INTRO / STORY without spoilers
The story of Rean Schwarzer continues in Trails of Cold Steel III, which arrives June 30th for the Nintendo Switch. Having graduated Thors Military Academy at the end of the second entry, Rean now finds himself instructing a new class of students at Thors’ branch campus in Leeves. The story in the Trails games has always been one of their strongest elements, and Trails of Cold Steel III is no exception here. The story is brilliant, and I found myself hooked and immersed immediately into the new campus life and character interactions. That said, this series does tend to rely on character information and plot development from previous entries, in this case with characters going all the way back to Trails in the Sky. For those who have played all of the entries leading up to this game, it is an absolute joy to see these characters that you were first introduced to years ago, almost like seeing an old friend again.
This is one of the inherent obstacles in a game that relies so heavily on plot, backstory, and character history. The story in this game is absolutely brilliant, but if you haven’t played Trails of Cold Steel or Trails of Cold Steel II, much of the beginning will feel foreign to you. So much of this game’s story serves as an extension of the previous two that it might seem like filler if you’re not familiar with the series. There are a couple of optional and very lengthy narratives that you can watch before starting the game, and I’d recommend doing so whether or not you’ve played the first two entries. It helped me to organize the events leading up to this game, and it gives you a very small glimpse of the first two entries’ story.
The battle system will feel familiar to you if you’ve played any of the Trails entries. Enemies are visible on the screen, so there are no random battles. You initiate battle by running into enemies, but if you are able to strike them covertly, you gain a significant advantage of a boost to your party’s stats, and additional turns before the enemy is able to act. On the other hand, if the enemy approaches you from the back, they will get to act first.
Combat itself is very traditional turn-based, with a slight twist. In addition to turn-based commands, such as attack, magic (called arts), and skills (called crafts), players may choose to move around the board in lieu of attacking. This gives you the ability to move a character out of the path of an enemy attack, or direct an attack away from your characters by moving your character who’s being targeted. You can also use this ability to move your characters into an aoe heal spell. It adds a nice three-dimensional aspect and element of strategy to battles, while still maintaining a turn-based feel.
Trails of Cold Steel I and II struck the perfect balance of story/character interaction and battle, and this entry doesn’t really change much with that successful formula. Fans of the series will feel right at home participating in school events and training, interacting with and strengthening the relationship between Rean and his colleagues, friends, and students, engaging in dungeon-like RPG exploring, and visiting neighboring towns to assist people as needed, very à la bracer. For those of you who enjoy RPG battles, but also appreciate character interaction and development, the Trails series really finds the perfect balance of both.
This game builds on the previous two, and as such, the visuals aren’t meant to blow you away. They aren’t the selling point of the game, but honestly, visuals shouldn’t be the selling point of any RPG. That said, the visuals on Trails of Cold Steel III are impressive, intentionally detailed, and very well done. I found myself enjoying just walking around the various towns, taking in the scenery, looking at the little details, and searching for the optional side-quests. I also really appreciated the emotion displayed on the characters’ faces as they spoke. Coming from the PS Vita versions of Cold Steel I and II, everything on the Nintendo Switch was brighter, more intricate, and certainly more immersive. During my time with the game, I didn’t experience any slowdown during any of the larger or busier towns, and combat was smooth and lag-free.
Falcom soundtracks are always top-tier, and are worth purchasing on their own. The Trails of Cold Steel I and II had masterfully-composed soundtracks, and III takes it even further. You can hear the familiar melodies and progressions of the first two games, mixed with a good deal of new material. The multiple battle tracks are intense, some leaning toward more of a rock-feel, while others put the piano or violin in the predominant role. The OST is now officially on my watch-list, as it’s something worthy of owning independently.
The voice-acting is all very well-done, as you would expect in a Trails game. Most of the dialog was voice-acted, which really helped add to the story immersion and character development. It was all well-voiced, with nothing seeming forced or over-acted. My only complaint with this aspect is that I would have liked even more of it to be voiced, as it was so much more enjoyable when it was.
VALUE & REPLAY
Character interaction and relationship building are a considerable element of the Trails of Cold Steel series. In these games, you develop your relationship with other characters by using “Bonding Points.” Doing so will give your character extra abilities and perks in battle when you are paired with those characters, and will influence story dialog as it progresses. As such, I feel like replays of all of these games are very much worth your time. I played Cold Steel I and II a second time in anticipation of III, and on the second play-through they didn’t feel stale or less-exciting. The story is well-written, to the point that it keeps you engaged, and I was able to make some different character development choices the second time, making the story feel a bit different. That, plus the fact that there are varying difficulty levels and new game+ gives you so many hours on these games. I am still working to complete III, but from what I have seen, you’re looking at 60 to 90+ hours on a single play-through, so the retail price of this game is a very good deal!