Trails of Cold Steel
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Game Reviewed: Trails of Cold Steel
Publisher: Nihon Falcom
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Platform: PS3, PS Vita
ESRB Rating: T
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The land of Eerebonia is divided; the nobility rules the land and navigates the complex relations with neighboring nations, and the lower class lives simple lives, resentful of the nobles who maintain this societal separation. In the midst of this tense situation, nine students at Thors Military Academy are placed in the experimental Class VII with no regard to their class or history; nobles and commoners alike, they experience the world and learn how to defend it together.
As you may realize from that summary, Trails of Cold Steel is a surprisingly deep game on a political level; I’m not sure I’d describe it as having an agenda, but the political intrigue as events begin leading this nation to war is impressive in its depth and scope, and witnessing it all from the perspective of students who yet have much to learn about the world makes it all the more compelling.
The game is, in many ways, a throwback to the JRPGs being produced in the era of the Playstation 2, and bears much resemblance to games of that era such as Final Fantasy X, Dark Cloud 2, and the Persona series. It has a turn-based combat system in which a variety of characters with different combat styles (and different abilities depending on how you build them) square off against all sorts of enemies, but much of the game is simply spent at the academy, getting to know your classmates and other important characters, or exploring the world to learn more about its political tensions and the major players in the building conflict.
Basically, if you’re looking for a classically-designed Japanese RPG with a major emphasis on character development and storytelling, this game is for you. Assuming, of course, that your parents say it’s okay.
What Parents Need to Know
The gameplay centers around a turn-based menu system; your characters will be set on a battlefield with a variety of enemies (usually monsters or wild animals, and sometimes humans), and you will select each of their actions from a menu when their turn comes up. There are a number of things to do, from simple attacks with a variety of weapons (swords, bows, guns, etc.) to more complex or strategic decisions such as casting elemental spells, supporting your allies, or unleashing devastating attacks unique to each character. Enemies disappear bloodlessly when defeated.
At one point, a man is shot, and blood spreads under his fallen body. A still image at another point shows a boy with a knife in his hand and blood on his clothes, standing over a wild animal.
The S-word is used on rare occasions, and lesser vulgarity such as “damn” is used occasionally throughout the game.
The protagonist accidentally ends up in a compromising position with one of his female classmates, and is very apologetic about it. Later in the game, as the protagonist is growing close to a girl in his class, other characters will make mild sexual references to tease him (such as a maid asking him if he wants to stay in the same room as her).
One side character is a lesbian, and makes multiple, mild sexual references.
Trails of Cold Steel takes place in a fantasy world where “magic,” as it were, comes from crystals. It’s called “orbal energy,” and functions similarly to electricity; it’s even used in technology we might see today, from tanks to guns to an early prototype equivalent to the internet. The game hints at the presence of some kind of more ancient force, but it’s all legend and speculation even when we find out more near the end of the game. One character is referred to as a “witch.”
The complex political situation in Erebonia leaves neither side of the conflict as an absolute moral good. The game never praises immoral actions, but the game can make it difficult to distinguish between good and evil due to two factions who have mixtures of both.
One subplot involves the protagonist’s adopted sister having a crush on him; this is not pursued.
I’ll just say it; this is one of the best games I’ve played in years.
Trails of Cold Steel is a slow burn, to a point where it honestly feels less like the first game in a series than the first part of one long game split into multiple parts (the second of which just releases recently). It takes its time introducing us to its staggeringly large cast of characters and the complex events of its large-scale narrative, and by the end of this 50+ hour story (it took me closer to 95 hours, but that’s because I talked to everyone whenever I could; that’s how invested I was) you’ve grown to love these characters and understand this world, which leads to one of the most tense finales I’ve ever played.
But aside from the story and characters, Trails of Cold Steel is refreshingly old-school in its presentation. The excellent soundtrack, classically-designed battle system, and visuals that are both modern in design and a bit technologically dated; it all makes the game feel like a classic, and it’s sure to please fans of that era of Japanese gaming. All in all, it makes for a very compelling experience that will keep you busy for a long time with its compelling narrative, enjoyable battle system, and lovable characters.
Assuming the turn-based combat and slow-building political drama aren’t an inhibitor to your child’s enjoyment, there are a few things to be concerned about. Though the language is mostly mild, it’s certainly present, and some of the sexual references might be a bit much for younger players, not to mention the not-blood-related-brother-sister-romantic-undertones thing that seems to be far less icky in Japan than it is here. But while certainly not appropriate for younger audiences, teenagers should be able to handle this content and appreciate the game’s strategic gameplay and well-told story.
All in all, Trails of Cold Steel is a real treat for anyone pining for the RPGs of the early 2000s, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who appreciates a good story and is old enough to cope with the T-rating.