Bunnies Will Save The World
HIGH: At times sweet, earnest, and a little bit inspiring. Bunny ears.
LOW: Endless, unnecessary dialogue. Meaningless sidequests.
WTF: Spoiler alert: Rean’s sister might be in love with him??
How does The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel begin?
It’s September. A bunch of teens are thrust into the invasion of the Garrelia military base. Very little context is given other than go get the bad guys!
Our hero is Rean, a black-haired teen with a determined look in his eye. Rean and his military school cohorts battle machine “monstrosities” that have begun to take over the base until they’re faced with the unthinkable — two massive guns are about to shoot across the border to Crossbell. Is that bad? One can only assume!
The guns are about to go off. Rean turns to screen and screams STOP! …and suddenly, it’s five months earlier.
Trails of Cold Steel is a turn-based RPG set in that particular kind of psuedo-European world that crops up in Japanese videogames where everyone has names like Rufus, Machias, and Schwarzer. Their country, Erebonia, is undergoing an industrial revolution of sorts. Something called “Orbal power” has been discovered and fuels everything from battle moves to airships, lightbulbs, and sweet motorcycles that characters will often refer to, unselfconsciously, as being like “metal horses”.
Orbal technology has brought Erebonia and its neighbors closer, but has also vastly increased their capability for war. Rean and his classmates exist in this time of tension, when Erebonia is torn both between nobles and commoners and on the brink of conflict with neighboring nations. There’s also a group of terrorists called the Imperial Liberation Front—the main baddies.
The battle system is uncomplicated. Rean and his friends each have an Orbal communicator called an ARCUS. The ARCUS not only operates as a cell phone, but also has slots for orbs that can be used in battle — put an orb in a slot and use that power. As such, any character can be outfitted with any Orbal power, making the entire party both versatile and somewhat redundant. There’s little discussion of where the orbs come from, so I’m left wondering exactly what they are. Apparently, it’s not very important.
There are also skills that are tied to weapons, and an aspect of the ARCUS called battle linking. If Rean performs a critical hit on an enemy and he is linked with Fie (a sleepy, lazy girl) or any other playable character, then Fie can perform a follow-up attack.
While the combat benefits from simplicity, battle can also be boring and one of its primary issues is the animation. Basic combat animations are rote, no more than swinging a sword or firing a gun, and don’t vary much from character to character, even if more powerful arts can sometimes be flashy. Much of the animation in Trails of Cold Steel is lackluster and there are no impressive cutscenes to make up for it.
Graphics-wise, the Trails isn’t well-realized. The characters and their environments are blocky and their textures repetitive. Interiors often look the same. Dungeons are bare and colorless, with unchallenging and uninteresting puzzles and maps, while homes and dorm rooms are unadorned and rarely cozy, showing little of the personality of the inhabitants. There’s no environmental storytelling, and little of the inventiveness that I have become accustomed to from my time playing hundreds of hours of Final Fantasy and various other JRPGs.
In fact, much of Trails of Cold Steel lacks inventiveness, and the character tropes are immediately recognizable to anyone who’s ever watched an anime series. Rean is particularly bland and fits neatly into the determined hero role. The steely-eyed, reticent snob Jusis has a cold, forbidding father with whom he has a terrible relationship. There’s Gaius, a foreigner who is largely inconsequential and has zero character development. The sleepy girl is a former child soldier. Thankfully, some DLC allows the player to make them all far more interesting by equipping bunny ears and a tail.
However, about five chapters into Trails of Cold Steel (and post bunny ears) I found myself starting to like these crazy kids because they’re just so young and sincere. They all seem to really care about each other. However, that is a lot of chapters to go through before feeling endeared to the cast. Had I not been reviewing Trails,I doubt I would have finished it – it also doesn’t help that the narrative going is slow, and the story is unveiled in fits and starts.
In each chapter, Rean and friends are sent on a field trip to a town in Erebonia where they’re tasked with completing menial work like battling a monster or finding a lightbulb. However, things pick up when each visit reveals more about the political tensions between the factions. Unfortunately, every time the stakes seemed to be raising, the kids manage to sort things out in the nick of time, tie things up in a bow, and are returned to the torture of classroom life and a school management system derivative of the Persona games, but not as interesting. The player will be asked questions in class on Erebonian history, graded on the amount of quests completed, and have to take a midterm. Grades are then posted in the hallway for all to see — a source of shame for many a student.
The progress in Trails is bogged down even more because every member of the class needs to chime in on every decision. You guys want dinner? I sure do! Me too! Characters espouse high-minded ideals and earnest hopes for the future constantly, and the sheer amount of unnecessary dialogue is astounding. Furthermore, characters will describe other characters in ways that could be left to the player to decipher. Instead of giving me the impression that Jusis has a bad relationship with his father, Rean will to chime in and say “Jeez, they really don’t seem to like each other.” Remember, kids — show, don’t tell.
Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel lacks vibrancy, the animations lack imagination, and the characters are a bunch of bores. Not having played any other games in the series, I can’t say whether this series is suffering from sequelitis exhaustion, but this installment just lacks so much. It’s an excruciating play that I cannot recommend.
— Gabriella Santiago-Vancak
Disclosures: This game is developed by Nihon Falcom and published by Xseed Games. It is currently available on PS3, Vita, PC, and PS4. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 60 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T. It contains Blood, Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, Violence, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco. The official ESRB description reads as follows: This is a role-playing game in which players assume the role of students as they uncover evil plots against a country. Players explore dungeons and battle human soldiers and fantastical enemies (e.g., robots, dragons, giant insects) in turn-based combat. Players use swords, bows, spears, firearms, and magic spells to defeat enemies. Battles are accompanied by realistic gunfire, large explosions, and cries of pain. Cutscenes also contain acts of violence and depictions of blood: a man shot through the chest and bleeding; dead soldiers lying in small pools of blood. During the course of the game, characters sometimes engage in suggestive dialogue (e.g., “Show dem t*tties,” “It’s not like I spend all my time on the prowl for beautiful maidens to deflower,” and “That makes your boobies look even bigger!”). Players occasionally encounter characters who smoke cigarettes and consume alcohol (e.g., “Nothing hits the spot quite like a cold beer!” and “*hic* Drink! Bring me another drink!”). The word “sh*t” is heard in the dialogue.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game is easily played without sound. All dialogue is visible on screen. Font is large but not changeable. This title is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: The game has limited remappable controls.