Update [2016 Jan 13]: This game is for PS3 and Vita! I say that further on, but it should have been right up front.
A Surprise Dark Horse
Well, this game came out of nowhere at the last moment. 2015 was already a great year for RPGS like Xenoblade Chronicles X, Tales of Zestiria (on PC!) and Trails in the Sky SC, then *bang*. Trails of Cold Steel I - or Eiyuu Densetsu: Sen no Kiseki if you’re snooty - dropped out of nowhere. XSeed had already announced they were working on it, but the release date was a big surprise.
On the other hand, the timing meant I could play the hell out of it while visiting relatives.
First things first: I’m not saying Cold Steel is better (or worse) than Witcher 3 or Undertale. They’re my three RPGs of the year - pointless to compare, like apple, roast pig, and kumquat respectively. All different itches.
Second: Yes, it’s even a bit better than Trails in the Sky SC, which I also loved.
Some Tales + Persona + Grandia + Suikoden
You’re first year student Rean Schwarzer, attending a military academy in the Empire of Erebonia - a very large and powerful militaristic feudal state that has been ruthlessly annexing its smaller neighbors as manifest destiny. Class lines are very strict, and nobles and commoners are normally very segregated, but your newly formed Class VII does away with that.
Some days you’ll be exploring the campus, meeting people, performing odd jobs, and bonding with your classmates. Some days you’ll be attending class. Some days you’ll be taking class field trips to other areas of the Empire and poking your nose where it doesn’t belong. And some days you’ll be exploring the mysterious old classroom building… It all settles into a soothing rhythm except when they yank the rug out.
The overworld fields and dungeons are extremely reminiscent of the Tales games (like Tales of Xillia), and so are the combat bonuses and victory screens. The combat itself is improved Grandia / Trails in the Sky - turn based with positional and action time considerations.
This change-up of game styles really shines - you’re only doing anything for a while before you’re doing something completely different. There’s no real time to get bored - and if you’re bored, just advance the plot or run to the end of the dungeon!
The world setting is also huge plus (more on this below) - Falcom invested in thousands of pages of backstory for the Trails games, so it’s a giant wad of political and local intrigue and dozens of major and minor factions that actually holds together. Imagine if FF12’s intrigue had lived up to the promise and not just fallen apart. This is where I draw the Suikoden comparison, though it doesn’t get that grimdark and is easier to follow in any given game - it doesn’t need to cram Suikoden V’s sprawling plot into a single play.
And to prove it’s a real JPRG, it has a fishing minigame. And a card game. And cooking. And giant robots.
If you’re just in this for the combat you might be disappointed. The combat is great, but half the game is talking to your classmates and NPCs. There are thousands of lines of dialogue and every time something changes every NPC has something new to say.
And it’s not random - there are plots that unfold from beginning to end of the game, with significant character arcs for almost every named NPC, and you are really going to want to talk to each one every time to find out what’s going in their lives. There are far fewer than in Sky, so it’s manageable.
Why is Alan being such a cad to Bridget? Will Clara in the art club ever finish her damn horse statue? Will Patrick ever get that stick out of his ass? Can Emma save Dorothee from herself or will Dorothee blacken Emma’s soul first? And why is that girl in the lacrosse club such a bitch?
(pic from http://videochums.com)
Your class is four girls, four boys (other than Rean) to start with, and there’s some light visual novel stuff going on where you can hook up with anyone, but it’s very mild and mostly up to you - don’t expect terrible harem antics. You can ‘end up’ with best girl or best boy - but the hottest and heaviest it gets is a dance. Really, you’ll just want to find out about everyone and not worry much about smoochyface. Plenty of other games for that.
Grandia Combat (and a little Tales)
Dungeons are third person - active leader can whack mobs (enemies) for advantage, then on contact turn based combat starts. You can avoid a lot of mobs as well. Each character has a different weapon (sword, knives, guns, shotguns, wand) which work better or worse against different types mobs and have different reaches and effect areas.
Spells and effects are granted by arranging quartzes in your ‘orbment’. Quartzes come in 8 different ‘elements’ and each character has a different configuration of quartz orbment slots to further differentiate them. In addition to quartz spells, each char has unique cool moves, crafts, that you gain combat points to use by doing things hitting or getting hit.
Combat Wheel - Timeline is at the left. Jusis (rapier) is up. Second is Machias (shotgun), then Fie (knives) gets a Zero Cast slot, then Rean (katana) gets 10 CP. Rean and Machias are combat linked as shown by the line below char portraits, and Fie and Jusis are linked as shown above, and also by visible links on the ground.
Chars and mobs have different action speeds, and different actions take different amounts of time to begin and recover from - spells have windup time, while crafts are instant. Like Grandia, there’s a timeline of chars and mobs, and a fast char might be able to take two actions before a slow mob takes one. Or you can smack a mob so hard it gets delayed. So far so Grandia, but there’s a further twist where turn slots have status effect, such as any action taken in this slot will be a critical hit or any spell here costs no EP. You can see these coming, so might want to pull out special moves or turn interrupts to make sure you get the critical hit slot rather than the boss.
Chars can link, which allows them to cover for each other and perform extra devastating link attacks - this is the huge improvement in combat over Trails and the semi-active nature gives it a much peppier feel.
Finally, at the end of combat you get exp bonuses based on cool things you did, like the Tales games - link well and you can expect to regularly get 1.3 to 1.8x exp.
See here for more info on the combat:
The World of Zemuria
Zemuria is a big part of the appeal. Nihon Falcom has thousands of pages of backstory on the world and all the Trails games take place on the same continent within a few years of each other. You will keep running into familiar faces. Major political players act consistently with their own goals and devious factional plots, and generally big world plot twists are consistent with what you’ve been shown.
