Nihon Falcom is a studio with a storied legacy and some landmark titles under its belt, though to the more casual RPG enthusiast, their name might not ring many bells. This is perhaps doubly so in the case of exclusively Nintendo fans, as not many of their titles have made an appearance on the company’s hardware in recent years. The Switch has proven to be a haven for RPGs, however, and Nippon Ichi Software has used the platform as a gateway to the wondrous works of Nihon Falcom. We were blessed with Ys VIII earlier on in the Switch’s lifespan, and we’ll be getting a port of Ys IX soon enough in 2021.
The three main pillars of Nihon Falcom’s RPG efforts are the Ys, Dragon Slayer, and Legend of Heroes series, and though only the first seems to stand alone, the Legend of Heroes series has found recent success with a branch of games known as the Trails subseries. Beginning in 2004, the Trails in the Sky, Crossbell, and Trails of Cold Steel cycles form a tight chronology, with many characters featuring across entries as well as taking place in a very condensed time period. There’s a great deal to unpack in these games, and diehard fans of the Trails, or Kiseki, titles praise it for its deep characterization and world-building. So, what happens when the first of these Trails titles to be released on the Nintendo Switch happens to be the third entry in what is considered the third cycle of games?
Well, lots of reading, for starters.
Trails of Cold Steel III is a game that takes place over the span of a few months and is a largely linear RPG that guides players through various locales based on the whereabouts of its central cast. You’ll take up the mantle of Rean Schwarzer, a war hero and instructor at the Thors Branch Military Academy, as he heads the new Class VII and helps guide them through field exercises. Though you’ll spend some time in Thors conversing with party members and support characters, the meat of the game is spent traveling across the land of Erebonia, completing quests and fighting monsters.
The game features a turn-based combat system that revolves around the management of several resources: HP, EP, CP, BP, and party positioning. Hit points must be kept in mind, as they will not regenerate over time without the aid of healing items, arts, or crafts. Energy Points are used to cast spells, which are equipped to characters via Materia-like Quartz slots. Craft Points can be generated by using the basic attack option and are spent in order to use a party member’s crafts, which are special skills gained via level-up. Lastly, Brave Points are generated by characters initiating link attacks, which can occur based on a character’s ability to “break” an enemy. Brave Points have a variety of meta-influencing effects, such as performing certain levels of link attacks, or executing Brave Orders, party-wide buffs that last for a certain amount of player turns.
Of the many party members you’ll encounter across the field exercises, you may take four into battle and pair them off into support links. The longer two characters are linked, the stronger their bond becomes, and they will assist one another frequently with certain special functions. These links also determine who will join a party member when they “break” an enemy. Enemies can be broken in more than one way and lose a turn of action and become highly susceptible to damage and further link attacks when their break gauge is depleted.
Looking at the eight-item combat menus in Trails of Cold Steel III can be somewhat dizzying, especially since the Arts and Crafts menus (I just typed that out for the first time and I feel like the Trails developers are trying to pull a fast one on me) both have sub menus for attack and support options. Each option on the combat menu is relatively unique from one another, and it can take a long time for the player to grow accustomed to all the resources they have on hand at a time, as well as their unique functions. Ultimately, most battles will boil down to a relatively straightforward cycle of breaking enemies in order to quickly dispatch them. Though each of the menu options is beneficial in some way, they are all highly situational. For example, you rarely want to use Arts because EP is a finite resource, but also because its effects are rarely useful unless an enemy is fully broken. BP is an incredibly hot commodity, if only because it can be used to deal hefty chunks of damage to enemies when fully broken, but can also be used for Brave Orders, of which there is one particularly useful option that makes Arts cast times immediate.
In a turn-based battle system where you can end up facing around a maximum of 8-10 enemies at a time, with variable speeds that can interrupt Arts casts and potentially attack multiple times before a single party member can execute an Art, the Arts system feels somewhat absurd and inherently flawed. In the early game, it feels especially limited by the lack of Quartz slots on each playable character. Yet, it is one of the most reliable methods of doling out reasonable heals to your allies, despite its slow execution method. With how BP and CP can be consistently generated in order to enhance aggression and break enemies, Arts ultimately feel like an afterthought, especially in comparison to how Quartz can be used alternatively.
In the field, you’ll be able to destroy various objects tucked into corners of maps in order to gain septium, a resource also dropped from enemy encounters that can be refined into Quartz. Although these Quartz can be further refined into higher level spells, they can also be equipped to Quartz slots as stat boosts. While some of these are incremental, they can end up becoming extremely refined and help specialize party members to an extreme degree. Unfortunately, both Quartz and Quartz slots take absurd amounts of septium in order to create or open, and considering you’ll need to create several Quartz of a certain type in order to combine and refine them to the next level, the grind towards maximizing your party can feel long and never-ending, with payoffs that seem worthwhile in the long run, but are ultimately incremental.
