Sam Brooks reviews the latest entry of the Trails of Cold Steel saga and finds the rarest thing in a video game: a whole lot of care.
When you look at Falcom’s Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III from the outside, it’s not an enticing prospect. Firstly, it’s a game that promises (more like demands) over 50 hours of gameplay. Secondly, it’s the third entry in a quadrilogy that’s part of a larger trilogy of games that’s been running for the better part of the decade. Thirdly, it’s a Japanese RPG with the fairly slow, unreactive turn-based gameplay that had its brief heyday about a decade and a half ago. Everything about it screams: If you’re not already into this, then you’re pretty much screwed.
And yet, it’s the most engrossing game I’ve played this year, for all 50 hours. I can’t remember the last time that I was so deeply invested in a game’s world, lore and history. I know more about the world and political landscape of the Zemurian continent than I do about my own real-life nation. I surprised myself how deeply I cared about these fictional characters, and how long I thought about them after I’d put down the controller.
The Trails series follows Rean Schwarzer, a student at Thors Campus, a military school smack dab in the middle of Erebonia – an expansionist, imperialistic nation that is also dealing with your typical class struggles between nobles and commoners. The rest of his (school) class, Class VII, is a mixture of these (sociological) classes, including the sons and daughters of some of the most pivotal figures in the nation. Rean and Class VII go on missions which educate the player about Erebonia’s history while showing that the nation is building towards a continent-shifting conflict. Over the first two games, a civil war erupts and is quelled, relationships grow, many twists are revealed, and there’s a whole lot of mystical mumbo-jumbo and mechs. It is what a luddite might call ‘anime bullshit’, quite fairly. These games also make up, conservatively, 120 hours of gameplay.
Trails of Cold Steel III picks up a year after the close of the second game. The civil war has swiftly come to an end, and Erebonia has annexed the neighbouring nation of Crossbell. After a successful military campaign, Rean Schwarzer is now a war hero known as Ashen Chevalier, and has been hired as an instructor at a new branch of the Thors Campus, specifically to take care of the new Class VII. Erebonia is still a hive of political unrest, and once more, Class VII takes on missions to help quell the unrest, but because this is a Trails game, the unrest bubbles over. It is hours 120 through to hours 180 of the Trails of Cold Steel saga.
Read those two paragraphs again, and how many proper nouns are in them. Chances are you fall into one of two camps – either this is tremendously your shit, or it sounds like incomprehensible gibberish. If you’re in the former camp and you haven’t tried Trails of Cold Steel, then I’d encourage you to do so. If you’re in the latter camp, I’d still encourage you to give it a go. (Please don’t start at III though. Begin with the first instalment, and at Trails of the Sky, if you can – and have hundreds of hours to spare.)
There’s something incredibly old-fashioned about a game like Trails of Cold Steel III, but let’s be honest, I’m mostly talking about the entire series here. While each game updates the gameplay and the graphics a little bit, with twists of convenience and mechanics here and there, the main drawcard of these games is the opportunity to continue the story and spend time with these characters. It’s so old-fashioned it doesn’t even feel like a video game, it feels like a novel, with each hour building on the former and expanding the world.
But despite the ongoing narrative, the likes of which few games are be doing these days – eand even fewer doing well (ahem, BioWare) – perhaps the most old-fashioned thing about the game is how much it feels like someone cared about every aspect of it. Since the start of this saga, Trails of the Sky, a PSP game from a decade ago, each Trails game has both built upon its foundations and dug deep into them. What was a game with a surprisingly level-headed and realistic approach to politics, familial relationships and the ways those co-exist with, yes, myths and legend, has become a series with a list of characters to rival Game of Thrones. And every one of those characters has depth, motivation and vibrancy.
Let’s be straight: These games are uncommonly well-written. Not only is it incredibly rare to have a series with this kind of long-term view of plotting, it’s even rarer to layer that with a masterful command of tone. It’s the kind of game that will balance your funny anime-esque bath sequences (less weird than it sounds, but not by much) with heartfelt, authentic conversations about identity and where people fit in a world seemingly constantly at war, and then balance those conversations with high-level discussions about taxation and class struggle.
That doesn’t mean that the games aren’t occasionally silly – there’s a character called McBurn, Enforcer Number 0, the Almighty Conflagration, and another called Thomas Lysander, Second Dominion, the Partitioner. It means that the games take the full range of humanity, the dark and the light, and filter it through this foreign, fantastical world. The Trails series gets about as dark and existential as I’ve seen video games get, but they can also be riotously funny, and they never lose sight of their characters when they do it. It’s depth with breadth with specificity. Everybody writing a video game should take notes from this series.
On that note, special attention has to be paid to the localization here, courtesy of NIS America, taking over from XSeed Games which did the first two games in the series. We’re a long way from Final Fantasy VII’s ‘this guy are sick’ territory here. Admirable care has been taken with each character’s specific voice, and in translating it in a way that stays accurate to the spirit of the original language. Even more admirable is the huge voice cast, many of them returning from previous games, and delivering performances that continue to reveal shades of characters, even those pushed to the sidelines. Your mileage may vary on who does the best, but I take a particular shine to Valerie Arem finding the serpentine joy in Principal Aurelia Le Guin, having reached the apparent peak of swordmastery and now stuck finding mirth in the every day goings on of an off-brand military school. It’s one specific, detailed performance amongst many, and a great indication of how the series continues to get deeper as it widens it scope across eras and continents.
All of which is to say: Care breeds care. The Trails series has had a lot of love and care put into every aspect of it, and that care is rewarded by the people who invest time in it. These aren’t million-sellers or console-killers; to be honest, the gameplay is rudimentary and the graphics charming at best. They’re games for people who are already in the bag.
It’s hardly surprising that there are so few games like Trails of Cold Steel. Games like this take time, from both developer and player, for diminishing commercial returns. When you spend this much time building a world this rich and deep, and then fill it with characters that feel so real, you have to also give them the time to let them breathe. But I feel like as gaming goes down the hill towards trends – DLC, lootboxes, games as service – experiences like Trails are all the more rare and precious. I’ve played hundreds of hours of video games this year, but I can’t remember the last time that I actually cared this much.
Trails of Cold Steel III for the Playstation 4 is out now, as are the first two entries of the series.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.