The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is a superb RPG that stays true to the series’ talent for deep stories and endearing characters while also making improvements to the graphics and battle system. What stood out the most to me during my playthrough, however, was the fantastic soundtrack, with its beautiful field music, emotional cutscene accompaniment, and blood-pumping battle themes. Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting to like the soundtrack as much as I did, but I found that it strikes a good balance between the more typical JRPG fare found in Trails in the Sky and the pulse-pounding rock that is featured in the Ys series.
First, a brief overview of this sizeable four-disc soundtrack. Trails of Cold Steel puts you in the shoes of a special group of military students, dubbed Class VII. Every month, you and your classmates travel to different areas of the country of Erebonia to learn about the issues facing the various regions that make up your home. Disc 1 contains most of the music you’ll hear in Trista, where Thors Military Academy is located, and Celdic, a peaceful trading town in the country. Disc 2 takes you to the noble-run city of Bareahard and the vast wilderness of the Nord Highlands. On disc 3, you’ll visit Heimdallr, the massive capital of the country; Legram, an idyllic lakeside vista blanketed in fog; and the industrial megalopolis known as Roer. Finally, disc 4 features music from the game’s lengthy epilogue and cliffhanger conclusion.
With that introduction out of the way, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of evaluating this baby.
Trails of Cold Steel is a prime example of a soundtrack that starts off good and ends up great. The first two discs have plenty of exceptional pieces and some of the best music in the game, but they are ultimately weaker than the last two discs. This is less an issue with the compositions themselves, and more a reflection of the game itself, which takes quite some time to build up steam and doesn’t start getting really juicy until the second half.
It’s the first half of disc 1 that suffers the most from this, as it contains the music that plays while you’re going to class and running errands around Trista. This means you hear these pieces a lot over the course of the game, and they can get a little stale after a while. The tracks themselves are catchy enough, however, and in some ways they are the closest the game gets musically to Persona, a series that was clearly at least a partial inspiration for Cold Steel‘s setting and passage of time mechanic. “Afterschool Hours,” in particular, marries jazzy melodies to a funky upbeat that wouldn’t be at all out of place in Iwatodai or Inaba. “Leisure Day” perfectly mimics the euphoric feeling of having a day off from classes, and “Investigation” creates an interesting soundscape of lilting pan flute melodies and plodding piano chords, accompanied by atmospheric drumming. “The Glint of Cold Steel” is the track you will be hearing the most of, as it is the main battle theme, but it too is catchy in an unexpected way. Piano plays a predominant role in this battle theme, and the background synths and percussion help create an energizing sense of movement.
When the music moves on to your first field study, some of the first real standout pieces start to emerge. “Skies of a Strange Land” is flat out one of the best songs on the album, featuring a gorgeous violin solo accompanied by electric piano and guitar. “Tie a link of ARCUS!” is the game’s mini-boss theme, and the combination of live violin and rocking electric guitar will get your toe tapping and head bopping in no time. It’s in battle tracks like this that Cold Steel‘s music is the most Ys-like, and if you’re a fan of that series, this is a very good thing. The good times get disrupted a bit by “Trouble Outbreak,” a track that literally tells you it’s not going to sound great (indeed, this is perhaps my least favorite piece on the entire soundtrack), but they then pick back up with “Path of Spirits” and “Iron Command,” both of which end the disc on a high note.
Disc 2 starts out with my second least favorite town theme in the game, although the sedate music itself is fitting accompaniment for a city run by haughty nobles. Things immediately improve with “Through the Canyon Road,” which features delicately reverberating synths that musically mimic the echoes one would expect to hear while traveling through such a location. “Spacious Blue Sky” completely lives up to its name: even in the first few seconds, the music evokes the feeling of being out and about on a beautifully clear and happy day. Toward the end of the disc is my favorite emotional track, “The Night Sky On That Day.” This is mostly a piano piece with a somber melody in a lower register, which adds a degree of weight and seriousness to the music.
Speaking of favorites, one of my favorite tracks in the entire game is “Brain-racking Test,” which plays when the members of Class VII start to work out what exactly is going on in each area they visit. The first time I heard it, I wasn’t certain I liked the opening minute, but the repetitive four note pattern and syncopated beat soon grew on me. Aurally, the discordant shift in those four notes creates a sense of uncertainty; it’s very much a musical problem that is begging to be solved. The resolution comes in the form of the second half of the track, which adds a positive spin to the earlier discordance through a weaving melody that feels almost like an answer to the question posed by the first half of the piece.
