Imagine for a moment that the “Tales Of” JRPGs had been a consecutive series. Each sequel set in the same world but a few years after the last games events. Just enough to allow the characters to go off and expand their back stories before rejoining a new cast. Now picture that mass of story on a scale of Final Fantasy proportions, with 5 separate arcs over 12 JRPGs. That’s the previous history of The Legend of Heroes series. This is the context for where I’ve started.
I’ve personally only ever played The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky on the PSP which was around the midpoint in the saga. That was around 15 years ago and I can barely remember the details of the title, I remember it was enjoyable enough and with that little knowledge and the massive weight of history behind it I dived into Trails of Cold Steel 3.
The idea of just jumping in on a series with this much backstory is daunting and even voicing this idea on Twitter resulted in numerous responses from fans explaining which of the past games I should complete 100% before undertaking this. I can understand why they would think a title this steeped in its past wouldn’t be enjoyable to anyone who didn’t understand any of the nuance or returning characters from the previous 2 titles but as with any JRPG, you should be able to enjoy any single title in a series regardless of its legacy. With this in mind I spoke to NIS and they were adamant the title is setup so even a newbie like me could enjoy it and you know what? They were spot on.
Trails of Cold Steel 3 feels a lot like a classic JRPG from the PS3/360 era but modernized in a similar way that recent 2D turn based RPGs give those nostalgia hits we all crave. It has a similar aesthetic to the likes of Eternal Sonata and Tales of Vesperia, if they had modern PS4 power and graphical might. After you’ve chosen your level of difficulty you’re thrown into the deep end of Trails of Cold Steel 3 with a bombastic opening and little explanations of how the combat systems work. This would usually be daunting but it’s a brilliant way of letting you experiment and get a feel for how the combat and exploring works. Sure the anime tropes are strong and you can expect there to be at least 3 characters you’ll predict their lines (even without knowing who they are) but it’s that self-aware enjoyable level of anime one liners and snappy writing that works well right from the get go. It’s both brilliantly told and overly stuffed at the same time.
If you’ve ever played any of the great JRPG titles of the past where the main characters find themselves tied into a massive conspiracy of global proportions then you’ll know what to expect from Trails of Cold Steel 3. As you take your role as the new class 7 of Thors Academy you can expect each chapter quest to end in the members being tied up with war, factions and questioning their duty while daily life carries out in a typical anime school-like fashion. You can expect each chapter to be filled with School days, nearby village quests, drama that forces a change in location, a few more quests in new locations and more. Each chapter does come with a dramatic conclusion but it’s more the journey to get there that you’ll be busy enjoying. One of the strongest aspects of Trails of Cold Steel 3 is the ability to allow the player as much or as little detail as possible while still following the plot. Without the need to go back and read an encyclopedia.
I can’t stress this fact enough. If you start off with a back knowledge of every single character from the previous two games Trails of Cold Steel games there will be plenty of surprises for you to enjoy. However if you go in with no prior knowledge you can still understand the characters surprise and the twists as they play out. Each character is introduced only when it’s necessary so a lot of off screen dialogue is spoken by “Red haired woman” or “bored looking man” but when the introductions occur it’s treated as if the player has never heard of them. Characters interact and slip in a few lines of dialogue and it’s incredibly easy to pick up the story as it plays out. The fact no characters will go 5 minutes without dumping some exposition and there are more cutscenes than a Kojima game means you’re never left to wonder why things are unfolding the way they are. If anything, you’ll be focusing more on your favorites.
There’s a lot to unpack about Trails of Cold Steel 3 and it’s clearly been designed to be the only game you’ll need for months, if not a whole year. Fancy fishing? There’s a great mini-game for that and separate fishing equipment. Fancy cooking? There’s that to with recipes to collect. Side quests? Plenty of those and you’re encouraged to do them. Extra side quests based on location? Pick up your phone and get reporting on them! Magic systems to level up and customise? Sure and there’s even extra systems on those for combining items. A separate combat system entirely for Mechs? Sure and it even depends on separate Mecha orbs! How about increasing your bond with other characters? Yep there’s even optional free time events to pick and chose.
