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Even for an RPG, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is the Slowest of Burns

Is Trails of Cold Steel worth checking out? Kat checks in after the first 10 hours of the latest Legend of Heroes game.

Review by Kat Bailey, .

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.

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Comments 17

  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #1 SatelliteOfLove 2 years ago
    "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."

    Hoooooooooooooooooooboy you ain't kiddin' there. The casts of Sky (and by default, the Personas this game cribs from) initially had hidden depths that got revealed layer by layer or in huge chunks. This game sadly does not initially start like that, but offers one note flatness short of Sara "Plastered to Bastard" Valestein until you get on that train to Celdic. Only then do you hear the wonderful conversation, motivation, theming, and nuance that makes Trails so damn good. I mean, by 10 minutes into Sky FC, Estelle had accused her dad of buying her a wounded boy for a souvenier, accused him of infidelity, and then beat up said wounded boy for being loud. Ya, at FIRST she sounds like a token unhinged tomboy but it's still a "her" under that yelling that'll be used later for (world-class awesome GOAT) character development. You don't get that till Celdic here; it's just sad.

    It sucks worse because I've heard too much spinning of this from people trying to hide this obvious bait section.

    Anywho, once I got past that the only problems I've had are minor (framerate chugging here and there plus a couple characters too young to dress like that) and the rest has been aces with great world-building, characterization, lore, etc. Erebonia's turning out to be the teetering viper's nest it's been alluded to being, and that music...oh...so...good...

    Edited January 2016 by SatelliteOfLove
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #2 cldmstrsn 2 years ago
    @Kat Are you playing the PS3 version or the Vita version?
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  • Avatar for Godots17thCup #3 Godots17thCup 2 years ago
    I'm definitely experiencing a bit of that slow burn right now with its predecessor, Trails in the Sky. There's clearly been a lot of effort and attention to detail poured into the localization (I'm already quite fond of Estelle, the ongoing little stories of the NPCs and the silly little messages you get from empty treasure chests) and the battle system has a ton of potential, but while the game's 1st chapter ended with a fun little adventure, it still doesn't feel like the plot has truly gone anywhere yet and my party has, unfortunately, gone from a robust group of four back down to a less thrilling two.

    Though I'm still willing to work through long stretches of set-up and world-building if it means I'll get repaid several times over with dozens upon dozens of hours of thrilling story arcs, great battles and charismatic characters, I've already had enough trouble getting my similarly RPG-leaning friends and family to play Suikoden V (which everyone should do - it's so good!), and that game "only" takes 5-6 hours for the plot to kick into high gear. It looks like I'll be facing a much steeper battle should there come a time to recommend the Kiseki series to them. Heck, it took me about 9 hours just to clear FC's prologue, and I don't think I dillydallied much more than the typical player would.

    I've mostly enjoyed the 20 or so hours I've already poured into Trails in the Sky - despite its crawling pace, it definitely feels a lot like the PS1 RPGs from my youth, the games that had me spellbound for years and made me a lifelong fan of the genre. But yeah, it's probably not gonna be the game (or, taking these impressions of Cold Steel into account, series) that converts many people who aren't already fans of JRPGs and/or those who are understandably unwilling or unable to invest time in a game that takes so long to "get good".Edited January 2016 by Godots17thCup
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  • Avatar for Thad #4 Thad 2 years ago
    I'm quite enjoying the leisurely pace of Trails in the Sky. But then, I'm a man who's legitimately looking forward to playing through Dragon Quest 7 a third time.
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  • Avatar for detten17 #5 detten17 2 years ago
    i was on the fence about this game, it gave me vibes of Valkyria Chronicles, but I may just have to skip it. I don't have time for slow burn RPG, the curse of being a responsible adult i guess.
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  • Avatar for naazimeaala75 #6 naazimeaala75 2 years ago
    @Kat.Bailey you make Cold Steel sound like a Hyper Neptunia game by saying the game targets a particular niche of gamers :/. Yes the game is slow, yes the initial quests are boring but even you mentioned Trails in the Sky was like this but we all know how that turned out. Will be fascinating to read what you thought of the rest of Cold Steel!
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  • Avatar for JohnnyBarnstorm #7 JohnnyBarnstorm 2 years ago
    My boyfriend, Latino Zangief AKA The Brown Cyclone, has been getting deep into these. Unfortunately the timing of releasing this and Trails in the Sky Part 2 (SC? Whatever...) seems to have him leaning towards the latter with its more likeable protagonists. Holy crow it's a good looking Vita game, but I guess I'm used to playing PSP titles on there.
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  • Avatar for nickn #8 nickn 2 years ago
    Can somebody clarify the Legend of Heroes games for me? After readying this and hearing Jason Schreier rave about these games I want to give them a go. My question is where do I start? Cold Steel? Trails of the Sky? I don't want to jump in in the middle of the story.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #9 SatelliteOfLove 2 years ago
    You should probably start with the Skies. You can start in Cold Steel, but they take a couple years later and have a few returning characters and the empire of Erebonia that you'll miss some of the build-up of that way.
    @Godots17thCup

