If you listen to the Spectator Mode Podcast or follow any of my work here at The Outerhaven, you’ll know that I’ve recently fallen in love with Trails of Cold Steel. After finally deciding to give the series a shot earlier this year, I’ve blazed through both Trails of Cold Steel and Trails of Cold Steel II in anticipation of the third game, which is finally making its way stateside (even though the fourth game is already out in Japan). While I love the first two games, their relatively low budget and pacing issues make them difficult to recommend to new players.
Thankfully, Trails of Cold Steel III has learned a great deal from its predecessors, resulting in the best entry in the series to date. Cold Steel III brings the engaging story and fleshed-out characters that fans will be expecting while also adding several features that make the experience more palatable for new players, like character bios and detailed recaps of previous games.
Game Name: The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III
Platform(s): PlayStation 4 (Reviewed)
Publisher(s): NIS America
Developer(s): Nihon Falcom
Release Date: October 22, 2019
If you’ve played the first two Cold Steel games, you’ll know exactly what to expect here. If you’re unfamiliar with the series, it’s a JRPG with challenging combat and well-written characters that have some light social mechanics like something you’d find in Persona. Cold Steel is a subseries of an even larger franchise called The Legend of Heroes, which is known for its exhaustive worldbuilding across multiple games and subseries. The Cold Steel subseries is centered around Class VII, a group of students at Thors Military Academy that undergoes special missions for reasons I won’t get into here.
Trails of Cold Steel III sets the stage with a new status quo. Things have settled down since the Erebonian Civil War (although tensions are still high), and Rean, the protagonist from the first two games, has accepted an instructor position at a new branch campus of Thors Military Academy. Here, he instructs an all-new (and much smaller) Class VII while running into his old classmates and other familiar faces throughout the story. To say any more about the new Class VII, the Thors Branch Campus, or any of Rean’s adventures would be to spoil the best bits of Cold Steel III, so I won’t get into any more detail than that.
Cold Steel III reminds me a lot of the original Cold Steel in multiple ways. The game’s structure is largely the same. Each chapter will consist of days at Thors, including class days and free days, before finally culminating in a field study that will take the cast across the nation of Erebonia to accomplish various tasks. Unlike the original Cold Steel, however, Cold Steel III does a much better job at pacing its story and providing interesting hooks early on. In the first game, pretty much 90% of the plot happened in the final parts of the story, with the rest of the game slowly building up to the epic finale. Trails of Cold Steel III may keep the same structure of free days and field studies, but it takes the intensity of Cold Steel‘s final act and spreads that intensity evenly throughout the game’s chapters. Cold Steel III also takes place over a much shorter time period than the original game, meaning there isn’t nearly as much meandering and busywork.
The story is excellent as well. Cold Steel and Cold Steel II told great stories, but in Cold Steel III, we finally start to see more meaningful connections to the rest of the Legend of Heroes franchise. Characters from Trails in the Sky and the Japan-only Crossbell games have significant roles in Cold Steel III, and while you don’t have to have played those games to fully grasp the story, you’ll get much more out of Cold Steel III if you at least watch summaries of those series before jumping in. Pretty much the entire cast from the first two games returns in Cold Steel III, too, but thankfully the game has very in-depth bios and recaps for the first two games if you’re just now getting into the series. A lot of the best parts of Cold Steel III are about fan-favorite characters returning and teaming up, and the fact that I got excited pretty much every time I encountered someone from the original Class VII says a lot about how awesome these characters are.
The new Class VII is much smaller than the original, allowing for each student to have more time in the spotlight. The original Class VII started with nine students, while the new Class VII doesn’t come close to reaching that number, even with the additions throughout the story. You’ll get other party members in the form of older Class VII students and other guest characters though, so party variety is never an issue. The new characters fit right in with the old, and I loved seeing them interact. The first three members of the new Class VII, Juna, Kurt, and Altina (who returns from Cold Steel II) are all immediately likable, and they grow in pretty significant ways throughout the game. Seeing how each of the old Class VII students had grown up was cool too, and it really reminded me how much I adore the original Class VII. Still, I loved my time with the new students just as much as I did with the old, and the old class set a pretty high bar in the first two games.
Combat remains largely the same in Trails of Cold Steel III, but some notable changes add new layers of strategy and depth to battles. Battles are still centered around exploiting enemies’ weaknesses to unbalance them and get in extra attacks, but enemies now have a break meter that, when completely emptied, makes them incredibly easy to unbalance. Certain attacks deal more break damage than others, and it’s a nice way to let party members that don’t necessarily have great unbalance efficiencies help out more often. Party members can also assume different formations with the brave order system, which uses BP earned from unbalancing enemies. These brave orders range from increased attack damage to health recovery to dramatically lowered art cast times, and they can dramatically turn the tide of battle when used effectively. These new additions, paired with a dynamic battle camera that swings behind characters’ backs when it’s their turn, make Cold Steel III‘s combat just as engaging as ever. Sadly, the battle theme is a bit on the weaker side, as is the majority of the soundtrack. None of it is particularly bad, but each track felt sort of bland compared to what we’ve previously heard from Cold Steel.
In the transition to the PlayStation 4, Trails of Cold Steel has received a huge upgrade to its presentation with the third entry. Models and environments look much better than they did in the first two games, and more powerful hardware allows for more detailed environments. Cold Steel III is definitely still a budget title, and while it looks quite a bit better than its predecessors, it does still look dated compared to contemporary titles. This doesn’t hurt the experience dramatically, but sometimes the stiff animations and simplistic facial expressions can dampen the impact of more emotional scenes. The game is never downright ugly, but there are several departments where it could look better.
All in all, Trails of Cold Steel III is more Trails of Cold Steel. If you’ve been following the franchise to this point, you were already going to pick up a copy just to see the next chapter in the epic story. If you’re new or curious, however, Cold Steel III is the best jumping on point in the series since the original Cold Steel, and while there might be a gigantic amount of information and lore to take in before you begin, the game makes this information available in a concise and informative manner.
Trails of Cold Steel III is without a doubt the best game in the series, and I truly hope this is the entry that finally gets this series the recognition it deserves in the west. Fans will love it for the immensely satisfying narrative payoffs and how it builds upon the already excellent combat, and newcomers will appreciate the opportunity to dive headfirst into one of gaming’s richest and most detailed worlds. While definitely still a niche JRPG, Cold Steel III does a lot to make the series more appealing to new players, and I think everyone who gets their hands on this game, new and old, will appreciate the changes and improvements made. It might not make the most of its transition to more powerful hardware, but Trails of Cold Steel III sticks to its tried and true formula to great effect. This is Trails at its most refined, and I think it’s finally time that more people jump into this great series.
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Trails of Cold Steel III doesn’t do a whole lot with the transition to more powerful hardware, but it doubles down on everything that made the first two games great. The story and characters are the best they’ve ever been, the already excellent combat has been refined even further, and the stylish new battle camera and presentation overhaul give the experience much more character, even if the game is still held back by stiff animations and dated graphics. Cold Steel III is still a niche JRPG, but it’s time that more people gave this series a shot, especially with this game’s incredibly detailed onboarding features like character bios, lore summaries, and full recaps of previous games.
- Excellent characters
- Compelling, focused story
- Incredibly in-depth worldbuilding
- Challenging and engaging combat
- Stiff animations
- Dated graphics