One of the tricky aspects of a series is bringing in new fans who may feel intimidated by jumping into an established franchise. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III attempts to find a good balance for new and old fans without sacrificing quality from this beloved JRPG. While it may not nail it in every aspect, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III succeeds in that endeavor.
Let me start out by addressing my knowledge of the series.
There you go. Yes, I am a newcomer to not just the Trails of Cold Steel series, but any and all iterations of The Legend of Heroes games. So for the sake of any old fans of the series, I don’t want to spoil any fun parts that may come up whether it characters returning or parts of the lore. I will do my best to still explain everything thoroughly even if it’s similar mechanics from previous titles while remaining ambiguous enough to keep the surprises intact for longtime fans.
To set the stage, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III (I will from here on out refer to the game as Trails of Cold Steel III) takes place a year and a half after the events of Trails of Cold Steel II. Rean Schwarzer has followed in the footsteps of his former classmates and graduated from the main military academy and set out to be an instructor at a newly constructed branch academy. While he was part of Class VII prior to graduating, he is now tasked to teach a new Class VII with both fresh and familiar faces. Unfortunately the past comes back to wreak havoc on the new academy and Rean has to rely on his battle savy, amateur students, and old friends to stand a chance against these threats.
For newcomers like myself, that description might put you off the game. However the story unfolds well enough with characters explaining key details for newbies to understand but not bog down the narrative with things fans already know. This is in part helped by the students in the game who have a faint idea of things happening in the various empires of the world. They are a perfect catalyst for conversations both to move the plot along but also answer lingering points from past games.
If that doesn’t cut it however, Trails of Cold Steel III also features a very robust encyclopedia of sorts in its main menu. Not only does this walk through characters important in the series but also an act-by-act/chapter-by-chapter summary of the previous games as well. If a new player wants to take a deep dive into this encyclopedia to have a better understanding of the world, it’s all right there for consumption. My one knock against it is that it’s just kind of a boring way to explain it. Being text heavy, and LOTS of text mind you, is not the most engaging method to pull this off. I looked at a large chunk of the content spending about an hour and a half reading it before growing tired and wanting to just play the game.
For me at least, I didn’t feel so incredibly lost in the narrative jumping into the third entry. If anything it made me want to check out more of the first two games to become more attached to the world and characters while seeing where some of the plot points in Trails of Cold Steel III originated. While I can’t speak on whether it would satisfy long time fans, I enjoyed where everything went along with the characters involved throughout. To me, that makes it successful on the front of being newcomer friendly at the very least.
The pacing of the game could be something I see people disliking though it was fine by me. Trails of Cold Steel III is very much a slow burn. Each chapter begins at the academy allowing Rean to interact with students or people in the town resulting in bonds between people growing or receiving currency (mira) by fulfilling quests. After a few in-game days, they have a field exercise where they travel to another location where they perform tasks to increase the perception of the academy. This is where the plot typically continues the most and escalates before moving on to the next chapter. Although a slow burn, it allows characters and motivations to develop and the ramp up to more severe consequences becomes more satisfying because of it.
The action of the battle system has a traditional JRPG feel being turn based battles with upwards of four characters in your party. The turns are shown on the left side of the screen so players know who or what will be acting next. The layout of the controller dictates the action as opposed to one general menu to fall down the rabbit hole in. For instance, the circle button will allow players to select a place in a given range allowing for more distance between attackers or getting closer to the action. The X button is the general attack while selections such as Items or Brave Orders can be found on the d-pad. This allows for an easy and manageable approach in battles that I thought worked extremely well.
There are several options in battle to use to your advantage. The Brave Orders option as previously mentioned is a benefit for the whole party. These are character earned abilities that give buffs to the party. There is an option for Crafts which are another set of character learned abilities reliant on the CP (Craft Points) stat earned through dealing and receiving damage. Some may buff or debuff stats but can also be attacks hitting multiple enemies either in a set zone or line. Another method at your disposal are Arts. Again, these can have a multitude of possibilities, but are essentially castable magic that may stall a turn to use. Lastly are S-Crafts which act as character Limit Breaks of sorts that use up all CP. These rack up huge amounts of damage and have special animations that look pretty amazing. All of these options make battles incredibly fun and fast-paced making it worth getting into fights in the first place.
