When people think of big role-playing games, the most mainstream that come to mind are Final Fantasy, Pokemon, Dragon Quest, Kingdom Hearts, and even Monster Hunter. You could even chuck in Dark Souls, Xenoblade and Persona, though other long-running franchises like Atelier and Nier have also made an impact. A name that isn’t likely to come up a whole bunch, especially now that current-gen consoles have been around long enough, is The Legend of Heroes: Trails series from Falcom. You’re probably more likely to find fans of its action RPG series Ys.
Part of that is due to localization issues surrounding the title. Western players have had to wait years for the next chapter in the story, while the next arc, complete with a new engine, may be well underway. Falcom isn’t a large studio. It’s not a developer with a massive budget like Square Enix or backed by a major publisher like PlayStation, Xbox or Nintendo. It relies on almost yearly releases to keep the lights on while bringing its niche titles to a worldwide audience. At the same time, it tries to innovate and progress its current franchises.
"So, the real question: Why should you play Cold Steel 3? Because it displays the series’ biggest strengths – world-building and characterization."
This brings us to The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel, a series which began in 2013 on the PS3 and PS Vita in Japan and whose final title, Cold Steel 4, would be fully localized by 2020. The fact that, along with Cold Steel 3, it’s re-releasing on PS5 may also raise some eyebrows, but it’s somewhat understandable. After all, both titles ran at 30 FPS on PS4 and didn’t offer the sharpest resolutions. Falcom has long faced scrutiny for the visual quality of its titles, and all things considered, Cold Steel 3 is starting to show its age.
It also doesn’t help that the PS5 version is a straight increase to resolution and frame rate – no extra bells and whistles, though the faster loading times are noticeable. If anything, it could have used a clean-up to the motion blur when dashing since it looks a bit jarring in the opening sections. Nevertheless, Falcom plainly outlined what’s included, so those hoping for an extensive range of options like in the PC version – like a larger FOV – should temper their expectations.
So, the real question: Why should you play Cold Steel 3? Because it displays the series’ biggest strengths – world-building and characterization. Each story arc takes place in Zemuria, a large continent broken up into many distinct nations undergoing a renaissance courtesy of Orbal technology. Trails in the Sky showcased the impact of airships and long-range communication in Liberl, and it’s interesting to see how Erebonia’s culture has adopted the same, creating extensive weaponry like the Panzer Soldats while still mostly relying on trains for transportation.
While different arcs have their respective characters, locations and plots, they’re all inextricably connected in one way or another. A pair of young Bracers who formed an unbreakable bond when the series was still a 2D RPG may pop up in another nation and lend their aid during a crisis. A certain Guild and its heroes may inspire the creation of a Class that thinks outside the box and can potentially change the world. However, you can also see this in the random NPCs who come and go, their stories developing further as you progress in the game.
"The new Class 7 is dubbed Special Operations and carries out tasks that encompass investigation and conflict resolution (like finding lost cats and hunting monsters)."
If anything, this grand plan has threatened to overwhelm players, as seen in Cold Steel 4, and it can serve as a barrier for those who don’t at least start from the first game (forget the Sky and Crossbell arcs). Nevertheless, The Legend of Heroes: Cold Steel 3 offers a compelling tale with endearing characters, expanding further on the overall lore of Zemuria while providing a tight combat experience.
Even if you’re jumping in without prior knowledge of other titles – and don’t peruse the extensive in-game glossaries detailing the story so far – the series generally does a reasonable job of easing you in. Cold Steel 3 is no exception, even as it begins in media res with the new Class 7 assaulting a fortress and running into the Stahlritter of Ouroboros.
The story rewinds afterwards to several months prior, with Rean Schwarzer arriving at Thors Military Academy’s Branch Campus. Though freshly graduated from the main campus, he’s now an instructor. A lot has happened since then, from the old Class 7 going their separate ways to the war in North Ambria, which further consolidated the power of the Erebonian Empire.
As for the new Class 7, it’s dubbed Special Operations – carrying out tasks that encompass investigation and conflict resolution (like finding lost cats and hunting monsters). With the main campus undergoing a revamp, the Branch Campus is considered a trash bin – a place to shuffle all the troublemakers and unwanted to ensure a smooth atmosphere for Cedric Reise Arnor, the crown prince of the Empire, who has undergone a significant shift in personality since Cold Steel 2.
"While its characters can come off as cliched archetypes, Cold Steel 3 does a great job of delving deeper into their motivations (though for some characters, you must wait till the sequel)."
As such, everyone has something to prove. Kurt Vander is dead set on living up to the reputation of his father and brother, even as the clan’s role in Imperial affairs diminishes. Juna Crawford arrives from Crossbell after it was forcefully integrated into the Empire, eager to put her skills to the test. Altina Orion is attempting to understand what it means to live normally and do what she wants. Of course, Rean’s journey also takes him down some unexpected paths. Despite becoming the Ashen Chevalier and the Hero of Erebonia, he’s unsure of his skills as an instructor. Throw in the coy but highly intelligent Musse Egret and the arrogant but troubled Ash Carbide, and you have a recipe for conflict.
While its characters can come off as cliched archetypes, Cold Steel 3 does a great job of delving deeper into their motivations (though for some characters, you must wait till the sequel). Even before you understand everything going on, each character sees significant growth. Despite hailing from different walks of life with different upbringings and facing unique tragedies, the bonds they forge feel natural and well-earned.
This extends to the side cast, from Freddie and his obsession with survival tactics like bug-eating to the introverted Tatiana, who slowly opens up. Then there are vendors like Jingo, the weapons dealer of Neinvalli, Crossbell’s various residents and law enforcement, or the sheer range of villains, from the enigmatic Rutger Claussell to the psychotic Shirley Orlando.
