It’s the responsibility of some games to push the boat out and challenge what gaming can really mean as an art form. For games like Return of the Obra Dinn, Undertale, and Papers, Please, the mission is to advance our medium and see how mechanics and storytelling can best be united on a moment-to-moment basis. Those games absolutely have their place, and we salute them.
That said, there’s also definitely a niche for games that do what they do so well that it’s hard to find it anywhere else. Franchises like Assassin’s Creed, Just Cause, and even Dark Souls offer services you won’t find other developers rendering with quite the same level of quality and confidence. To this list we can add two series: The Legend of Heroes and its offshoot Trails of Cold Steel.
If you’ve missed the boat on Trails of Cold Steel, the first game was released way back in 2016 (2013 in Japan) and revolved around the adventures of high school student Rean Schwarzer. Rean is enlisted into the elusive Class VII of Thors Military Academy and must navigate a complex web of inter-student politics, classes, and a looming intrigue that threatens not only the school but the world itself.
A sequel, Trails of Cold Steel II, launched in 2014. Rean’s all grown up in that game, and rather than the Persona-esque revolving door of school and field trip, the second game allowed you to roam its world and visit some more interesting locations. For the most part, though, it was more of the same turn-based RPG battling, stat management, and relationship building between party members.
If you’re expecting the third game to differ in any significant way, then you clearly haven’t spent a huge amount of time with the Trails of Cold Steel franchise. Rean is now a professor, so there are a few more mechanics that bring that aspect of his character into play, but for the most part you’re still going to get the same stuff you’ve been getting from this franchise for almost three years (six if you’re in Japan).
That’s not supposed to read like a criticism. For us, Trails of Cold Steel is comfort food. We know exactly what we’ll be getting – a high-stakes anime drama plot, strategic turn-based battling, and the surprisingly walled-off world of Thors to explore across a linear storyline – and we’re okay with it. If you’re not, you won’t find anything to like here, but if all you want is “another Trails game”, you’re quids in.
This is normally the point where we’d say “let’s recap the first two games”, but honestly, there isn’t much of a point in doing that. Trails of Cold Steel III is aggressively uninterested in headhunting new players. Instead, it wants you if you’ve played the first two. There are characters, motivations, and plot arcs here that you’ll simply not understand if you haven’t spent time with Trails of Cold Steel and its sequel.
This time around, though, there are also a surprising amount of nods to the Trails series as a whole. If you’re familiar with Trails in the Sky – another meta-series in the Legend of Heroes franchise – then you’ll recognise one or two faces here and they’ll probably make you squeal with delight. If not, the game does spend a little too much time on them and it may make you feel somewhat left out.
What you’re getting here is a streamlined, back-to-basics version of the Trails of Cold Steel formula. If you preferred the more open-ended exploration of the second game, you’re out of luck, since Trails of Cold Steel III returns to the somewhat linear and boxed-in narrative style of the first game. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing; spending more time with Rean and less time with the world is always good fun.
Combat-wise, too, things have been cut back a little. There’s still an emphasis on building relationships, each of which will give you access to powerful new abilities in combat, but there’s a fast-forward button now to allow you to skip through combat a little more quickly. It’s still largely the same system as the first two times around, but it feels honed and polished here.
That’s good, because the combat in Trails of Cold Steel III is honestly its highlight. The strategic Shadow Hearts-style area-of-effect spells still feel satisfying and intellectually stimulating to use, and judging which enemies to hit with which ability is the cornerstone of an accomplished, tried-and-tested combat system that Trails of Cold Steel III feels very comfortable with.
There are still bugbears with the system, though. The difficulty curve is all over the shop, leading to certain encounters being far, far more difficult than they should be for the point at which they happen in the story. Sometimes, the hit detection is a little off; enemies will often simply not be in range of your attack when it really looks like they should be.
These are minor gripes, though, and the combat in Trails of Cold Steel III is really very good. Honestly, the whole experience is a solidly satisfying JRPG and you won’t feel any disappointment with it if you’re a fan of the series thus far. It continues Rean’s story in a very satisfactory way; there aren’t many surprises, and the ones that do drop feel a little expected, but the story is compelling nonetheless.
Most of the criticisms we can dredge up for Trails of Cold Steel III are either minor niggles or its selling points to those who love it. We could say it’s got a slow-paced story and some uninspired characters, but fans adore its gentle pace and thorough introductions. The combat is a tad rote, but it’s great fun on a moment-to-moment basis. Character callbacks aren’t satisfying for non-fans, but thrilling for aficionados.
In the end, it’s not difficult to know if you’re going to like Trails of Cold Steel III. If you’ve played the first two games in the series and enjoyed them, then this is more of the same. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll find nothing but satisfaction here. If you want something more meaty, more challenging on a consistent basis, or more varied, you won’t find it here.