Nihon Falcom’s The Legend of Heroes series has made quite the name for itself in recent years as an exceptional JRPG series on both consoles and PC. The latest instalment, Trails of Cold Steel III was originally released in Japan in September 2017 before its worldwide release in October 2019 for the PlayStation 4 system. After several months, the highly anticipated Trails of Cold Steel III has finally made its way over to Steam in March 2020.
The events of Cold Steel III follow Rean Schwarzener, a decorated war hero and pilot, taking the role of instructor after a graduating from Thors Military Academy a year ago. At the newly constructed branch campus, Rean’s reputation precedes him as he manages none other than the Class VII: Special Operations with three young members: Juna, Kurt and Altina. The true purpose for Class VII’s existence remains a mystery as Class VIII specializes in Combat Tactics and Class IX in Military Finance. Although Rean is no longer a student, Cold Steel III has a lot in store with respect to the narrative for fans of the first two Cold Steel games with prologues and story summaries to readily ease newcomers to the latest instalment of the series. It’s not necessary to play through Cold Steel I and II but it’s understandable to initially feel overwhelmed by the enormous cast of characters and events. Thankfully, the relatively steady pacing and general narrative is engaging with thrills and suspense to keep you guessing what’s next in the main storyline.
Combat utilizes battle ornaments known as ARCUS II to deploy Orbal Arts and Craft signature moves unique to each party member. With varying strengths and effects on the battlefield, there are a total of seven Arts: Earth, Fire, Wind, Water, Time, Space and Mirage. The sequential combat order is lined up on the left screen with the option of switching on the fly between two modes: Striker and Gunner. Whereas Striker mode is useful for eliminating single units, Gunner mode is ideal to target multiple enemies from a safe distance with long range weapons. Brave Orders, unique to each character can be issued to turn the tide with the benefit of not using up the ally’s turn. Breaking the enemy’s defenses is accomplished by lowering their Break Gauge, the blue indicator displayed directly underneath their health bar. Striking your foes strategically by targeting their weaknesses strengthens the party’s bonds that allow you to unleash one of three powerful Link Attacks: Assist, Rush and Burst.
One of the highlights is the mech battles on campus that pits the students against enemy units and even Rean’s Divine Knight, Valimar. Much as one expects, the mechs can attack, defend and execute Craft moves of their own. Valimar’s Craft boasts the Crescent Flash, Juna’s Craft is the Gemini Blast and Kurt’s Craft is the flashy Rain Slash. To gain the upper hand, reading your foes is crucial as you identify the vulnerable portions of the mech, be it the head, torso or the arms. Keeping a sharp eye on the Break Gauge and unbalancing them opens the window to unleash Link Attacks for devastating damage. Panzer Soldats and Divine Knights may have a partner in which the operating pilot gains access to vastly powerful EX Arts attacks. They are not as readily accessible as other attacks and only be activated during the partner’s turn in battle.
Two mini-games provide an alternative to the storyline: Vantage Masters, a game revolving around collectible cards and Fishing. The premise of the game is straight forward: summon creatures and cast spells to defeat your opponent’s Master cards by utilizing any of three card types: master, natial and magic cards. The more victories you secure in matches, the more cards acquired with a chance of obtaining rare or powerful cards to add to the collection. Another way to build the card collection is done by purchasing them at the Leeves’ game store.
The Derfflinger, otherwise known as the branch campus’ armored transport train, helps the academy students to get around where they set up camp. Despite being in different classes, Class IX: Military Finance offers support by setting up shops to sell weapons, accessories, supplies or anything else your party needs. On board the train itself, you have the option to converse with other students to gain insights and key learnings on upcoming field exercises. Destroyable objects and obstacles are scattered through the field map when your party navigates through Erebonia.
Visually, the game boasts improved graphics over its predecessors with the polished character designs and detailed outfits. Having said this, it’s unfortunate the field map and open environments aren’t as colorful or varied in comparison. The main storyline and character progression is solid as the visuals do not detract from the overall experience and in light of how often JRPGs are judged by appearances alone, this is high praise that is rightfully earned.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold III is by all counts, an exceptional game, even though it doesn’t quite reach the same bar its predecessors achieved. The impressive and almost finely tuned balance of the narrative and gameplay is a testament of the skill and talent that Nihon Falcom continues to deliver in this series. In short, the quality of Cold Steel III as a title is something many other JRPGs aspire to be and is an absolute delight to play. One can’t help but wonder what Nihon Falcom has up their sleeve as the fans eagerly await the future arrival of Cold Steel IV.
PROS (+): Intriguing Characters, Engaging Combat, Intricate Plot
CONS (-): Pacing Issues
SCORE – 9.0/10
This review is based on a digital copy of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III on Steam provided by NIS America.