Other pieces on Disc 2 worth mentioning include “Don’t Be Defeated by a Friend!,” a rocking battle theme with killer guitar and synth leads (seriously, you must hear the awesomeness leading up to and beyond the first minute mark); “Into the Abyss,” an utterly gorgeous atmospheric track featuring piano and solo violin; and “Eliminate Crisis!,” an epic orchestral piece that serves as the main boss battle theme. There are also a fair number of tracks that fit into the “meh” category for me. “Remains Sleeping Underground” doesn’t manage to improve my opinion of sewer music in general; “Even if Driven to the Wall” plays when your party is close to death, and thus it annoyingly interrupts the stellar battle music that I would rather be listening to; and “Nomadic Village” is just a very blah piece in general, earning it the distinction of being my least favorite town theme on the soundtrack.
Disc 3 is where things start to really pick up. There are a handful of ho-hum pieces, mostly contained to the first ten or so tracks, but everything else represents some of the best music on the soundtrack. “Vermillion Capital of Heimdallr” is my favorite town theme in the game, with its fast-moving xylophone plunking in the background while flutes and strings dance around a very hummable melody; the pace of this piece suits the dense, bustling city that is its namesake. “Lakeside Town of Legram” is an interesting theme for the hazy, country vista; it feels like a waltz but the melody manages to complement the old English feel of the locale. The final town theme on the soundtrack, “Industrial Metropolis of Roer,” is another fun piece that throws a little jazz into the mix with a saxophone toward the end of the track; as I explored Roer, I found that the music perfectly fits the image and feel of a city built up around a mega-factory.
Aside from town themes, there are some utterly fantastic dungeon and battle themes on disc 3. “Atrocious Raid” is a standout track with a fast, almost trance-like tempo and an epic-sounding melody. This track only plays when the stakes are at their highest, and you can really hear it in the music. The next track, “Belief,” is hands down one of my favorite Falcom boss themes. The electric guitar makes a return here and it is glorious; the sequencing progression around 40 seconds in is perhaps my favorite part and the whole piece conveys that the battle is deadly serious. Finally, “To Become the Foundation of an Era” is another outstanding dungeon piece; this one features a live violin and a fast-paced, electronic beat. It’s an epic-sounding piece, but it’s almost too epic in some ways: I remember feeling like the circumstances in which it first plays didn’t necessarily merit such an over-the-top piece of music, but later uses during the game’s epilogue felt just right.
The final disc is kind of interesting from a music perspective. Just like the game’s epilogue, things start out quite happy, with pieces like the romantic “Not Yet” and the cheerfully playful “Thors Military Academy Festival” kicking things off. But the music soon takes a turn for the dramatic with “To Grasp Tomorrow,” which continues the trend or amazing dungeon themes featuring good beats and epic violin solos. “A Great Power” is simply epic, and it features just about everything you’d expect from a final boss theme: a full synthesized orchestra, live chorus singing something unintelligible, and a melody that makes you feel like the fate of the world depends on this climactic battle. Said melody also references the opening theme song, “Ashita e no Kodou,” which is a nice touch after watching the introductory movie so many times.
But it doesn’t end there. The next few tracks reveal that something sinister is still at play. “Unknown Threat,” a track whose title perfectly captures the chaos that occurs at the game’s conclusion, is very different from every other battle theme on the soundtrack. Its rhythmic yet muted percussion is as much a contributor to this different feel as the synth-laden and at times discordant melody. A few tracks later, we come to the final battle track on the album, “Decisive Collision.” This is a standout piece in multiple ways. The music itself is fantastic, with a sweet yet sad melody that gives way to pulsing trance beats and an undeniably frenetic pace. In the game, its impact is multiplied tenfold by the dramatic events that occur leading up to it. I can’t overstate how emotional I was when this music started playing in game, and those feelings made a piece that I already loved all the more sublime. For similar reasons, the penultimate track, “One and Only Hope,” is an intense piece of music to listen to. Swelling strings interspersed with quiet, melancholy interludes tell the musical story of climactic events with a powerful, almost painful impact. For those who have played the game and endured the long wait for the sequel, you know exactly the kind of pain to which I refer.
To sum up, Trails of Cold Steel has an incredible soundtrack. If you’re a fan of Falcom music in general, this is another great hit to add to your collection. If you’ve felt lukewarm about their music in the past, the battle themes and some of the dungeon music may not be your thing, but there are still many worthwhile and gorgeous pieces to listen to. The prominence of live violin in several tracks alone is a notable feature and something at least worth checking out, in my humble opinion. And if you like what you hear, know that the music for the sequel is arguably even better, so you have a lot to look forward to.