The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Age Rating: PEGI 12
Release Date: 30/06/20
A code was provided for review purposes.
Disclaimer: there are a small number of spoilers within, due to the nature of the continuing story. It is assumed that you have either played the first two entries of the Trails of Cold Steel series or would be comfortable using the game’s ‘catch-up’ feature to familiarise yourself with the plot. Details, details…
Class VII have been through their fair share of trials. From both inside and outside, the group have known everything from relative peace, to war, to 1,200-year-old supernatural trials. Shocking twists and surprising character origin stories continually underpinned every step of their turbulent and complex adventure. Now, directly following the events of Trails of Cold Steel II, and the disbandment of Class VII, lead character Rean Schwarzer faces another impossibly daunting string of colossal tasks, starting with instructing a class of his own.
The story so far spanned the political games of noble houses and factionary power-grab tactics, deepened by allies becoming foes and foes becoming allies, tests of loyalty, friendship and family bonds. Class VII still managed to squeeze a victory against the toughest odds, but ultimately ending a war and uniting a number of military forces came down to a decision driven by Rean. Moving away from the tight bonds formed in Class VII, Rean now faces another fresh start of sorts, this time taking orders directly from military command while running his own Class VII, taking field trips and missions though newly annexed lands.
The famed Ashen Chevalier and his ancient mecha buddy, the Divine Knight Valimar, are called on for conflict resolution across the realm, bringing him and the new Class VII into contact with the old classmates. These encounters serve as a means of catch-up on each of the old team’s personal situations since the last game’s events.
It isn’t long before a high-profile assassination sparks a civil blame-game, which itself masks the workings of darker and greater power at play, one that involves the 1,000 year-old history of the Divine Knights themselves. Once again, it’s a lot to follow but anything covering Valimar’s history in more detail will be welcomed by the series’ fans. Despite the surface complexity, it doesn’t take much to get swept up in the plights of the team, and the writing continues to lean on events only as a means of furthering the player’s engagement with Rean and Co.
In Too Deep
There’s some good news for newcomers, even after that information dump. If you don’t know your puppets from your Panzer Soldats, Falcom have included a (semi)palatable text-based recap of both previous entries, dusted with accompanying images to help keep track. Without this feature it would be neigh impossible to recommend jumping in at the third entry but, while these snapshots cannot replace every beat of a full playthrough, there’s enough to have a basic grip of events to date.
However, it probably goes without saying, the true way to experience the series is to play from the beginning (spanning far beyond the first two games should you care to venture further into that rabbit hole). And, yes, I still felt the need to say it. A dogged effort will likely be required to get into Trails III then, but any thwarted difficulty in absorbing the main plotline, is greatly rewarded by some of the most impressive and immersive scene-building and personality writing in the genre.
And said personalities are given life with voice acting for both the English and Japanese dubs, served with professional quality and bolstered by a solid localisation from NIS America (whose work in this sphere has improved exponentially over this generation in my opinion).
Trails and Tribulations
Nihon Falcom’s Trails style of combining fairly linear field maps with town-sandbox exploration is precisely in line with previous entries, though distinctly more so with Trails I, adhering to the adage ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’. The academy and beautifully varied and densely populated towns provide NPCs to interact with, often with side quests. There’s a very distinct daily life-loop in which interacting with students and becoming involved with their student activities becomes a predictable routine at times, but there’s enough surrounding these scripted events to hold interest.
There’s also a lot to balance, with multiple parties to juggle at times, bringing all the preparation and equipment needs that come with each separate entity. It’s daunting, time-consuming and hard to follow. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
When a decent combat system has undergone adjustments and refinements over decades, one would expect an easy victory for a third entry. Indeed, Trails II had it made; a turn-based JRPG style of combat that was host to a wealth of tactical options, with multiple types of attack, intelligent enemy AI and cross-party link skills. Trails III doesn’t simply phone it in as there are a few extra elements to dig into.
At its core, Trails battles involve weakening foes by hitting them with the right type of attack to knock them off balance, allowing for easier to sustain and more hard-hitting follow up combinations. Adding to the fun is the fact that use of buffs and debuffs is rewarded in a meaningful way (think more Shin Megami Tensei or Persona than Final Fantasy) and positioning is equally important with attacks having different areas of effect and trajectory lines. Though there’s nothing that hasn’t been seen before in the genre, the careful balance of the different mechanics adds a noticeable weight to decisions.
Boss battles, as always have the length and gravitas series veterans have come to expect, requiring players to carefully consider each more and manage resources sparingly.
In Trails III the use of Brave Points returns but with more flexibility, allowing players more freedom over when to grant a special party bonus, adding yet another layer to a padded ensemble. These powerful buffs are pivotal and can be relied upon in sticky situations.
Visually, Trails games aren’t going to wow anyone, certainly against the backdrop of today’s AAA offerings and even some of the more technically impressive indie titles on Switch. This is a series rooted in the PS3/Vita era and it shows. Small improvements give an overall cleaner look with higher detail in textures, but the Switch version doesn’t have much of an anti—aliasing solution (if any) in handheld mode and image quality is lacking. Performance woes of the earlier Vita entries are largely alleviated, locking gameplay to 30FPS for most of the journey. Unfortunately, there are a few drops in busy scenes in a game which, to my eyes, doesn’t appear technically demanding. Nihon Falcom never quite seem to get the best out of consoles from a performance perspective and Trails III continues this trend.
That said, the art direction holds up exceptionally well with anime character models throwing in all the impossibly perfect hair-dos and colour combinations, and mechs bringing their superbly inefficient spikey-shell and power-hungry design ethos into the mix. Towns have a classical European flair while holding an impressive style of the ever-popular isekai-feel medieval fantasy/sci-fi blend. Battles are colourful and dramatic, with plenty of particles, flashes and battle-gymnastics.
As much as I enjoyed my ludicrously long time with Trails III (100 hours and counting), it’s not a game I can reasonably recommend to newcomers, irrespective of what the marketing material will have you believe. As the introduction might make clear, summarising the series isn’t easy and, even with all the concessions in adding backstory and well-paced tutorials, there’s really too much to miss out by skipping to this point. For series’ fans, it’s everything you wished it to be.