The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II review (PS4)

I know I’m normally one to rail against games being too long, but The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel series are the rare sorts of games that earn every minute of their running time. I said as much in my review of the first game in this four-part series, but Trails of Cold Steel II drives the point home more than ever. It’s here that the overarching story of the series really ramps up, and where the meticulous world-building of the first game really pays off.

In Trails of Cold Steel II, the Erebonian Empire is embroiled in an all-out civil war. Once a nation of strict class hierarchy wholly ruled by the nobility, recent years have seen commoners rise to positions of power—much to the chagrin of the “Four Great Houses”. Banding together as the Noble Alliance, the leaders of said houses seek to restore the days of noble rule. The Imperial Army, lead as they are by a charismatic commoner with ties to a reformist faction, wants no part of the Noble Alliance’s plans.

There’s a lot of geopolitics and military drama at play in Trails of Cold Steel II, but the thing that sets it apart from so many other similar sorts of stories—both in videogames and in other mediums—is that Trails of Cold Steel gives you a personal stake and a reason to care. This is all thanks to the time that the first game invests in painstakingly building a vision of the world and slowly letting you get acquainted with its many citizens.

Trails of Cold Steel is structured in such a way that each new chapter sends you to a new place, where you wind up getting acquainted with that region and its people through an assortment of quests. Far from the “fetch quests” typical of JRPGs, even though they may look like exactly that at first glance, these jobs serve to really help you understand what makes each new place tick. Likewise, NPCs, be they questgivers or shopkeepers or random passers-by, each have their own story to tell and their own personality—they’re part of the fabric of the world, never reduced simply to a function of the game.

At the same time, you’re slowly getting acquainted with the members of Class VII, who hail from all walks of life and every corner of Erebonia. You’re learning about who they are as people, but also how they fit into the places they come from, and how those places make them who they are.

Trails of Cold Steel, then, is all about establishing a sense of place, so that when Trails of Cold Steel II comes along with its nation-spanning civil war, those places mean something to the audience. Celdic isn’t just a farming village famous for its bustling Grand Market when you’ve spent a good six or seven hours there in the first game, helping settle a dispute between merchants that ends up being a conspiracy to strongarm the locals into accepting exorbitant taxes imposed by the region’s ruling class. When you return in Cold Steel II and find those same people caught in the crossfire for the sole crime of living in a strategically important location, it’s not just an abstraction of the impact of the war—the people affected aren’t just random NPCs, but people you know, people you’ve spent time with, and a crucial part of the fabric of the world.

So it goes for every other place that you revisit in Trails of Cold Steel II. Each character is living their own life, and when you meet them the second time around, you’ll get a glimpse of what’s been going on for them. In some cases, they’ll even remember choices you made in the first game that affected them, and you’ll see the consequences of that. All the effort Cold Steel put into establishing its characters, imbuing even the most minor of NPCS with depth and complexity, makes the stakes of everything that happens in Cold Steel II that much more personal.

This is just as true, if not truer, for the main cast. Thors’ Military Academy’s Class VII, the heroes of the Cold Steel series start Cold Steel II on the run, and forced to figure out their place in a country at war. Ultimately, they decide not to side with either the Noble Alliance or the Imperial Army, and instead operate as a third faction focused on protecting the little guy caught in the fallout, whether that means crossing the nobles, the empire, or both.

Personal connections make that a tricky proposition for some of Class VII. Jusis is the son of one of the masterminds of the Noble Alliance, so his decision makes him an enemy of his own family. Alisa is the heir to the biggest technology corporation in the country, one with vested interests in the war thanks to its weapons development arm. Even someone like Rean, whose family mostly keeps to the outskirts of Erebonia’s politics, inevitably gets forced to be a pawn in the war, making his own decisions that much more fraught.

Trails of Cold Steel II, then, is largely about Class VII having to find their own place in the world. It’s an amalgam of coming of age stories, one for each person in the class, and the steps the first game took to establish each one of them as a real, complicated, believable character makes that work.

None of this is to say that Trails of Cold Steel II isn’t full of new ideas, too. You spend as much time visiting new places as you do returning to old ones, particularly when it comes to the dungeons and other monster-filled places that your peacekeeping efforts bring you to. Where Trails of Cold Steel was a strictly linear affair, the latter half of Cold Steel II opens up and lets you revisit locations at your leisure to complete sidequests or just take a break from the main story for a moment.

The excellent battle system from the first game has some new tweaks, like extra-powerful link abilities that can only be acquired by completing a difficult trial using only the two characters who share said link—further emphasising the motif of friends learning to rely on one another. Battles between mech-like Divine Knights are a regular occurence after their sudden appearance during the finale of the first game, and upgrading your mech plays an important role this time around.

Trails of Cold Steel II also sees a few new characters join Class VII’s ranks, including the class’s instructor, Sara Valstein, and a few other surprising recruits. The returning cast also sport new outfits, new combat abilities, and can make use of an increased level cap—where Cold Steel was capped at 99, Cold Steel II will see you to the 150s (and even as far as 200 if you’re really dedicated to grinding). Levels from the first game doesn’t carry over directly—which is understandable, due to the problems that would arise for game balance—but achieving certain level milestones in Cold Steel comes with benefits in Cold Steel II, like extra Sepith (used for crafting the Quartz that Cold Steel heroes use to cast magic) and rare accessories.

So Trails of Cold Steel II does offer enough in the way of new ideas to feel like a worthy sequel, and not just more of the same—as good as “more of the same” would be. But what really makes Cold Steel II stand out is just how well it uses the meticulous world-building and character development that the first game slowly, carefully pulled together over the course of a good 80 hours, to make sure the story never loses its human touch. The rising tensions from Cold Steel boil over into all-out war in Cold Steel II, but political machinations never take focus away from a story about how people from all walks of life are affected by the whims of the powerful.

In a world where video games keep pushing for more *content*, it’s a rare treat to see a game that really, truly earns its running time. Nihon Falcom knows how to make every second of an 80-hour epic count—that was true enough of Trails of Cold Steel, but it’s more apparent than ever in Trails of Cold Steel II.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.