In Trails of Cold Steel, nine students are chosen for a particular and brand new school program coined Class VII. Information is sparse on what Class VII is or why students from different social classes were put together into this one, as each set of students is limited to social classes, separating nobles from commoners within the same school rounds. Under the whimsical guidance of Instructor Sara, the nine students undertake assigned tasks for city and the school. Through this, they explore themselves, each other, and the world around them, all while under the looming presence of tension between feuding companies and territories.
The integrity of the game comes from level of realization within the world as a whole. Social classes hold their status among lower ones, and the politics of it leak into each part of the narrative, even if the premise of Class VII is focused on equal ground among the included students—at least at the beginning. As the story progresses, the nobles and higher classes become the focus while the rest become a novelty, reducing the significance of what Trails created in the opening chapters of the game. The narrative is still strong with only a few lulls throughout the flow of intertwining plot and characterization. There are also a ton of characters outside the nine in Class VII, but each one plays a key role in what’s at stake in this war-tense world, and, without loosing too many spoilers, every character becomes memorable with how they’re entangled in the plot as the truth surfaces. During all this, waiting at the Old Schoolhouse on school grounds, where the story opens up, is a building that’s constantly changing as more is explored.
Story progression occurs through a fixed calendar, much like Persona games, and this time is often used socializing with other members of Class VII or other key characters. However, access to the calendar is not daily as in Persona. The game moves forward to significant events in the story, so establishing relationships between characters takes much less time when compared to Persona. Outside the calendar movement, the premise is the same: complete assigned tasks and socialize with classmates to level and develop characters. Each of the seven chapters has certain allotted free days for this type of activity, which gives the open concept of what comes from Persona a more linear approach. It may be too simplistic for some, but there’s enough going on already to keep players feeling fulfilled rather than feeling like relationship-building events or opportunities for growth are missed. If they are, Trails of Cold Steel has a New Game+, transferring levels, Orbs, and overall development into a new game, which makes the higher game difficulties more manageable.
The flow of combat holds a 3D rendition of the favored system established in The Legend of Heroes series on PSP, but the beauty of it comes from the inspirations which inspire it. Each character on the field takes a turn, and the rotation of turns is indicated on the left side of the screen. Both enemies and characters are limited to a ring of moment, the ring depending on the amount of range built into stats or Orbs. Placement on the field is crucial, because a turn can be wasted moving to a particular spot in order to reach the target on the next turn or to avoid an attack being cast by the enemy. On random occasion, bonuses such as guaranteed critical hits, heals, or no-cost spells make fights more strategic over simply taking turns, especially when the same random bonuses pop up for the enemy. Combat Points (CP) accumulate each turn for each player, and CP contributes to the use of Crafts, abilities unique to each character’s narrative skill set, and S Breaks, which are devastating attacks requiring 100 of the 200 possible pool of CP. Then, Arts are spells revolving around Energy Points (EP), much like traditional mana, and those skills are chosen through Orbs and their placement within the Orbment.
In the Orbment, each character has a Master Quartz, dictating different lines of elements for the placement of Orbs. Much like the Materia in Final Fantasy VII, the Master Orbs level through use in combat and develop into more benefits and stronger attacks. Orbs can then be purchased, created, or discovered and then placed within the Orbment in almost any which way, limited only by some slots requiring Orbs of a specific element. This allows each character to be customized for personal use. To top it all off, characters and Link to one another and attack and cover each other when his or her Link partner engage with the enemy. Links are specific between each two players, and each Link levels as the characters play linked together, so each character has a Link level bound to each of the other eight.
I played Trails of Cold Steel on the Normal difficulty for the sake of continuity, and above all the other positives to Trails, the biggest one would be how old fashioned it is in its progression without dragging itself into the ground under a boring delivery. Moving between chapter to chapter requires certain character levels at certain times, so leveling is a must. On that note, the side missions along the way cover a lot of that necessity. Killing a lot of monsters is still a must, but there are a lot of them wandering the world along the way. This means that running from main quest to main quest may only work on Easy, because Trails has a natural challenge that’s all but lost in most modern RPGs. As the sense of challenge goes, further development and leveling lessens the challenge later in the game. Characters no longer have to be the same level as the enemies, but specific Orbs can make the game much easier. All in all, overleveling and over-developing characters is quite easy, so the real challenge to the game will show itself for those who wish to continue on in New Game + on Nightmare difficulty.
The visuals are nothing special, but they’re consistent. Character models and backdrops are detailed enough to look good, though, even if there are better looking games on the platform. There’s still plenty of detail, with well-realized towns going down to decorations on fences and doorways. It just doesn’t strike awe is all. It moves the story well, as most of it is delivered through dialogue, combat, and the occasional action scene. It holds up well, but when the scale of the map stretches farther than a city street, such as in wide open areas, frame rate almost halves. It’s not debilitating and only appears in certain areas, but with each of the seven chapter taking about ten hours to finish, enough time is spent in each area to feel even the smallest performance issue. Loading times are long and frequent as well, generating a lot of down time overall.
Trails of Cold Steel takes what made the PSP’s Legend of Heroes series special and revitalizes it with upped graphics, stronger narrative, and deeper sense of progression on all counts. Many inspirations bring the final product to a special fruition, and the concept of war in society brings it all together. Despite some performance, narrative, and leveling inconsistencies, Trails of Cold Steel rides the rails of the story’s impressive train, covers a lot of ground, and brings an almost universal RPG to the PlayStation Vita.