Like the serpent of Ouroboros forever devouring its own tail, my hunger for The Legend of Heroes series seems infinite. I’ve been following every twist and turn of its earnest melodrama since the first game in the series, Trails in the Sky, made its North American debut in 2011.
I’ve saved Liberl with bracer Estelle Bright, delved into an illusory Gehenna with Father Kevin Graham, uncovered the dark history of Crossbell with detective Lloyd Bannings, and watched Erebonian youth Rean Schwarzer grow from stumbling student to military academy instructor. Given that the middle chapter of this series has yet to be released outside of Japan, my willingness to seek it out and experience it nonetheless should stand as a testament to my commitment to seeing The Legend of Heroes through. All of this is to say that I was exceptionally eager to dive into this latest chapter of the Cold Steel series—to see what fate might befall the ever-burgeoning cast of men and women I’ve been getting to know over the past eight years.
Trails of Cold Steel III kicks off a new sub-chapter in this winding tale that is equal parts political intrigue and interpersonal drama. A year and a half after the events of Trails of Cold Steel II, Rean Schwarzer, now a war hero for his role in the annexation of new territories for the Erebonian Empire, assumes his new role as an instructor at Thors Military Academy’s branch campus. His position puts him at the head of a new group of ragtag students hailing from across the Empire he reluctantly serves, all of whom eventually work together to unearth the dark conspiracy behind the Empire’s explosive growth.
Narrative is at the core of Trails of Cold Steel III. This slow-burning “story RPG series,” as it’s known in Japan, takes its sweet time setting up a multitude of disparate plot threads before weaving them together in spectacular fashion. Cold Steel III is no exception to this design philosophy; it took me nearly 100 hours to see the credits roll on this massive tale, though I admittedly took my time combing through every side quest and line of dialogue I could wring from its enormous script. Rean’s emotional growth makes for a compelling narrative hook, though newcomers like the fiery police academy transfer student Juna and the nigh-omnipotent yet delightfully unhinged principal Aurelia LeGuin shine even brighter than Rean when given the opportunity. As decidedly “anime” as Cold Steel III‘s sensibilities may be, its characters are well-written and skillfully brought to life by their respective voice actors.
At the same time, however, Cold Steel III suffers from something of a “middle child syndrome.” Being the third game in a four-part arc (which is itself part of a larger series that numbers nine games strong), Cold Steel III unavoidably sits between a clear beginning and end. It introduces an intriguing new cast of characters to complement the personalities I’ve already spent hundreds of hours learning about, but their stories are doomed to be incomplete from the outset. There is also no more avoiding the fact that Cold Steel III is preceded by a two-game arc that was never localized—Trails to Zero and Trails to Azure—both of which connect explicitly to the events of this latest entry. Finally, itends on one hell of a cliffhanger that will likely not see resolution for another year or two, given the pace of its localization and the fact that Cold Steel IV, the series finale, has yet to be confirmed for an English release. As Rean’s story reaches its climax, there is so much raw “power” converging in terms of legendary characters and deus ex machinae that I worry about the series’ delicate world-building being thrown out of whack if it continues this way much longer. This chapter has more untouchable supervillains, ancient evils, and legendary MacGuffins than any series entry to date, and even I think it’s beginning to reach critical mass.
What’s more, even though I am a self-professed Trails fanatic, I’m getting a little tired of the same jokes about gender and sexuality cropping up in these games. One character, the flirtatious sniper Musse, exemplifies this phenomenon especially well; she spends about 90% of the game making salacious comments towards Rean, despite being his student, and she professes an interest in yaoi/Boys’ Love novels that is consistently derided by nearly every member of the cast. It’s like her entire existence is a cipher for a very particular straight-male-oriented fantasy, and I found her presence in the story incredibly off-putting. There’s a difference between a playful, one-off comment and making a specific group of people the butt of a recurring joke. There is a second, more grievous issue regarding the game’s few queer characters, but elaborating further would push deep into spoiler territory. Falcom would do well to embrace the entirety of its fandom through the character-building mechanics it has clearly grown adept at implementing rather than alienate with questionable writing patterns. None of this is to say that Cold Steel III is inessential, but it does…push it, I suppose, in terms of the time commitment and overall investment it expects from prospective players. It’s a little frustrating to leap into such a massive, story-centric game knowing that it will remain incomplete for literal years to come.
But Cold Steel III isn’t a visual novel; it’s a robust turn-based RPG enhanced by a variety of iterative mechanical improvements. More polished and accessible than ever, Cold Steel III‘s combat system takes inspiration from the likes of Persona 5 with simplified, one-button commands that are quick to select, input, and execute. The signature ARCUS combat link system returns, allowing pairs of characters to support one another with follow-up attacks, reactive heals, and more depending on the mutual affinity they cultivate outside of battle. Cold Steel III introduces an enemy “break” system not unlike the one in Lightning Returns, as well as the new Brave Order system, which allows any character in the party to execute a party-wide buff with effects befitting their personalities. Bad boy Ash can dramatically boost the party’s strength and critical rate, for example, while the taciturn Altina can briefly make her teammates invulnerable using the mysterious technology she wields in battle.
Brave Orders are a sensible addition to combat, but they also feel overwhelmingly broken in the player’s favor. Because the core conceit of the Trails battle system has always been to overwhelm foes before they act, actions like swordswoman Laura’s party-wide 60% damage boost make it possible to swiftly dispatch even the most imposing bosses before they can so much as blink twice for “no.” But speed seems to be the name of the game in Cold Steel III. Thanks to a fast-forward option and an animation skip function, players can either luxuriate in the game’s over-the-top attack animations—a particular brand of cheesiness I absolutely revel in—or breeze past them as they like. Despite the game’s tendency to skew easy on its baseline difficulty level, combat remains a pleasure throughout.
As the first entry in the series to be developed natively for the PS4, Cold Steel III is the pinnacle of visual fidelity for the franchise thus far, but it still cannot compete with its bigger-budget contemporaries. Soundtracks, on the other hand, are an area where Falcom typically excels, and this go-round is no different. Cold Steel III upholds the developer’s penchant for uplifting, mood-setting, and emotional compositions throughout. Battle themes are far and away the stars of the show here, between the pulsing, mechanical rhythm of “Lift-Off!,” the chaotic piano progression of “Step Ahead,” the breakneck strings of “Sword of Biting Gale,” and the crunchy, dark synth of “Doomsday Trance.” Endgame finale track “Spiral of Erebos” deserves a special mention for the earworm quality of its violin melody. It’s been days and I’m still waking up with it in my head.
Despite its handful of foibles, some of which are inextricably tied to its position in the greater series trajectory, Trails of Cold Steel III remains an absolutely integral piece of the Legend of Heroes puzzle. Faster, flashier battles and butt-kicking music carry it far when the wings of its narrative grow tired from their protracted glide towards the finale.