Undoubtedly, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III is an excellent game. Its plot is full of incredible twists and emotional turns with a memorable cast of characters. Trails of Cold Steel III boasts well-rounded gameplay that’s an enjoyable break after players are done delving into lengthy story scenes, with an emphasis on both action and strategy that makes for a surprisingly robust experience. I’m really not saying anything that those who have played the PS4 version and the later PC port already know, and those gamers have probably already familiarized themselves with Caitlin Argyros’ review of the PS4 release. At this point, you’re probably curious about how a game like The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III has transitioned to the Nintendo Switch. I’m happy to say that the Switch port of Trails of Cold Steel III is pretty solid, albeit with a few caveats!
Trails of Cold Steel III’s story begins some time after the events of Erebonia’s civil war. Rean Schwarzer, the much lauded Ashen Chevalier, has taken on a teaching role at the newly established Thors Military Branch Campus. A new Class VII has been created to play much the same role as Rean’s former class did, and it isn’t long before this new class gets pulled into the ever changing and turbulent political and behind-the-scenes events threatening not only the empire of Erebonia, but the rest of the world. Returning faces from both the previous iteration of Class VII and all over the Trails series play large roles in the story as well, and events that have been in motion since the original Trails in the Sky trilogy begin to come to a head.
Of course, that leads us to Trails of Cold Steel III’s biggest strength as well as its largest weakness, which is that it represents the beginning of the culmination of several games’ worth of lore and plot-building. Is this third Cold Steel game, the first time that the series has been ported to the Switch, anywhere close to an ideal starting point for those new to the tale? After all, Trails of Cold Steel III is the halfway point of Rean’s story in many ways, and the amount of plot from the previous games is pretty daunting. However, Trails of Cold Steel III does an admirable job of filling in the blanks and attempting to keep gamers in the loop even if they haven’t been exposed to the previous games in the series. This is most noticeable with the Crossbell storyline, as that duology of games has yet to be localized. I can only imagine that one who has more knowledge of the events in those games might have a wholly different perspective of the Crossbell storyline than someone who doesn’t.
Given that there is no carryover data this time around and the story does focus quite a bit on the establishment of a new Class VII, one could make an argument for Cold Steel III being as good a starting point as any for gamers completely new to the series, though I imagine their viewpoints on how things play out and the characters themselves will be considerably different from a series veteran. For example, they may not have as much of an emotional connection to the old Class VII and their reunion with Rean as someone who played the first Trails of Cold Steel games, or they’d have less reason to ponder the mentions of Estelle, Joshua, and Renne. Ideally, players should be coming into this port with basic familiarity with the previous Trails of Cold Steel titles. Hopefully, those who are experiencing the series for the first time thanks to this Switch port won’t feel completely lost because of these references.
Trails of Cold Steel III’s attention to narrative detail is incredible, and I found myself spending a large chunk of time exploring every city block after a new story event just to catch how even the minor NPC characters’ dialogue would alter. You can easily become invested in the subplots of characters, such as the traveling family Class VII always encounters on their missions, because of this. On free days from scheduled activities at the school, Rean can spend bonding points to see special events with certain characters that further flesh out their backstories. I was partial to Elliot’s and Ash’s myself, but I spent time with quite a few characters as the game progressed. My biggest complaint with how the bonding events were implemented was that the new Class VII gets quite a few of them while other characters didn’t get nearly as many, though this was also understandable due to the expansive cast and the fact that the new Class VII didn’t have previously established plots.
The Legend of Heroes series has a history on handheld consoles, so Trails of Cold Steel III being ported to the Switch makes a lot of sense. In a way, the game fits wonderfully into the Switch’s JRPG lineup. Graphical frame rates may be a fraction toned down compared to the PS4 and PC ports, but it is hardly noticeable and there’s not really any graphical discrepancy to speak of whether the game is docked or not. While not breaking any graphical ground as far as the Switch’s visual capacity goes, this is easily the best looking Legend of Heroes game we’ve seen here so far and it looks pretty good for a Switch game! That being said, both the PS4 and PC ports had an issue of certain UI elements being too small and that is definitely still an issue in this port, even more so considering the handheld nature of the Switch. More than once, the UI bordered on so small that it was hard for me to decipher what kind of status effects my party had.
