Written By: Erika Haase
Trails Of Cold Steel I & II
Release Dates: December 22, 2015 & September 6, 2016 (NA)
Systems: PS3 & PSVita
Publisher: XSeed (NA)
Developer: Nihon Falcom
There’s something that’s been sitting with me since I beat the Legends Of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel duology of JRPGs. It’s an unexpected, deeper take away from my first foray into the Legends Of Heroes franchise. One that crept in slowly under the door in my head to the room that processes very long game story-lines and/or character development. It’s the impact of war on the young, the loss of youth based on decisions made by others who expect you to become expendable, and finding your moral compass in the face of a world that is anything but black and white.
This isn’t a game review, per say, but I will do my best to illuminate some of the reasons I think you should play these games while building on this bigger concept that I feel a lot of the major reviews missed. Trails really only needs one gameplay review. It is in desperate need of a plot review.
While on the surface, Trails comes off as yet another military hued RPG with a confusing blend of medieval and futuristic weaponry, it has a strong, far less trope-y story to tell than you might think. It certainly helps that the gameplay is a flawless execution of action and turn-based RPG elements with enough strategy to go around for days. However, no matter how good your gameplay might be, getting through a 70 hour at minimum game (100+ hours for me since I caught a case of semi-completionism) is impossible without a good pay off. The huge cast of characters hailing from Thors Military Academy, Class VII, do just that.
Trails is set in the kingdom of Erebonia which is undergoing a societal upheaval. The current state of affairs sees the nobility leading the kind of privileged lives you’d expect, with successors chosen through bloodlines. Commoners, no matter how decorated they may be in military achievement or education, can never aspire to such lofty heights. Since the nobility make up the majority of the influencing government in various regions of Erebonia, where you can’t walk two blocks without tripping over the Baron of some street corner or the other, this is a big deal. Now, with the rise of technologies that came from non-noble blood, specifically a company known as the Reinford Group, commoners are growing restless. Who are nobles that have done nothing to earn their keep to tell anyone else that they can’t even compete for a title? Essentially, the kingdom is on the verge of revolution.
This is where our scrappy band of characters come in. Thors Military Academy is located in the city of Trista. It’s a prestigious academy with alumni claiming all sorts of badges of honor in history. Founded 250 years prior, the first Trails game begins with main character Rean Schwarzer arriving at this very academy with no clue what’s about to happen. He’s been chosen, along with several other key students, to participate in a newly formed “Class VII.” What’s so special about it? It is the only class to combine students of noble and common birth without distinction. No special housing, perks, or recognition. It is a social experiment that initially, nearly all students reject.
Here’s where the game starts to dig under the surface of the anime high school tropes you’ve seen a million times before. Many of these students dislike each other with no real reason other than things their parents have told them. On both sides of the coin, commoner and noble alike, they are so steeped in the notion that the other side is unable to change, that they can’t see past their own biases. When they’re told that the purpose of Class VII is to teach them how to act independently and make decisions for themselves, they balk at the premise. Many point out that they have familial duties to return to when school is over anyway, so it’s pointless to play at pretend equality. Others remain quiet to stay out of the way of people’s discriminatory attitudes. Putting this particular ridiculous setting aside, this kind of social inequality is very real. No matter how much we like to think we’d get along just fine with a CVS cashier and a hedge fund lawyer at the same dinner table, there will usually be that uncomfortable feeling of resentment over money, influence, and opportunity.
At first the kids think the assignments
they’re forced to go on are to teach them diplomacy in regions across the Empire.
Their attitudes in much of the first game, are that of flippant children thinking they have all the time in the world, or are free to call Mom and Dad to bail them out if things get too ridiculous. However, their completely rule breaking and unconventional teacher, Sara Valestin, has very different end goals. In this regard, Trails differs from other recent “military high school RPGs” such as Final Fantasy: Type 0 in which all the students already view war as an inevitability and have the emotional maturity for the most part to handle it from the get go.
With a vicious civil war brewing, and constant fear of the neighboring kingdom trying to claim land in a moment of weakness, it is her responsibility (as well as many other shadow figures we come to know quite well later on) to create a task force of individuals that will be able to see the problems on both sides of the conflict. An option C when everyone else only sees option A or B, if you will.
As their world view spreads, the Noble teenagers are forced to spend the night outdoors with the nomadic Nord people under impossibly starry skies instead of posh hotels. Likewise, the common-by-birth students get to see the difficulties that “people with everything” have to deal with inside those spotless mansions. Class VII begins to form bonds that grow stronger than, or at least equal to, their family legacies. They begin to question the world around them. When the hammer of war finally drops and Class VII is caught in live fire combat, they realize that their opinions and individual lives matter more than their legacy. A bullet and a sword don’t care what House you hail from. Everyone dies just the same.
The tonal shift rapidly moves from attending class parties, to evacuating forts under attack, to narrowly avoiding terrorist attacks by an organization led by a mysterious figure with a very specific target – a man who would audaciously create a new order in Erebonia, Chancellor Giliath Osbourne. Rean Schwarzer becomes an impromptu leader of Class VII simply by nature of his moral compass and strength. His ability to rally his classmates in the midst of petty disputes gains him powerful allies and fierce loyalty. It also gains him the attention of several members of shadow organizations that catch on rather quickly that Class VII is more than just a group of gifted students. They’re a carefully crafted ace up the sleeve.
There are many moments in game where narrative takes a key role. As you can imagine in a game of this magnitude, lengthy conversation is common. Free time can be spent with any fellow Class VII student to learn more about his or her life. These interactions range from grabbing a cup of coffee, to learning how to play an instrument, to simply being a supportive listener. The everyday discourse between Rean and his classmates perfectly offsets the insanity of war, especially for a group of 16 and 17-year-old kids. The optimism they possess and the way they can see a problem from a new angle, simply by not being jaded by someone else’s prejudice become invaluable.
