It’s overrated as hell.
This isn’t a scored review, but instead a breakdown of why I disagree with the notion that the Trails of Cold Steel game is interesting and a “deep” RPG world.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is the 12th entry in the Legend of Heroes franchise and the first in a trilogy of Cold Steel games which is a subset of the Trails in the Sky series, also known as the “Kiseki series”. I have some experience with the first Trails in the Sky game and beat the first Trails of Cold Steel. All the series were produced by the veteran video game company Falcom with ToCS being partly developed by XSeed. The games are renowned for their battle system and the insane amount of text in each game.
The game mostly takes place in the Erebonian Empire, which is in the midst of a class upheaval following the tail end of the magical equivalent of the Industrial Revolution. Part of the appeal of the Kiseki games is that they all take place in the same world, relatively close to each other. This game takes place almost simultaneously with other games in the series. The combat is a mix of traditional jRPG turn-based combat, with an emphasis on positioning and turn order management. The main gimmick to distinguish this game from its brethren is that it takes place at a high school, where you can hangout and increase your bonds with your classmates during downtime between missions.
The school you, Rean Schwarzer, arrive at in the beginning of the game is a prestigious military academy where Rean is entered into the newly formed Class VII, a unit made up of students from various walks of life and economic status. As previously mentioned, the Erebonian Empire is undergoing a kind of social reorganizing due to the introduction of magic almost overnight. This has led to tensions between the haves and have nots, which Class VII seeks to address. Through multiple field trips to different locations around the empire the class comes to gain a greater appreciation and understanding of their homeland.
If only I cared about any of it…
First, let’s get any positives out of the way. The soundtrack is pretty good. The combat system is fun although I found late game bosses to be insanely though even when I’d been fighting every enemy on every side quest. The art style isn’t as terrible as I thought it would be going in.
Trails of Cold Steel builds a tremendously detailed world, but can’t seem to give you a compelling reason to explore or get invested in it. The characters are paper thin, the world is far too shallow for how much time they spend building it.
Something that’s actually interesting about this game is that I was actually having a really fun time with it, anime tropes and all, until about 40 hours in when something broke inside of me. And you won’t find me dumping on anything as hard as I dump on something I used to like and then turned on. I think it was at the fishing village when I suddenly realized how little had actually happened in the game and how little I would care if anything did happen.
It’s the characters that are ToCS’s biggest flaw and the closest thing it has to a saving grace. They’re not engrossing, but interacting with them during off days from school in-game and watching them resolve their various conflicts was the most enjoyment I got out of the game. Where the game fails them and itself is in not tying the characters and their internal conflicts to the world itself beyond the vague “rich people vs. poor people” theme the game keeps harping on for 40+ hours. The game doesn’t even offer any new or interesting perspectives on this classic classist conflict.
The characters in Trails of Cold Steel aren’t groundbreaking or even original by any means. Rean Schwartzer is your protagonist who is perfectly bland enough for you to project onto and chivalrous enough to say all the right things at the right time. I hate REan with a firey passion, especially since he gets a super-mode at one point where his hair turns white and his eyes turn red, he’s borderline Kirito from SAO levels of boring. Alisa Reinford is the stuck up, stand-offish blonde, a trope I’m usually fond of, but she’s easily the flattest character out of the bunch. Laura is the prim and proper noble, but has a kind heart and doesn’t look down on or abuse those beneath her. Elliot Craig is your standard quiet nice guy and best friend of the protag. Gaius Worzel is the strong, softspoken, and wise man from the plains. Emma Millstien is the quiet studious girl. Fie Claussell is the deadpan loli. Jusis Albarea and Machias Regnitz are the requisite rich and poor boys, respectively. Crow Armburst is the slacker with a dark edge, and Sara Valestein is a shallower version of Misato from Neon Genesis Evangelion. Each of these character has one to two backstory details to get you more invested in them, but none of these details lead to a different way of looking at the world or even a deeper understanding of the people in this world. One of the earliest examples is in the conflict between Jusis and Machias.
Jusis and Machias start off as bitter rivals. Jusis was raised as the son of one of the most powerful and wealthy individuals in the kingdom and Machias’ father started from humble beginnings to become the head of his community. Machias and his father endured endless taunts and disrespect from the old money families, and Jusis has always played second fiddle to his brother and lacks the love of his father. Both characters are classic tropes, but they’re executed well enough that I was fairly interested in where their conflict was going. Turns out all it takes is a quick visit to each others’ home town for Jusis and Machias to begrudgingly respect each other. Turns out poor people and rich people need to respect each other, you guys! That’s the shocking conclusion to this conflict that Trails of Cold Steel comes to and continues to say for the duration of the game. The majority of the game is set with you and various members of Class VII going on field trips to towns in the kingdom and initially I thought that once we got past the surface level philosophy of “people shouldn’t be dicks regardless of social standing” we would get new and interesting locales and conflicts for our bright eyed crew to be confronted with. Instead we get a big field and then a fishing town where we learn that people shouldn’t be dicks to each other regardless of social status.
