Title: TRAILS OF COLD STEEL
System reviewed: PS Vita(also available on PS 3)
Price: USD 40/ €40 / £ 35/AUD 59 (as of time of writing the game is on sale on the PSN until March 30)
Developer: Nihon Falcom Corporation
Publisher NiS America
Trails of Cold Steel is the first entry of its trilogy in the Legend of Heroes JRPG series that has seen various installments since 1989. with the last installments before this to make it to the West being the Trails in the Sky games. Prior knowledge of these games is not required as I jumped into the series with Trails of Cold Steel and found it perfectly enjoyable on its own.
Trails of Cold Steel is a JRPG that takes place in the land of Erebonia, a country in the state of upheaval with conflicts between its noble class and a reformist faction rising in tension. During this time, you take on the role of Rean Schwarzer who is starting his studies at the Thors Military academy. He finds himself enrolled in class VII, led by the unorthodox instructor Sara.
Class VII from left to right: Emma, Gaius, Fie, Laura, Rean, Alisa, Elliot, Jusis, Machias
The instructor is not the only unorthodox thing about this class though, normally classes are strictly separated between commoners and nobles whereas class VII is composed of members of both social classes, something that some members of the class find hard to swallow at first. This is not the only thing class VII has to worry about as it soon turns out besides their regular studies at the academy they'll be sent out to conduct field studies in various cities of Erebonia to get a better grasp of the political climate in the country and to assist with local troubles. Over the course of these field studies, our heroes find themselves swept up in something far bigger than they expected with wide-reaching consequences for the entirety of Erebonia
Heimdallr, capital of Erebonia and one of the locations you'll visit over the course of the game
This balance between school life and field trips is the basis of the game. Each of the chapters of the game is divided between time at school where you talk with your fellow students and develop relationships with your party members akin to Persona 3 and 4, although not to the same depth as in these games. The relationship aspect is managed via bonding points. Each time you're in the school you are given a limited amount of points you can spend to interact with your classmates, each of which has their own story that unfolds over the year. Besides just getting to know your party members better each bonding event also rewards you with some experience points for their combat links, a facet of the combat system I'll explain in more detail later . During the school periods of each chapter you're given several tasks by the student council to fulfill, usually one or two mandatory tasks and several sidequests. Additional sidequests can also be found strewn around the school and the small town Trista in which the military academy is located. As the last part of each of the school portions of the game you are always asked to investigate the Old Schoolhouse, a mysterious structure on the campus filled with monsters and a steadily shifting architecture the mysteries of which you have to unravel.
The field trips play out similarly with mandatory and optional tasks given to you to fulfill in each of the cities you are sent to. The places you get to visit are distinct and all have their unique feeling to them. These field tasks have more of a combat focus with the mandatory tasks often involving the hunt for a particularly troublesome monster. Unlike the school house the parties you are given for the field trips are predetermined, that has never proven detrimental to gameplay though as you are always given a balanced party.
Why are they making school children do this again?
Speaking of fighting monsters, let's cover the combat system. Combat itself is turn-based with various variables influencing your and your enemies turn order.Influencing the turn order to your advantage is encouraged by the game via a turn bonus system that gives the character a bonus for his action in that turn. Some examples of that are the Zero-Arts bonus(any art used in that turn is cast immediately without using EP, the equivalent of Mana), a Sepith bonus(sepiths are used for getting money and synthesizing quartz, more on that shortly) and guaranteed critical hits. Depending on what attacks you use your next turn will be delayed, the more powerful the attacks the longer the delay. Arts, the game's equivalent to magic spells, have a casting time inherent to them, here also goes the stronger the better. Each character also has their own unique special attacks called crafts that use CP, a resource gained via attacking and taking damage. Crafts are very powerful as they provide strong offensive and support options. Over the course of the game each character will gain an S-Craft as well, a very powerful attack that uses up all your CP but deals devastating damage to enemies. Managing your CP and crafts wisely is an important part of getting through some of the tougher boss battles.
Another aspect worth keeping an eye on is the Combat Link-system. Characters in your party can form Combat Links (although not everyone can do this with everyone from the start, over the course of the story all characters will bond enough with each other to do this) which allow them to do different things depending on their Combat Link level. On the base level, they will do follow up attacks on critical hits which in turn give you points you can use for combo attacks. Other bonuses include taking damage for the linked character and healing them automatically for a small amount . Another very important aspect of combat is the aforementioned quartz and, by extension, the orbment.
One of the most important aspects of combat - The Orbment
To get the most out of your characters you'll have to configure their orbments. Here you can customize your characters with a variety of quartzes. A quartz is a stone that gives their user certain benefits like being able to use an art or an increase to attributes like hit points, attack power etc. Quartzes can either be found in chests in dungeons, from quest rewards or can be synthesized with Sepiths dropped by monsters or found on the field. Besides the normal quartzes each orbment has a master quartz that levels with you and unlocks new skills and passive bonuses over time, my favourite being a master quartz that, when fully leveled, gives your physical attacks a 90% chance to inflict a status ailment on the hit enemy. All in all there are 28 master quartzes to find and choose from so there's a lot of variety to be had when it comes to customizing your party to your tastes.
Now to my opinion of the game
I really enjoyed the time I spent with the game(roughly 85 hours after my first playthrough with a lot of sidequests). I've come to like most of the characters introduced to you, the world building is very well done and there are a lot of side stories to discover at the academy that develop nicely over the time you spend there. The game does a good job balancing the serious tone of the grander story with humorous interactions on a more personal level. The localization is also well done with good writing and a very solid performance of the English voice actors. A Japanese dub is not available, for those who are curious about that. For completionists, there's a lot of collectibles to be found here from recipes for meals you can cook which serve as healing items over a fishing minigame with fishing spots hidden all over the game, some even in dungeons, and books you can read in the notebook section of the game.
The game is not without flaws, though. While I still really enjoyed the story the pacing would slow down extremely at points. The game also ends on a tremendous cliffhanger so I'm sitting on coals now waiting for the second part of the trilogy to release in the fall in the US which I'll likely import so if you're somewhat impatient like me maybe wait a bit with playing the game until Part 2 is closer. Another thing is that the game is very easy, I started the game on Hard and never had any trouble outside of boss fights and even those were mostly not that bad. That is regrettable to me as the robust and fun combat system rarely has a chance to shine. Last but not least, the Vita version suffers from very noticeable framerate issues, especially in the later parts of the game these become very common.
Despite those issues I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the game though and heartily recommend it and I can barely wait for the next part.