- Graphics are a lot more modern
- Well paced story full of exciting twists and turns
- Lots of great quality of life additions
- Finer details of the story lost on players of the Cold Steel series only
- Use of voice acting isn't consistent enough
- Animation work still needs improvement outside of cutscenes
The Legend of Heroes: Trails series is a huge multi-series spanning story developed by Falcom, starting with the Trails in the Sky series that can be played on the PC (and PSP/VITA). Following the Trails in the Sky subseries (a three part story), Falcom released the Crossbell duology on the PSP/PC that have yet to be released for the western audience. Finally, the Trails of Cold Steel series is the most recent, with two already being released on the PS3/VITA and more recently, PS4. It’s important to make this distinction before jumping into Trails of Cold Steel III as although you may feel that playing the first two Trails of Cold Steel games is enough, you’ll miss out on a lot of references scattered all throughout the game.
With that detailed, the best place to start with any Trails game is the story and as you may glean from the title of the game, Trails of Cold Steel III is a direct sequel to Trails of Cold Steel II. The story takes place nearly a year and a half following the end of Trails of Cold Steel II and marks the beginning of a new arc. Rean Schwarzer, the protagonist of the Cold Steel subseries has graduated from Thors Military Academy and taken up the role of Instructor for a new Class VII at the newly opened Thors Branch Campus. Unlike the previous two Cold Steel games, you’ll be travelling to many parts of the Empire that you never visited before and the makeup of your main roster is a whole new cast. At this point, you could be forgiven for thinking that only playing Trails of Cold Steel I and II was enough for the full story but it only gets more complicated from there.
You'll miss out on lots of references and plot points if you've not played Trails in the Sky or the Crossbell duology.
Right from the very offset of the Prologue, you’ll be introduced to Instructor Randolph Orlando, an important character from the unreleased Crossbell duology and two characters from the Trails in the Sky series. The titular character, Rean, is not too familiar on these characters but he’s still heard of them and their deeds which is more than the average player if you’ve only played the Cold Steel series. This becomes even more problematic as the story develops, you’ll visit areas from the previously mentioned subseries and plot points are carried over from them along with villains and supporting characters so it’s easy to become lost in some of the more overall plot points of the game if you haven’t had these experiences. To Falcom’s credit somewhat, there is an included Backstory option on the title screen but this focuses more on the previous Cold Steel games and what’s covered on the other two subseries isn’t nearly enough to grasp an understanding. Ignoring this side of the story however, Trails of Cold Steel III’s main plot is still an interesting one and it takes a bit of influence from both of the previous two games. You’ll be going to different areas in the empire to take the new Class VII on Field Exercises at the same time events unfold in the background and as the game reaches its conclusion, you’re left wanting more.
It’s apparent that this is the first Legend of Heroes game developed for the PS4, the previous two games were clear to see that they began life as a PS3/VITA game and the improved graphics brings the game to life. The graphics are a lot cleaner and among some of the best that Falcom have put out while still not quite living up to the standards of the heavy hitters like the Final Fantasy series. Don’t let that dissuade you though, the series finally looks modern and some of the areas look fantastic even. Along with the change to the engine is the new User Interface and it looks a lot more modern and clean which even gives you the option to remove certain elements if you find it too intrusive. The menus all feel snappier too and the addition of Turbo Mode for the western release is a welcome one. The Cold Steel series has some overly slow animations at times and this still carries over to III despite the engine upgrade, some of the animations are still basic at times, especially when outside of the cutscenes.
The game looks a lot more modern compared to the previous games in the series.
The battle system has had a bit of a rework too, gone are the Overdrives from Cold Steel II and in are Brave Orders. As you link attacks together with your party members, you’ll gain BP and with this you can choose to use them a number of ways. The first, is to use them on Rush or Burst attacks like the previous games however more importantly are the Brave Orders, these let you spend the points for powerful buffs to all party members such as increasing your stats, the damage you deal to enemies when in the new Break state or even physical and magical immunity. These Brave Orders are as powerful as they sound and while absolutely necessary on the game’s toughest difficulty, Nightmare, are almost game breaking at times on the difficulty levels below it. Indeed a certain combination of Brave Orders will make most boss battles trivial if utilized right and it’s something that does need to be toned down going forward, perhaps make them more costly or only usable once per battle.