It is fully possible that I’m not getting the full impact of the game’s plot and world due to my unfamiliarity with the series, but when you present characters as your gateway to exploring the themes and mechanics of your world, you’d better make sure that both the characters and themes are memorable and interesting or else I’m not going to give a crap about how complex your trade route operations are. I am very aware that this is the first game in a trilogy, and as such is effectively the first act in a larger story, but I can’t think of a single story thread or character I’m invested in seeing more of. From what I’ve seen, the Trails series is great at building worlds, but not infusing it them with cohesive narrative themes.
This is something Dragon Age Origins and the Mass Effect games nailed to near perfection. I might not have cared about the krogan genophage if Wrex, Mordin, and Grunt hadn’t been interesting and likeable characters. Mages being forced into joining the Circle of Magi wouldn’t have seemed as oppressive if I hadn’t met Morrigan, and it wouldn’t have seemed necessary if I never talked to Alistair. I wouldn’t have known how deep the geth/quarian conflict went unless I’d gotten emotionally attached to Tali and Legion. And I certainly would never have bothered to look up anything related to turians if Garrus wasn’t the bro-est space bro. Other Japanese role-playing games have managed to meld their characters’ conflicts to the narrative themes as well, need I go on a tangent about NieR and NieR: Automata? How about Persona 3‘s theme of dealing/coping with loss (usually death). Or P4’s obsession with self-acceptance which is secondary only to its infatuation with yellow? Hell, Spice and Wolf melded fantastic characters with semi-boring economics and its not even interactive, it’s an anime and light novel series. The Trails series may have one of the largest and most detailed worlds in all of fiction, but with nothing interesting to say or present it all falls flat.
This melding of great world mechanics with narrative themes is why so many pretentious nerds, like myself, won’t shut up about Fallout: New Vegas. New Vegas‘ world works as a believable physical location, but that is just an incredibly solid backdrop for fascinating thematic discussion. Is ineffective, but mostly benign bureaucracy (the NCR) better or worse than effective, but rigid and cruel despotism (Caesar’s Legion)? Should the Brotherhood of Steel maintain its strict anti-outsider policies or use their knowledge to educate the world in how to use technology? How does the rise of a new upper class affect this Mad Max-esque wasteland? The mechanics of how the world of New Vegas works are detailed so that the “what is happening” in New Vegas stands up to scrutiny.
You can’t just make a deeply intricate world and expect people to care about it just because of how every forgettable shopkeeper has some minor arc they go through. We need to form a legitimate connection to the characters in stories, and having several plots resolved off screen doesn’t make the the world feel “lived in” or “expansive”, it makes it feel ephemeral and distant. I couldn’t describe the character of any of the shopkeepers in ToCS, I could barely tell you the background lore details they give. I couldn’t recite the trade operations of (insert company name here). I couldn’t remember the minute details of the ToCS world if I tried. What I can recall is the character conflicts and growths. I can recount the conflict between Machias and Jusis. I can tell you that Laura is a tad too proper for her own good and that clashes with Fie’s more laid back nature. Despite how trite a lot of the characters are, they still stuck with me more than any details about the pricing of Orbal whatevers.
The writers of Trails of Cold Steel have incredible talent when it comes to making economic backstories, but can’t seem to make me care about it. I have immense respect for that attention to detail, but when I’m 34 hours into a game and I have to sit through another lecture on how the train’s time tables are being changed to facilitate more profitable hours for the laborer’s union with no promise of actual storytelling to interest me my eyes start to glaze over. I don’t necessarily think Trails of Cold Steel is a bad game, it’s just paper thin on legitimately interesting material. It doesn’t have Persona‘s compelling characters and it doesn’t have NieR‘s incredibly moving plot and themes. If you want to look into killing 40+ hours reading world building details that could’ve very easily been put into a wiki or in-game codex, maybe give the Trails series a shot, but if you want characters and interesting, self-contained plotlines try some of the other games I mentioned here.
Thanks for reading through all of that, apologies for the weird spacing, WordPress just wanted in insert some line breaks, I guess. Have you tried the Trails games? Did you enjoy them? Did you hate it? Am I missing out on interesting developments in the sequels? Let me know or shout at me for hating your favorite jRPG in the comments below or at my Twitter.