In its three years on the market, the Nintendo Switch has become quite the Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) powerhouse with dozens upon dozens of excellent titles to choose from. There’s some stiff competition from big hitters like Square Enix (Dragon Quest XI S, Octopath Traveler, and the upcoming Bravely Default II) and Nintendo (Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Pokémon Sword & Shield, and the upcoming Paper Mario: Origami King). While these massive tentpole releases are probably enough to satisfy many fans of the genre, it’s the auxiliary titles that really prop the system up to must-have status. Games like Ys VIII, SteamWorld Quest, Rune Factory 4 Special, Ni No Kuni, and Valkyria Chronicles 4 are but a small sampling of fantastic worlds to explore on the Switch.
NIS America has long been a supporter of JRPGs and it’s exciting to see them bring over the much-loved The Legend of Heroes series to the Switch. The original set of games appeared on PSP and this new line of titles, Trails of Cold Steel, is onto its third iteration, with a fourth announced for next year. I admit it’s a bit of an oddity that Switch owners are going to be starting off with Trails of Cold Steel III, especially since the games share the same world and characters. It’s sort of like starting off the Star Wars franchise with Return of the Jedi. Having never played the prior two games in this line of the series, I was grateful to see the game includes recaps from the first two titles. This requires a lot of reading and quite honestly it can be very confusing to keep track of all of the characters. This synopsis is also available on the official website if you want to read up on the story beforehand. While I appreciate the effort, nothing can take the place of actually playing through the first two Trails of Cold Steel games, but it doesn’t look like they’ll be coming to the Switch.
Starting Trails of Cold Steel III without having played any other games in the series can be a daunting task. That’s because the game throws you in the deep end of the pool right from the start with you controlling a group of characters that you have no idea who they are, what their purpose for fighting is, or what is going on. Very quickly you get into a fight and are sort of expected to know how the combat system works. This might not be an issue for those familiar with the series, but newcomers will just have to trial and error their way through these encounters. With no tutorials and no instruction book, I was completely flabbergasted that the game began in this manner. It turns out after fifteen minutes or so you’ll be done with this segment of the game and it will flashback to the beginning and it’s here you’ll take control of the game’s main protagonist, Rean, and begin to unravel the story. You’ll also finally begin to get some of those tutorials that were missing at the onset. Who else misses the 80-page instruction books/guides that used to come with JRPGs on the NES and Genesis? I know I can’t be the only one!
You play as Rean Schwarzer, a recently graduated student of Class VII in Thors Military Academy. He is now a new instructor of a new Class VII and must teach a new group of students the skills required for special operations. In a sense the game starts off as a sort of clean slate, but it’s obvious from the start that those who have played the first two games will have a much better understanding of the world, the overall story, and the many characters interacting with Rean. As the story progresses we are introduced to more people from Rean’s past that probably would have an emotional impact had I played prior games. Still, even without that knowledge, the reunions are still fun to see and the various characters seem to have a real personality to them. The story itself is very political with territories being annexed and various factions vying for power. I’m usually not too interested in these types of plots, but found the interactions between party members and friends to be the glue that held the entire thing together and kept me wanting to press on to see what happened next.
Two things are important to me in a JRPG: story and combat. Both need to be compelling for me to stay engaged, and I’m happy to report that Trails of Cold Steel III does just that. I’m especially impressed with the fighting system as it adds several layers of strategy that’s easy to understand and fun to implement. Unlike so many other games these days, this one sticks to the turn-based combat model all JRPGs used to adhere to. You can take all the time you want to decide your next move, and I rather appreciated this approach having come off of Final Fantasy VII Remake on the PS4. Don’t get me wrong, I loved that combat system as well, but there’s something comforting in going back to turn-based mechanics.
The commands UI is slickly presented here with them being assigned to the action buttons and d-pad, giving you eight possible choices without having to dig into any menus. You have the usual options, like attacking and using items. In addition you can cast spells via the arts command and unleash special attacks via the craft icon – both take a requisite number of points to use so you’ll want to keep an eye on your meter in battle. There are underlying systems in place that let you swap out the type of spells you can wield (like fire, healing, etc.) and you’ll even be able to target enemies’ weak spots in order to break them, which effectively stuns them and allows you to deal massive damage. Another cool facet of the battle system is that you can execute combat links, which means your partner can follow up your attack with another, providing you’ve unbalanced an enemy by targeting its weakness. Needless to say, I’m barely scratching the surface in this review, but the game does a pretty good job of describing these things in detail as you progress through the story. In other words, don’t sweat it too much if you feel overwhelmed at the very beginning of the game as you’ll eventually learn what’s going on later. Suffice to say that I really enjoyed this combat system and it’s really well designed to remain entertaining throughout the entire adventure and there’s even mech battles! Who doesn’t like mechs?
Overall presentation is a bit of a mixed bag, especially when compared to games that obviously have a bigger budget. The graphics are bright and colorful and I really like the character designs. The geometry of the game looks decidedly last generation and I have no doubt the PS3, and maybe even the Wii, could have pulled off some of these environments. While there are some interesting places to visit, including some really cool towns and cities, I found the dungeons to be rather lacking. You spend a lot of time in a training facility that you go back to and it gets rather old. During cutscenes and running around some of the areas it becomes apparent that the game’s just not as pretty as some of its competitors. Flat, sharp polygons stick out here and there and things like buildings look cut and pasted with low resolution textures really hurting the overall visual presentation. The bright spot is the detailed characters, which really manage to express emotion thanks to the animation. The overall look reminded me slightly of Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, with stylish character designs and intriguing monsters. The entire game has a sort of anime look to it, and in some ways as I explored the campus I was instantly reminded of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and indeed there’s a bit of character development here where you talk to the students and learn more about them.
The soundtrack and voice acting are both rather good, especially when you consider the game will probably take most at least 40 to 60 hours to get through. Some characters deliver lines a bit better than others, but for the most part I was rather impressed. The music is a strong point, which is no surprise coming from Falcom, a company known for its excellent tracks.
I won’t deny there’s a barrier for entry with Trails of Cold Steel III that could put some players off. If you absolutely have to know every single detail of the past games you could play them on competing systems first, read the synopsis in the game, or even check out some YouTube videos that will surely catch you up on the important things. As a player coming into this game fresh, I was overwhelmed for about the first hour or so, but things started clicking and I enjoyed myself more and more as the game progressed. The bottom line is there is a great game here, one filled with fun turn-based combat, fascinating characters, and an intriguing world to explore. I can see why this series has such a devoted following and even though you’ll miss out on some emotional attachment to recurring characters from past games, I’m here to tell you that you can indeed jump in with this iteration and have a good time. There are so many other JRPG options on the Switch vying for your money and attention, and this is one of the better ones!
The Legend Of Heroes: Trails Of Cold Steel III Review
- Graphics - 7/107/10
- Sound - 8.5/108.5/10
- Gameplay - 8/108/10
- Lasting Appeal - 8.5/108.5/10
Final Thoughts: GREAT
Trails of Cold Steel III is a lengthy and fun JRPG that’s bound to get lost in the sea of competing titles. It doesn’t help that Switch owners have to jump in with the third in the series, especially since the story and characters are directly connected to the previous games. However, if you stick with it you’ll be rewarded with a fun combat system, endearing characters, and an entertaining adventure.