It’s no secret that Persona 4 Golden is one of my favorite games of all time; so when I heard about a game that sounded similar to it arriving Stateside, I jumped on it as soon as I could. Originally released in September of 2013, in Japan, just after P4G was re-released on PS Vita, Trails of Cold Steel clearly has influence from Persona. Trails of Cold Steel is a spin-off of the main The Legend of Heroes series, which is, in turn, a spin-off of the Dragon Slayer series, which started way back in 1984; there’s a lot of history, so for an outsider it’s unclear when the series started its current style of play. However, this game isn’t simply about imitating Persona, it knows how and when to define itself with its deep combat and character mechanics.
A Burning Revolution
Taking place concurrently as The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, Cold Steel takes place in the Erebonian Empire, a country that is undergoing the massive change of an event similar to our Industrial Revolution. New technology called Orbitals is being implemented in almost everything, giving everyday people access to things like cars, cell phones, airships and, high-speed trains. As a result, more economic and political power is available to the lower class -the Commoners- when, until recently, the Noble faction had maintained control of the country and now find their positions of power gradually being taken from them by the populace. Tensions in the country are high, with the threat of civil war looming over everyone and everywhere.
The player sees and experiences all of this as Rean Schwarzer; a new student enrolled in the prestigious Thors Military Academy’s Class VII. Class VII is something of an oddity, as the rest of Classes I-V area made up of exclusively of either Commoner or Noble students, with dozens of students each. Class VII, however, is made up of less than 12 and of both Commoner and Noble students. As you can imagine, this leads to interesting discussions about the happenings in the country. This is especially prevalent while experiencing another thing that Class VII has that the other classes don’t: field trips. Once a month the students of Class VII are ferried all over the country often to places where other classmates live but are also political hotbeds of the country. These field trips are special because this is where you get into the meat of the game and get to know the characters. Sure, you perform other activities outside of that like investigating an old school house or fetch quests at school for the Student Council, but frankly, those activities are mostly boring and are only useful for giving you minor boosts to your grade to attain new gear. Quests for field trips are much more varied and progress character arcs as well as the main story. The meat of this game is spent on field trips, and that’s a good thing.
Field trips are incredibly varied and progress your character’s story arc; the other activities are a bore.
Focus on Friends and Family
Class VII does a good job reflecting the viewpoints of their respective social classes’ early on in the game, consistently providing commentary on the political and social happenings in the country and their potential consequences. As the school year progresses (using the standard Japanese academic year of April to March) Class VII is sent on their monthly, field trips all across the country–often about both the students hometowns and cultures but, also to the political hotbeds of the country. It’s on these field trips where you learn about your classmates as well as their struggles and problems. Their abundance of issues is often put front and center for you to see. You spend precious time hanging out with your friends at school and you do grow closer to them there. However, while you’re off doing odd-jobs for prominent political figures during your field trips, your character is continually reminded that, Town Y is Character Z’s hometown and that you’re staying with their family. These backdrops give you insight into who these characters are and what makes them tick. Their interactions with your friends’ family members not only let you in on who your friends are but also on the local culture in that area of the country. All of this combined with great, if somewhat clichéd character arcs, make you care about these kids and what’s happening to them and how events around the country affect them.
Comrades in Arms
Trails of Cold Steel has the standard, turn-based RPG combat affair; there’s an action rotation and, each character has their regular attack and, their special skills or, Crafts as the game calls them, unique to them. The game differentiates itself with an in-game technology called ARCUS, which allows you to use magic via, switchable items called Quartz; but, more importantly, establish a Tactical Link with another character in battle, allowing you to use certain passive abilities with them depending on how strong your friendship is with them. This sounds like ripoff of Persona’s Social Links, but it’s important to note you’re allowed to activate, or deactivate a link with another character at will while the passive bonuses happen depending on context of characters linked together. Depending on the enemy you’re facing, these bonuses alone can make or break you.
