Persona 3, an RPG that incorporated life simulation elements thanks to the protagonist’s high school career, was released in Japan in 2006. It earned Famitsu’s coveted Best Role-Playing Game title in 2006. If you’ve been keeping up with this hobby by now, you probably know one thing: if a game does well in any fashion, you can expect a flood of me-too games following in its footsteps shortly thereafter.
It should come as no surprise, then, that RPGs with life sim elements, a school setting or both took off both in Japan and here in the States; we saw the release of Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis in 2007, Class of Heroes (a bit of a stretch) in 2008 and Valkyria Chronicles 2 in 2010. Now, in 2015, we’ve got another example of this subgenre with The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel, a JRPG that takes place in the same world as the excellent Trails in the Sky.
Trails of Cold Steel takes place in the Empire of Erebonia, located adjacent to the Liberl Kingdom where Trails in the Sky takes place. This is a distinguished nation knows for its social stratification; in Erebonia, you’re either a commoner or a noble, and your status determines every aspect of your life. This includes your class should you be a student at the esteemed Thors Military Academy, Erebonia’s premier institution of higher learning. At least, that’s how things were before Class VII, the first class in the history of Thors to mix both noble and common-born students.
You control the young swordsman Rean Schwarzer during his stay at the academy. Much like Persona 3, you’ll need to balance Rean’s time between his personal and academic lives; in this case, you’re at a military school, so RPG adventures fall into the latter category! Rean needs to build strong relationships with the other members of his class, ranging from the high-and-mighty noble Jusis to the more laid-back exchange student Gaius. Doing so is key to success in combat, as Class VII possesses the unique ability to perform Link abilities, which can have different effects based on the bonds between party members.
Most of the game is spent running around completing quests and chatting up NPCs. As with Trails in the Sky, this is a treat – the writing and worldbuilding in the Trails series are some of the strongest in the genre, so you’ll certainly want to dive headfirst into Erebonia. In particular, there’s a campus library at Thors that contains plenty of fascinating reading to indulge in. What’s more, there’s a gameplay side of this, as Rean has a limited amount of time that he can spend with other students. You’ll have to carefully decide which relationships you’ll want to cultivate.
It’s not all talking, though. Combat plays out much like Trails in the Sky, in turn making it similar to older RPGs like Lunar and Grandia. You can see the turn order of your characters and foes and must plan ahead to maximize your monster-slaying power and minimize the damage you take. Careful positioning is key to avoid powerful area-of-effect attacks; you’ll also need to pay attention to enemy weaknesses both to do extra damage and to activate Link attacks. You have access to magic powers, known here as Arts, and special attacks called Crafts, allowing for many combat options. The ability to switch out your available Arts by customizing the Quartz gems a character has equipped encourages you to play around with character setups to find out what works best for you.
As mentioned previously, the writing in Trails of Cold Steel is the real highlight here. The plot does touch on some RPG tropes here and there, but it’s all handled in a much more polished way than the usual localized title. As in any really good RPG, you’ll quickly find yourself caught up in the world, the unfolding events and the affairs of Class VII. You can’t really ask for more! As for Cold Steel’s presentation, it’s fairly well done if you keep in mind that this is a PlayStation 3 game, so it’s not going to have the fancy fidelity of a bleeding-edge PS4 title. The music tends to be more impressive than the visuals most of the time anyway; it’s largely mellow and very well done.
With the PlayStation 3 on its way out, it’s nice to see that solid games like The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel and Yakuza 5 are around to serve as the beloved console’s swan songs. Fans of JRPGs should absolutely check out Cold Steel, particularly if they’ve fell in love with Trails in the Sky as so many have. It’s an example of the high degree of refinement reached by Japanese RPGs over the course of many console generations.