Review: The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel – Not the heroes you wanted, but needed

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Originally released as a PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita exclusive, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel has arrived on PlayStation 4, bringing with it an unforgettable story, and a timeless combat system that PlayStation One fans will enjoy, but does it deliver on the latest Sony console? 


Pros:
+Combat is an absolute delight thanks to the arts system
+Dialogue actually has some weight to it, helping add a sense of urgency to the experience
+The overall experience in character growth is something we haven’t seen in years
+The link system really helps expand upon basic combat functionality

Cons:
-2D animations don’t hold up well in 1080p on 40+ inch screens
-A lack of an auto-resume system for dialogue is a minor nuisance


When I first encountered The Legend of Heroes franchise, it was on the PlayStation Portable nearly 15 years ago. Since then, I’ve spent an adequate amount of time becoming familiar with the series, tearing through every game I could get my hands on at the game. At times, I would even delve into fan-translated videos just to learn what of the story that I could after having never had a chance to play the first two entries in the series.

Since then, however, I’ve taken the chance to dive into the latest entries in the classic turn-based series, enjoying the turn-based titles to their fullest. The latest, in the franchise, being the Trails of Cold Steel entries. The two entries having previously released on PlayStation 3 and the PlayStation Vita from famed Japanese developer Nihon Falcom.

But the question is, how well does a series such as this hold up once a PlayStation 4 version has launched nearly six years later? Well, that’s part of our review when it comes to the title that tells the story of friendship, love, and war through the eyes of Rean Schwarzer, one of the newest students to the Thors Military Academy. So let’s get to talking.

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With a PlayStation 4 remaster (port in HD at this point), Trails of Cold Steel has a few minor issues

While it’s hard not to deny that Trails of Cold Steel is an absolutely amazing title, it doesn’t come without its flaws, which is a shame as it seems all JRPGs tend to have that issue as of late. Each one, in some ways, tends to overstay their welcome, forgetting what makes them great and somehow causing gamers to beat their head against a wall.

Luckily, there’s no fire to be put out here, but there are a few minor elements that Trails of Cold Steel could have benefited from in its 60+ hour campaign (if you just focus on the campaign). Namely, an auto-continue function for the dialogue, allowing the game to continue on if you so request it to do so.

This feature would have been stellar, allowing you to enjoy Trails of Cold Steel with a little more immersion than you did before. Who doesn’t want to see a war unfold before them, showing off the hardships that the students will face? Who doesn’t want to see how an empire that has become overreliant on its military strength and social caste system works?

Trust me, it’s actually an interesting story and one that tackles social struggles around the world, placing a light on them in every way possible, just to show how truly bad they actually are, despite the game focusing on a war-time setting for Rean and his colleagues. All of them, all eight of them in Class VII, you’ll want to bond with as much as you can, their relationships are important and they give the entry a lot of personality alongside those that help it exist.

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Onward you might peoples, the days are ticking away, but you need to know your fellow classmates!

Much like any JRPG, Trails of Cold Steel is a game that’s wanting to convey an important message about friendships, social problems, and the importance of friendship itself. Because of the themes, the game itself, while extremely wordy, and you’ll be spending a lot of time in dialogue has a sense of personality you won’t see in most other games.

Want to really find that in franchises like Hyperdimension Neptunia? Well, you’re going to be hard pressed to do so. The last JRPG I recall having this kind of depth is Lost Odyssey, which released around the same time as Trails of Cold Steel had before. The game presents itself in a fairly sensible fashion: The main story starts out getting you acquainted with the games most basic functions ranging from combat mechanics to using party Links as well as the Arcus system itself.

Dialogue options, if you pay attention, explain everything in depth, clear down to what you can and can’t do with every piece of the game. Your time learning these most basic to advanced functions will take place over the course of days, weeks, and months, with the main story itself becoming forward progression based on specific times and dates that you will make your way towards doing sometimes simple and mundane tasks to more complex tasks such as training your squad itself in the local training grounds.

Unlike Persona 5, you won’t get the option to do what you want every single day. Rather, the days are pre-determined for the most part, making it so you’ll spend time running errands, meeting new NPCs, learning what specific shops do, training in the local dungeon, or proceeding forth with dialogue options so you get to better know the members of Class VII itself.

Dialogue, much like in Persona 5, is actually quite important. Without it, you wouldn’t form your bonds, these bonds aren’t just something to bat your eyelashes at. Combat itself is already rigorous, forcing you to know your squad’s composition rather well so as not to die rather quickly, which – by the way, will happen more than once. Your character links require these bonds to be deepened.

The deeper the bond, the more effective combat abilities for your squad members are and the more reliable link strikes become as you progress.

