Monday, October 2, 2017

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

The Legend of Heroes:  Trails of Cold Steel II is a direct sequel to Trails of Cold Steel for PS3 and PlayStation Vita.  It continues straight where the previous game left off, which was a cliffhanger.  Naturally, this review will contain spoilers for the first game, so do not read further if you haven't played it yet.  As the game is heavily reliant on its story, having played the first game is highly recommended, if not mandatory.  In case you haven't, then there is a thorough recap of all the chapters which is selectable from the main menu, and it is even fully voiced in its narration.  However, in no way does it substitute for playing the first game.

Since the game was released a year after the first (in Japan and in the international release), it reuses the same assets and has the same graphics as the first game, so there's no improvements there.  That's not to say that it isn't already decent and some locations are stunning with the amount of detail.  Cold Steel III runs reasonably well on the Vita, the loading times to transition into battles and new areas seems to be a smidge shorter than the first game.  However, there are still scenes and sections where the game struggles and suffers slowdown.

The game can slow down to the point where you think it might have crashed when you defeat multiple powerful enemies at the same time and their death animations occur concurrently.  However, the slowdown doesn't occur too often and does not detract from the game.  Cold Steel II retains the same battle system and from the beginning, the mechanics that took most of the first game to unlock, is quickly unlocked here in the sequel within the first two hours basically).  There are now additional mechanics such as upgrading Orbment slots and Overdrive.

The core battle system is still turn-based.  Running into an enemy on the field will transition to a battle screen, where the turn order of characters is displayed on the left.  A menu in the shape of a ring allows you to choose the action of the current character.  Each character can use physical attacks, Arts (i.e. magic, that uses EP, these take the first turn to initiate and then a second turn to cast), Crafts (special attacks that uses CP, including the character's ultimate attack), use an Item, Run and Move around the battlefield.

Combat Links return where you pair two characters together to get passive effects and form a core part of the gameplay.  You can swap characters in and out at any time.  Available arts are dictated by the Quartz you put into each character's Orbment slots, which can be upgraded to use rarer Quartz.  The new mechanic called Overdrive allows a set of paired characters to have three turns pushed up to be executed immediately, and heals them in the process.  Each character has access to their original S-Craft (ultimate move) from the get-go, and can unlock a second one as the story progresses.

Rean, being the main character, gains a few new powers and Divine Knight battles in which he uses Valimar in combat forming the big set pieces at many points in the game.  There are enough new elements to keep things interesting.  There is, however, an annoying tendency for physical attacks to miss, particularly since if you miss, the enemy will counterattack.  This is to encourage the usage of Arts which are quicker to cast and does more damage now.  If you have a cleared save data from the first game, you can load it to unlock some bonuses when you first start the game, which is a piece of equipment and some items.

Rean starts off at Level 40 and levelling up is easier in this game since enemies tend to give huge amounts of experience points.  Experience points are scaled though, and once you're at a level higher than the enemies, they start to give very little points, which is the developer's way to make sure you are never really overlevelled for the boss.  From the beginning of the game, there will be a mixture of new locations, new monsters and new musics, with old locations, same monsters and recycled music from the first game.  A significant portion is familiar but it is balanced by old areas having branch-offs that the first game didn't have so the player doesn't feel fatigued or tired by the scenery.

Most of the scenes are voiced, and the voice acting is excellent.  It can be inconsistent when a voiced scene is immediately followed by an unvoiced one, but this is consistent with the first game.  Following on from Cold Steel, the Noble Alliance has sparked a civil war within the empire of Erebonia against the Imperial Army.  Complicating this fact is that Rean is an Awakener, able to pilot the Divine Knight, Valimar.  One of his classmates, Crow Armbrust, is also an Awakener of Ordine, the Azure Knight, but doubles as the terrorist that killed the Chancellor.

Rean sets out to try to settle things with Crow, and help bring the civil war to a swift end, having the help of the rest of Class VII.  The plot is on a much larger scope than the first game, which was a heaping of mini-quests helping out the local people while the civil war was slowly breaking out, compared to now where it is fighting through the civil war leading to a climactic finale not unlike the Realm of the Shadow in Cold Steel, but more epic.

Cold Steel II takes the time to allow the player to get to know all the characters, including all the new villains (so to speak) that we're introduced to.  We understand their backgrounds, leading to their reasons as to why they have joined the Noble Alliance.  Just like Rean, you come to realize it is not as black and white as good and evil in this civil war.  There is a crazy attention to detail on the NPC characters, since they have their own backstories which gradually unfold over the course of the game.  These are all optional, you learn them only if you take the time to speak to them.