Add the returning members of old Class 7 as well, who each have their respective Bonding Events and moments, though they’re not the focus (at least for most of the game). Perhaps the only sore spot, character-wise, is Angelica, whose character essentially jumped the shark over the previous games and doesn’t come off well.
"As to the gameplay, the core loop for each chapter usually involves venturing through a region and taking on requests."
Amid so many characters, it’s fascinating to have such great voice work. Erika Harlacher is especially noteworthy as Juna, ensuring that the more emotional moments hit that much harder. Austin Lee Matthews, Xanthe Huynh, Joe Zieja, and Alexis Tipson are similarly excellent as Ash, Altina, Kurt and Musse, respectively, and deliver strong performances throughout the story.
Even without considering the large cast, Cold Steel 3’s plot devotes extensive time to the set-up. Like Trails in the Sky FC and SC, and Cold Steel 1 and 2, events are in motion, and you’re left looking forward to their resolution in the next game. It can feel a bit too much pacing-wise, and fans will probably tire of the “Defeat a boss only to find them perfectly fine, and you’re clinging for dear life in the next cutscene” trope. It doesn’t detract much from the overall narrative, as Rean and friends are embroiled further in the mysterious conspiracies and schemes unfolding in the Empire. And make no mistake – when things hit the fan, it’s an utter rollercoaster with plenty of heartache.
As to the gameplay, the core loop for each chapter usually involves venturing through a region and taking on requests. They’re all fairly straightforward, whether gathering plants or investigating disturbances. You can also engage in photography, collect anecdotes and more, offering some incentive to go out of your way (especially if you want those sweet end-of-chapter rewards). There are dungeons to explore as part of the plot, and though some are simplistic in their layouts, they do intersperse some light puzzles.
You also have the return of fishing and the new card game, Vantage Masters, with interesting opponents cropping up throughout the story. The latter isn’t too complex, but it can make for some fun strategic battles, especially as more Masters and cards are collected.
"Master Quartz can also level up and unlock further stat bonuses and Orbal Arts, allowing you to free up some slots for other Quartz. This further feeds into the new Brave Order system."
Weapons and equipment aren’t very complicated, but the real customization is in the ARCUS 2, which can slot in different Quartz to unlock different Orbal Arts. Various combinations of Quartz can unlock stronger Arts. Each party member can also have two Master Quartz, increasing the potential builds. If you want Kurt to have high evasion and crazy counter-attack damage or focus on Break Damage with Juna, go right ahead. Master Quartz can also level up and unlock further stat bonuses and Orbal Arts, allowing you to free up some slots for other Quartz.
This further feeds into the new Brave Order system. Brave Points are earned in battle by exploiting enemy weaknesses to damage types and crits for follow-up attacks via the Combat Links and spend them on Rush Attacks or Bursts (which deal bonus Break damage). However, you can now activate different Orders, which boost attack, Break damage, damage reduction and more, or straight-up healing and reflecting enemy attacks.
Otherwise, the combat system still feels great. Planning out your actions based on the timeline, with different benefits popping up at specific turns; breaking the turn order by activating S-Crafts for over-the-top special attacks that deal extensive damage; and deploying Brave Orders at the right moment is as fast and fluid as ever. Enemies and bosses are also well-designed, offering different challenges depending on your progress through the game.
Unfortunately, by mid to late-game, you can roll any threats without too much cause for worry or Enhanced states (which makes some bosses acting fine afterwards that much more jarring). The extensive range of powerful Orders can also diminish some of the tension. Millium’s White Decoration, for example, offers 90 percent damage reduction over a long period, which is insane for some boss fights. Orders depend on the characters in the party at any given time, but can further trivialize the game considering everything else.
"If you want a role-playing game series with an expansive story and memorable characters, fun combat and extensive world-building and don’t mind the visuals, it’s easy to recommend."
As for the mech battles, they’re further expanded, with three units capable of being on the field at a time, which opens up the range of Partner Skills and strategies. It still comes down to stacking Brave Points and executing Finishers, but there are also Unite attacks for even more damage. You fall into a pattern by mid to late game where combat can get somewhat trivial, but it’s not a complete joke.
While the visuals may not win over many players, the music is still top-notch all these years later. Falcom Sound Team composer Takahiro Unisuga delivers some exceptional tracks, whether it’s the battle themes “Brave Steel”, “Erosion of Madness” and “Toughness!!” or the sheer hype created by “Lift-off!” The opening, “Beyond the Journey” by Mitsuo Singa and Megumi Sasaka, is also pretty great. Certain tracks by Hayato Sonoda sound better with context, but they’re still well put together. This is a pretty good soundtrack, which is saying something, given how excellent the previous titles have been with their music.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 3 is in a strange position release-wise, considering all the heavy hitters that have launched or are releasing in the coming weeks. Certain aspects aren’t quite up to par when compared to the series’ peaks (namely Trails in the Sky SC), but it’s still pretty darn close, if not comparable in several respects. If you want a role-playing game series with an expansive story and memorable characters, fun combat and extensive world-building and don’t mind the visuals, it’s easy to recommend. Get comfy though, because it’s a long, long journey.
This game was reviewed on PlayStation 5.
Strong world-building that sets up the Erebonian saga for its long-awaited conclusion. Likeable main characters that see significant growth throughout. Stellar voice acting throughout. Fast-paced combat system, with Brave Orders and Break System offering new strategic options. Mech combat is expanded and even more engaging. Great soundtrack.
Well-past showing its age visually, and the PS5 port doesn't offer much beyond a resolution bump and frame rate increase. Story can take some time to get going and could do without some characters. Certain elements trivialize the combat challenge.