I began my journey into Trails of Cold Steel with high expectations. Lauded by many as one of the strongest JRPG’s on the PS3, I was expecting a grand adventure packed with exciting combat. There was no way this tale of political intrigue and self-discovery could leave me wanting, right?
The truth is, Trails of Cold Steel is all right. The game does many things that other JRPG’s would never do, like, for example, basing the entire story inside a single nation and primarily focusing on the politics of said nation, with minimal fantasy elements. It is, in many regards, what I had wished Tales of Graces was.
Unfortunately, this story is bogged down with so much backstory and unique terms that it becomes necessary to explain it all to the player for them to even start to comprehend what’s going on. Cutscenes last forever, not because something interesting is happening, but because each new locale or person of interest requires five or ten minutes of dialogue to explain why they’re relevant. And this happens multiple times a chapter, leading to long periods of just watching cutscenes. The only game I can think of that outdoes it in this regard is Xenosaga.
A large part of what slows the story down is the high school setting. The game wants to be Persona and also Tales, to have a central hub area but also feel like a grand adventure for the characters. So you spend half of your time running around Trista and Thors Academy, with the only combat area being an old schoolhouse that doesn’t begin being interesting to the story until the final chapter of the game. The rest is doing menial tasks for people around the school and town. The game would have been much better had it cut the time you spend at Thors in half.
So the game is essentially divided into two parts, a very long and tiring John Hughes film and the actual gameplay. So if most of the movie is boring (we’ll come back to this later), how is the gameplay? Well, it’s… not fun, really.
You can’t say there’s any dissonance between the story and the gameplay because they both drag on for eternity. Enemies appear on the field, and interacting with them sends you to a separate battle screen, a la Star Ocean or Tales. But once you get to that battle screen, you might notice something weird: the combat in general. It plays like a blend between a strategy and an action game, but turn-based. You move your party around the field (or you’re supposed to) and position them to deal the most damage you can to as many enemies as you can. The problems with this are abundant. First of all, there’s a bonus experience system which rewards you for murdering lots of enemies, murdering them quickly, and for murdering them more than they needed to be murdered. So what you’ll really end up doing every battle in order to maximize experience is using your strongest area attacks from the default positions of your characters (which can be arranged within a 4×4 grid within the field menu, but ultimately doesn’t change much) until everything is dead. So you’ll find yourself sticking to fast-acting characters with more brute force attacks, and just using the same one or 2 abilities each turn.
The problem with this is also tied to the story itself. Each chapter is used to send the characters on field studies, splitting the team in half and relegating character usage to only those characters in Rean’s study group. This wouldn’t be such a bad idea, if at some point you actually got to choose who Rean went on field studies with, but you don’t. Even up to Chapter 6 (which is the final field study chapter), the game is deciding who gets to join Rean for you. So sometimes you’ll have to go through entire chapters without any of the characters you actually enjoy using. The only saving grace here is that I can’t recall any chapters that forced both Elliot and Emma into your team, as having two characters designed around spellcasting would have been exhausting.
Spellcasting deserves special mention here. I honestly went through 90% of the game using it as little as possible because of how long it takes. Spells take up two turns, one to begin the casting and the other to actually cast. Now, if they were spaced out normally, this might not be so bad, but spells have “delays” on them which can make the casting time much longer, which is especially noticeable on the higher tier spells (i.e. the ones you’re actually going to care about using). It wasn’t until I got an instant-cast spell called Chrono Burst, which allows you to take two turns without any delay, that I started to use spells more actively, as it allowed instant-casting of these higher tier spells. Before then, it was more worth it to me to just have characters like Elliot use their support abilities and then do regular attacks.
These characters are, however, the main reason to play the game. As boring as the story could be, I was invested in the game because of how these characters were affected by it. It’s heartwarming to see them grow together and develop friendships in a (somewhat) realistic manner. The only one I had any real problem with was Emma, who had hardly any development and was mostly just used to tease an endgame plot twist. She’s mysterious, and the mystery will keep you intrigued… until chapter 5, when said mystery enters the limelight, but by the end is still unexplained. After that, it’s just tedious dealing with, and actively detracts from her character. I understand why they did it, but I don’t agree with that, either.
That reason is that this game is not complete. It was never intended to be a complete experience, in fact. Trails of Cold Steel exists to set up Trails of Cold Steel 2, and that’s it. The game itself is aware of this, introducing a whole new gameplay style during the final boss, of all things, as well having the last hour of the game be the climax that leads into Cold Steel 2.
Now, all of this would have made for a mediocre RPG experience. On its own, Trails of Cold Steel is nothing special. However, there are technical limitations that drag it down even further. First of all, because the game was developed simultaneously for both the Playstation 3 and Vita, corners were cut in multiple places. Voice acting will start and stop throughout cutscenes, with the main character Rean having almost no speaking lines in the high school scenes (about half of the game). About half the nation of Erebonia is never shown, including one half of the capital city you visit midway through the game, because they couldn’t fit it onto a Vita card. Roads exist that connect the various towns with each other, but you’re not allowed to use them, with the flimsy explanation being that the party’s field studies aren’t allowed to take them beyond a certain point.
Worse than this, however, is the strain Trails of Cold Steel puts on the Playstation. Crashes were so frequent and so regular that I began to think there was a problem with my Playstation 3 (after playing other games without any crashes at all, this is not the case). And ultimately, one crash in the final hour of the game forced a system format, wiping my Playstation of all saves, including the 74 hours I’d put into this draining mess of a game. It’s unlikely I’ll ever pick it up again, at least not by myself. It was a depressing end to my experience, but also, I think, a fitting one.
Ultimately, I cannot recommend Trails of Cold Steel. There is a diamond buried in here, for sure, but it’s obscured by mounds of garbage. It’s a tedious game, filled with busywork to display an illusion of activity. It’s an RPG without the sense of adventure that the genre is built upon. The development itself is shoddy. I desperately wanted to like Trails of Cold Steel, but it constantly lowered my expectations.
Format: Playstation 3
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: Xseed Games