The game’s magic or, Arts system is deep and, customizable. Each character’s ARCUS runs off Quartz, gems that can be swapped in and out with magical attacks or perks. Quartz can be bought, found or earned via quests or by getting good grades so, doing even the lamest fetch quest is worthwhile if it means getting an A in class and hearing your alcoholic teacher say, “Drinks are on me! . . someday as she awards you with a new Quartz. Each character holds a Master Quartz that can level up with the character(s) giving them individual abilities and perks, as well as a few built-in Arts to use in combat. Master Quartz, like regular Quartz, can be moved from one character to another, but by and large, I found that most of the characters already had ones that best suited their Crafts. Regular Quartz are more straightforward, with flat bonuses or attacks but because of their diversity, the high amount you’re allowed to have at a time enables you to choose in-depth how you want your characters to work and, make your party work together like a well-oiled machine.
Combat itself is just as deep, with turn based combat initiated by making contact with an enemy avatar. Players are awarded bonuses if they’re able to attack and stun an enemy, or approach from behind or if possible, for doing both before starting the battle. Character attack rotation is shown on screen, as well as what random buff or debuff is coming up in the rotation and who will receive it. The mechanic that I found refreshing is that in addition to standard attacks and Arts and Crafts to use during fights, the player is allowed to mess with the rotation order a bit. For every single action you take, the game shows how far that will set that character back in the rotation, and this is especially important when it comes to using Crafts. Why? Because certain Crafts have the chance to stagger their targets if they land and knock the enemy further back in the rotation. Some characters, Rean for example, are better suited for this, but it adds another layer of depth to combat. Do you risk using a craft that has the potential to stagger multiple enemies at once and kill them all with that or perform a standard attack on a single enemy because there’s a possibility of knocking an opponent to an advantageous place in the rotation that has a buff? This mechanic gives you a sense of dominance and power over the battlefield. At the same time, it can begin to feel tedious and routine: run around the avatar, attack to stun, start combat, use Crafts to constantly stagger the enemy and decimate them. For better or worse, boss battles aren’t that easy. They can be either reasonable and fun increases of difficulty that require tact to defeat or unstoppable Goliaths that refuse to fall. When your party falls in battle, you can lower the difficulty of that fight for the remainder of its duration. That feature is nice, however, when I must complete the action as-is, it made me want to cease playing the game because it was cheating me out of a fair fight.
The game has other issues, which can range from annoying to frustrating that hold it back from greatness. I played the game entirely on my PS Vita and experienced frame-rate drops that varied from being almost unnoticeable to dropping so low that it was almost like watching a slideshow, without clear indications as to why; it happened in a variety of situations during my playtime. I also experienced other technical problems: the game crashed on me twice, forcing me to replay roughly 10 hours gameplay all over again, as well as my Vita not responding to any button presses after being in sleep mode with the game running in the background for several hours. That particular instance will not be affecting my review, though as it could have been caused by a myriad of possibilities. My Vita is a launch model so it could be wearing out, or it could be due to the latest software update for Vita (version 3.57) or the game itself, but again, it’s unclear so it won’t affect my score. In addition to these technical problems, the game’s voice acting, while great, isn’t always quite there, and is often seemingly random as to when a character will have a voice over that will include their speech bubbles.
When I initially started playing this game, I was afraid that a mistake had been made; that in a world post-Persona 4 Golden, I wouldn’t be able to every enjoy a narrative driven JRPG. I was worried that it would be held down in my mind because I hold that Persona 4 in such high regard. However, I’m happy to say that even with some irritating bugs and inconsistent voice acting, the moments I remember most when I look back on my time spent in this game isn’t spent killing monsters or dealing with mundane fetch quests. Indeed, they’re times when you’re simply allowed to live the life of a normal teenager with normal problems, unoften as it is in this game. These highlights range from when you’re listening to the awesome radio program Abend Time, or when you learn about a character’s past and can finally see why they act a certain way around certain people. Even better, when you see how a character has changed or grown since the last time you saw them. These little moments may not make up the main points of the interesting over-arching political narrative, but it’s the characters in Cold Steel that gave the political happenings weight; and were ultimately the most enjoyable part of the game. If you enjoy JRPG’s for the long haul, with an interesting story and characters, the first entry of The Legend of Heroes: Cold Trails of Steel is well worth your time.