I could practically trace my whole writing career via Falcom’s The Legend of Heroes series. As a whole, it’s been around since before I was born, but I was right there hustling as a budding games critic when Trails in the Sky dropped for the PSP. It wasn’t the first to be localized, but it was the first to really find an audience. Nearly a decade later, this world’s story is still being told. Spanning across multiple continents and real world gaming platforms, we’ve finally landed on the first native PS4 entry. Trails of Cold Steel III is the latest in one of the biggest epics in JRPG history in scale alone, and arguably the biggest in heart. The journey isn’t over yet, but the ride is only getting better with time.
The student has become the teacher. And a mech pilot. And a war hero. Also he’s taller.
While the previous Trails series took place in the rural Liberl and the stubbornly independent Crossbell, Cold Steel takes us inside the Erebonian Empire. After several games setting the nation up as the bad guys (and I mean, it’s an empire), it seemed odd to travel there as a player. But the team at Falcom used this shaky setting as a platform to examine ideas such as skepticism, loyalty, and class.
Instead of soldiers, cops, or mercs (Bracers here), Cold Steel took us to a classroom. Instead of drinking the Erebonian Kool-Aid, through the eyes of Class VII we got a scenario assuming the challenges in living in an antagonistic military force of a country. We saw struggles in and outside of each classmate, and that was before the grassroots coup that changed the face of this world forever.
The first two Cold Steel games told a complete story, but the world doesn’t stop spinning just because the bad guys lost. The world moves on, motivations change, borders change, people change. Set a year after graduation, we still take on the role of Rean Schwarzer. Now seen as a war hero (despite the truth being more complicated), Rean has decided to become a teacher at a Thors Military Academy sister school. Naturally, Rean is given charge of a new Class VII, and sets out with a new group of students living in a new Erebonia. If you’re familiar with the events of the first two games, particularly how wild things got, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
It wouldn’t be appropriate to go into much further plot detail here, but rest assured Cold Steel III lives up to the scale and nuance of the rest of the series. These games are practically novels, their script lengths notorious and even responsible for some past industry drama. XSEED is no longer publishing and localizing Falcom titles in the west it seems, with NIS America now steering that ship. The localization here is just as good as before, and I suspect part of that is likely due to some shared credits. The localization’s voice is so similar, so full of the same life and heart, that it would be hard to believe otherwise. Sure, some of that is the source material, but like Erebonia, it’s always more complicated.
When’s there’s nothing left to fix, add more stuff?
As far as actually playing Cold Steel III instead of just bathing in its dense storytelling, not a whole lot has changed here. The typical Legend of Heroes formula hasn’t changed much, mostly iterating on itself and making quality of life adjustments here and there. It’s mostly typical turn-based JRPG fare, with a Materia-like system governing stats and abilities. Cold Steel introduced mechanics revolving around “linking” characters together, along with, well, giant robot battles. Battles are almost identical in part three, although mecha combat has been expanded (and streamlined), and a few extra options in a normal fight have been added. Falcom has been working on things like follow-up and combo attacks, so more opportunities for that have been added.
What’s more drastic is Cold Steel III’s visual fidelity. It’s still a Falcom game, meaning it’s more interested in narrative and systems than being impressive to look at. However, since we’re no longer dealing with the PS3 or (more importantly) the Vita, there’s an immediately noticeable step up. The colors are brighter and stronger, the character models have more detail and stronger features, and the performance is much smoother. Overall Cold Steel III, while not exactly an AAA game, definitely shows off its new home on current-gen hardware.
We’re in it for the long run – are you?
It’s easy to say a sequel like Cold Steel III is “more of that thing before,” but as true as it is, that betrays just how much more that is here. These games are enormous, and the developers and writers consistently delivering on the scale they do is impressive every time. While the mechanical and technical changes are small and iterative, there’s really no need for anything more. This is another massive story to dig into, that’s just as fruitful and compelling as the stories before it. As the third game in a set of direct sequels, tied into several other games set in the same world and timeline, it’s simply amazing those creative juices are still flowing and coherent. It’ll be over soon, but jeez, hell of a run.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III review code provided by publisher. Version 1.00 reviewed on a Standard PS4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy.