- Developer: Falcom
- Publisher: NIS America
- Release date: 22/10/19
- Genre: JRPG
- Platforms: PlayStation 4
- Reviewed on: PS4 Pro
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
Nearly a year and a half has passed since the Erebonian civil war, and much has changed since then. From the shifting stances of countries to the internal politics of the Empire, and even the life of real Schwarzer, the shadows of the past have given way to the embers of a new chapter. Now graduated from thors military Academy, Rean has become an instructor at the Thors branch Campus, a newly-opened Academy that quickly finds itself thrust onto the National stage. It is here that he takes the lead of a brand new class VII, and must guide a new generation of heroes into an unknown future. Though all is calm now, the nefarious Ouroboros organization continues to weave a dark plot that could engulf the entire continent in war…Or perhaps something even more sinister. Trails of cold Steel III invites players into a world full of intrigue and excitement that is years in the making. They will embark on a whirlwind Tour through the never-before-seen lands of the recently expanded Erebonian countryside, and encounter fresh faces as well as old friends familiar to fans of the series. In true trails fashion, the deep, engaging story pairs with an incredible cast of characters and a combat system refined over decades of innovative RPG world building. This renowned title has also now been developed natively for PlayStation4 hardware, a series first.
Quite often you will hear of a book, film, and even game, being described as a “slow burning epic”. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III is exactly that. The slow burn is such that players will need to play to around the fifteen hour mark before the game settles into anything close to a normal rhythm. Up until then, it’s a lot of getting-to-know-you’s and tutorials on how to play the game. Once past that mark, the game then slowly ramps up the intensity of intrigue, as to what is exactly going to happen later on.
However, first, the game has to overcome how to progress the series’ story as brought to fans in Cold Steel I and Cold Steel II, which culminated with Rean Schwarzer, the main character you play as, having literally saved the world from all-out war almost by himself and brought peace to the land. At the end of my particular Cold Steel II playthrough, Rean also spurned the chance of being with Alisia, and sent her on her merry way to ‘find her path in life’, while he did the same. So, what path was chosen by the vaunted Ashen Chavalier, the Hero of Erebonia with the world at his feet, and the ladies all wanting to be at his side? A teaching post at a new branch of Thor’s military academy in a new location called Leeves.
Rean laments a lot early on in the game if he has made the right decision. He declined many other job offers since the end of Cold Steel II and agonises over whether his new role as a teacher, is the right one for him. This conflict is exacerbated by the fact that some of the students, and indeed, some of the fellow teachers, are downright hostile, bordering on rude to Rean. This is in large part due to them coming from areas Rean and Class VII vanquished in the previous games, and as a result many still hold grudges against him for doing so. At times, it makes the game’s beginning quite uncomfortable for Rean, but he handles it all with aplomb.
However, Rean is himself exacerbating in his own way, in what is already a hostile situation. One can hardly criticise someone for being humble in the part they played in saving a country from all-out civil war, but when they become self-deprecating to the point of appearing disingenuous at the slightest hint of a compliment, it runs the risk of insulting the intelligence of anyone who would suggest otherwise, and therefore becomes something entirely different to humility. For example, early on in Cold Steel III, we are reintroduced to the character Claire Reinfield, now a Major, who was at best a helping hand in Cold Steel I and Cold Steel II. Rean lavishes praise upon her to his students as though she was the real reason the war was won, though anyone who had played the complete story up to this point would know that it simply isn’t true.
Depending on how invested you are as a player, it’s very easy to be overwhelmed with the VERY complicated and very political class-based world they live in. As someone who has played all 200 hours of the first two games, I still found it incredibly difficult to remember which of the many characters was with which previous allegiance, and their relationships to others and how the main characters should relate to them.
Add to that Rean has an eidetic memory, and therefore he (and you, the player) can talk to every single NPC if you so wish, and learn their backstory. It’s helpful to do this around the school campus, as Rean will reference things about students in the game when conversing with others, so taking the time to do so does reap its benefits, and occasionally new unexpected side quests too.
The main problem Cold Steel III largely suffers with, especially during the first few hours, is that if you haven’t played Cold Steel I and Cold Steel II, or even to some extent the PSP game entitled Trails of the Sky, some of the important details referenced during conversations and cut scenes will be missed. New players to the series, simply won’t have a clue as to what these flashbacks are about or their relevance. For example, very early on Rean is re-acquainted with Millium. Only those that have played the previous games will know what these two characters have gone through and how Millium has changed. So when they meet up again all of a sudden it’s a much bigger moment that any new players will realize, and they won’t be able to resonate with the significance of it.
The game’s menu screen does provide you with a series of texts to explain the story up to this point, but, back to the opening question, where do you go from the end of Cold Steel II? Well, they have basically torn Rean down to build him back up with a new team, all over again. All of Reans powers have gone, apart from him still owning Valimar (an Ashen knight or really powerful Mech to you and me), and much of his equipment too.
The new class VII this time is called the Spec Ops team; comprises of just three students and Rean, and although the class is much smaller there is a larger choice of combat tactics available. As well as the standard attacks with hand-held weapons, the casting of spells from your Arcus (think Star Trek communicator), and powerful individual crafts, players now have orders and more control over a battle points system. Battle Points, or BP for short, can be acquired in combat up to a maximum of five. These BPs can then be used in two ways. Save them for extra hits on enemies when they have their guards broken, or use them once per round to issue team orders that buff player stats in various ways.
