“A hero is what he wills, and what he does.”
Anime adaptations of video games can be mixed bags regarding quality. Those that approach the adaptation as a condensed retelling of an RPG’s plot run the risk of being too much “the same” to attract viewers already familiar with the title, and newcomers might not appreciate an anime’s attempts to translate game mechanics or rush their tales to their inevitable conclusions by skipping essential plot developments. Invariably, these anime adaptations lose something in the transition between mediums.
Tatsunoko Production‘s The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel – Northern War manages to bypass many of these storytelling hurdles by focusing on a portion of time mentioned briefly in the impressive lore-heavy The Legend of Heroes: Trails series developed by Nihon Falcom, which didn’t get significant focus in the games. Instead, the anime focuses on a group of original characters to help further its narrative. This creative approach helps the anime avoid some of the storytelling hiccups that often come with video game adaptations, and the overall writing certainly succeeds. But is this twelve-episode anime genuinely legendary in the vein of the ever-expanding RPG series? The answer is yes, at least in terms of its contribution to Trails series‘ worldbuilding mythos, though not without some caveats, especially regarding animation quality. In fact, having watched The Legends of Heroes: Trails in the Sky the Animation, the anime OVA adapting The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SC, I personally feel that Northern War is a much stronger anime outing for the series.
North Ambria is a country that has experienced much turmoil and strife throughout its history. It faced tragic devastation thanks to the North Ambrian Disaster when a mysterious Salt Pale appeared in the capital City of Haliask and turned everything within its considerable range to salt. The country never fully recovered, becoming the poorest nation on the Zemurian continent, clinging to statehood thanks to the protective presence of the Northern Jaegers, Zemuria’s largest mercenary faction. Those who could afford to vacate the area did, while the citizens who remained scrabbled for survival. On top of that, the neighboring empire of Erebonia has begun expanding its territory following its civil war. The city of Crossbell is the first to be annexed, tensions rising as Erebonia turns its attention to North Ambria. North Ambria itself is in the midst of a political shakeup at this time, creating a sense of unease amongst the populace.
Lavian Winslet, a young member of the Northern Jaegers, is the granddaughter of an idolized-yet-disgraced hero of North Ambria. She joins the jaegers to find herself, yet she always faces her grandfather’s accomplishments and failures. With Erebonian tensions mounting, Lavi gets assigned to a four-person task force with orders to go undercover in Erebonia. They must discover the secrets behind the empire’s new weapon, their “hero,” referred to as the Ashen Chevalier. Unfortunately, reality is much more complicated than their simple mission objectives. The small party soon finds itself at the center of rising political and military tensions between the two nations as a secret organization pulls North Ambria’s strings. Can Lavi and her compatriots walk the path of true heroes, protecting the determined people of North Ambria from even more tragedy? Or will the flames of war continue to burn what they all hold dear?
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel – Northern War takes place between the events of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II and The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III. It outlines the outcome of the Erebonia Empire’s eventual provincial annexation of North Ambria, an event of significant prominence in the games despite only being mentioned in flashbacks. The anime sheds further light onto what happened, seen through the eyes of the Northern Jaegers desperately trying to keep their homeland afloat. It’s a unique spin on the tale, as in Trails of Cold Steel III and Trails of Cold Steel IV, we see things primarily from the perspective of Erebonian characters, technically the oppressors in this conflict.
Lavi and the rest of the investigative task force are all likable characters who grow on you the more you watch the anime. Lavi’s group consists of the seemingly laid-back leader Martin S. Robinson, who goes by Marty and has connections to the Northern Jaeger assault on the imperial town of Celdic during the Erebonian civil war. Then you have the energetic and fun-loving sharpshooter Iseria Frost; and the dutiful Talion Drake, who also goes by Tally and is a prime example of how the LoH: Trails series excels at the “beware the nice ones” trope in later episodes. There’s also the duo of Ivano and Tack, compatriots of Lavi in the Northern Jaegers who are more comedic yet have prominent story moments throughout the show. Rogan is an antagonistic figure who looks like he stepped out of a Leiji Matsumoto work, but exemplifies the Trails series’ ability to create nuanced and multi-faceted “enemies.” Rogan is contrasted by Commander Glark, the ambitious surviving “hero” of the Northern Jaegers in what is very much an old guard versus the new guard type of situation.
It’s left to the viewers to decide who truly had North Ambria’s best interests at heart, though the ending certainly leans towards one over the other. There’s even a retired Northern Jaeger taking on the role of a village doctor who showcases the series’ penchant for still having capable older characters in combat! I won’t mention the identity of the true villain as that is a major spoiler, but I do admit to finding their motivations and character in general rather disappointing compared to other antagonists in the Trails series. You can’t help but root for Lavi’s group, their allies, and the tenacious people of North Ambria, even though you already know the story’s eventual outcome.
