The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III Review
Trailing Further Ahead
The hardest part of being a western fan of Nihon Falcom’s Trails series is the waiting. Ever since Trails in the Sky captured many fans, it’s always been necessary to practice patience before the next part is available, simply as localising the beastly script of any of the games is a daunting prospect. NIS America takes the publishing reins this time and The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III once again massively rewards that patience. Nihon Falcom has once again allowed players to get the full experience of another trip to the continent Zemuria with everything that fans have come to expect: a well-rounded and memorable cast, a story filled with exciting reveals and emotional moments, and a combat system with more fine tuning. More waiting is required for the fourth and final part of the Erebonian saga, but right now Cold Steel III is another superb title that underlines just why the series has garnered such passion from its fans.
A bit over a year after the events of Cold Steel II, the Erebonian Empire has expanded, taking over both the city state of Crossbell and the northern region of North Ambria, with main protagonist Rean Schwarzer playing reluctant roles in both campaigns. After graduating from Thors Military Academy, Rean is recruited to become an instructor at Thors’ newly established Branch Campus. It soon emerges that the Branch Campus is not exactly an expansion and the Empire’s powers seem happy to have it that way — keeping both students and faculty away from the main campus where Crown Prince Cedric has just enrolled. Rean finds himself in charge of the new Class VII, which initially contains just three students: Juna Crawford, who hails from Crossbell; Kurt Vander, member of a respected family renowned for its school of swordsmanship; and Altina Orion, a young girl whom Rean previously encountered in her undercover work for the Empire’s chancellor.
Connections to past games, not just Cold Steel I and II, come thick and fast with Tita Russell and Agate Crosner from Trails in the Sky and Randolph Orlando from the Crossbell duology appearing at the outset. Nihon Falcom has done a great job using its characters and writing the dialogue so that newcomers can infer all the important past events easily and naturally — there is also a helpful primer that helps catch players up on the previous Cold Steel games — without annoying existing fans by going over all the gritty details with a fine-toothed comb. There’s no getting around the fact that those with more series familiarity will get a bigger kick out of the proceedings, particularly regarding a number of returning characters and references to earlier events, but this is as good a job as can be done to reconcile the two groups.
Rean’s new role allows Trails of Cold Steel III to follow much the same structure as the first Cold Steel game, though the packed story means there is less setup and initial intra-class conflict to deal with. Each chapter begins at the Branch Campus in the small town of Leeves, which is used for some bonding events and to set up an excursion elsewhere in the empire, where the bulk of the chapter takes place as Rean and the students undertake a combination of exercises, missions, and requests for assistance from the locals. It very much retains the deliberate pacing of the Trails series that may not be for all but is necessary for what Nihon Falcom does best: fully bringing to life the setting and making full use of its huge cast.
Even many of the seemingly-trivial named NPCs have some story to be discovered, and there’s lots of fleshing out of characters both new and returning. The new characters of the game fit right in, while all the returning characters keep their development going. Every moment spent with the cast is an absolute pleasure. Rean remains a great protagonist, but the game is made finer by excellent use of the many people supporting him to ensure that he is not carrying the burdens foisted upon him at the end of Cold Steel II on his own, despite Rean’s habit of trying to do just that. Rather than recycling the towns from the previous two games, Cold Steel III mostly takes players to brand-new places, starting with the southern province of Sutherland and including a lengthy stopover in Crossbell, and it’s a nice way to further flush out Erebonia as it undergoes its societal and political upheaval following recent events. There’s an incredibly good blending of seeing individual people trying to follow their regular personal lives and aspirations, while at the same time the country undergoes massive changes that will affect all of its citizens.
One minor irritation about Cold Steel III’s narrative comes in Rean’s even more excessive fawning female fan base, which the game is more than happy to make note of. It works to an extent — Musse’s constant teasing at least come off as a deliberate ploy from her character, and the more intimate one-on-one moments are always touching — but there are a few times where it all gets a bit much. Aside from that, however, it’s another incredibly deep story with ever rising stakes as the multiple shadowy factions ratchet up their moves and secrets are divulged, and players will be kept enraptured with the desire to see how it all ties together and plays out. NIS America’s localisation does a fine job following the high standards that XSEED Games set in its work on the earlier titles. The finale is an incredible roller-coaster of emotions, but it is painfully obvious that this is only the lead in to the grand finale of the Erebonia arc, and the quicker an announcement of Trails of Cold Steel IV comes, the better.
Combat iterates on the already strong turn-based system from the previous two games, including a few additions. On top of Rean and the members of the new Class VII, there is a rolling collection of guest characters, with the full list of characters playable at one time or another eclipsing twenty. The active party features up to four combat participants, though inactive members travelling alongside can be freely swapped in during battle, with each combatant given their own place in the turn order shown on the left side of the screen. Cold Steel III’s most apparent change is in the combat menu, which now sees the various actions assigned to the D-pad and face buttons as opposed to the ring of the past couple of games. In addition to regular attack, item, and movement options, there are also Arts, Crafts, and the new Brave Order system. Arts are effectively magic and use up EP, with the Arts available depending on what Orbments characters have equipped, while Crafts use regularly recharging CP and are unique to each character.
