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I’ve had an interesting journey when it comes to the Trails series. My first experience was rather lukewarm, to say the least. I had barely scratched the surface of the original Trails in the Sky before I lost interest and moved on to other games. But for some reason, about a year later, I bought Trails of Cold Steel on something of a whim. I didn’t know much about it beyond that you play as students of a military academy, and I knew even less about the rich world, characters, and lore the title was steeped in. By the end of the game, however, I knew I was hooked. So much so, in fact, that I immediately dove into Trails of Cold Steel II, which wound up being my 2016 GOTY. Fast-forward three years and Trails of Cold Steel III, the third installment in the Erebonian arc and eighth Trails game overall, has finally hit Western shores. I’ve since gone back and played the other games in this series that I have grown to love dearly (yes, even Trails in the Sky FC), and that’s for the best because Cold Steel III is where the various threads from previous arcs begin to tangle and intertwine in a most glorious fashion.
So let’s get at least one of the elephants out of the room right off the bat. Trails of Cold Steel III is a direct continuation of the previous two Cold Steel games. It’s set about a year or so after the end of Cold Steel II and sees protagonist Rean Schwarzer take on the role of instructor for a whole new Class VII at the recently established Thors Military Academy branch campus. Despite the time jump and new cast, returning characters and references to past events abound from the in media res opening to the climactic finale, so you’ll want to make sure you’ve played at least the first two games in the Erebonian arc before you tackle this one. If you simply can’t wait, there are plot summaries and character bios from the first two Cold Steel games provided in the main menu, but considering that Cold Steel III is something of an extended reunion for Rean and his former classmates, you absolutely will get more out of this game if you’ve played the prior entries first. That goes for the Sky trilogy and Crossbell duology too, the latter of which has sadly not yet seen an official English release. Cold Steel III not only features characters from both arcs but references major events as well, and while you can play the game without knowledge of either, the experience is unequivocally enhanced by having at least some background with the older entries in the series.
For longtime fans and newcomers brave enough to keep going forward, relentlessly, Cold Steel III presents an engrossing narrative that is generally better balanced and more impactful than the yarn spun in the previous two Cold Steel games. In true Trails fashion, things start slow and gradually build up to a fever pitch in the final hours, which while excellent, result in probably the worst cliffhanger in the entire series. The wait for Trails of Cold Steel IV will be long and painful, so here’s hoping a localization announcement comes soon.
Cold Steel III’s structure is actually very similar to the first Cold Steel — you have free days, combat practice, and excursions to other regions of the empire for field exercises — but it feels tighter and more focused than the first foray at Thors. A big part of that tighter feel is the smaller size of both new Class VII and the branch campus as a whole. New Class VII begins with just three members besides Rean: the skilled but uncertain Kurt Vander, the spunky Crossbell police academy trainee Juna Crawford, and the mysterious and deadpan Altina Orion. Later on, you also meet punk-with-a-heart-of-gold Ash Carbide and shameless flirt Musse Egret. Having fewer characters and having them present throughout the entirety of the game (instead of alternating groups as in the first Cold Steel) means that each character has more time to develop and grow, and this leads to a stronger, more defined main cast. Members of the original Class VII and various allies make appearances as well, and while it gets a little predictable the further into the game you get, it’s great to see how these characters have grown. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Trails game without fun and quirky NPCs to chat up, and Cold Steel III has that in spades; notably, the non-Class VII branch campus students are a joy to get to know, and it helps immensely that they travel with you for your monthly field exercises.
Related to talk of the story and characters is the second elephant in the room: the quality of the localization. This was likely at the front of everyone’s minds when NISA announced they were bringing Cold Steel III overseas, and with good reason. Changing publishers mid-series can be a daunting task for any game, but it’s especially challenging with Trails games because of the vast amount of text and the continuity that must be maintained with regard to terminology and characterization. Thankfully, NISA brought on several former XSEED and XSEED-affiliated staff who worked on past Trails games to help ensure quality, and for the most part, their efforts have been worth it. The vast majority of the game reads just fine, and while there are typos and side conversations that feel stilted, there’s really nothing that will impact your understanding or enjoyment of the dialogue. That’s not to say that there’s nothing that could be improved in a few post-release patches, and I hope NISA will take the time to do so, but those worried about another Ys VIII situation can be at ease.