Also new to Cold Steel III is that enemies now have two health bars. One is the enemy’s health, the other is the enemy’s guard break. Reduce an enemy’s guard to nothing, and that removes them from the rotation of gameplay order and leaves them wide open for heavy damage attacks to their health bar. Once they recover though, the guard bar goes back up to its original state and you have to wear it down again, but you can still reduce their health while trying to do so. This adds yet another tactical element to gameplay. Do you target an enemy’s health bar with a barrage of arts and crafts, or do you target their guard bar with other arts/crafts with limited effect on their health, with the hope that when you break their guard, you can do massive damage when it’s down as long as you get to that point? Each and every battle has this delicious choice to be made and is such a fantastic system to play. It makes every encounter, even the simple ones, very interesting.
But we are not finished there, either. Much like Cold Steel II, you also have turn-based mech battles. Each of the new members of Class VII has learnt how to pilot the Panzer Soldats (Mechs), and like Rean in Valimar, his students can fight in mech battles, too. Mech battles work much the same way as standard battles, but with fewer arts, and more basic attacks and crafts. The joy here though is that when attacking, you can target either the head, body or arms, but, depending upon the stance of the enemy, only one of those areas will yield high damage if it is hit, you just have to find out which one.
So the basic core gameplay revolves around Rean and his students going to a new area, spending time getting to know the locals, doing tasks for them, having battles, finding out about the mysterious goings-on in the political world, having a boss fight or two, and then moving on to a new area to do it all over again. In previous games, this didn’t take too long per area, but now the game compels you to spend much more time in each location. There are collectables to find, and new ways to stay entertained whilst there. Previous games featured Rean playing a card game called Blaze. This has now changed into almost a full-blown game of its own called Vantage Masters. It’s a much simpler version of something like the Magic the Gathering or Pokémon, but it’s certainly far more complicated to play than Blaze was. It’s well worth putting the hours in and learning to play this card game well, as beating opponents grants you new cards to use, and improves your status with them.
The fishing game has had an overhaul too. It used to be a timing to hit, then button mash fury game, but not anymore. Now it’s something far more tricky. How good your initial timing is will determine how big a fish you have hooked. Hit a segment of a moving bar and depending on the size of the segment you hit you’re in line to land a tiddler, a medium-size fish, or a whopper! However, once caught, the fish has to be reeled in, but do it too fast and the fish gets angry and breaks the line; do it too slow and it breaks the hook and swims away. There is a very fine line between the two, and therefore landing a whopper is not that easy.
One of the other aspects that make Cold Steel games so appealing is the simple fact that being part of this world is just an absolute joy, mainly due to the excellent cast of characters and their superb voice acting. With only three students and Rean as part of Class VII this time, unlike the nine in previous games, getting to know each of these characters is a much more rewarding experience, and they are most certainly rich and vibrant characters. A big reveal about one happens soon in the game, but the other two reveal a full set of emotions as well, ranging from downright animosity to, later on, utter respect. As Class VII travel to new lands, you also bump into old friends who take part in the quests with you. Again, if you have not played Cold Steel I or Cold Steel II, meeting these people won’t have the same impact as if you have.
As good as the story, characters, plot and combat are, this was all let down somewhat by the less than average graphics. The game has most certainly had a visual makeover from the HD remasters of PS3/PS Vita games on the PS4 with Cold Steel I and Cold Steel II, but Cold Steel III barely makes it over the mark of what you would expect for a game developed solely for current-gen consoles. The world is still very blocky, with little texture, animations are super stiff, and at times the artwork is very dull. Compare this to something like Ni No Kuni 2, and it’s a world apart. Character models are ever so slightly more detailed, and jackets, coats and hair float a little bit when turned, but that’s it. The main area where the graphics have been improved is in the menu system texts, and in the particle definitions of on-screen explosions during the casting of arts and crafts. It never gets boring watching a character launch an over-the-top, super-powerful S craft move, complete with a 20-second anime like setup!
The colour palette is exquisite though, and despite the locales and the scenery being very sparse and blocky, areas have interesting colours, and artwork that is for the most part well finished, so it’s still a pleasure to gaze upon the field of play.
The in-game audio is also excellent. When casting powerful arts or crafts, the cacophony of sound assaults the ears with powerful explosions, which really compliments the visual effects. However, when a game is as long as this one (somewhere over 100 hours to play through, depending on whether you are a completionist or not), a wider selection of interesting background music is called for as the same few do get very repetitive after a while.
Finally, the game’s difficulty is a strange one. Playing the game on normal was quite challenging to start with, particularly to beat an end-of-level boss fight. One of the joys of this series though is that if any encounter is too hard, instead of lowering the difficulty, you can for that particular fight, lower the enemy’s health and try again. The game encourages you to play it (unlike some I could mention, cough, cough, Dark Souls, cough, cough). It’s a simple yet superb little design choice that just adds to the brilliance of the game. If you wanted to you could, of course, replay the boss fight and not lower their health, the choice is yours. You can also change the game difficulty at any point as it’s very user-friendly. However, at a certain point in the game, when certain characters learn to use certain “orders,” and once the player discovers this, suddenly hard boss fights became much easier so you might even consider putting the difficulty level up!
I can not recommend the Legend of Heroes series enough. Joining the story from the third game in a four-game series is not a great idea, but would still be very enjoyable to a newbie if they did. Cold Steel III does end on a cliffhanger, however, so there is no closure at the end of this game. What you do get, though, is a game that is an emotional ride, with outstanding, simple to learn, yet hard to master, tactical turn-based combat, and many other mini-games to play, too. The character progression and interesting journey you take with each of them is compelling. It’s one of those games that you sit down to play for a bit then realize it’s 2 o’clock in the morning.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III is a beautifully realised, well fleshed-out and deep fictional world, somewhere to get lost and spend time getting to know each and every character and chat to every NPC. Uncover and learn about the world’s history, explore every nook and cranny, and you will discover that, yet again, Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III, is another masterpiece from Falcom.