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Right, we need to talk a bit about combat, this is a turn-based JRPG after all!

Now, bonds, as I stated, are important. They help your squad become more effective throughout the game, which I can’t stress, is important and quite beneficial if you wish to progress with a bit more ease. As combat is a turn-based endeavor, you will find that the games combat systems are rather familiar, especially for those of you who have played more classic titles such as The Legend of Dragoon and the older entries in the Trails of series.

Combat itself can be rather overwhelming though. You’ll find that it comes in all sorts of flavors, allowing you to really get a good idea for just how deep the system is; topping it off with elements we’ve seen before in tactical RPGs. Because of this, you’ll want to spend time getting familiar with each combat ability your characters possess. One character might excel at eliminating one single foe at a time while another will emphasize on their ability to damage wide areas, making them beneficial to damaging more than a single target.

All of these systems become crucial as the game progresses, but there’s one that we haven’t mentioned: Additional effects. You see, this isn’t your standard JRPG affair. This game isn’t one that’s shallow by any means necessary. The depth of customization adds a sense of gameplay elements we really haven’t seen in a JRPG series since the days of FINAL FANTASY VII and its materia system.

Why is that? Well, there’s a system in the game utilizing quarts, which enables items to have magical elements (spells) linked to them called “arts” or a stat boost that will make your characters more effective during combat. One may raise defense while another enables an ability that can debuff an enemy, lowering their effectiveness in a combat scenario.

The system, while seemingly complex, actually isn’t. Thankfully, there are tons of tutorials you’ll familiarize yourself with as you play. Literally, there are tons. Not one or two, but tons. These systems such as arts, actually help drive the narrative forward, allowing for combat to feel absolutely responsive, allowing each encounter to feel as if it has meaning to the overall experience, which if I might say, we really don’t see in video games anymore.

Just don’t expect an encounter that’s going to be one to write home about. Unfortunately, you won’t find a Ruby or Emerald weapon waiting in some hidden cave for you to hit the level cap in order to defeat. This isn’t one of those games, unfortunately. It’s just one of those elements that helps get the job done and helps keep the game from feeling like a drawn-out visual novel, which it very well could have been.

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About this game being a port… Yea… Let’s talk about that for just a brief second.

You might have read above that I called this a “remaster”. Well, in a way, that was misleading, because it isn’t. Sure, there are a few minor upgrades to performance, slight upgrades to the visuals, but honestly: This is a port. The textures don’t feel upgraded, they can feel rather dated, but that doesn’t make the game bad by any means necessary.

It just leaves a lot to be desired from features such as textures that looked washed out, character designs that – at times – pop a little too much, and 2D portraits that just… They just look a bit too blurry on a 40+ inch screen. The most noticeable change has been to the performance sections of the game; hard-locking the game at 6 frames-per-second while load times are non-existent, and the upscaling to 1080p.

While this all sounds like a con, it isn’t necessarily all that bad. Trails of Cold Steel is a solid game, even my second time around, which leaves it as an almost must-have experience for JRPG fans. It’s a slow burning experience, one that comes to life through character development, gameplay customizations through Arcus and the arts systems, and combat that really helps drive the turn-based systems of yesteryear back to life.

I just wish the visuals got a bit more update than they had, but alas, it’s time for our conclusion.

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Fin.

With more than 60+ hours of JRPG fun, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel has a lot to offer. Whether it’s the added depth to character growth, a slow-burning story that will eventually begin to come to a burning hot conclusion or the meticulously crafted world; Trails of Cold Steel is a diamond in the rough.

It’s a title you can only appreciate once you really dig your metaphorical teeth once your adventure gets underway. Honestly, it’s a title that’ll go completely under the radar for many gamers, which is really a saddening thought as the title delivers some of the most solid turn-based combat experiences to a PlayStation console since the days of FINAL FANTASY VII.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel
Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation Vita
Platform Reviewed: PlayStation 4 Pro
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: XSEED Games
Release Date: Available Now
Cost: $49.99

But, if you’re interested in a modern take on a genre classic, here’s your chance and this is an absolutely recommended title with Trails of Cold Steel III already on its way in the upcoming months.


Our review is based upon a retail version that was provided to us by the publisher of the game. For information about our ethics policy please click here.


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About the Writer(s):

dustin_batgr_prof

Dustin is our native console gamer, PlayStation and Nintendo reviewer who has an appetite for anything that crosses the borders from across the big pond. His interest in JRPG’s, Anime, Handheld Gaming, and Pizza is insatiable. His elitist attitude gives him direction, want, and a need for the hardest difficulties in games, which is fun to watch, and hilarity at its finest. You can find him over on Twitter or Facebook.

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