As previously mentioned, the Break system is also a new one as enemies now have a Break gauge under their regular HP gauge and all attacks have a Break Damage value assigned to them, deal enough damage to an enemy and you’ll force them into the Break Status. In this state, your enemies will suffer a link attack every time you attack them, allowing you to build up BP a lot quicker (and in turn, abuse the Brave Order system more) along with taking increased damage. You’ll be able to find and equip abilities, Brave Orders and Quartz that affects the damage you do in this Break status too forcing boss battles to become a habit of breaking the enemy and then utilizing your S-Crafts (powerful techniques) on the enemy while Break Damage is boosted. Break isn’t all positive however, you’ll really need to make the most out of the time an enemy is in this status as it’ll only last until their next turn comes around, once it does they’ll restore their gauge to full and on the next turn after that, gain a massive stat bonus along with restoring a chunk of their HP, it’s a balancing act that can be fun to try and time it for the best possible use. The Orbal system has had a bit of a rework too, you’ll now get to equip two Master Quartz on your characters (with the second acting as a sub, only granting the first effect on the Master Quartz) and you’ll receive a lot more Quartz as rewards from battles. The reasoning behind this is the new way you get the upgraded special Quartz, done by trading up lesser Quartz into Quartz of higher value allowing for a lot more freedom in how you build your characters. The selection to choose from now is massive, with every element having multiple Arts and Status inflicting types while the animations for Arts have had a nice upgrade to them along with the new engine, indeed some of the arts are a spectacle.
Brave Orders are incredibly powerful and are easily abused outside of Nightmare difficulty.
The field areas have had a bit more life given to them also, there’s more to see and do along with the usual quests and thrilling stories from the NPCs in each area. There’s a side quest involving obtain interesting stories for the Radio, snapping landscape shots for the paper or collecting mysterious files on the history of Erebonia, there’s more than just simply running through an area as quickly as possible. The Fishing mini game has had a much needed overhaul which your controllers will love you for. In the previous games, you had to fish by continuously hitting the button that appeared on the screen however the new system asks you to hold the button down to reel, leaving you to time when to reel or not due to if the fish is pulling on the line too much. It’s a lot more simplified and it’s a welcome change, the previous system on the more difficult fish would require a massive amount of inputs that just wasn’t necessary. The Card game, BLADE, from Cold Steel I and II is also gone with the addition of the more in-depth Vantage Masters Card game. There are a huge amount of cards to collect and you’ll build your own personal deck out of them before challenging specific characters and NPCs around the world to a game. Should you win, you’ll receive a new card the first time you beat them and there’s a reward for collecting all of the cards out there making this an exciting side activity to follow. The game itself is a lot more strategical, there’s a battlefield for each player and you also have your primary card, designated a Master Card, which dictates how much HP you currently have. Players then take it in turns placing cards onto the field, these can have effects such as restoring HP to some of your cards, placing a barrier around them to protect them from damage or deal direct damage to the back row, there’s a lot of strategy involved and it’s an interesting past time.
As you come to expect from most Falcom games, the soundtrack is excellent with some really impactful new tracks in the soundtrack. There are some returning from previous games and although the overall quality might not be up there with the excellent soundtracks from Cold Steel I and II, it’s still an excellent one in its own right. The sound design and voice acting is also of a high standard although the irritating trend of the previous games are still present here, you’ll have cutscenes that are part voiced and protagonist Rean has a lot of scenes where he’ll be unvoiced while the other characters will be voiced. It’s a little jarring and really lessens the impact of some scenes, it’d almost be better if the game chose one way or the other to do those scenes, either have the whole scene voiced or unvoiced, having a part of both drags the scenes down. This isn’t to say every scene is like that, many of the more important scenes are fully voiced and as a whole, the amount of voice acting seems to be increased from the previous two games. This is for good reason too, the voice acting is excellent with NISA managing to retain almost all of the previous cast from Cold Steel I and II and the one instance that came to mind to me, the character sounded similar enough to their previous counterpart. It’s also great to see some of the characters from the previous subseries (Trails in the Sky and Crossbell duology) in the PS4 engine with voices to go along with them.
Vantage Masters is an excellent mini-game that you can lose many hours to.
Trails of Cold Steel III is a massive game and one that will set you back over 70-80 hours if you intend to complete it to its fullest by chasing down every side quest. Indeed, if you choose (and arguably should) to speak to the NPCs throughout the game world, your game time will easily top those numbers but they all have something to offer and if you’re invested in the world the Trails games have created, it’s all relevant and interesting. NISA have also done a great job with the localization, there were worries that this game might suffer the same fate that YS VIII suffered at launch with it’s awful localization but it’s reassuring to see that this is not the case here, there’s not too much difference between the localization offered from Xseed and NISA, you’d be forgiven for not even realizing they’re done by different publishers.
All in all, Trails of Cold Steel III is an excellent Legend of Heroes game that brings the series to a more modern standard. The graphics are a lot better, the battle system is a lot more in-depth if not easy to break and the story is intriguing throughout. If you’re new to the series or have only played the previous Cold Steel games however, you’ll find yourself lost at times with the overall plot and many of the new areas and characters introduced here.