Each of the NPCs have multiple pieces of dialogue after major and minor events, which is impressive.  It is a testament to the world building and character building the players feel sad even when a NPC dies.  The theme of the story clashes sometimes since it goes on and on about the civil war and the toll it has on the people, yet Class VII still has time to do odd jobs and travel around the empire.  Class VII keeps talking about themselves being a third faction separate from the Imperial Army and the Noble Alliance, yet pretty much all their actions align with the Imperial Army anyway, which makes their intention harder to swallow.

While the civil war is consuming Erebonia, the situation at Crossbell first appears to be stagnant, until something unexpected occurs two-thirds into the game.  In typical JRPG fashion though, two-thirds into the game, you have to visit four "shrines", which feels tedious and dragged out since the dungeons look similar, even if the map layouts are different and at times, confusing.  There is a lot more freedom here as well since while you still can't return to all the dungeons, you can return to a lot of them.  You can often fast travel between multiple areas during most of the game.

Rean spouts a lot of cheesy lines, but that is how the character is and even the other characters call him out on it.  He has a tendency to pat someone's head, which can be viewed as creepy sinc ehe does it so much and so randomly.  Something to notice is that a lot of the characters that are not part of Class VII are powerful and can hold their own.  Class VII isn't the overpowered characters you'd expect or want; therefore they actually receive a lot of help from other characters instead of the other way around.

To manage the huge amount of playable characters, in certain sections of the game, one or two slots are locked to a specific character.  In the final dungeon, you have the choice of not only the 10 members of Class VII, but an additional 12 characters ranging from other classmates of Thors Academy, and people they've met on their journey.  Like the first game, it's kind of a slow build up but once it gets going, it really gets going.  It gives you the same emotional impact as the original, probably more now since you have built relationships with the characters and places over two games.

With the ending of the game, you feel that this is truly a story of Rean and Crow and how they tested their beliefs against each other.  It was a bittersweet ending with heaps of twists and revelations.  Then the first ending song comes in and hits you hard, being an excellent rendition of the main battle theme, suiting the mood perfectly.  After the Finale chapter, there is still a Divertissement chapter concluding the events of Crossbell, and an Epilogue that wraps up the game.  Despite answering a few questions, Trails of Cold Steel II raised a lot more.

It really hits home during the Epilogue when Rean and his classmates return to Thors Academy, back to their school life and as the school year ends, saying goodbye to all the second year students.  They all have their plans and it feels they are truly moving on.  You know that the developer has built an engrossing world when the player will most likely opt to talk to the NPCs and other characters to find out more about them, even when it is not mandatory.  You truly feel like you've journeyed so much with Class VII after all this time.

The difficulty for most of the game is perfect but there is a difficulty spike in the last dungeon as bosses have huge HP that are through the roof in addition to the normal annoying traits.  Bosses over the course of the game have an extremely annoying tendency to heal and buff themselves.  Later bosses able to spam status move attacks, and their S-Crafts are near guaranteed one-hit KO even if your characters are at full health.  It ends up becoming a race for you to unleash all your S-Crafts one after another.

There are several dungeons where normal enemies have the ability to spam area-of-effect instant death attacks which is cheap.  While you are able to use accessories to mitigate the instant death, forcing you to change your equipment is annoying and disappointing.  Then finally, there is a cheap chain of main story final bosses which combine all of the annoying traits from all the bosses of the game.  You get instant death attacks, area-of-effect status inflicting attacks that also deal huge damage, summoning minions, self-healing, high speed and absurd amounts of HP.  It forces you to use dedicated accessories to stave off the status ailments (in turn, which they are resistant to so it's not even a level playing field).

Be prepared to retry the final boss battles again and again to get luck on your side and that they don't constantly spam their moves.  It's even more annoying since levels aren't a problem (the experience points gained from normal enemies are so low so you are supposed to be at this level).  It actually ruined the feel of the significant story scenes afterwards since it felt unfair rather than true difficulty.  The final boss of the game is similar, but you can spend 15+ turns waiting for your own character's turn due to the sheer number of enemies, which is tedious.

However, those are basically the only significant flaws of the game and it wasn't even too horrible.  Just like the first game, you don't want Cold Steel II to end, even though it takes 50-70 hours to finish the story (depending if you do all the sidequests and if you spend time talking to NPCs).  Afterwards, there is a New Game Plus option where you carry over most things, along with a few bonuses the more times you complete the game.  You also unlock an additional superboss, some minor items to find and various scenes which reveal a bit more behind the concepts introduced in this game (event easing about possibilities in the future to a degree).

Overall, The Legend of Heroes:  Trails of Cold Steel II does not disappoint.  It is an amazing masterpiece of a game that improves upon nearly every aspect of the original.  It is one of the best JRPG and one of the best games ever, with an engrossing story and strategic battle system, not to mention the simply astounding music.  Trails of Cold Steel II is highly recommended and cannot be missed by JRPG fans.


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