It brings me great joy to having not only played The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III, but seeing this long-running series by legendary RPG crafters Nihon Falcom blossom and branch out on as many platforms as it can. Publisher NIS America has not only brought this entry to the west, but made it available on the Nintendo Switch (as well as Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of DANA) which is now arguably one the best RPG machines today. The ‘The Legend of Heroes‘ series is one of the most robust in the JRPG genre, yet also flies under the radars of so many people. Rich in lore, memorable characters, incredible music and familiar yet engaging gameplay, there’s just plenty here to lose yourself in this world. Heavy in dialogue, and I would be remiss to not mention a complete turnaround with localization that NIS America has provided here. The team seemed passionate to translate every line of text and I’m here to say that it definitely shows through the game. It’s not only great in quality, but fits with the same detail and personality that was seen in the XSEED/Marvelous entries. This should be commended.
‘Trails of Cold Steel‘ is a sub-series of the overall ‘The Legend of Heroes‘ saga. Players will get the most out of the story by having played earlier entries that go back much over a decade, though it is absolutely quite sufficient to begin with the Trails of Cold steel series and then go back if you prefer. However, it is highly recommended to start with the first Trails of Cold Steel in order to get the most out of Trails of Cold Steel III. There is a feature on the main menu called ‘Backstory‘ that was also incorporated in Trails of Cold Steel II, that goes into detail about the cast of characters, the lore of the world, and gives a rundown of what happened in both prequels along with screenshots for each individual chapter. While playing the first two games are recommended before hopping into Trails of Cold Steel III, I can’t turn down the notion that anytime to hop into this series is always a good time. Trails of Cold Steel III does have the main protagonist in a slightly new position, that also includes a new cast of characters, but the world is the same and a reunion familiar characters are inbound to continue the story that came before. It may take a bit of time, but if you plan to hop straight into ToC3 as a newcomer to the series, then going through the Backstory mode front to back is recommended.
With that said, much of this review will go over what fans of the series are already familiar with, what’s refined about them, as well as new features. Since I value everyone discovering the story and characters on their own, everything shown will be only up to Chapter 1 to keep potential spoilers to a minimum.
Conflicting politics, prominent social class systems, mysterious forces and a civil war that just ended in Erebonia. Just a little over a year later is where Trails of Cold Steel 3 takes place, yet the same thread is still being sewn into history. That is, everyone is finding their purpose. Every individual has their own story. Class VII of Thors Military Academy has graduated and moved on, but our protagonist Rean Schwarzer takes on a new role. The opposite side of the coin, he is now Instructor at a newly-found Thors Branch Campus to guide a new Class VII. It doesn’t take long to highlight just how widely-known Rean Schwarzer is after the events in Trails of Cold Steel 2. Cinematic shots, reactions and tonally, we’re quick to be shown his importance as well as a bit of maturity that came with growing alongside his experience. Though, he may still be as dense as ever!
The library naturally returns with different sections found in earlier games covering the history, tech, and political backgrounds of companies and regions. Much of Thors Branch Campus feels nostalgically similar to Thors Miltary Branch from earlier, with gymnasium centers and a student union where the cafeteria is held, along with dormitories and classrooms, but it’s still new so it doesn’t look the same. In fact, the entire game is a graphic overhaul from ToC1 and ToC2. Though the technical aspect of things are not on par with modern graphical powerhouse of games with massive amount of budget thrown into them, the personality and art style go the distance and the rich detail of everything Trails of Cold Steel has to offer more than makes up for it. The entries, after all, take time to be brought to the west so the further back you go the more their age also shows. Starting with Trails of Cold Steel III, it’s night and day compared to the first two games.
In fact, it feels nice to see familiar faces with a new coat of paint. They are just how you remembered them, but look even better. Makes you even appreciate the charm of characters from past entries even more. There are a ton a of new characters, but meeting up with familiar faces, both from Class VII, other classmates and other named NPCs in the world from earlier games, comes as more of a treat when you see them again for the first time. The world is lived in and realized. Even NPC’s with generic names like “Old Lady” or “Tourist” have their own evolving dialogue and story with every bit of progress you make. As with earlier titles, in order to maximize just how rich the world is, it’s worth talking to every individual more than once to see their dialogue. It may be 2-6 boxes of dialogue which upon talking to them again may be shortened and reworded differently, but it still adds flavor to the world. A lot of this is due to every change in the story you make, and every time the time of day changes, the people of the world are still around and have more to say and do. This even continues on from chapter to chapter. While players can go through the main story and ignore the inhabitants and even miss out on sidequests, the characters and lore are at the heart of Trails of Cold Steel so it’s absolutely worth checking in with them.
This makes every encounter more precious. It is apparent since returning characters you’ve gotten to know in earlier games will make a bigger impact if you know their story, personality and what they’ve gone through. Talking to every character at every pivotal moment definitely becomes to feel like routine, but it’s so worth it. I can’t imagine going through these games without doing just that. If you want to be invested in the world, I implore you to do the same.