Positioning forms a significant part of Trails of Cold Steel III’s combat system, as Arts and Crafts will have different areas of effect — usually a line from the attacker or a circle target — so it’s often useful to consider which abilities will hit the most enemies rather than which is necessarily the most powerful. Another important element to consider is the Break System, activated by depleting the meter below an enemy’s HP. Depleting its break meter causes an enemy to be stunned and completely vulnerable to attacks, making it a major boon to achieve. Timing and status effects also play large roles, with many abilities potentially causing the turns of those hit to be delayed or other effects that can massively help or hinder. All Arts feature a cast timer and the casting combatant can be unbalanced during this time, interrupting the cast, and certain turns grant boosts at the start of the indicated turn, such as healing or extra CP recharge.
The powerful S-Craft abilities also return, which can be activated at any time provided a character has enough CP, as does the Link system, which sees two party members teaming up for follow-up attacks and automatic reactions, such as protecting their ally from a powerful hit. Brave Orders offer a new addition: a party-wide buff system on top of regular Arts that make use of the returning Brave Points, which are awarded whenever a character scores a critical hit with a regular attack or a craft. These give players even further tactical options, as these points can be spent on more powerful follow-up attacks, which are good at damaging the break meter, or on the Brave Orders. Wise use of these can absolutely turn a battle in the player’s favour. Mech battles also return, providing a nice change from regular encounters by making it more akin to a logic puzzle based on enemy stances and resource management. Trails of Cold Steel III features one of the most complete and well put together combat systems out there, filled with tons of tactical options for players to utilise.
One slight annoying element in the UI applies to the status of party members. Those with small screens or sitting far away may struggle to clearly read the health, EP, and CP numbers in the bottom-right of the screen due to the text’s small size. A few bosses may be frustrating for players as well, primarily thanks to hitting hard and fast compared to what the party can do. Most of those cases come in the earlier chapters; once players have more options available to upgrade their characters and hinder opponents, it becomes much less common. Fortunately, Trails of Cold Steel III has all the welcoming features of the previous games, including four difficulty levels that can be freely swapped between — plus a separate Nightmare mode for the masochistic — as well as the option to retry or weaken then retry any battle that the player loses, so these fights don’t become full on progress stoppers. The game offers a good challenge on the normal difficulty, and there never feels like a need to go out and take on every enemy seen, though the game’s massive length may tempt players to go lower just to get through it more quickly.
Trails of Cold Steel III has plenty of things to do outside of exploring towns and dungeons and getting into combat. Vantage Masters replaces Blade as the card mini-game, becoming a full-fledged deck-builder as players get to challenge numerous characters across Erebonia and get hold of more cards to customise their deck. The requisite fishing mini-game returns as well, with lots of other collectibles available from stores, chests, and quests, providing more in-game goodies such as extra details about the world and even some in-game literature. Plenty of side-quests go hand-in-hand with many of the storylines of the NPCs, and completing these goes towards Rean’s report card for added bonuses, though Nihon Falcom has made the side quests enjoyable enough that completing them is already an ample reward.
The Falcom Sound Team has always produced excellent music for the series, and Cold Steel III keeps that traditional going, right from the main menu track “Start Line”. There are a good mix to the soundtrack that works well with the quickly increasing technological rise and social changes Erebonia is in the midst of, and these are accompanied by plenty of memorable compositions found in both the laid-back and relaxing environmental pieces, plus the up-tempo combat themes. The English voice acting is once again very strong with nearly all of the actors reprising their characters, the notable exception being Millium. Given the sheer amount of text and Nihon Falcom’s relatively modest budget, it is far from omnipresent and it may strike some as a little strange that there are brief scenes where only one character is voiced, but the quality writing and localisation shines through to cover any points when the vocals are absent, while the performances are strong throughout. The voice acting is at least there for all the key scenes, and the music is always a pleasure to hear.
Like with its voice acting, Nihon Falcom makes smart use of its budget in the graphics, preferring to focus on strong designs to build an engaging world ahead of pure graphical fidelity and impressive cutscenes. All of the little touches add up, giving each city, and even building, its own distinct feel. Some of the skill animations are a little long — particularly in the tougher battles when they’ll be used frequently — but both a high-speed mode and the ability to skip animations altogether are activated by a simple button press, making the issue easily circumvented.
Minus needing an entire further game to get to the saga’s full conclusion, Trails of Cold Steel III is everything I want from an RPG with a world that fully sucks players in, amazing music and locations in which one can just sit and relax, and a twisting and fascinating story involving incredibly deep characters that are easy to get attached to. Erebonia once again gets some fantastic attention to detail that really brings its complex story and people to life, as the many threads that have been introduced throughout the series further intertwine and begin coming to a head. Combined with a further improved combat system and further quality-of-life improvements, it marks yet another step up for the rightly beloved series. Now all that’s left is just the agonising wait for the fourth and final part of the Cold Steel saga to see how it all ends.
Disclosure: This review is based on a free copy of the game provided by the publisher.
More fantastic world-building
Another excellent story with emotionally-charged finale
Strong combat with welcome additions
Party info is tiny on the combat UI
Deliberate pacing and length won't be for all
Waiting for Trails of Cold Steel IV after that ending