by Scott Clay
Some RPGs get the attention and recognition they rightly deserve. Some RPGs are lesser known in the gaming world, but you still find many who recognize them by name. And then there are RPGs that fly under the radar and live in obscurity within their small niche of fans, waiting for that one breakout game to launch them into stardom. But I am not here to tell you the story of those games; I am here to tell you about an RPG series many have been missing out on since 2004, and of course, I am talking about the Trails series.
With Trails of Cold Steel III recently released in the West, I find myself asked by many people while streaming for the site, "What is this awesome-looking series?", "How do I get into this series?", "Which game do I start with?", "Can I start with Cold Steel III?" and plenty of other questions. Now I love to talk about Trails as much as the next fan of the series, but I realize it may be easier if we have something down in writing so that people can refer back to it. So in this article, I will go over the origins of the series, why you might want to play it, and then give you an idea of what order to play the games in.
Developed by Nihon Falcom, the Trails series (which is known as the Kiseki series in Japan) is a story-focused, turn-based RPG series launched on PC way back during the golden age of JRPGs in 2004 with Trails in the Sky/Sora no Kiseki. The full title of the game is The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. It was meant to piggyback on the semi-success of the previous Legend of Heroes games that Falcom had developed, while also starting something fresh and new that would later take on a life of its own and span nine games and counting. For the record, the previous Legend of Heroes games before Trails in the Sky have no plot or character connection to the current games and thus can be safely ignored if you want to play this series.
You are probably wondering why didn't Trails in the Sky make it to the West sooner if it was so good? At the time, Falcom released a lot of their games on PC even though the PC market wasn't anything near what it is like today. This was one of the big reasons why the West didn't see this game for years after its Japanese release, despite the crazy amount of JRPGs that were getting localized at the time. A port of the game made its way to the PSP two years later, which made it easier for publisher XSEED Games to pick up the rights to the title in 2010. However, the game would not hit the Western market until 2011 as the other big issue with localizing Trails in the Sky was the massive amount of text that needed to be translated. It is a monster of a game in terms of text as there is a ton of story dialogue and almost all NPCs have different things to say as the story progresses. By 2011, however, the fifth game in the series was already being released in Japan and the West was way behind on the series. Trails in the Sky SC, the second game in the series, wouldn't hit Western shores until 2015, almost 10 years after its initial Japanese release.
So the question on anyone's mind that hasn't played the series at this point is probably, "Well what is the big issue? Plenty of RPGs took many years to get over to the West and skipped games in the series!" And you are correct, except in this case the Trails series is one continuous story starting from Trails in the Sky and continuing all the way up to 2018's Trails of Cold Steel IV (which as of the publishing of this article has not been released in, or announced for, the West yet) and Hajimari no Kiseki, which will be released in 2020 in Japan. Yes, you read that correctly. Every game in the series takes place one right after the other in a connected timeline, with certain games overlapping and happening at the same time. Some games end on huge cliffhangers that can leave players practically pulling their hair out to find out what happens next. This has made it a little difficult for Western players to get into the series as the barrier of entry is huge and we still don't have every game officially localized. But thankfully, RPGFan is here to lessen that barrier of entry, help everyone get into this fantastic series, and continue to share the love of Trails/Kiseki with more RPG fans!
Yes, that's right; these games are all directly related to one another. Some games end on huge cliffhangers and the next game picks up the next day or maybe a month or two later. So far, the games all take place within four years of each other on the continent of Zemuria. To make it easier to follow, the series is separated into three distinct arcs, which I will now briefly explain.
These are the first games in the series and follow the adventures of Estelle and Joshua Bright as they travel the country of Liberl while pursuing their dream of becoming Bracers (basically adventurers that do odd jobs for people). As they go from town to town, they predictably get caught up in the issues that plague the country and the impending crisis that is about to befall it.
This arc happens after Trails in the Sky the 3rd. I use the Japanese names because as of the publishing of this article these two games have yet to be localized for the West. Some fans have given them the English names Trails from Zero and Trails of Azure respectively, though you will see some variations on these titles as there is no universally agreed-upon nomenclature. The games follow the Special Support Section police officers — Lloyd Bannings, Elie MacDowell, Randy Orlando, and Tio Plato — and their adventures in Crossbell as they attempt to figure out the issues plaguing the land, deal with mafia groups that infest the city, and uncover the truth behind the mysterious death of Lloyd's older brother three years ago. Now, the lack of official localizations does not mean these games are beyond your ability to play; that barrier is easy to get over. Thanks to the hard work of both the Geofront group on Zero and Gurren, Flame, and Kitsune on Ao, there are fan translations of both games. We here at RPGFan will not link to or tell you how to acquire them for legal reasons, but I am sure you can figure it out from here.
