Disclaimer: This is a continuous series spanning many games and is my first entry in the series. Playing the previous games may alter your experience with this game.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III is the latest in a long running series of Japanese RPGs from developer Nihon Falcom known also for the Ys series. Starting in 1989 with Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes its popularity rose in the west thanks to 2011’s PSP release The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. The series finds itself telling the story of the country of Erebonia from the perspective of many different characters through different wars. Though the whole series is interlinked it is split into several arcs or chapters, similar to watching your favourite series of anime. The Trails of Cold Steel arc focuses on a young man named Rean Schwarzer, the military school Thors and particularly those of his Class VII.
Begins with our lead Rean starting his new job as instructor at Thors Military Academy and his adventures in training a new Class VII. If you have played the series prior you will see many friendly faces at the school, seeing classmates, main characters and even villains from previous games join your insanely large cast. Not to worry if you are new though, the game does provide a handy section on the title screen for you to read up on what happened in the previous two games and to familiarise yourself with all of the old characters while you’re there.
For a good portion of the game you will be spending time as Rean completing a set of missions with your Special Operations class of three students: Juna Crawford, Kurt Vander and Altina Orion. You will discover their opinions of our hero and the actions he’s taken throughout the previous games as well as seeing the political fallout of war through the eyes of innocents now conscripted. It is an interesting concept and works similarly to Fire Emblem: Three Houses, the biggest issue with the story though is that this is not a complete experience.
Trails of Cold Steel III spends a lot of time building its world and characters and not a lot of time telling the actual story. There are hours upon hours of dialogue, most of which doesn’t contribute to the story itself but works to build upon the characters or the world of the game. Falcom spend the majority of their time creating a realistic supporting cast to the point where it seemingly neglects its major characters for the sake of this world building element. Erebonia is a fantastically deep place, filled to the brim with well written characters and it makes sense for the game to want to spend the time building this place but it gets to the point where 40 hours in, nothing has actually happened.
The game generally plays out in a series of four chapter loops. You start the chapter talking to your students and training, you then go on a field exercise in which you are forced to do some fetch quests for citizens and kill some monsters, you get in trouble and someone off screen says “Not so fast!” or “That is not needed” and a group of existing characters turn up to save you. Rean then tells his students that they are bad and can’t come with him while he goes on a serious mission with his old friends, only his new students turn up anyway while about five minutes of actual story gets told to us and then everyone goes home, repeat.
The problem with this kind of storytelling is that while there are some exciting scenes sprinkled here and there, for the vast amount of the game there is nothing going on at all bar a series of generic anime antics followed by a fight scene and a giant mech battle. It isn’t until the end of chapter three where the story itself starts to pick up with a predictable plot twist and it isn’t until near the end of chapter four when the story really gets interesting. That’s not to say there aren’t interesting moments or characters before that point: for example, one of the students Ash Carbide begins as a fascinating character and remains that way throughout the events of the game,and his story is part of what creates the great and often darker moments. It is a shame because even though the ending scenes of the game are fantastic and the final twists and turns are wonderfully written and acted it is frustrating how long it takes to get there and how much random nonsense you need to endure to experience one of the most shocking cliffhanger endings in years.
Frustrating is the word of the day though. Not only does Trails of Cold Steel III have too many characters to keep track of, it also has too many mechanics. As well as having all of your basic equipment it has a materia-like system to increase your stats and dictate which spells you can use. In combat the game has a shield break and stagger mechanic, combat links and tactics and out of combat there’s cooking, fishing, horses, bikes and even a whole unique collectible card game. There is so much here to get your head around but hardly any of it is needed. While none of these mechanics or design decisions are implemented badly it may have been better for the developers to focus on perfecting and implementing fewer mechanics than to just throw everything at the game and see what sticks.
Other than spending time listening to people talk you will spend a good amount of your time in combat. This is very standard JRPG faire, taking notes from Final Fantasy X using a similar conditional turn-based system which sees your party’s turn order change depending on the amount of delay on your actions. For example, using items has less delay than casting a very powerful spell and so it is likely that if Rean uses an item, his turn will come around again sooner. The menu design for combat is wonderful, reminiscent of Persona 5 in that instead of trawling through text windows every action is assigned to one of the face buttons on the DualShock 4 and the combat itself is very simplistic in the way it is designed in order to make sense. You can move your characters around an arena, attack or use spells and send out orders to give your characters further buffs to increase your damage output against bosses with an enormous amount of HP. There is some challenge early in the game before you have your full party,as well as late game when the bosses become tough enough to survive a round of spamming your super moves, but for the most part the combat is quite un-engaging, even in some of the more spectacular looking fights.
Visually, the game looks fine: it is clearly not taking advantage of the power of the PlayStation 4 but the character models are crisp and well designed, even if some of the environments are lacking texture and details. The animation as well mostly exists to serve a function and is fine, a lot of the characters seem particularly stiff though not in every area. Clearly a lot of detail has gone into each individual character’s super move, each one looking like it has been stripped straight from a manga or anime show. I must take a line here to say that there are also breast physics in this game. Take this how you will, but most of the men are built the same way while the women are either children or walking around with spine destroying watermelons strapped to their chest, some are both.
In terms of audio presentation the soundtrack is also mostly unimpressive, though there are some standout tracks in the final area and in other places it again is mostly functional. The acting is usually quite good however the game can’t decide whether it wants to do voice acting or not. Some scenes having acting and others being text only is not new and there is no issue with this being the case, however there are plenty of scenes in the game where some characters are fully voiced while other characters are not. It isn’t a huge criticism but the inconsistency is strange to hear one character say something and then have to read the reply due to lack of voiceover.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III is a frustrating game; there are very high highs but the general makeup of the game seems designed to merely waste your time. There are other games that can tell the exact same story in 10, potentially 20 hours where this can take up to 40 hours for even a hint of story to be told. The focus on world building is admirable and they do a very good job of creating a world that feels inhabited with well defined characters, but it is very difficult to recommend this game because by its very nature the payoff never arrives. If you are already into The Legend of Heroes series then it is likely you will already know whether or not you’re getting this game. If you are not, I wouldn’t recommend you start here unless you like hours of frustrating dialogue with no pay off.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III (Reviewed on PlayStation 4)
Game is enjoyable, outweighing the issues there may be.
If you are already into the series then it is likely you will already know whether or not you’re getting this game. If you are not, I wouldn’t recommend you start here unless you like hours of frustrating dialogue with no pay off.