There are games where 30 hours seem to fly by in an instant, and there are games where I'll be playing for what seems like days upon end, only to find that I've only put in 10 hours. At the risk of sounding more negative than I'd like, The Legends of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel has mostly fallen in the latter category for me.
Despite a concerted effort over the holiday, I've had a tough time pushing much beyond the first chapter of Trails of Cold Steel, which came out shortly before Christmas. I've warmed to it as the story has slowly but surely progressed, but it's definitely been a slown burn. Like Trails in the Sky before it, Trails of Cold Steel asks for a great deal of patience from the player as it slowly introduces its cast, its battle system, and its world. As late as five hours in, I was still taking on tutorial-style quests meant to introduce me to the game's mechanics.
This is the way of Nihon Falcom's Legend of Heroes games, which has managed to win a cult following in North America with its richly detailed worlds and epic story arcs. With a story that unfolds over the course of two full games, Trails of Cold Steel expects you to be invested for the long haul, so it's content to take its time laying the groundwork for what's to come. From a pacing perspective this might not be the smartest approach, but fans seem content to overlook it in favor of the more positive aspects of Trails of Cold Steel's world-building.
Which is not to say that Trails of Cold Steel doesn't open with a bang. In the opening moments, we're introduced to Class VII - a motley collection of nobles and commoners studying together at a prestigious military academy who are battling through what seems like an invasion. The mode is intended to showcase some of the battle mechanics while serving as a hint as to where the story will go, ending with a lightweight boss battle and the requisite animated introduction. The story then picks up at the entrance to Thors Military Academy with Rean, the story's katana-wielding protagonist, after which we're introduced to the rest of the class.
Comparisons with Persona 3 and 4 are natural, if imperfect. Like those games, Trails of Cold Steel progresses from day to day on a calendar, with activities including bonding events, exams, fetch quests, and monster hunting, the last two being the most common in the early going. Bonding events bear some resemblance to the social links in Persona - you have a limited amount of time to build up a relationship with your classmates by approaching them and viewing cutscenes, which in turn makes them more powerful in battle.
All of this is fine for the most part. I like RPGs where you build up relationships with other characters, and I like having a degree of freedom to approach the game as I please. The thing is that a game like this needs a strong cast to succeed, and that's where Trails of Cold Steel struggles in my mind. Class VII is mostly stocked with anime archetypes - the brave and hard-working protagonist, the bratty girl who secretly has a crush on the hero, the Misato Katsuragi-like instructor who likes to drink and is seemingly disinterested in teaching, and so forth. To be fair, Trails in the Sky's protagonists initially come off that way as well before becoming more interesting down the line, and I expect that's also the case with Trails of Cold Steel. In the first couple chapters, though, they are painted in only the broadest of strokes, which makes it hard for me to care about them. Hence Trails of Cold Steel being a slow burn.
Aside from the somewhat stereotypical cast, Trails of Cold Steel's momentum is also hurt by its relatively unremarkable quests. In the first 10 hours or so you'll spend a lot of time making deliveries and fighting generic monsters, with the occasional featureless dungeon there to break things up. They aren't exactly bad, but they aren't especially interesting either. A lot of them come off as filler.
Happily, the battle system is deeper and more enjoyable than it first appears. In the early going it feels like a bit of a hodge-podge - a collection of disparate elements that don't fit together particularly well; but after a while, it starts to work. The system is built around materia-like quartz, which can be inserted into an unlockable slot to grant characters various attack and support spells, as well as inherent abilities called crafts that play a large role in each character's role in the party. The latter abilities draw from CP, which grows as you successfully attack enemies, and fuels powerful S-Break attacks that can do large amounts of damage.
With characters being able to move about the field, one of your most important tactical decisions is whether to keep the party together so they can benefit from healing and buffs, or to spread them out to avoid area of effect attacks. You can also link characters together, which can in some cases lead to a free follow-up attack that does additional damage. It all feels a bit confusing and messy at first, but once you get the hang of it, you'll find that there are enough interesting decisions to be made at any given time to keep the fights interesting. More than anything else, the battle system has been what has kept me playing Trails of Cold Steel.
So is Trails of Cold Steel worth checking out?
Based on what I've written so far, you're probably thinking, "No, it's not." But despite my negativity, I think Trails of Cold Steel is worth checking out for a certain segment of RPG fans, particularly those who enjoy anime.
Though heavy-handed in the way that it's presented, the seeds of an interesting story are present, with imperialism and populism being two of the major threads introduced early on. Alas, they are mostly left to nibble around the edges through the initial hours, with the main thrust of the story being the introduction to the school and the various internal problems that are meant to highlight a troubled empire. It has the potential to blossom into something down the line, but it really takes its sweet time getting to that point.
It is in many respects an old-school RPG - one that would have fit in well on the PlayStation 2 back in the day. It's not meant to advance the genre so much as tell a sprawling story within the confines of established design tropes, with a cast built specifically to appeal to anime fans. Its structure and pace makes it a particularly good fit for the PlayStation Vita, where it can be suspended at will. It's just the sort of meaty, old-school JRPG that has become the system's calling card.
Having said that, I think it appeals to a very particular taste, and I'd have a hard time recommending it to someone outside of its established niche. It's a solidly designed RPG with a good pedigree, but 10 hours hasn't been enough for it to get its hooks into me, which is usually the threshold beyond which I move on to something else.
For now, though, I plan to stick with it. There are some RPGs that you just learn to love.