The Switch port does have slight graphical buffering/stuttering that happens on occasion during specific story scenes, and I’d be remiss not to mention that story presentation also comes with occasional technical hiccups. For instance, I was given access to the Switch-exclusive cosmetic DLC for the purposes of this review – and maybe I went overboard with my rainbow-haired new Class VII — but every so often during cinemas, the hair color and costumes would switch back to the default settings. I can also say that, while the Switch DLC is fun, it is purely cosmetic and is definitely not essential if you’d rather not spend the extra money. There were also instances of items instantly popping either in or out of existence quite suddenly, and one particular instance where, when Juna picked up a cat, it appeared as if she was holding nothing but air for several minutes as the scene played out before the cat literally popped into existence despite it supposedly being there the whole time. Still, these hiccups were far from game-breaking and generally I was rather impressed with the game’s visual presentation.
However, talking about game-breaking does lead me to the biggest issue I had with the Switch port, and one I sincerely hope gets patched soon, if possible. Certain areas such as the commercial shopping district in Crossbell, the Noble District in Ordis, and Vesta Street in Heimdallr, would buffer to the point where a “soft lock” glitch would occur, often when I was trying to talk to characters or move quickly through the area. This frustrating glitch seemed to happen more often when the game was docked and when I used a non-Joy-Con controller. I lost a few hours to the glitch the first few times it occurred before I got into the habit of saving often and going slowly through the problematic areas.
Battles in Trails of Cold Steel III are a well-rounded mix of action elements and strategy, with players trying to “break” an opponent down so that they can gain critical and extra hits in fights. Equipped magic spells and individual special moves fill out a character’s arsenal, and there is even a new special ability called Brave Order that helps apply boosts during fights when you have enough points to use it. Characters can move about the battlefield to avoid attacks or get in optimal position to do as much damage as possible. Those familiar with previous Cold Steel games will undoubtedly feel at home with the combat, though it is not too intimidating and easy enough to pick up if you’re new to the series. The battle system has been polished to a fine sheen, and combat makes for a surprisingly enjoyable experience. There is even a special Turbo mode if you wish to speed up the fights, and you can skip the animations for special moves if you’d like to speed up your playthrough.
With gameplay and story as strong as they are, perhaps the biggest issue with Trails of Cold Steel III is the balance between these two elements. The game is a massive affair, especially if you’re trying to see everything that the title has to offer, including extra events and side quests that are helpfully indicated on maps. Gamers will often spend hours either traversing lengthy dungeons or going through even lengthier story scenes. This isn’t exactly a title that you can pick up if you just have an hour or so to kill, as I found myself going lengthy periods of time just to see what would happen next whenever I played. Thankfully there is an ability to save everywhere when not in a story scene, but often when it comes to the main plot progression you have to rely on the game offering a save prompt after quite a bit of exposition.
Having played some of the PS4 version previously, I actually think I prefer the control schematics of the Switch port overall. The controller layout just made more sense to me, and I felt it was easy enough to pick up how I was supposed to progress thanks to the tutorials provided whenever a new gameplay element was introduced. I also appreciate that the Switch port provides players the ability to play on a handheld should they prefer!
The localization of Trails of Cold Steel III’s script is superb. There were so few instances of grammatical issues or typos that they were easy to overlook, and in a script so massive that’s quite a feat! The English voice acting was quite well done, though it was jarring and obvious when certain characters, like Rufus and Valimar, shared the same voice actors. I found Trails of Cold Steel III’s music to be serviceable but not necessarily always great, which is a bit surprising given how excellent Falcom soundtracks usually are. There were quite a few “just nice” or forgettable pieces, though those songs that stood out really stood out, especially as the game reached its emotional cliffhanger of a climax.
Though there were a few tired anime-esque tropes I could have done without, such as how almost every woman in the cast seemed to fall head over heels in love with Rean, the plot of Trails of Cold Steel III shines and is incredibly built up over the course of the game. This is a solid, well-defined JRPG experience from beginning to end, and since that ending had me feeling all sorts of things, it’s good that Switch owners already know a localization of the fourth game is on its way in 2021! I personally can’t wait to dive right into this story again. Despite some hiccups, the Switch port of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III is an overall solid version of a wonderful RPG experience. The more people who get the opportunity to try the Cold Steel series out as a result of this Nintendo Switch port, the better!