you in good stead. In typical JRPG fashion, in addition to tackling quests and fighting monsters, there are plenty of other activities vying for your attention, such as cooking, fishing, card minigames, and more.
VALUE - 9 The Standard Edition will run you $39.99, and the Lionheart (Collector’s) Edition, $49.99. For the amount of content that you’re getting, the price is more than fair, and while it would be nice to have PS3/Vita cross-buy, at least you can still benefit from cross-save if you somehow rationalize purchasing both versions.
Final Score - 8.8
- JRPG formula at its best
- Memorable, fun characters
- Streamlined features, such as fast travel
- Looks like a 2013 PS3 game
- Background music feels out of place
- Dialogue exposition can be a snoozefest