The Capital City of Heimdallr
There is an ancient civilization still complicating things, but for the most part that’s a thousand years ago. The dark ages that followed are over, and this is a fairly turbulent civilization in the midst of an industrial revolution due to orbal technology - trains, planes, automobiles… and communications. Everything is in flux, and for once it’s not because there’s a Dark Lord, just because of technical progress.
There are a few issues. The Erebonian Empire is basically a bunch of Earth empires crammed together - German, British, Japanese, etc. - which makes things more relatable but can be jarring. And the Zemurian artifacts can be a bit deus ex machina in Sky, but are handled much more smoothly in Cold Steel.
But it’s a World and not just something they just slapped together. It holds, across six games so far, hopefully at least two more!
And as noted earlier, you are now actually a citizen (and technically member of the military) of the Big Evil Empire from the previous Trails games, which is a very interesting thing Cold Steel makes good use of. You’re just a kid who loves his country and just wants to get through his freshman year and maybe improve his swordwork. But… haha, fat chance!
How It’s Better than Trails in the Sky
Trails in the Sky SC was my best JRPG of 2015 previously, and certainly most wanted. But taking a step back from waiting 4 years to find out what happened to Estelle and Joshua (and it delivered, thank you XSeed) and trying to be objective…
- The combat’s improved. The char links make things more fun. The XP bonuses for extra skill make things more strategic. And the new higher stakes turn modifiers make turn order even more vital.
- You can skip past spell and special attack animations. A godsend after the 50th time.
- You can level up and swap out new super-quartzes in your central orbment slots for some major combat tweaks.
- There’s always something leveling up (chars, link levels, quartzes, weapons…)
- Sky was all about Estelle, and I love Estelle, but the revolving party door and hundreds of NPCs means you only also really get to know Kloe and Joshua well (maybe). Cold Steel is much more intimate - there are a core group of about 50 NPCs you will follow from start to end, and you will learn a lot about most.
- The tech has improved. Sky is 10 years old, and Cold Steel gives you a more intimate third person perspective without sacrificing anything.
How it’s worse:
- Olivert is nowhere near as deranged in this one. He’s at home and everyone knows who he is. Though he still manages some moments.
- Rean is just less interesting as a main character than Estelle. He’d be right at home as a Tales lead. But that’s what lets the other characters be more interesting.
Amazing Voicework and Translation
I’m calling this one out separately because it’s huge. The translations are great and very natural sounding. And Cold Steel has thousands of lines of voiced dialogue, and it’s all outstanding. XSeed put a lot of work into getting their perfect VA (Voice Actor) roles for each character, and it shows.
In particular Carrie Karanen just chews up the stage as Instructor Sara. But again, it’s all great. I’m normally one of those annoying Subs or GTFO people, but I never once felt inclined to look for a Japanese audio option. Okay, Millium is sometimes annoying, but that’s the character - the Japanese VA is much worse high pitched buzzsaw.
It Can’t be Perfect
Some small grumps:
- Many of the peripheral NPCs share character models which will soon look very familiar. Like these provincial army guys and generic housewife #3 there.
- The Vita version holds back the PS3 version a bit - environments are very angular. But the chars looks good enough.
- Sure wish you could skip some in-game scenes on New Game++. Update: It’s been pointed out you can hold O button to speed them up.
- Infrequently, a character pep talk gets a little too frank and on the nose and I find it hard to imagine any teen, much less adult, would simultaneously be that self-aware and open. Crow (no, not that one) even comments on this:
Crow: ‘Are you guys competing to see who can make me cringe the hardest?’
- The game has a solid ending, and the crazy final chapter really delivers on some plots… but like Sky FC there is a denouement that sets up a cliffhanger. And some plots are left hanging for future games. You’re in for the series. At least this time we know Cold Steel II is already on the way from XSeed.
Some warnings, which I consider features, but you may not:
- The whole school setting thing may turn some people off - but you already knew that if that’s you.
- Tons of dialogue - you better like like reading.
- If you haven’t played Trails in the Sky (and Zero and Ao, which may never come out here) you’re missing a lot of refs and cameos and world context.
- Everyone’s got some Drama, but there’s nothing too deep and horrible and emo. If you feed on Tragedy you will be disappointed.
No spoilers here, just some things I wish I’d known going in:
- Expect 60-80 hours for first playthrough. NG+ can be much much faster since you can keep levels and gear and know what you’re doing.
- PS3 version is ever so slightly better than Vita version (faster load times, slightly better graphics), but otherwise they seem to be exactly the same. Cross-save works great!
- There is no time but event time - you can take as long as you want, anywhere. Even if there’s a bomb going off in 30 seconds you can spend two hours running around the map till you click the red ‘!’. And the game is extremely good about warning you when you do something that will cause the plot to advance. So go at your own pace.
- Boss fights can be brutal, no shame in going with Easy just for the plot.
- Right shoulder button is run!
- Fish out fishing areas every time. They will restock themselves later so you don’t have to save them - and it’s free stuff!
- Money and U-Materials (for modding weapons) are in very tight supply till near the end, so do not buy new equip or upgrade existing weapons at the end of a field study unless you need to to survive. Better to save it for the better equipment at the start of next one.
- You will be tested! If you get a code, write it down. Pay attention to your study lessons - something there might pop up on midterm multiple choice.
- Improving your bonding stats with Sara and Crow isn’t a waste of link points.
Towa (an adorable chipmunk) is the best mascot character of 2015.
To Sum Up...
Should you play it? Hell yeah if you like character heavy JPRGs but want a little Grandia combat, ‘human’ NPCs, and and more politics in your Tales games. It may not be your favorite for the year but it’ll certainly hold you over for Persona 5 and Cosmic Star Heroine.