Aside from this, there are also infrequent mech battles that take place at turning points in the narrative, but these lack even less depth than normal combat and largely revolve around getting a successful break on your enemy. There’s plenty more that can be done via the similarly bloated logbook screen you’ll utilize throughout your adventure, such as checking up on lore, managing and tracking your side quests (which range from rare monster hunts, to purchasing or obtaining special items, to the mind-numbing NPC dialogue requests), equipping party members with items, and setting their positions on the battlefield. There’s a fishing game that feels… extremely finnicky, and a crazy card game that you can play with NPCs when you’re not busy with tasks that involve espionage, infiltration, and complex geopolitics. You can also get your cooking on, if you’re feeling a bit frisky. In many ways, Trails of Cold Steel III is an incredibly full-featured game, even if a number of these mechanics feel somewhat half-baked.
I rarely tend to break my reviews into separate narrative and aesthetic sections, because in many ways, I feel that narrative is an aesthetic choice and can often pair well with a discussion of the other elements of game design. But Trails of Cold Steel III demands a narrative section, particularly because I spent a good two hours reading through plot summaries of the first two Trails of Cold Steel entries before even booting up a new save file. Now, you might feel bad for me having to scour the internet for this information, but because publisher NISA was unable and unsure if the first two Cold Steel titles would ever make their way to Switch, they made sure to keep all this information on one of the main menu pages. So, I spent two hours within the game itself… not actually playing it.
What I learned about Class VII and the Empire of Erebonia was enough to make my head spin. Bracers, Enforcers, Black Workshops, Railway Military Police, Panzer Soldats, Ouroboros, and boy howdy, some official titles for people that made my eyes roll so hard, they almost got stuck turned perpetually upwards. There’s so much to know about the original Class VII that, upon starting the game and learning that Rean would be instructing a new version of this group and that all the people I had just spent two hours learning about would be featuring as guest appearances, I almost felt robbed. If that’s NISA’s way of getting me to want to play the first two games, then they succeeded.
The other reason I’d like to do so is because, even with a two-hour crash course on the lore of Erebonia, I had an utterly joyless experience watching the narrative unfold. Maybe I wouldn’t feel this way if I had played the previous games? From the very start of this narrative, I knew that Ouroboros was doing something sinister just beneath the surface of every field exercise I was involved in, and that Rean’s jerk dad-emperor sent him and his Military Academy friends out to these areas specifically to make life hard for him. These were the general gists I could glean, which were painfully obvious underneath the cyclical and largely lacking character dialogue.
The Trails series is known for character development, apparently, though the time-skip in-between the second and third installment is waved away via a series of lengthy dialogue sequences that tell the player little about how characters develop and instead tell them where characters have been. Aside from this, characters make painfully obvious observations and forced character introductions in ways that feel like a giant waste of time. The way characters are referred to as “mystery (x)-haired woman” until properly introduced to Rean is something that wears itself out in the first three hours of gameplay, which I should add is mostly spent in dialogue sequences.
In short, there are people who likely play RPGs for their story, and I will say that Trails of Cold Steel has one hell of a central narrative. It is something interwoven into the DNA of the entire Trails series, so attempting to play this installment for any reason other than the story seems absurd. I’ll also say that the ratio of dialogue sequences to actual playtime in these games is likely 2:1, and that is not praise in any way – at least, from my perspective. The opening credits for this game flash a number of character portraits and names at the player as if they are supposed to know – or care – about these individuals. It then follows those sequences up with a number of names without portraits, and I genuinely thought the game was trying to troll me. Actually, I’m not sure if some of the names and dialogue in here are meant to be taken seriously in any way – there’s a fire-based character named McBurn, for goodness’ sake.
The number of times Cold Steel III tears apart your main cast in order to shoehorn cameos from earlier games into the mix is annoying from the perspective of a newcomer or someone who wants to experience meaningful character growth via gameplay. Too often, the characters make bone-headed assumptions that seem largely influenced by pre-established prejudices and experiences, but the game thrives on keeping the player in the dark about these sorts of events not to enhance drama or make characters feel more realistic, but instead to have dead space to fill in a game that already feels bloated by its dialogue. Though am confused with whether the “deep characterization” of these games is instead a result of its tedious pacing, I will also give the game the benefit of the doubt for being the third installment in a cycle that likely set this precedent very early on. That doesn’t mean being brought up to speed at that same pace is enjoyable in any way, however.
The plot synopsis of Cold Steel I and II wasn’t bad, though.
