Running off the success of the first title, Falcom has localized the second title in the Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel narrative. The members of Class VII, led by Rean Schwarzer, began as individuals brought in for the formation of a new military curriculum and they all became the pinnacle example of what the Thors Military Academy was capable of building. The end of Cold Steel left the narrative wide open as the state of the nation itself fell under a political smoke screen.
Trails of Cold Steel spoilers
This review includes sensitive information pertaining to both Cold Steel II and its predecessor. I will refrain from spoilers, but detailing aspects of gameplay alone will require a touch of reference to the two games collectively. On that note, do take the time to read through our Cold Steel review before reading further, as a great deal of the elements in Cold Steel II are the same, albeit enhanced.
As Trails of Cold Steel II begins, a full preview of events from Trails of Cold Steel are available as a refresher, but don’t expect much more. So much took place in the first game that the summaries, even broken down by chapters, can’t accurately portray the nuance and complexities of the game itself. Long story short: Cold Steel II should not be played without having played Cold Steel. Accordingly, Cold Steel II makes frequent reference to the first game via characters and events, some important to the main storyline and others not. Callbacks come fast in the opening act, to the point where even veterans might have trouble following. Luckily, not all resurfacing characters are pertinent to the narrative in a major way.
Even side characters are key to Cold Steel’s excellent storytelling–a hallmark of the JRPG series, so far. Each line of dialogue, even thank yous and farewells, adds flair and personality to each person. Social status, histories, and motives intertwine to deepen characters, and the double helix of the game’s story is as complex as it is invigorating. I liken the depth and girth of this narrative to the very best, fattest science-fiction book you’ve ever read: Every detail brings you further into the world. You want to know more, you want to see what drives everything, and the book delivers. Such is Trails of Cold Steel. The opening hours of each game take some time to tread because of this commitment to world-building–Cold Steel II takes almost an entire act to really get going–but once you’re in, you won’t want to leave.
The plot this time around is quite vast, stretching across a violent political climate that extends the reach of the cast to something much greater than their everyday routine at Thors Military Academy. Broken into two acts and a finale, the plot focuses on returning hero Rean reuniting the separated classmates of Class VII, fulfill each student’s prerogative, and retake Trista, the town where their beloved school resides. Along the way, more and more characters are introduced, building to a cast that far outnumbers the original lineup. While each character is unique within the greater whole, the amount of time some are given to develop ends up being small, and the end result is characters bottlenecked into a singular purpose, becoming trite. The original Cold Steel gave enough time for each playable and non-playable cast member to develop beyond one dimension. Here, everyone still plays a part, but it’s quite obvious when one’s part isn’t important.
Has combat changed?
Combat hasn’t changed much from Cold Steel’s turn-based variation. Characters can still spend a turn moving across the battlefield to get in better position for upcoming attacks or dodging enemy moves. Rean can link with party members to cast Overdrive, which is a set of three critical attacks between the linked players with increased damage and no cast time. You earn experience at a faster rate, which makes experimenting with Master Orbments all the easier. These equippable grids have the empty slots which house Quartz (Cold Steel’s take on Final Fantasy 7’s Materia), and leveling up these Master Orbments confers additional, valuable stat bonuses. When it takes less time to level each, you feel liberated–there’s ample reason to stick with what works, but it’s not terribly difficult to level others. The downside? By and large, it’s an easier game than Cold Steel I, and regular enemies go down pretty quickly. Boss fights compensate for this damage boost by simply adding more health, not necessarily demanding greater strategy.
As mentioned before, the biggest strength that Cold Steel had, among its many strengths, was writing. Everything in the original game was delivered with purpose, whether to move the plot forward at a macro level or deepen characters through innocuous conversation. Moving from that, Cold Steel II takes a step back, sounding more similar to what you’d find in, well, most JRPGs on the market. I say that not to undercut anyone’s favorite RPG. Cold Steel was just that well-written. Here, the quality level is less consistent. There’s the occasional peculiar thing characters say that doesn’t match up with their personality established by the prior hours and hours of interacting with them.
One of Cold Steel’s last moments featured combat as the Ashen Knight Valimar. Cold Steel II offers plenty more Divine Battles that feature Valimar as the sole combatant. The premise of the series in general is teamwork, and even though Divine Battles can only be fought with Valimar, members of the team can contribute to the knight’s success by granting specific abilities. For the first act, the only time Valimar appears is for transportation or Divine Battles, but in the second act, Valimar becomes available to summon in combat at a very, very high cost: spending three whole turns.
The downside to summoning the Ashen Knight Valimar is that its combat is boring. There are few abilities to choose from, and most of them aren’t necessary for victory. The true tactic is generating ability points to use combat moves, but unless the game is on a higher difficulty, using Valimar’s abilities is simply a waiting game. Some fights require managing his health, which can be done by linking with a party member for their exclusive abilities. This has the appearance of strategic diversity, because each character provides unique combat options, but having such a wide variety is unnecessary without much challenge.
Cold Steel II’s soundtrack is on par with the same great ambiance fans should expect from the Legend of Heroes franchise, and there’s even a memorable opera-esque track that plays later on in the game. The cast is still brilliant, with the same outstanding group of voice actors. However, peculiar hiccup moments stand out against an overall improved presentation–the screen will shudder and a speech bubble will grow to fill the screen, but the voice actor is almost whispering. This never happened with Rean, but some more emphatic prose from other party members falls flat. These don’t derail the game, but since they tend to appear in pivotal moments, they’re memorable. There are also odd, borderline distasteful innuendos at very random places, as if little thought was given whether these were necessary at all. Cold Steel had its moments too, but they were far more discreet.
As a standalone JRPG, Trails of Cold Steel II is a fun outing with lots of cool ways to dispatch enemies, but when compared to the first Trails of Cold Steel, it falls flat. Sure, Cold Steel II has more combat options, a detailed political story, and a controllable mech at your beck and call, but it’s missing the level of strategy in combat and attention to narrative detail that graced us in the first game. I nitpick quite a bit here, but that’s only because Cold Steel I was such a positive experience for me, and the sequel loses a few of the things that made it special. Events of great significance come from this narrative—one massive revelation appears that’s been developing in the background over both games—so there’s still a ton of content to explore on top of the intricate and engaging combat. And even with the stutter steps this time around, there aren’t many JRPGs that come close to Trails of Cold Steel’s full package: a robust narrative, well-realized setting, and inspired combat.
The PS Vita Difference
While gameplay is the same across both PS3 and PS Vita and owners of both versions benefit from Cross-Save, performance differentiates the two. While both sport the simple yet refined graphical standard of the franchise, the PS Vita displays more jaggy edges and has lowered texture detail. And while both versions experience reduced framerate when fog or magical auras hit the screen, the PS Vita frame rate dips considerably lower. The other standout difference is the loading times, and the PS Vita cannot hold a candle to its counterpart: PS3 passes loading screens in about five seconds, while the PS Vita can take upwards of fifteen to 20 seconds.