The new Class VII consists of new characters. Kurt is struggling to find answers and dedicates his training to the dual-blade Vander style technique. Juna is a rather blunt and forgoing individual skilled in her police training from Crossbell, proficient in her gun batons, able to change stance as a close striker or a gunner from a distance. Also new to Class VII, but not new to Trails of Cold Steel, is the “Black Rabbit” Altina Orion. It’s worth noting that Millium Orion makes her appearance here as well. There is one major change. Ashly Burch doesn’t reprise her role for Millium. Instead, Michelle Marie stands in for her and quite honestly she does a great job playing as Millium. It is interesting seeing her and Altina grow as they not really grow at all. Other playable characters also join the fray, but Nihon Falcom doesn’t skimp out on character development for everyone. It’s something they’re good at.
The Ashen Chevalier is a prominent figure as well. He has to be. He is our main protagonist Rean Schwarzer. This means the soldat battles have returned and they’re just as fun as ever breaking the pace of normal battles now and again. There’s no crazy flying gundam space battles a newcomer might expect, but there’s fireworks all the same and it feels good. Especially since Valimar, the Ashen Knight, returns. Naturally, of course. What this game does, it does in style and substance.
When it comes to the former, Switch owners get to download the Standard Cosmetic Bundle DLC for free. This set contains 14 different items to unpack, and inside includes several outfits for some of the characters, different accessories from headgear to body attachments, and even hair color. I see all you bathing suit aficionados out there.
Let’s talk about gameplay refinement and new additions to Trails of Cold Steel III. Series staples continue to make their return. Some returning features get a bit of refinement, such as fishing. Other side activities get a complete overhaul, such as this game’s optional card battles. As for fishing, gone are the specific button prompts. Instead, now it feels like you’re reeling in the fish since there’s an actual emphasis on line tension. Classic rewards for better fishing rods are back, but this time they come as numerous modular components at automatically get equipped as you unlock and purchase them. Bait is also easier to come by and can be bought with mira (currency) instead of having to trade rarer materials to obtain them. There’s no longer a need to spend 1 bait at any fishing spot to gather a small pool of fish. Now your rod can be cast at any time as long as you have bait. 1 bait per fish and you even don’t lose bait if a fish doesn’t bite. Small rewards you’d expect upon catching them are still present.
If one is expecting the card game to be Blade III, one should expect something else entirely. The card game Blade seen in Trails of Cold Steel, and the slightly improved version Blade II in Trails of Cold Steel II, where both relied a lot on luck on trying to play a higher card than your opponent with some special cards to play, is gone. Vantage Masters is the new game, is played on a table and involves more strategy than Blade or Blade II could dream of. I can best put it as this game’s version of the once popular Hearthstone by Blizzard. There’s a more RPG element to the card game itself, that it feels like a nice diversion from the main game. Completely optional, but also rewarding in and of itself should you seek out all the new cards to obtain. I choose to not miss playing with all the Vantage Masters players, both playable and non-playable characters, in the world.
While not completely overhauled, the new battle system is refined and is better than ever. Getting the strike on an enemy during field exploration is also a little different. Single, Double and Triple Advantage are back, but behave in a new way. Getting a normal strike behind an enemy will always result in a Double Advantage. However, now players accumulate charges where pressing the right trigger will unleash a powerful attack guaranteed a Triple Advantage, even on tougher enemies. Players can carry up to 2 charges. Breaking crates or rubble can slowly recharge the bars.
It’s a long tradition of familiar mechanics, such as Crafts and Arts, and the usage of Quartz (this series version of the materia system from Final Fantasy). The Arcus units used in previous titles allowed for linking with a party member to act in relation with each other, aiding each other for both on the offensive and defensive. The more two party members Link levels up, the more abilities they unlock for each other when linked. The same is present here, but introduced in ToC3 is the Arcus II.
For the unaware, the Arcus is an Orbment. Orbments are created by harnessing the world’s ‘orbal energy’. It’s remains a mystery, but is also responsible for technological advancements, such as lighting and rotary gadgets. The Arcus II, much like the Arcus, are pocket gadgets that solely focus on using orbal energy. Orbments contain slots to have Quartz inserted in them. Quartz are synthesized sepith (raw material containing orbal energy) and formed into an orb. These have many different elemental values and can adhere to attributes players wish to focus on.
Every Orbment is tailored to each character, so slots and elemental usage are set up a little differently, albeit all having the same amount of slots. Quartz may be inserted and removed freely, so long as you have them in your inventory. Master Quartz are different in that they are unique with certain abilities and attributes; they also level up unlocking new abilities. In Trails of Cold Steel 3, the Arcus II allows for more. Players can now add a 2nd Master Quartz to their Arcus II unit. This allows for characters to take advantage of 2 Master Quartz at once. Players can even insert the same Master Quartz a party member is using even if they’re not in the party or around. The sub-Master Quartz is still limited, however, in that is levels up slower and doesn’t allow for all the abilities to be used. It’s still a better advantage than just having one.
