Nihon Falcom’s The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III is both a continuation and a new chapter. It’s not a fresh start for Rean Schwarzer and company, but it’s a clear inflection point, with a shifting status quo and a new cast of characters. At its core, though, it’s still very much the games that came before it. And for longtime fans of the franchise, a new coat of paint over the same structures is probably just fine.
Trails of Cold Steel III is a difficult game to evaluate independently, in much the same way as it’s difficult to review for newcomers a later season of a TV show like Arrow. It’s not designed as a jumping-in point, and a lot of its fundamental premises have been iterated upon and warped through narrative until the result is largely unrecognizable. Like Arrow, Cold Steel started as a more subdued, nuanced entry in its genre that focused more on character relationships and street-level battles. Also like Arrow, once you spend enough dozens of hours building upon the more enticing fragments of ideas from the beginning, you end up with a constant struggle to top what you just revealed. In this game, that means even bigger mechs, even more secretive organizations and even more narrative gymnastics to keep every character you know somehow still involved in the day-to-day of military school life.
There’s no reason to start here, but there’s also no reason to stop now.
So we’re not evaluating this independently. Cold Steel is a saga best experienced sequentially, and while there are elements of this entry designed to remind players of things if it’s been a bit since they’ve played, it’s simply not a starting point. The Trails games are known for their length, and the fan base may very well be ready for the next hundred hours of a saga that isn’t ending anytime soon. In that sense, the game delivers: the tone may have altered over time, but the “new Class VII” premise works well enough as an excuse to deliver the same sorts of interesting tactical decisions and quieter narrative moments for which the series is known. There’s no reason to start here, but there’s also no reason to stop now.
Even still, the formula is starting to show its age. Falcom, possibly through budgetary constraints and attrition rather than any real effort of its own, has settled comfortably into the role of delivering a more “classic” JRPG experience that was a lot more prevalent in, say, the PS2 era. Cold Steel was its attempt to take a step forward from its work with games like Trails in the Sky, but even it hasn’t made any visual strides beyond what you’d expect from a mid-tier PS3 release. We’re not sure Falcom really understands its limitations on this front, as the game’s camera work lingers on sparse environments and low-resolution textures in a way that both wastes time and puts further emphasis on a shortcoming that would otherwise be significantly less noticeable. But hey, at least its move away from the Vita means it can do a few more things and properly design interfaces for larger screens.
There are positive elements to being the last one standing in the 2000s-era JRPG space, though. Trails of Cold Steel III has been able to assemble many tested, reliable ideas for how to make combat interesting, and the resulting scheme is crowded but still nuanced in a way few competing games manage. It’s important to manage spacing and timing more than most games, and there’s an added emphasis in this game on using knockback and aggro-drawing to bunch up enemies within range of area attacks. There’s even more customization of characters’ skills and parameters through the series’ venerable Orbment system, and the game does its best to change up your available party members for added variety. It’s nice to have a game that makes you excited to enter a battle instead of dreading it.
Of course, one reason why you may yearn for battle is how straightforward and repetitive the overarching quest system ends up being. Your main mission is generally to simply advance through areas and trigger boss fights and cutscenes, and the side missions are intended to break this up with… well, doing something else sometimes. But whether it’s one-off search quests or one of the whole series of separate pursuits that boil down to “go to the spot marked on the map and press a button,” these are not the highlight here. The idea of them is promising enough. Take scenic photos! Uncover interesting stories for the radio! Find a runaway cat in town! But the process of doing them is just straight-up uninspired and rote.
If there’s a reason to explore areas and get more immersed in towns and people, it’s Trails of Cold Steel III‘s new card game, Vantage Masters. You’ll find occasional players of this new game, and if you’ve ever enjoyed building a deck and taking on an opponent, you’ll find a lot to like from it. It’s essentially a mix of the tactical layer of Japan-only CCG Fire Emblem: Cipher and the simple numbers and mana ramp of Hearthstone, simplified a bit for easy consumption like you’d expect from a 2000s-era JRPG side game. Managing your board and taking out the enemy leader is as tactically engaging as the base game, and acquiring a play set of a new card is more than enough of a reason to seek out and defeat new opponents. We wish this were a more frequent occurrence, or that playing this were more convenient. Heck, we’d enjoy a physical version of it. You know. If that were a thing being considered.
NIS America avoided the headache of a series switching localization teams by… well, not switching localization teams.
Western publisher NIS America avoided the headache of a series switching localization teams by… well, not switching localization teams, instead hiring Trails veterans Ryan Thomson, Brittany Avery and Kris Knigge to lead the process. And it’s a real benefit to the game, as institutional knowledge and tonal consistency are paramount in a game as long and as prone to referencing prior events as this. It’s a real credit to all involved. (And a real credit to all involved is good. Ahem.) While NIS America’s previous work with its own internal franchises (like Disgaea) has managed a reliable tone, a further investment in this area is a good sign for future projects.
If you’ve worked your way through two full Trails of Cold Steel games, you’re essentially trained to handle the pacing shortcomings and repetitive structures of Cold Steel III. You’re ready to focus on combat tactics and keep an eye on a world full of characters you’ve grown to know and love. And as it happens, you’re also the game’s entire target market! Also: it may not be worth catching up on 200 hours of gameplay just for Vantage Masters, but it’s a very nice benefit for those who’ve already made the investment.