Nihon Falcom’s titles tend to have a fairly consistent art style, all things considered, so those who have played Ys VIII on Switch should likely know what to expect from the Trails experience. Environmental textures are a bit muddy and dense, leaving them feeling muted in comparison with the relatively vibrant character models. For a game with such a wide variety of costumes and character models, it is a bit surprising to see that the main cast have a uniform outfit color scheme. Each of these characters has slight variations in their design, which lends them a bit of personality in a sea of similarly-colored individuals, the increased diversity found in support characters, such as the original Class VII, means that they draw the eye more than the core cast. There are simultaneous moments of absurdity and realism when a group of military individuals square off against a scantily-clad, leather-bound pyromaniac and an armor-boasting valkyrie, but I suppose that’s to be expected from a Japanese title.
Environmental design is segmented, with a compass pointing North at all times no matter how you rotate the map screen in order to help you get your bearings. With this being said, the dungeon design is very sparse, with many environments feeling linear simply because of their environmental context – ramparts and city roads, and what have you – which is decidedly non-fantastic for a fantasy/sci-fi-themed RPG. The music and soundscape on the whole are similarly Nihon Falcom-themed, with many bombastic tracks that err more on the grandiose side with their instrumentation. Many towns feature quaint and peaceful melodies that contrast the thrilling strings and horns of the battle themes, and a victory theme that is snappy and upbeat, as one might hope. There’s little to complain about in terms of sound effects, though the characters do have a very limited number of voice lines for lines and attacks in battle.
There is one element of Trails III that proves problematic, and it factors heavily into the nature of its dialogue and narrative. The pacing of cutscenes and scripted sequences is extremely slow, with many slow pans from one place to the next, or flashes of character portraits in order to impress the features of a character or the importance of a moment. While the game does have a very, very, very handy three times speed enhancer, this only further accentuates the glacial cutscene composition, as sequences that play out with a fairly decent rhythm at this speed would feel boring otherwise, though combat animations also feel uncomfortably fast. It feels as if the game is rubber-banding between moments of brisk combat and terribly slow dialogue, and it seems that the overall pace of the game has yet to find a comfortable balance. Who knows if this will be rectified in its sequel.
Impressions and Conclusion
If there’s one thing I’m impressed with in regard to the Trails series, it’s that it feels wholly different from my personal favorite Nihon Falcom series, Ys. This is a great thing in terms of variety, though the execution has left me wanting. I cannot recommend this title to any series newcomer in good faith, as there’s a whole two-thirds of the story that you’ll have missed out upon despite getting some fairly decent catch-up in a series of menus. While it is technically a decent “reset point,” with an all-new Class VII being introduced (though really, one third of the characters are from previous titles), the amount of cameos and momentum drops due to introductions of old friends is harrowing.
If you feel capable of stomaching Trails of Cold Steel III or are already familiar with the previous entries, what merit does the actual gameplay have? As previously mentioned, you’ll be spending a great deal of time forcibly swapping out playable party members with supports, which means there’s little feeling of consistency. The opposite side of this equation is the main septium grind of the game, which means Quartz can be transferred and exchanged between characters who have been in the party for some time as well as benched members, for story or gameplay reasons. The Brave Order system feels particularly broken as a way to avoid damage and cheese fights, but on the other hand, enemy encounters can easily wipe an unprepared party if you should engage in combat at a disadvantage.
There were a few times where my party was slain and I restarted the fight, coming out on top simply because the enemy AI failed to repeat the same chain of actions. While it usually takes me a bit of time to wrap my head around certain combat systems, I found Trails to be a frustrating experience in terms of gameplay, as enemy information is difficult to discern even with identify skills and abilities are extremely unreliable. You’ll certainly need to learn the language of the series quickly if you want to avoid feeling as if you’re bashing your head against a wall, and as a third installment, Trails of Cold Steel III isn’t very forgiving in this regard.
There are, of course, some people who will enjoy the “free mode” sections of the game, which involve talking to party members and other NPCs in order to raise bonds between them, as well as an opportunity to complete mostly dialogue-focused quests. The core of these gameplay sections is advancing the narratives of certain characters, so once again, you can see how the Trails experience is almost entirely story. You can spend anywhere from seventy to one-hundred hours on a single playthrough, completing the inane tasks of townspeople, battling others in card games, and watching this story ultimately end in a cliffhanger that gives you no choice but to wonder what will come next. As an outsider looking in on the Trails games and their reception, I see swaths of overwhelmingly positive impressions that largely indicate that its playerbase has already made up their mind regardless of the game’s quality.
As someone now experimenting with the Trails series for the first time, I can say that it really isn’t my thing, but if you enjoy formulaic narratives with highly predictable twists and turns and a consistent wink and grin inherent in their dialogue, the Trails series might be for you – the first cycle, or even Cold Steel I. But, as the first major release of the Trails series on Nintendo consoles, Trails of Cold Steel III does itself no favors and offers a substantially hefty package with little depth or substance.
And if I ever have to hear the title “Ashen Chevalier” ever again, I might beat my own head in with a tachi.