This is the current arc of the series and is broken down into two smaller duologies, the first being Trails of Cold Steel I and II, and the second being Trails of Cold Steel III and IV. Cold Steel I and II take place concurrently with the Crossbell games but are instead set in the neighboring country of Erebonia. These games star Rean Schwarzer and his classmates in Thors Military Academy's Class VII as they attempt to understand and deal with the growing tension between the country's aristocracy and the imperial government. Cold Steel III and IV take place roughly a year and a half after the events of Cold Steel II and still follow the life of Rean Schwarzer, this time not as a student of Thors, but as an instructor with his own class to guide through the turmoil within the Erebonian empire.
So the timeline roughly looks like this when put together:
Short answer, yes! Long answer, well that is a bit more complicated. Let me preface this by saying the Trails series is not for everyone. Every game is a very, very slow burn in terms of story and plot. Story payoffs often don't happen until the last few hours of each game, and considering every entry features easily 60-100 hours of gameplay and dialogue, this can be a daunting task. But oh boy, the payoffs are so satisfying that the slow burns are absolutely worth it in the end.
To put this in perspective using my own experience with the series, I have owned Trails in the Sky since its 2014 release on PC and was very excited to play it when I first bought it. I am a very patient person when it comes to RPGs, but I tried at least five or six times to play Sky and stopped after Chapter 1 or 2 each time as I just wasn't hooked, even after 10-20 hours. It wasn't until May 2017, after I finished Persona 5, that I decided to sit down and play the first game since Trails in the Sky the 3rd had finally released in the West that month. I forced myself to sit through the whole game, and as the credits rolled, I bought and downloaded Trails in the Sky SC and the 3rd. After seeing the cliffhanger at the end of the first game, I was hooked. I played the rest of the localized games back to back over the next two months and just binged on the series.
So I tell everyone who wants to enjoy and get into this series that if you can make it to the end of Trails in the Sky or the end of Trails of Cold Steel despite all the slow story and character development, you are in for a wild ride that doesn't seem like it is going to end anytime soon.
You can make a case for either of these play orders and I will.
The first play order almost follows the release order of the games except for playing the Crossbell duology after Cold Steel and Cold Steel II. This makes the most sense if you want to enjoy the stories, references, and characters from previous entries that show up in the newer games to the fullest. The reason Crossbell goes after Cold Steel and Cold Steel II is because, as I said before, these games take place pretty much at the same time, but Zero and Ao spoil a lot more about what happens in Cold Steel and Cold Steel II than the other way around. You can't avoid these duologies spoiling each other no matter what order you play them in, but in my opinion, this is the best way.
The second order is for players that enjoy more modern games to ease them into the series. Cold Steel has noticeably better graphics than the previous games (it was originally released on PS3 and Vita), a lot of English voice acting, and the whole high school setting and social link gameplay that Persona made popular. Trails in the Sky, on the other hand, is an old-style JRPG with beautiful sprite work and zero English voice acting outside of battle. It may be easier for modern JRPG fans to start with Cold Steel and Cold Steel II for these reasons, even if you won't pick up on all the references or know who the returning characters in the series are yet. Cold Steel and Cold Steel II don't spoil Sky all that much, and the odds are you won't even realize you are being spoiled.
A crude yes to both, but I absolutely wouldn't recommend it. Cold Steel III is essentially the Falcom equivalent of Avengers: Infinity War. It's where all the characters and stories of the previous seven games come to a boiling point, and it leaves you with a huge cliffhanger. And then, of course, Cold Steel IV is basically Endgame, if you get my analogy. Chapter 1 of Cold Steel III spoils a lot of the Sky games, and Chapter 2 essentially spoils the big twist of the Crossbell games. You will enjoy Cold Steel III a thousand times more if you take your time and play through Sky and Crossbell first.
So there, I hope I answered everything I could about this series thus far. It's a long series, and according to Falcom, it is only about 60% done, so we can expect six or so more games before it is all over, including Hajimari no Kiseki, which was just announced for 2020 in Japan. Fans in the West are still missing official Crossbell localizations and Cold Steel IV hasn't been announced yet, but we are all crossing our fingers that at some point these games will see official releases. It is my hope that this article will encourage anyone who hasn't played these games or has been sitting on the fence to finally take the plunge. If you are still on the fence, you can check these games out on our Twitch channel, where we play Trails games a lot (currently every Saturday)! And then one day, we can all sit in the Cold Steel IV waiting room together! So come on, Falcom and NISA, don't leave us Western fans hanging! We want more Trails!