It’s been a while since I’ve had a good traditional RPG. Sure, Bloodborne and Xenoblade Chronicles: X have held me over for a bit, but they’re not the same as those traditional turn-based tales; spanning vast lands, capturing our imaginations while testing our wits. Which is why I was so surprised to see classic turn-based combat in The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel and not some action-RPG real-time combat that certain pioneers of the genre have been leaning towards. I thought for sure that The Legend of Heroes was going to remind me of those days of yore, however, it started treading far too deep into the waters of JRPG.
Originally released in 2013 (followed by a sequel in 2014) The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is the 11th installment in the Legend of Heroes franchise (although its first games were titled Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes).
It is a time of turmoil in the Erebonian Empire as increased tensions between the four noble houses and the common people continue to rise. The game follows Rean Shwarzer and his eight classmates as they begin their studies at Thor’s Military Academy. Much like the plot of a hundred animes, they’re a special class that does not acknowledge class or background, which of course some of the characters object to until they learn to work together. The plot mainly follows Rean and the individual classmates, who also make up your battle partners, as they travel the land, learn about the places and people they protect and grow as individuals.
As far as stories go, while it’s not entirely inspired, it’s by no means bad. However, it’s presented in a very anime style, feeling more episodic than progressive. It’s also presented like an anime in the way that none of the characters act like real people and it makes most of them pretty unlikeable.
Gameplay is repetitive even by RPG standards. I don’t mean there is a lot of repetitive fighting and grinding, I mean you literally do the same things over and over. Once the main game picks up, you start to see the familiar paces. Each day starts with a brief quiz, where a correct answer will earn you an Attack Point for battle. You then have a day to get two friendship events in (getting both will net you an extra “night time” friend event). There are even some optional quests that involve nothing but running around town and talking to people. Eventually, you go into the school dungeon and fight some monsters and a boss. After skipping ahead a couple of days, you have a “practical exam” which involves fighting one mini-boss with a specific victory requirement. Rean and a handful of “chosen by the story” characters go to a different part of the world to do basically the same thing. When I noticed this same formula played out twice in a row, the exact way, I knew I was going to get bored of Trails of Heroes quick.
For the most part, the game feels cheap in its overall presentation. The way characters walk in unison, lack of animations, and the way sometimes every character but Rean has voiced narration. It doesn’t add much to a story that’s following a very obviously repetitive, gameplay-extending formula.
The combat is the only place where the game stands out. It’s traditional turn-based, with the usual standard magic and skill based attacks. However, you’re given a small battlefield where you can move and position yourself. While there’s no real tactical advantage to strikes from behind an enemy, different attacks can be delivered in AOE circles, or straight lines through multiple enemies, so placing certain characters in certain areas to either lure or control enemies adds an interesting element to combat. New to this game (or it was) is the Tactical Link System. When completing “friend events,” characters will increase their “Link Levels”, which means when those characters are linked in combat they can perform support attacks to deal extra damage. Also, much like Skies of Arcadia, it has that RPG turn-order bar where using certain attacks can place you higher or lower on bar, forcing you to optimize.
Lastly for the combat is the “Battle Orbment” system. Each character has a special Battle Orbment (which is basically a phone that holds magic rocks). Using a form of elemental currency called “Sepith,” players can create magic imbuing Quartz. Players can also use the sepith to unlock slots in their Orbment, further increasing their magical arsenal. Each character also gets “Master Quartz” which gives the characters special ultimate abilities.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel had my attention and lost it. While it makes me happy to see the RPG genre still being served traditional fare, a classic combat system can’t make up for a poorly told story, annoying characters, repetitive gameplay and far too many bad anime tropes. The trail of Legend of Heroes goes cold as steel.