(Editor’s note: This review contains spoilers for The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel I.)
“And as I listened, I could feel myself being beckoned towards the wheel of fortune.”
Picking up a story from a cliffhanger ending has got to be one of life’s most satisfying small pleasures. It’s been less than a year since I bore witness to the climactic finale of Trails of Cold Steel, in which the nation of Erebonia erupted in civil war following a shocking betrayal by one of protagonist Rean Schwarzer’s closest allies. With the Thors Military Academy student body scattered throughout the nation at the onset of Cold Steel II, it’s up to Rean to reunite with his missing classmates and put an end to a national conflict some several hundred years in the making. In typical Trails series fashion, there’s more than meets the eye where this politically-minded story is concerned: giant robots, a secret clan of witches, and a shadowy society of ambitious superhumans all have parts to play. As with its predecessor, Cold Steel II is a traditional JRPG dedicated to developing narratives, both macro and micro, and as a result its necessarily lengthy runtime may serve as a deterrent to players unwilling to commit the significant amount of time it demands to see things through. Still, for those who’ve stuck with the series thus far, it’s a well-rounded and just-nuanced-enough game that delivers a satisfying payoff once all of its cards are on the table.
Before the game even begins, a handful of new features accessible from the title screen serve as Cold Steel II’s way of saying “welcome back” to returning players. For one, it is now possible to cross-save between the PS3 and Vita versions of the game without going into the game proper. This was something I found mildly frustrating about Cold Steel I, so I’m pleased to see it addressed here. More importantly, a new “backstory” menu provides voice-acted summaries of every chapter in the previous game, along with biographies of every major character, detailing their stories up to this point along with their whereabouts at the beginning of Cold Steel II. While this could potentially introduce new players to the series, it’s abundantly clear that the feature was implemented to act as a refresher for players of the previous game. I’ve said so before, and I’ll say it again: jumping into the middle of a Trails story arc reduces the impact of many plot twists, as the series relies on the player’s knowledge of its extensive lore to create startling and exciting connections between its characters. I don’t recommend that players start with Cold Steel I first so much as I insist it.
Because Cold Steel II moves the action from a relatively peaceful military academy to the battleground of a nation embroiled in civil war, it is tonally distinct from the first game, though certainly not “grimdark” by any means. The atrocities of war are frequently referenced, but bloodshed is kept to a minimum or otherwise occurs off-screen. Cold Steel II instead focuses on its characters’ insecurities about the future and the role each of them must play in the conflict they’ve been thrust into. As always, their relationships are at the forefront of the story, perhaps even more so than the actual happenings of the war itself. Yet one of my favorite things about the Trails series is that it constantly defies my expectations. Even when I have a good idea where the story is headed, I’m often surprised by the unexpected actions of certain characters or taken aback when a loaded Chekhov’s Gun from several acts earlier — or sometimes several games earlier — is finally fired. At one point, I was sure that I was approaching Cold Steel II’s conclusion and was totally gobsmacked when it continued for hours upon hours. I have a feeling that fans, myself included, will be discussing and theorizing about Cold Steel III for quite some time.
I’ve waited this long to talk about game mechanics for two reasons: one, narrative stands at the forefront of the experience, and two, little is changed from the first Cold Steel. As I mentioned in my hands-on preview, the turn-based battle system is augmented with several new playable characters and an Overdrive feature that allows the player to take extra turns in a pinch. Characters can still pair up in battle and utilize their affinities for one another to perform various support abilities, including some more powerful skills added especially for this game. Outside of battle, the moment-to-moment gameplay of Cold Steel II is much the same, except for a few new modes of transportation. The most notable of these is an airship that can be outfitted with a variety of shops and character training services by recruiting the Stars of Des— er, former Thors Military Academy students from across Erebonia. Some of these services come a little late in the game to fully appreciate, but it’s an entertaining diversion to the main story. One particular detail I cannot applaud enough is the notifications that appear every time the story is about to take a significant step forward; the game actually warns the player every time the window for side quests or otherwise missable content is about to expire. My completionist tendencies weep in gratitude, Falcom. Thank you.
Cold Steel II runs on the same graphical engine as the first, and it’s beginning to show its age. Animations are generally quite stiff and feel increasingly dated alongside other contemporary games. Yes, the game was released a couple of years ago in Japan, but Cold Steel’s visuals don’t have the same timeless quality as, say, Trails in the Sky’s. It’s a good thing the series is making the leap to PS4 with its next installment. Also of note is Cold Steel II’s less-than-ideal performance on Vita; frame drops are abundant whenever the action heats up. I would argue that it runs a bit worse than the first, but I have a feeling the cause lies in the expansion of its cast, as the number of characters on-screen at any given time is generally higher than in Cold Steel I.
The Trails series rewards players who invest themselves in it, and Cold Steel II is no exception to this rule. It is staunchly traditional in most ways but also exceptionally attentive to all of the details that make classic, story-driven RPGs so wonderful when they’re done right. It’s also a fantastic continuation of its predecessor’s story that has far-reaching implications for the series as a whole. If I have a single complaint, it’s that the game’s pacing is woefully uneven; the middle of the story drags on for far too long without any significant plot development, but I’m willing to forgive this in light of its extensive and exciting finale. Fans of the first Cold Steel owe it to themselves to pick this one up, while everyone else should start with the first to see what all the fuss is about.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the publisher. The reviewer also previously worked under contract with this publisher on an unrelated project prior to accepting the task of reviewing this game. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer’s opinion of the game or its final score.