Quratz contain the Arts, magical/elemental moves for attacks and for party support consumed at the cost of EP. What comes at the cost of CP, are Crafts — player-specific fancy moves that can used at any time (unless disabled by enemy). CP is only gained from successfully completing attacks or receiving damage, unlike EP which can be recovered via item usage, etc. S-Crafts are powerful special moves that consume ALL CP. 100 CP is required for an S-Craft to be performed, but should you hold out until you have max CP of 200, it will be even more powerful.
One improvement for Linked characters is that the link is no longer broken when a character goes down and is revived again. It automatically links up again. In the previous games, you’d have to hope the enemy’s turn wasn’t after a revival of a party member in order to link up again. Shoot, even when I had several turns after reviving a party member, sometimes I’d forget to link up again. This is a welcomed feature. Furthermore, the battle still continues even if your visible party is wiped out so long you have ones in reserve. Previously, even if you had characters in reserve but the party was wiped out, you’d lose the battle. Now they step in to keep it going with a chance to revive current members. Makes sense. You would earn a Brave Point every time you got a critical hit on an enemy and a linked party member would follow up with an attack. Accumulate enough BP in reserve and you could unleash a Rush of attacks with your partner in a small area. Save up 5 BP and you would Burst having all party members perform of a flurry of attacks on all the enemies at once. Since each weapon has a different type of damage output (strike, pierce, slash, etc.), you would hope for a critical hit any chance you got not only for the amount of damage you gave, but to follow up with a link attack to earn a BP. In Trails of Cold Steel 3, BP has even further use and allows for more strategic choices to be made.
Each character now has Brave Orders. Brave Orders cost BP you’d normally spend on just releasing for attacks when you need it most, but now it has you questioning whether you want to go on the offensive or spend BP to gain special stats and abilities for a specific number of turns. Perhaps the enemies have strong high attack damage and/or can inflict poison onto your party and you have party members who aren’t equipped to resist poison. Activating Altina’s ‘Ebon Crest’, for example, can negate all physical and magical attacks for everyone in your party and reflect them back onto the enemies. Should it be activated before multiple enemies who have their turn next in line, it could provide useful. Now you’re spent of required BP for rush attacks and can hope for critical attacks to gain more BP. Knowing when to use Brave Orders creates a nice balancing act that wasn’t there previously. However, you can also get repeated critical attacks with the new Break System introduced as well.
Enemies now have a break meter, that once depleted, can be stunned. This allows for every type of attack to be counted as a critical no matter what. It’s an easy way to gain BP, but it’s also not foolproof. Eventually enemies will no longer be stunned and have their break meter replenished. The amount of BP you have in reserve and knowing whether to spend it on enemies & when can make all the difference.
A couple of quality of life implemented here also come from some of the most recent entries from Nihon Falcom. There’s now a option for camera control that doesn’t reset its position to the center each time you move. This was a slight annoyance in previous games where holding the sprint button would always center behind the player character and can’t be moved vertically. Even when not sprinting, just movement would recenter the camera, although it could be controlled if constantly. Sometimes you just wanna let go and run around without it changing. That’s been fixed. Also a better feature is breaking crates and boxes no longer require you to pick up its contents individually. You will automatically pick them up and it will tell you on the side of the screen what you’ve received. It keeps the pace more fluid than before.
It’s difficult to go into specifics about story and characters in Trails of Cold Steel 3, but if you’ve played any of them before, then you can expect the same treatment and loving care given to the characters here. Relationships and bonds between them were wholesome before as they are now. Seeing returning characters is a treat and spending time with them in the visual bump from earlier games not only feels fresh, but is what you want in the first place. Players should expect to be given tasks to complete for each chapter, visiting new locations to help out and push the story forward. Dungeons do the job as they always have. Anticipate the “change”. Trails of Cold Steel IV comes to the west this year for PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch in 2021, and is the final chapter of this particular story. Seeing all there is to see for one game is definitely a commitment and upward over 100 hours. Just sticking to the main story beat and rushing it can be up to 70 hours. As Ben Moore from Easy Allies put it, “Soak in the vibes”. You most definitely should.
The game is pretty, but players should know that it being on Nintendo Switch comes with a few downgrades obviously. The framerate is locked at 30, which is fine enough here as the game runs stable and never had any noticeable stuttering. Aliasing sticks out and that’s to be expected. Objects pop into frame on the field, but only from a distance so it’s not terrible by any means. The game runs fine in handheld during the times that I’ve played it undocked, although I can’t speak to a more thorough playthrough in handheld mode.
Absolutely deserving attention and comes as no surprise, is the beautiful soundtrack. Falcom Sound Team does it again. They keep doing it. I couldn’t ask for a better group of talented composers and band to treat us to the sounds they’ve created for years.
Praise and credit also goes to the NIS America localization group who not only remained faithful to the source material, but also wrote fantastic dialogue in abundance as well.
If you are a Nintendo Switch owner who loves role-playing games and JRPGs specifically, play this. Legendary creators and pioneers of the JRPG genre created something you owe yourself to play, and it’s The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III.