Aside from the story and characters, the most important facet of an RPG is of course the gameplay. Whether you’re on foot or in the cockpit of a giant mech, Trails of Cold Steel III’s battle system is fundamentally the same as the previous entries in the Erebonian arc, but there are several new features you’ll need to make use of if you want to triumph over your opponents. First, enemies now sport a break gauge in addition to their HP bar. Whittling down this secondary gauge puts them into a vulnerable state where your attacks cause more damage and always prompt a follow-up strike from your linked partner. You can pile a lot of pain on your foes once you break them, but bosses often enter an enhanced state afterward, so the mechanic can sometimes feel like a double-edged sword. Second, every character can now equip two master quartz at the same time. The secondary master quartz has reduced stats and can only make use of the first-tier perk, but you still get access to all the arts the quartz provides. This allows players to further customize characters in ways that weren’t possible in the other Cold Steel games. Finally, the brave points generated from performing follow-up attacks can now be spent on brave orders, which confer powerful party-wide buffs for a set number of turns. These buffs can be very helpful, especially on harder difficulties, but they can also end up feeling like overkill at times; some are simply too powerful, and others allow you to break the flow of combat to a ridiculous degree.
Speaking of difficulty, Trails of Cold Steel III is the first game in the series that lets you adjust the challenge once you’ve started a playthrough. This is a huge quality of life change for me personally, but it’s not the only one. There’s a log that stores roughly the last 2500 lines of dialogue which can be pulled up at any time, even in cutscenes. Talk bubbles hovering over NPC heads light up when they have something new to say. You can now cook with characters even when they aren’t in your party. The expanded mini-map shows you not just quest events but the location of certain important collectibles, such as books. The list goes on and on, and that’s not even including the turbo mode that NISA added for the Western release of the game. Oh, and it’s not technically a quality of life improvement per se, but the new card game you can play against other characters — Vantage Masters — is so much more strategic and satisfying than the barebones Blade game from the previous two Cold Steel titles. I found myself looking forward to challenging new opponents, collecting new cards, and tweaking my deck into an unstoppable force.
On the visual side of things, Cold Steel III is absolutely the best-looking Trails game yet. The move to PS4 allows for significant visual improvements and a mostly smooth 60 fps experience. Characters look the best they’ve ever been, and I found the various cities and towns you visit over the course of the game to be universally appealing. On the other hand, animations are still terribly stiff, and while the game absolutely looks much better than previous Cold Steel entries, it’s still noticeably behind other modern games. Your mileage may vary with regard to how much this bothers you, but it’s par for the course for the Trails series, and the other elements of the game are strong enough to outweigh the less ambitious visuals. One thing that is hard to excuse, however, is the small size of some UI elements; stat buffs and debuffs in battle are particularly hard to see, and character portraits and status bars could stand to be larger as well. There are also noticeable anti-aliasing issues that can occasionally be a bit distracting.
Moving on to audio, there’s a lot of good stuff here and a few things that aren’t so good. Nearly every voice actor returns to reprise their role from the previous Cold Steel games, and considering the huge cast of returning characters and the change in publisher, that is absolutely a Herculean feat that should be lauded. Performances are strong nearly across the board, with a few exceptions here and there, and the core cast of Rean and new Class VII shine in particular. Unfortunately, the uneven use of voice acting that plagued the original PS3/Vita releases of Cold Steel and Cold Steel II rears its ugly head again here; there are a plethora of scenes where only one character is voiced or where the scene starts off voiced and then goes silent after a few lines. If you’ve played the PC or PS4 versions of the previous two games, this will feel like a step backward, and we can only hope that a future PC release of Cold Steel III evens things out a little. When it comes to the music, I have mixed feelings. There is absolutely a lot of great music in Cold Steel III, but compared to previous entries, I feel like there are more pieces that are just okay or even kind of blah. The unevenness in quality makes the soundtrack weaker in my opinion, and that’s a shame because music is one of my favorite things about Trails games.
There are a few bumps along the road, but Trails of Cold Steel III is yet another excellent entry in the Legend of Heroes series. Longtime fans will find a lot to love about this game, from the smaller but stronger core cast and the intertwining of plot threads from previous arcs to the refined battle system and quality of life changes. Personally, I’m still reeling from the ending, so I’m definitely going to need a few more playthroughs to tide me over until Trails of Cold Steel IV makes its way Westward.