Even without those, Trails of Cold Steel III has other perks in battle. A smaller but much appreciative feature is the autonomous battling allowing the game itself to take the reins and speed through combat. Best suited for those battles where little concern comes in. Also, since enemies appear in the field prior to battle, the player can attack from behind giving them an advantage to strike first. This also means that you should avoid being snuck up on as they can get the first swipe if they happen to catch you in the back.
The Link system is an additional plus to have in battle since characters can assist each other. Sometimes an attack will land allowing another character to jump in for extra damage. Abilities learned through leveling up means they could also land a finishing blow for example if the enemy is near death or counterattack if their linked partner is hit. It’s another fantastic addition that can greatly affect battles thanks to not only extra damage, but unbalancing enemies or disabling the enemy by “breaking” them too.
At parts in the story, characters will make use of giant mechs called Panzer Soldats. Battles in these are essentially the same minus some of the aspects mentioned above such as S-Crafts. However, they can team with another member not in a Panzer Soldat and that individual can cast magic as an attack. That person can also boost the EP (Energy Points) or restore a little health to help out the paired Panzer Soldat too. I enjoyed these battles less, but they were still cool to see and I’m a sucker for mech fights.
The Orbment system makes a lot of things in combat work. Characters can equip Master Quartz which have elemental affinities. These level up and in doing so grant benefits to characters such as increasing potency of healing arts or evading magic attacks. After that, characters can also equip quartz into slots which grant the user magic to use in combat or have special properties not dealing with attacks such as showing enemies and treasure chests on the map. These quartz can be bought or created and allow for experimentation for battle as well.
I found myself really loving the world and characters in Trails of Cold Steel III. The look of the game has the clean anime appearance which I’m a fan of and while it and the character personalities may seem cliche’, everything hit the right notes for me. Character personalities bounced off of each other well and returning characters who knew Rean were written in a way that made their friendship seem genuine. The biggest complaint I can levy at some characters is how cryptic many seem to be. Often it is characters who haven’t been fully revealed at the time, but too often does someone leave something verbally hanging with a later payoff.
The designs for academy characters left me wanting a little more as outside of hair style and color, look wise they were all similar. Part of this is due to everyone wearing the same military garb, but Trails of Cold Steel III at least gives the option to customize the playable characters when items are found whether it costumes or hair color. Fortunately the towns don’t suffer the same fate. They are differentiated very well with looks that make them stand out from one another.
The world also has mini-games to partake in too. While not terribly challenging, I would spend too much time fishing and hoping to find new locations every place the academy ventured. The same can’t be said for the card game Vantage Masters. It’s also not terribly difficult to grasp how to play, but my mind has always had a hard time processing strategies for these type of games, so Vantage Masters never really clicked with me.
The last gripe I have isn’t a big one either, but comes up enough to be a little irritating. I thought the voice work was mostly good…for the times it was used. I know voice work can be costly, especially in an RPG, but the timing of it can be weird. I have a thing against games where two players will have a conversation, but only one has voiced lines while the other doesn’t (even if that character is voiced in the game too). Or where someone walks in with one or two lines of voiced dialogue and then will suddenly stop and all be text after that. There seems to be no real rhyme or reason to it, but just one of those things that constantly drew my attention for the worst repeatedly in the game.
Trails of Cold Steel III is a solid JRPG that knows how to tell a story with a large cast of compelling characters in a world with plenty of lore at its fingertips. While many games that feature this many callbacks can fall flat, Trails of Cold Steel III succeeds in not only being a great game for those invested in the series, but also serves as a wonderful game for newcomers even if they may not get the full appreciation of what Trails of Cold Steel III has to offer.
Final Score: 4 / 5