Ultimately, however, each classmate realizes that they will have to fight someone else’s battle. They are handed a mess given to them by their parents and they are expected to clean it up, or die for it along the way. This reality hits in phases and Trails does an excellent job of initially making those “grown up” problems seem so far away and easily dismissed, and then blowing it to hell and back in the final five hours of the first game. In a shocking turn of events, Rean is ripped away from the people he (and you) have spent the past 100 hours turning into a family, and for various reasons that I won’t spoil for you, he has no choice but to go, even while having no idea if he’ll ever see them again. The reality of war comes hard and fast, and they’re just kids in the face of it.
Trails of Cold Steel II is hardly a “sequel” as much as it is simply a continuation. Much in the way that Kill Bill 1 & 2 were really one long movie, so are these two JPRGs one massive story. The second game begins as quickly as possible after the events of the first game. Rean Schwarzer hits the ground running, and now, separated from his classmates, he is determined to figure out what happened to their beloved Thors Military Academy. The cover art between these two games echoes the drastically different sentiments perfectly.
Whereas the first game cover has a brightly colored group in school uniforms and book bags running to class and holding hands, the second game has the fires of war as a backdrop. The cast isn’t in their school uniforms and look like they’ve seen warfare with their own eyes. The idea of being in school is gone for over the first 50% of the second game.
Without beating you over the head with any specific message about the messiness of war, you realize how much has changed as you attempt to find your classmates. Cities you visited by train are inaccessible due to government lock-downs. Local militia are abusing their power and you see first-hand what that can mean for every day citizens. The children from Thors Military Academy who belonged to Noble Families have been surreptitiously whisked back home – whether they consented to it or not. A war between the Noble Alliance and The Imperial Army has begun in earnest. The evidence of war is everywhere.
What left a lasting impression on me was the way this game went about handling an issue as old as time itself: Do you do what’s right, or do you do what’s expected. For Class VII, the choice has always been up to them, and what they decide is best seen for yourself. This being a JRPG, there are, of course a few supernatural elements, magic, and an ancient mech or two thrown in for good measure. Who doesn’t love a good mech battle, anyway? However, under the skin of those tropes is great story telling that shows how nothing is black and white. People who are allies today, may be enemies tomorrow. Sons have to turn on their fathers when they realize the monsters they’ve become. Answering for your parent’s choices simply because of your bloodline is not always a blessing, it is far more often a curse.
The optimism of Class VII is complimented by the jaded cynicism of their veteran instructors. Many who have been pulled out of hiding from covert organizations no longer recognized by the government, or those operating in Intelligence Capacities. These men and women have far more history than any care to reveal, and their dislike for working with each other never goes unnoticed. Not only does this show a grim possibility for the future of Class VII’s high moral ideals, but also a future they might not be able to avoid between each other.
The reality for much of the second game, is that many of Class VII’s members are living as fugitives from the law. They’re not in school anymore, and in their down time they miss being kids. No matter how many times people assure them that conflicts will be resolved shortly and that it’s just “one more mission,” the result is that these teenagers are losing time they can never get back. You can’t ever be 17 again. War steals from you, and it never gives back.
When Rean finally has to deal with death on the battlefield – and a death that he is responsible for – he realizes that even if he does get back the school he’s fighting for, he will never be the same. All the pep talks in the world can’t change the fact that you were responsible for the death of someone in the heat of battle. Even though Trails often makes Rean able to cope with everything a little too well as the stalwart leader and main character, it does give him a few precious moments to break down and acknowledge his own suffering.
There are so many other branches to these game’s story lines, and so many moments that highlight the depth of character development from both main party characters and the supporting cast, that I could never hope to summarize it all. It’s simply worth playing for yourself if you have the time. Despite everything I’ve just written, probably the most admirable part of the Trails writing is that it doesn’t end on a depressing note. Just like in the real world, life has to go on in one way or another, and it lets you know that it will, indeed, do just that. In fact, after two games, it has been announced that a Trails of Cold Steel 3 is in the works on PS4 and I couldn’t be more thrilled.
If you want a more technical write up on the battle system, UI, and back story of the Legend Of Heroes universe, I highly recommend the official game site: http://www.trailsofcoldsteel.com/ which covers the full cast and history of the franchise. You will see that this game takes place in a much bigger world, several entries of which never made it outside of Japan, but have no fear. That knowledge is not necessary to your enjoyment of these two.
You may have to dust off your Playstation 3, however. Or, if you’re like me and own a PS VITA, get ready to get your money’s worth as both games are available on that as well. The Trails of Cold Steel games do support cross-save, so if you buy both versions, it’s a great way to get them finished faster if you decide to come down with the same semi-completionism affliction I did.
There’s a reason a game that came out on two systems that are “dead” & dying have reached Metacritic scores averaging at 86. Game Informer scores of 8/10, in a world of AAA tiles w/graphics that defy belief. It’s hard to believe a game with dated PS3 graphics can give the current RPG greats a run for its money, but in my opinion it’s the truth. Any game that can make me thoughtful enough to write a veritable magnum opus on its plot content, all without revealing a single spoiler by the way, has to be worth something.
If you’ve played it, I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments section below. If you haven’t and start, I’d love to hear that you gave it a chance. If you read this entire article, here’s 10 gold stars.
Interested in a quality review for each title that fleshes out gameplay mechanics? Check these out over at RPGsite.net and HardcoreGamer.com:
Trails Of Cold Steel I: Trails Of Cold Steel 1 Review – RPGSite.net
Trails Of Cold Steel II :Trails Of Cold Steel II Review – HardCoreGamer.net