Trails of Cold Steel III, despite having quite a few flaws, is one of the best JRPGs I’ve played. It’s a shame, honestly, that I slept on this series for years. I like Japanese role-paying games, I check out new ones regularly and I heard and read a lot of nice things about Trails of Cold Steel (damn, it’s also a very cool name!) but always was a bit apprehensive, mainly for two reasons. The reason numero uno is that there are way too many games which according to purists you must play before even thinking of laying your dirty noob hands on this one — Trails in the Sky, the Crossbell arc and, obviously, Trails of Cold Steel I&II. If you ask the question “Is it okay to play CS III if it’s my first Trails game?” on, let’s say, reddit — most will tell you to start at least with the first Cold Steel but ideally, to be able to get the full experience, you need to catch up and play all 72 previous games at least twice, study the map of Zemuria until you know all the landmarks in North Ambria by heart and write a story fantasizing how Estelle and Joshua’s relationships would’ve turned out if they were blood related. I do believe that the entire Kiseki series is worth playing and maybe eventually will do it but life is short and JRPGs are… not so much.
The reason number two was that a few years ago I looked up CS clips on youtube and the game wasn’t what I expected. I don’t know why but I thought that it’d be either a Persona-structured game with classes and after-school activities or a more traditional linear JRPG but grim and military-themed. Instead I saw a bunch of cute girls in some kind of uniform beating up fantasy-like monsters in traditionally looking environments. Everything looked fine just these random videos didn’t sell me the series.
Then Falcom published a CS III demo on PS4, out of curiosity I downloaded it… and the combat system turned out pretty damn good! Maybe I could’ve come to the same conclusion watching clips more carefully but that first-hand experience made me buy the game. Yeah, I had no clue who the characters were and what happened in the previous chapters but as a stubborn dude I decided that it can’t be hard to figure everything out. 135 hours later I think it was a good decision =)
First things first. It was actually pretty easy to dive into this world without any prior knowledge. Trails of Cold Steel 3 is a beginning of a new story arc and it reintroduces everything and everyone, so it’s not too difficult to grasp what’s going on and what happened before. Granted, I must’ve missed some details and references and witnessing scenes which were supposed to bring any seasoned Trails veteran to tears I didn’t feel much. But I stand by the statement that it’s totally fine to play this game without having finished the previous ones. Moreover, with my terrible memory I would’ve missed a lot of references anyway =)
A couple of words about the characters. I honestly don’t know what to think about the main hero, Rean Schwarzer. Initially I thought that he’s is going to be a relatively complex character, whose dilemma is that as a member of military he has to follow orders, including those has finds unacceptable. Now, after I beat the game I think that he’s just a your standard “good guy” MC. He’s not terrible, his sister complex and scenes related to it are funny but I didn’t find him to have a lot of depth. But instead of depth of course he has a harem. Seems that there’s not a single girl in the world who can resist the charm of the Ashen Chevalier =) Now, to the members of that harem. Kiseki series has lots and lots of characters (CS III has maybe 20 playable! ones) and everyone will be able to find someone he or she likes. Members of the new class VII were my personal favorites, maybe because I got to spend more time with them than with others. Even though initially I found pretty much all of them annoying! Except Altina, of course, there wasn’t a single moment when she wasn’t super cute. Even Musse and Ash, whom I actively tried to ignore for half of the game, turned out to be decently written characters. It’s also a nice touch that characters often hang out with each other, discussing club problems, cloths, board games and whatnot. Instead of patiently standing alone and waiting for Rean to come and finally have a conversation with them. Mind blowing, isn’t it? =) This small detail makes the world a tiny bit more alive.
I said that I liked the new Class VII. The situation with the old one is a bit more complicated. I enjoyed the time I spent with Alisa and Laura because, oh well, they are supposed to be likeable. Alisa is also probably considered to be Rean’s primary romantic interest and it was pretty funny when everyone around her was implying that Rean was almost a member of the family already *wink-wink* “SHARON!” But also we have all these Machiases, Jusises and Elliotts and I couldn’t care less about any of them — that might be one of the instances when being familiar with the previous Cold Steel games would be beneficial, maybe (but unlikely, hehe) they all are actually interesting people with unique personalities.
Now I have to confess that one of my biggest gripes with the game was all these former classmates and friends of Rean we meet along the way. Trails of Cold Steel has a vast and quite detailed world, eventful and full of history. When Class VII is travelling from one part of the country to another you’re getting the impression of participating in something big, something that’s shaping up the future of the continent. Then wherever they go, even to the deepest long forgotten hellhole of the world, Rean meets yet another acquaintance there — and this destroys that feeling of being a part of an epic adventure pretty quickly. You’re going to a remote area filled with monsters, with a task to kill an omega dangerous cryptid and who you think you’ll meet there first? Right, yet another motherfucker Rean studied with. Sigh.
If I started writing about the issues I had with CS III… The biggest one was, surprisingly, the plot. For the game that has great dialogs, an interesting world and likeable characters; for the game that for more than a hundred hours implies that something enormous, incomprehensible is going on behind the stage; for such a game it’s a shame to eventually roll out a plot on the level of “a villain is going to make the sky fall just because”. It was fascinating to see how many people were helping to move The Great Twilight plan forward… for no reason at all. Seriously. Like, apparently 90% of “bad guys” had no idea what the plan was about. During the final minutes of the game I think one of the Valkyries even literally asked “Hm, so what was the plan supposed to bring about?” God damn, why did you even participate in all that if you had no idea what you’re doing?! To be fair, Trails of Cold Steel IV might fix that and provide a better explanation for everything that happened during the ritual, but without an additional context it was pretty weak. Ah, and I have to mentioned that every time the plot moves forward someone is observing the party from above ala Tuxedomask, which is frankly odd but becomes funny at some point. The last honorable mention goes to Unexpected Plot Twists — it wasn’t too bad this time, just a few of people who died many years ago turned out to be alive, some guys’ fathers were not their real fathers and we have more Hamel survivors because why not.
What’s definitely not a weakness of the game is its combat system. It was fun (even though a little overwhelming) when I started playing — it still was fun 130 hours later. I read various complaints that the battle system is broken, can be exploited, brave orders are a legal cheat, etc. etc. Maybe. I’m a casual player and I didn’t max out the equipment or find the optimal quartz combinations. For me this system with attacks, crafts, arts, brave orders, breaks, etc. turned out to be well tuned and allowing some creativity. People who’ve played this series for a long time are going to laugh reading about this “achievement” but early in the game I stumbled upon a big scary monster that kicked my ass 2 or 3 times in a row. That bastard was healing itself faster than I was able to damage it. That was the first time when I found arts to be useful too — I was keeping two characters at some distance and using a combination of the order giving an instant cast and arts I finally defeated that bad boy. The game doesn’t explain that to you, it doesn’t say that you need to use positioning on the battlefield for your advantage or when it’s better to use arts instead of crafts — you have to experiment and come up with the best strategy. I think that’s awesome. Anyway, I played on normal difficulty and CS III was not too hard but it’s still challenging, especially at the beginning and the very end.
Trails of Cold Steel might be boring for some people because of its pace, some might turn it down because it’s full of anime cliche (it is) — but for me it was a great journey and I look forward to playing the next and, apparently, last chapter of this adventure. I want to learn more about Erebonia, I want to spend more time with these characters (no, not with everyone, Jusis) and I want to hear this pretentious but still, honestly, moving “Heed my call, Valimar, The Ashen Knight!” again.