Playing The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel feels like going back to high school — not so much because it’s a game about high school students (it is), but because Cold Steel looks, feels, and sounds like a Japanese roleplaying game from the PlayStation 2 era. This is the sort of game for which I used to ignore my chemistry homework to play for hours on end. I’m not a teenager anymore, however, and my tastes have matured. It’s not 2002. Games have come a long way since Star Ocean 3, Dark Cloud 2, and Tales of Symphonia. I fully expected to have outgrown a game like Trails of Cold Steel.
Maybe it’s the season. About to head home for the holidays to spend time with my family, perhaps I’m extra susceptible to nostalgia. Maybe all that singing down in Whoville has made my heart grow three sizes and willing to forgive a game’s flaws. Or maybe Trails of Cold Steel just stands as testament to the fact that, with an earnest localization and little mechanical tune-up, those old JRPGs can still be enormously compelling.
There’s much about Trails of Cold Steel that doesn’t immediately impress. Its cast is a veritable grab-bag of anime cliches, for instance: you’ve got your Aloof Noble, your Serious Swordswoman, your Bookish Class President, your Attractive Teacher Who Flirts with Students and Boozes Too Much But is Secretly Incredibly Competent. On the first day of school, your katana-wielding protagonist Rean Schwarzer and the female lead literally bump into each other outside the train station, and later, she falls on top of him in a suggestive manner — and she slaps him for it! Hijinks! I was just about to comment on the absence of someone running off to school in the morning with a piece of toast in their mouth when I saw that very thing on the loading screen.
So if all of that puts you off, you can probably afford to give Trails of Cold Steel a pass — but if you’re still reading, take heart. These one-dimensional characters become two-dimensional pretty quickly, and the game spends much of its considerable length fleshing them out toward a third dimension. It might be too much to say that the game will subvert your expectations, but all of the characters have secrets, and the way their relationships change when those secrets are revealed goes a long way toward turning character archetypes into something like real people. There’s a lot of dialogue in Cold Steel, and the game isn’t afraid to let its characters have downtime so they can talk to one another. Publisher XSEED Games has done a bang-up job localizing that dialogue and making it feel naturalistic.
In some ways, Cold Steel feels like a direct response to another game which came stateside in 2015: Square Enix’s Final Fantasy Type-0. Both games tell the story of an elite class of military cadets who find themselves at the heart of a war, and both revolve heavily around the military academy as the hub of the game, but the two games’ priorities couldn’t be more different. Type-0 has the flash and polish that has always been the hallmark of Final Fantasy, but its storytelling is a mess, and its characters are never more than lightly sketched. Cold Steel, on the other hand, has character models that move stiffly and environments that could easily be rendered on the PS2, but takes its time to build relationships between its cast and a compelling narrative of political tension and a brewing civil war.
When you’re not roaming Cold Steel‘s Thors campus with your fellow students, you’ll be navigating the towns and dungeons of the Erebonian Empire. The turn-based battle system in Cold Steel is consistently engaging and often challenging, and there are enough interlocking systems and moving pieces to keep things fresh throughout the game’s several-dozen-hour length. In addition to standard attacks, each character has an assortment of individual special attacks called “Crafts,” each of which has a different range, meaning battlefield placement is always a strategic consideration — do you use Rean’s standard attack, which will do less damage, or do you use his “Autumn Leaf Cutter,” which will hit three different enemies but place Rean behind the enemy formation, potentially outside the range of healing?
Each character also has an “orbment,” a little gem box inside which “quartzes” may be placed, offering a range of magical abilities called “Arts.” (“Arts” and “Crafts.” Get it?) It’s a system not terribly different from the Materia system of Final Fantasy VII, and finding new Arts setups is one of the game’s many small joys. The game also has a turn order display at the left of the screen and certain turns come with randomized bonuses: one turn you may be guaranteed a critical hit; another may heal half your HP or let you cast a spell for free. The important thing is that these bonuses are tied not to individuals but to the turn, meaning that you can use your abilities to bump enemies out of turn and claim the bonuses for yourself. Or, if you’re not careful, you can flub the turn order and have a boss recover half its hit points. So it pays to be careful.
At the center of the battle system is the conceit that your four-person battle team fights in pairs — and if one character gets a critical hit or unbalances an enemy by striking a weakness, the other member of the linked pair will get a free hit. At first, this is just an extra attack, but as the bond between the two characters grows stronger, the options for add-on attacks grow in number and power. This means that targeting enemy weaknesses is a necessity in battle, and considering who will be fighting linked with whom is another layer of strategy.
This notion of links and bonds loops back into the game’s narrative: characters who fight linked in battle will slowly develop stronger relationships, but it’s far more effective to use your downtime at the Academy as Rean to spend time getting to know his classmates — viewing these little vignettes greatly increases the strength of Rean’s “bond” with the respective character. It’s a bit which seems pilfered from Persona, but it works. You’ll probably want to spend time with these characters just to see them become three-dimensional, but having their effectiveness in battle improved as a result is a nice secondary incentive.
There’s a whole bunch of ephemera in Cold Steel which is straight out of a PS2 game: a cooking system where you can turn cheaply bought ingredients into effective healing items; a fishing mini-game, the fish from which can be traded for better equipment; and there’s a card game (it’s not very good). But there are also some smart design choices cribbed from more recent games: Cold Steel straight up lifts the one-touch fast travel system from Persona 4, a choice that every JRPG should echo going forward. One press of the Vita’s square button brings up a menu that lets you quickly jump to any named location in a given town, even if you’ve never been there, which minimizes the amount of hoofing it you’ll have to do when turning in quests and shopping for new gear. You can save anywhere you like. You can not only retry after every lost battle, but you can choose to retry with weakened enemies. You can press the start button to skip enemy turns in battle (although battles move along at a pretty snappy pace, so this is an option I seldom utilized). For all these reasons, Trails of Cold Steel seems to respect a player’s time even as it proudly wears its deliberate pace on its sleeve.
That pace is one of the many things that may limit Cold Steel’s audience. I can’t rightly say whether I so thoroughly enjoyed it because of my affection for the genre, my nostalgia for the era whose values it embodies, or simply because it hit me at the right time. Nevertheless, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel doesn’t push its genre in any new directions. It doesn’t even do anything particularly new. But it does do an awful lot of old things well. If you have any affection for classical JRPGs, there’s much here that will entertain and enthrall.
And if your taste is anything like mine was when I was in high school, well, my condolences to your chemistry homework.
Nate Ewert-Krocker is a writer and a Montessori teacher who lives in Atlanta. His first book, an adventure novel for teens, is available here. You can find him on Twitter at @NEwertKrocker, where he mostly gushes about final boss themes from JRPGs.