    Yeah, this series would be cold-blooded torture for those who see playing an RPG as a "grind" to "get what they want/to the good parts". I spell that out as much as I can. They're waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too holistic and theme-driven for t hat.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #10 Kat.Bailey 2 years ago
  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #11 cldmstrsn 2 years ago
    @Kat.Bailey Cool! That basically decides it for me. Was on the fence but since I am getting a Vita for my birthday ( I also have a PS TV) I can have the best of both worlds!
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #12 Vonlenska 2 years ago
    This is disappointing to read. I'm playing through Trails in the Sky now and loving it; it's checking all of my "Classic JRPG" boxes, and really reminds me of 2D Suikoden more than anything. I did find the first hour to be a slight slog, but then it did a 180 and 20 hours later I'm really happy with it.

    Which got me excited for Cold Steel, but now I'm unsure. It sounds like a very different experience. One of the pleasant surprises of Trails in the Sky was that the aesthetics did make me assume some level of "niche anime" vibes, but it's proven to be a really high quality game in many regards, and even aesthetically doesn't cater to the Nippon Ichi/Talesof/Idea Factory crowd.
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  • Avatar for misanthrobob #13 misanthrobob 2 years ago
    @Vonlenska I was super sceptical going in, as Cold Steel looked like it was doing a lot of things that I don't come to Falcom games for, but the game has pleasantly surprised me thus far. Yes, it's a slow burn, but if you already love Trails in the Sky you'll probably find a lot to like about Cold Steel.

    This is coming from an Idea Factory/Compile Heart loather, btw.Edited 2 times. Last edited January 2016 by misanthrobob
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  • Avatar for Vonlenska #14 Vonlenska 2 years ago
    @misanthrobob

    That's good to hear. :) I had planned on giving it a try after SC (so, um...maybe next year?), but it does look like a different experience. That can go in a lot of directions, but I'm loving Sky and Steel doesn't seem entirely "bad different." I don't mind slow paced at all, as long as I don't feel my time's being wasted.
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  • Avatar for gamesunblocker #15 gamesunblocker 2 years ago
    I like to play Vita version! does someone else play Vita version ?
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  • Avatar for sahathor #16 sahathor 2 years ago
    Hi,

    I finished the game this week, so I want to leave a message why I liked the game, because Your article made considering, whether to buy the title or not very hard for me.
    But when the title came out here in germany in the end of january I picked it up and now I am glad I did it.
    The title worked realy great for me, perhaps it is because I interesting stories. But the to reasons I bought the game were that Trails in the sky is said to be Good and that grafics looked great. I think that graphic of the title are awesome for a mobile console.

    I never had any of those problems Kate discribed. For me the progression of the mechanics was well made, while it fitted into to driving storyline. But after 27 hrs, I thought that game takes long, it realy did I needed more than 90 hrs to finish the game, which is normaly more than too long for me... But considering the story, the twists, I was more or less fine with that.
    I worked because once I had the feeling, now I had a lot of fighting I would like some progression of the story now, than the story concluded and, when the talking of the characters make me think that takes long, the game concluded with the open-world part of the game.

    And yeah the charakters are very anime-esk...

    All in all this game worked better for me than Persona 4, and the best RPG auf the decade (at least). It has it shortcomings I like to connive.Edited April 2016 by sahathor
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  • Avatar for mrhumble1 #17 mrhumble1 4 months ago
    I tried, really hard, to finish this game. I think I ended up quitting somewhere around 70-80 hours in, and I think I was maybe close to the end but I just couldn't take it anymore.
    I really wanted to see the end of the story, but the pacing of the game is BRUTAL. The things I loved (COMBAT, field trips) were excellent, otherwise I would not have played for that long. The problem is that everything that's great about the game comes to a complete stop when you get back to school and have to go through a bazillion more quests and chores before you can get back to combat or go on another field trip.
    I am loving Xenoblade Chronicles 2 , though.
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