The list of features in this game is enormous but thankfully none of it feels particularly overwhelming or mandatory. Trails of Cold Steel 3 really nails the easy to pick up aspect and like any great fighting game if you start looking deeper it’s ridiculously complex and allows you to expand into that.
Throughout Trails of Cold Steel 3 there is a strange 1cm black border at the top and bottom of the screen that character portraits can overlap but it’s not obtrusive just strange. Everything looks as you’d expect a nostalgic PS3/360 era JRPG to be if it were polished up to current hardware. The models are nicely detailed and all the menus have incredible artwork and text. The special effects are fantastically over the top and everything runs at a surprisingly high frame rate. The biggest problem Trails of Cold Steel 3 has visually is how slow paced everything is. Every new location has 3 lavish slow panning shots over it, then there will be a cutscene of the characters entering, then a cutscene of them discussing the area, then a cutscene of a past memory, then another cutscene of something new occurring and finally you can play. If you tap the left touchscreen the game shifts into “HIGH-SPEED MODE” and everything is much quicker but this results in either choosing an incredibly slow pace or far too fast. It’s frustrating but because everything runs so well in high speed as well it’s no deal breaker.
As with any review of a JRPG I can’t really comment too much on the English Dub as the first thing I found in the options was the Japanese dialogue option and set it to that. Considering how many characters have dialogue lines, the voice acting is staggeringly well produced and of a really high standard. Every character is easily recognisable not just from their appearance but the voice actors performance for them. The sound effects are all standard swish, bash and clicks without anything intrusive and the only down side to the audio was the music that tended to be far too forgettable. It’s non-intrusive and loops nicely enough but the only time I even noticed it was either during an optional powerful boss encounter or the Gundam-like trance music that plays whenever that section of the story starts up. I found myself typically figuring out if a new character was good or bad from the same music tracks that played depending on the mood of the scene.
It should be pretty obvious by now that Trails of Cold Steel 3 is no small title. There’s such a huge amount of content here. The best thing about the quantity is that it’s not just packed with filler either. Sure a side quest will have you finding a noble family’s lost cat or finding ingredients for a classmate but the writing for the characters and their interactions throughout is brilliant. There are a few caveats to that awesomeness though with a few moments of tonal whiplash. It’s hard to take the annexing of a country seriously when the girl who is upset is busy falling boob first into a boys face. There’s one particularly backwards scene where boys and girls go into separate classes (home economics for girls and orbital computing for the boys) but Trails of Cold Steel 3 seems to be self aware of this and even the characters in these situations are aware of how outdated the ideas are and have plans to change them. There’s a shower scene but the characters wearing a towel, there’s implied events occasionally but it’s handled. It’s an odd setup where you find something awkward or tonelessly jarring but the characters do as well. The size of the story means these result in drops of a huge ocean where you can put hours into the story and still feel like you’ve not progressed much and still have enjoyed the time regardless.
Can you enjoy Trails of Cold Steel 3 without any previous experience of the series? Yes.
There is a huge optional encyclopedia of knowledge before you even dive into the main game, full of story details, character back story, artwork, clips and still I recommend that you don’t bother with it. Jump into Trails of Cold Steel 3 and you’ll pick up the story, characters and what makes this important as you go along. It’s no different to any other anime. There are many moments of little charm dotted throughout from certain link victory animations being different to finding a rare material in a dungeon while zipping through to power up before an optional boss. Despite its niggles with tone Trails of Cold Steel 3 really nails that huge JRPG feel that many others can’t reach.
7/10 – Three times the tales of nostalgia wrapped in a penultimate fantasy.
Code provided by EU Partner Relations – NIS America Inc. Check out NIS here
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