Monday, May 1, 2017

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel (Vita)

The Legend of Heroes:  Trails of Cold Steel is the eighth chapter of The Legend of Heroes series, of which most of the entries were never localized.  Xseed decided to localize Trails of Cold Steel first instead of the seventh chapter (Trails to Zero and Trails to Azure) and this is a good move since Trails of Cold Steel has better graphics and was developed specifically for the PS3 and Vita.  While it is part of the The Legend of Heroes series, playing the earlier games is not necessary.  Granted, if you have played Trails in the Sky, you'll be able to get a few references and recognize some side characters.

It's also such a shame that the seventh chapters weren't localized since there were a lot of references to those games as well as the events happening concurrently.  Trails of Cold Steel boasts impressive graphics for a Vita JRPG.  There is plenty of detail in the character models, environments and animations which helps with the immersion.  This comes with some compromise though since there are noticeably long loading times for transitions from the field to the combat screen.  Enemies roam the environments and a battle initiates on contact, although you can gain up to three turns of advantage if you time it correctly.

Transitioning from the environment to the battle screen takes 1 to 10 seconds to load which feels like a long time and shouldn't have happened when you are expected to fight so many battles.  There are also loading times when entering new areas which is understandable and it isn't too bad.  The other thing is that the game on the Vita can struggle with framerate drops, it never renders the game unplayable.  You get used to it eventually and these two things are literally the only flaws of the game.

If you have played Trails in the Sky, then the combat system will seem familiar since Trails of Cold Steel takes that system and adds in a few updates to keep it fresh.  You have a party of four characters and it is turn based.  The attack order is displayed on the left and each turn your character can perform a variety of actions such as attack, move, use an item or use special abilities.

Characters can move around the combat field so this adds in a tactical element such as moving your character out of range of an enemy's spell.  This also has downsides such as enemies being outside of your character's attack range.  This doesn't matter too much in many of the battles but during bosses, it takes on a more important role.  Each character can use Arts, which is a type of magic and this consumes EP.  Therefore Arts is your traditional magic but they take two turns to execute:  one to cast and one to actually use it.  This means you need to plan ahead even if you just want to heal in case you don't make it in time.

The other special ability are Crafts which use Craft Points and these are accumulated by characters attacking or being attacked.  Once the Craft Points accumulates to a certain amount, characters can use their ultimate move which has a fancy animation.  The biggest addition are Combat Links.  You are able to link up two characters to provide assist abilities.  These include the other partner attacking as well within the same turn when your character unbalances the enemy, auto-healing when your character is hurt or defending them from an enemy's attack.  These Combat Links are useful and they have their own leveling up system to unlock further abilities.

One of the big draws in RPG is the leveling up of characters and equipping them.  Trails of Cold Steel has an easy to understand equipment upgrade system.  You buy better equipment and if you have a certain number of a specific item dropped from enemies, you can upgrade it once to a better piece.  It is satisfying and means you can focus on fighting instead of over-complicating things.  You can equip items called Quartz which dictate the types of Arts your character can use.  These Quartz has additional benefits such as increasing stat and special effects against enemies.

Trails of Cold Steel has a great story where you invest in the characters.  You play as students within Class VII of Thors Military Academy.  The protagonist is Rean, with the rest of your classmates as supporting characters.  You live through around 8 months as a student, going on fieldtrips, partaking in exams and helping out via quests.  The backstory of each classmate is slowly reveals and you understand why each character act the way they are.  Even if a character is unlikable in the beginning, you end up empathizing and understand their point of view to the point of liking them.

Thanks to the excellent storytelling and pacing, you feel that each character has depth.  Even with the NPCs, when you are completing their requests, there are stories behind them that make them interesting and not just another fetch quest.  These sidequests are meaningful, providing a lot of backstory to the main plot, are fully voiced and it is evident that a lot of effort has gone into designing them.  The plot is easily one of the best elements of Trails of Cold Steel.  It has a strong political focus but is easy to understand.  There is uneasy peace between regions, you are now in the Erebonian Empire, a region where only the name was referred to in previous games.

In Erebonia, the tensions are escalating from within the Empire's class system between the Nobles and Commoners.  Furthermore, terrorists are attacking the Empire to overthrow the current Chancellor.  So many things happen in the story that it is hard to summarize but just take comfort knowing that it is well written and well worth the experience.  There is an unusual mix of voiced and non-voiced cutscenes.  It is very jarring when you have a cutscene starting out that is voiced but then suddenly when someone else speaks, they are not voiced.  The developers should have either voiced everything in one scene or none at all to keep some consistency.

Xseed went into the effort of providing English voiceovers which is no small achievement since there's so much dialogue in the game.  There is a simple relationship system which ties to the Combat Links mentioned earlier.  You gain points via story events on certain days and when the characters are in the same party.  As you level up the relationship between two characters, you get more support abilities for use in battle.

The blend of combat, exploration, excellent story and school life is addictive from the first chapter.  This is complemented by the excellent music that hypes the player up.  Monster designs are also excellent, especially for some of the bosses.  Minigames exist such as the Blade card game and fishing.  Note that like previous games, you cannot return to previous areas so there are a lot of missable items.  The difficulty is managed well in the game.  Experience earned is scaled, you earn heaps when your character's level is equal to or lower than the enemy's.  It drops dramatically as your level gets higher and higher than then enemy's, which is the game's way of capping your current level to present a decent challenge for the boss battle.

You frequently rotate useable characters through the chapters which provide further variety.  You only get the option to pick who goes into your party from a pool of every classmate in the final chapter.  That said, there were various boss battles in later chapters that felt cheap.  These bosses employ tactics such as high speed stat coupled with high defence or attack enabling frequent turns.  The most annoying were the bosses that repeatedly summoned allies with devastating area-wide attacks causing status effects.  It's a bit of a shame when you end up having to cheese the battle via using multiple ultimate moves successively to get back to the story.

Some of the boss battles can feel unfair especially when you were easily dispatching the normal enemies and you get stuck at the boss.  If you fail any battle you can immediately retry it or you're given the option of weakening enemies before retrying.  To top the game off, there was an excellent final dungeon.  The final school events that wind down the game lulls you with a false sense of security before blowing you away with major revelations within the story.  It makes you anticipate the sequel as these events were clearly setting it up.

While the ending may feel like it keeps on going, it was worth the build up as the climactic finale was amazing.  From the reveal of an epic power within Rean (steadily hinted during the story) to finally uncovering the identity of the villain, it was a fantastic ending.  You feel Rean's pain at the end because you have journeyed so much with everyone.  It's no joke that you want to go out and buy Trails of Cold Steel II immediately.  With all that said and done, Trails of Cold Steel takes 50 to 60 hours to finish your first playthrough.  After that, you can choose to have another playthrough carrying over all your items and levels, play on a higher difficult or aim for the Trophies.

Overall, Trails of Cold Steel is an amazing game.  It is one of the best JRPG games and one of the best games ever, period.  It has a strong story, stellar characters and addictive gameplay.  It was always a pleasure to play and the way it builds the relationship between the characters and the player is one of its strongest aspects.  Trails of Cold Steel is highly recommended whether on the PS3 or Vita, it's just a shame that it was released at the tail-end of both of these consoles' lifespan where many people had already moved onto the PS4.


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