The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is something special. It’s a classic JRPG that isn’t interested in reinventing the wheel; instead, it delivers the classic linchpins of the genre—a good story, interesting characters, and a deep battle system—to perfection. Such was true of the original release a few years ago on PlayStation 3 and PS Vita, but the PS4 port is, perhaps, the best way to jump in (or jump back in, for old Cold Steel heads): it includes all the quality of life improvements from the 2017 PC port, and puts you in good stead to carry your save data all the way through to the PS4-exclusive third and fourth games in an epic series.
When I say “epic series”, I mean it. Each game is upwards of 60 hours long, and they’re all part of one continuous story—think really long episodes, rather than your typical game sequel. But investing that time is worth it; Trails of Cold Steel is one of the few games that really earns its running time, as it slowly weaves a complex story of a nation on the brink of a revolution while making you care about each and every person involved.
Erebonia is a country with a long history of division between nobles and commoners. But social and technological progress have brought that rigid class structure into question. Nobles still hold the bulk of political power, but a few commoners have earned seats at the table. Still, with a rebel faction waiting in the wings for their moment for more drastic action, Erebonia’s age of relative peace is under threat.
Is against this backdrop that Thors Military Academy—an esteemed military school established by the emperor himself—decides to embark on an experiment. Historically, the school’s classes were strictly divided between nobles and commoners, but this year they’ve decided to add an extra class where background and upbringing don’t matter. In Class VII, everyone is equal.
Much of Cold Steel‘s slow burn is focused on letting you really get to know each person in Class VII. They all seem like JRPG cliches at first, from the snobby rich kid, to the brash hothead who’s quick to answer and tends not to think before he acts, to the lone wolf with a mysterious background, to the happy-go-lucky girl who inevitably becomes a love interest for the main character.
But nobody is confined to their archetype, and you’ll slowly get to piece together what makes them all tick. They ask have their insecurities and their quiet strengths; they’re all trying to find their way in a changing world, with many carrying the weight of family legacy on top of that. They’re all human, to the point that even with a main cast of 10 characters—and plenty of equally well-developed supporting characters—there isn’t a single one who feels superfluous.
Erebonia, too, is a character in its own right, and a fascinating one at that. It’s not really until the end of the game that major pieces start to move, plot-wise; most of the first 40-odd hours are focused on establishing context by getting you acquainted with the different towns, cities, and regions that make up the country. Trails of Cold Steel broadly follows the familiar JRPG structure of “go to a new town, help the locals with some problem by clearing a nearby dungeon, and then move onto the next one”—this time through Class VII’s frequent field trips to different parts of the empire.
Rather than the flying visits that JRPG towns usually provide, Cold Steel‘s field trips are built around really getting to know each place, its culture, its people, and how they fit into the bigger picture of the Erebonian Empire. Whether it’s Bareahard, where the noble/commoner divide is at its strongest, or the hyper-competitive markets Celdic, or Roer’s disruptive technological advances, or Nord’s sobering outsiders’ look at the costs of the Empire’s militant expansion, every new place gives you something new to really ponder. Most importantly, Cold Steel takes the time to really dig into what’s going on, and find the human element.
Like I keep saying, it’s a long game that moves at a very slow pace, but there isn’t a wasted moment to be found. Every interaction, every dungeon, every quest works to not just construct an image of this world, but give you a reason to care about it.
Trails of Cold Steel matches its sublime storytelling with one of the best battle systems I’ve seen. It’s a turn-based system where, rather than each participant in a battle having an equal allocation of turns, the number and order of turns comes down to each characters’ speed—so a quick character will not only get their turn earlier, but they’ll have more turns overall than someone slow. (It’s similar to the Conditional Turn Based system in Final Fantasy X, if you’re familiar with that.)
Adding another layer to this is a wide array of moves that can alter the turn order, be it by delaying enemies turns, speeding up those of your own, or casting spells that come with a certain amount of delay before they activate. It’s not always about just trying to stack the turn order with your own party near the top, either; often, a specific turn will have some sort of extra effect—say recovering HP, or inflicting a status ailment. Naturally, you’ll want to claim the beneficial ones for your party and force negative ones onto foes, so that encourages a bit more creative manipulation of the turn order.
Perhaps the most satisfying element of Cold Steel‘s combat is through the Combat Link system. In short, you can pair different characters in your party line-up, which results in a variety of beneficial effects based on the friendship level between the two—things like follow-up attacks after landing a critical hit, a killing blow when one character isn’t quite able to finish off their target, bonus healing spells, and the like. A pair with a maxed out bond level is a force to be reckoned with, and it’s nice to see social links have an impact in combat as well as in the story.
Everything above was true of the original PS3 and PS Vita releases of Trails of Cold Steel, but the PS4 version comes with a few welcome extra features. Chief among these is Turbo Mode, which can be toggled at the press of a button to drastically speed up the game. This doesn’t just apply to how quickly turns play out in battle and how quickly you move in the field; cutscenes can also be sped up if you want to speed-read your way through without just skipping them entirely. The PS4 version also has both English and Japanese voices an option (though it’s worth noting that the English dub is very good), some 5,000 extra voiced lines of dialogue that weren’t voiced in the original, and the ability to transfer save data from the PS3 and Vita versions.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is still one of the best JRPGs in recent years. If you haven’t played it before, the PS4 version is the perfect place to jump in—especially with the PS4-exclusive third and fourth games on the horizon (as well as a PS4 release of Trails of Cold Steel II just around the corner). And even if you have played Cold Steel before, it’s the sort of game that’s worth revisiting, even if it’s just to remind yourself of how good it was in the first place.