Like the LoH: Trails games, Northern War is a slow burn in its early episodes. It suffers from growing pains as you have to give it a few episodes before the story and characters develop. For Trails fans, this is nothing new. The games are known for starting very slow before layering on plot reveals and developments, but it isn’t the best approach for a twelve-episode anime series to emulate. By contrast, the pacing in the last few episodes feels particularly rushed. However, once you overcome that beginning hurdle, the narrative picks up by leaps and bounds. There’s always so much behind the scenes in a Trails story, and Northern War is no exception, even with its anime format. Those familiar with the story points and tropes commonly associated with the Trails series will find them at play here.
Despite covering the story from a fresh perspective, Northern War does a fantastic job blending the old and new. You get a strong sense of the original characters but also delight in seeing returning faces from the games. Cameos from throughout the LoH: Trails series abound, and several characters from the games make prominent appearances. I love seeing even the momentary glimpses of the likes of Alisa, Ash, and Kevin! Lechter steals almost every scene he’s in with his strategizing, and I adore seeing Altina and Milium in action during a chase sequence. I was excited to see Machias and Elliot (easily my favorite Trails of Cold Steel series party member!) show up in one episode to talk with Rean. In addition, the awesome Aurelia Le Guin and Wallace Bardias get some more screen time. Finally, Sara makes an appearance in the final episodes in a neat little touch. The nefarious Ouroborus organization does show up and has an impact on events in North Ambria behind the scenes, although not as much as you would expect, given their penchant for popping up in the games. The enigmatic Campanella is easily the Ouroborus character with the most screen time, while any others who show up are more or less cameos. While opinions on the Ashen Chevalier seem mixed in the Trails of Cold Steel fandom, the Rean of this period is the character at his most interesting. His scenes, as well as the mirroring and contrasting of him to Lavi, were exceptionally well-done.
Northern War perfectly encapsulates The Legend of Heroes: Trails series’ biggest strength and greatest weakness. The worldbuilding and lore for the series are phenomenally impressive and expansive, but because of that, it is often hard for newcomers to find a good starting point. Northern War focuses more on original characters and a story arc that isn’t featured predominantly in the games. Still, it’s tailor-made for those familiar with the series, especially considering all the nods and easter eggs it contains. This anime only serves to continue expanding upon the already extensive stories from the games. Given all of their references, I’d recommend at least having played The Trails of Cold Steel games before attempting to watch Northern War and potentially the other Trails games. Anyone not knowledgeable about the series will likely have a different and more negative interpretation of this anime.
Visually, I wish Northern War was as strong as its writing and characterization, but sadly, it seems to take its cue in terms of animation from the graphics of The Legend of Heroes: Trails games themselves. You’re likely playing them for the characters and story rather than their visuals. I was honestly surprised to learn this anime was a Tatsunoko Production project, as it looks as if it got a whopping animation budget of five whole dollars, with two of those dollars devoted to the Rean and Valimar fire scene from the opening, and another two going to the poor-looking CG creations. The last dollar seems devoted to seeing how many wacky anime hair designs the animators could create. I was unsure what to make of Tally’s purple antennae or why Marty and Rogan dyed their hair with bright, neon highlighters. I’m exaggerating here, but there’s no denying that there was a minimal animation budget. The show relies a lot on close-ups to try and mask this fact, which is a shame as the plot is so well done in contrast.
In terms of soundtrack, Northern War often utilizes music tracks from the games to significant effect. For example, tracks from Trails of Cold Steel III, such as “Briefing Time” and “Ordis, the Azure Port Town,” can be heard playing in the background of anime scenes. After all, there’s nothing wrong with Falcom’s music! I also adore the anime’s opening theme, “The story so far,” performed by Chisato Akita. The voice acting in the Japanese language version is also top-notch, with special notes going to Makoto Koichi as Lavi, Yuichi Nakamura’s solid Marty performance, Yuki Ono as Tally, and Takayuki Kondo as the often adversarial Rogan. Unfortunately, I can’t say much about the English dub since I didn’t watch it. Still, many of the game character voice actors reprise their roles which is a nice touch, and casting the talented Monica Rial as the enigmatic, cunning Jayna Storm is an inspired choice. Obviously, your opinion on which language dub is ultimately “better” will be subjective, but I’d like to note that the subtitles used by Crunchyroll are very easy to read in the Japanese language version. They also use the correct terminology from the games for characters, locations, and key events which is to be commended as that isn’t always the case with adaptations.
Despite its slow beginning and poor animation quality, I’m pleasantly surprised by The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel – Northern War anime. Even with the final antagonist being disappointing in terms of their narrative goals, the overall story has a substantial and fitting conclusion that leaves just a bit of wiggle room for future exploration, not unlike what the Trails games themselves tend to do. I love how easily I can picture the characters from the anime appearing in new roles in future Trails games or other installments, particularly Lavi and Tally, and I like the further insight and expansion of the LoH: Trails mythos Northern War provides. It isn’t a flawless anime, but it is easily one of the best video game-to-anime adaptations I’ve enjoyed watching. While I wouldn’t recommend it to anime fans unfamiliar with the games, I think The Legend of Heroes: Trails series fans will find another compelling narrative entry in The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel – Northern War.