The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III is the third of Nihon Falcom’s Trails of Cold Steel quartet of JRPGs. As a longtime fan of the Trails series, I fell in love with the world of Zemuria and its incredibly expansive cast of characters in its first two arcs (Trails in the Sky and Trails from Zero/to Azure). I initially started with the series on Trails of Cold Steel I and II before working my way from the start, and while I generally enjoyed the first half of the Cold Steel arc, there were areas I wanted to see improvement going into Cold Steel III.
Where To Begin?
Unlike many game franchises, Trails features a grand and overarching narrative with a heavy focus on its characters and continuity. While each set of games focuses mainly on one setting, events and characters of previous games regularly resurface with each new game. If you’re interested in starting the series from Trails of Cold Steel III, you can find a rather detailed synopsis of the events of previous Cold Steel games in-game via the title screen menu. There are also many records in the in-game libraries that describe events of past games (mostly previous Cold Steel games and Trails to Azure).
While these options are there, they’re not an especially strong substitute for the full experience of past Trails games, particularly those before Azure. Without that, you miss out on a lot of background information and much of the world-building and character arcs. NPCs constantly reference places and events from past games. Much of my experience with this game was constantly pointing at the screen and saying “I remember that!” There’s a constant sense that Zemuria is this living, multifaced world that goes beyond any one game or arc, and it’s easy to feel lost without that added context.
Arise, O Youth!
Trails of Cold Steel III opens the back half of the Cold Steel arc. It begins around two years after the events of Cold Steel II (and the concurrent Trails to Azure). Protagonist Rean Schwarzer, now a decorated veteran of the army of the vast Empire of Erebonia, joins the teaching staff of the newly formed second campus of his alma mater, Thors Military Academy. Though he returns to a similar school setting as the previous two Cold Steel titles, his role as a teacher rather than a student offers a welcome change of pace. At the academy is a whole host of new faces as well as characters familiar to those who have played both prior CS games and previous arcs.
Rean now takes on the role of instructor to the special operations class he once was a part of, known as Class VII. Now being heralded as “the Ashen Chevalier”, Rean has to balance his newfound responsibilities as an instructor with special orders from the government. Along the way, he winds up in the path of several looming threats that seek to shape the course of history for Erebonia and Zemuria as a whole.
Class VII, Move Out!
Like past Trails games, Cold Steel III places a heavy amount of narrative emphasis on its colorful cast of characters. The “New Class VII” is by and large my favorite narrative component of the back half of the Cold Steel quartet. Cold Steel I and II introduced a lot of characters upfront with its Class VII and did a rather poor job of giving them all enough development or a firmly established role in the group. Cold Steel III thankfully keeps its initial nucleus of cast members much smaller and develops them a lot quicker by comparison.
The New Class VII keeps to its main core of six members, those being Rean and his students Juna, Kurt, Altina, and later Ash and Musse. I felt like I knew more about every member of New Class VII within the first few hours of them joining than even some primary cast members of the entire previous two games. While some of this is due to the presence of familiar faces anchoring the group (namely Rean and Altina), I still vastly prefer a small cast that expands over time to a frontloaded one.
I also feel that Rean has better characterization in this role. He felt rather bland in Cold Steel I and II, and his role as protagonist felt given rather than properly developed. Being a more seasoned mentor in his role as instructor makes him more naturally fill the role of the leader. While I still don’t find him all that compelling and prefer other characters, he’s overall better written to fit in with Cold Steel III’s direction. In particular, his dynamics with Ash, Juna, and Altina made for some great character interactions. All three of them became easily my favorite characters in the Trails of Cold Steel arc.
Trails games are particularly known for how often NPCs text updates, with new things to say and conversations to be had. Cold Steel III is no exception. The regularly updating dialogue made the game engrossing just to experience day-to-day and keep up with the goings-on of Thors students and common townsfolk. I’m not one for talking to every NPC in JRPGs, but here I often went out of my way just to look for enjoyable new conversations.
The rest of the cast left me with somewhat mixed feelings. Characters from all prior arcs regularly come in and out of the story, especially Old Class VII. I adore a great many of the characters of the series and was happy to see many of them again, but this game at times struggles with juggling all the old characters with the new. I felt cast members from previous games began to encroach on New Class VII’s active development and screentime.
There are also just way too many antagonists being built up, diluting any of their impact on the story. The narrative juggles many enemy factions at once and doesn’t resolve much with them. A frequent occurrence in this game is where a villain shows up, fights you in a boss battle that goes unresolved, and then leaves with a “not bad, I’ll fight you later”. This is far from unusual in this series, but my patience for it ran thin here. Given this game is already the third game of the arc, and many of these are already established villains who have done this before, I was hoping for some more immediate payoff to start to manifest.
Like Trails of Cold Steel I, Cold Steel III uses a calendar-based chapter system, with each chapter happening over about a month. Each chapter is a period with academics and training, free days to spend time with characters, and ends on an extended field study where most of the drama happens. The field studies often emphasize the backstory and arc of a particular member of Class VII, while also building up the main story along the way.
There are a lot of plotlines and concepts this game takes time to reintroduce from prior games. In some cases, this works well. Chapters 1 and 2 have some of my favorite portions of the entire Cold Steel arc as they focus on high-intrigue, familiar areas. That said, Cold Steel III is rather backloaded with its more impactful story beats, as a majority of key moments happen around its climax. Several sections between the halfway point and the finale drag on a bit too much. The highs of this game’s story are strong, but I wish it was denser.
Places to Go, People to See
A big part of the Trails experience is the content beyond the main story. Alongside required quests, there are plenty of sidequests and challenges to take on. In addition to money and items, you also obtain academy points (AP) to up your rank for doing well on quests, with some pretty handsome rewards for higher ranks. Plenty of optional events further reward you for engaging in the game’s world. There’s lots to do on the side, including recipe collecting and the obligatory fishing minigame. There’s even an elaborate in-game collectible card game called Vantage Masters, a fun minigame reminiscent of those of several beloved classic RPGs.
Previous Trails games had a problem where a lot of optional scenes and quests were temporary, hidden, and easy to miss. While Trails’s structure naturally creates a lot of time-based missables, it could be irritating to miss out on quests and events by not triggering them at their highly specific place and time. Thankfully, the vast majority of “hidden” quests and special events are indicated on the game’s minimap starting with Cold Steel III. While the game doesn’t outright tell you about them, I appreciate not having to glue my eyes to a guide or constantly talk to every NPC to not miss them. The game also indicates any time fulfilling a special condition in a fight grants you additional AP, eliminating the guesswork that caused issues in prior games where this was hidden information.
Cold Steel games also feature “bonding events” where on certain days you can have Rean hang out and bond with a selection of characters. I’m not a huge fan of these, as they feel like a pale imitation of social sim elements from other games. Some scenes are enjoyable little diversions, but given Cold Steel III’s place in the middle of the arc, its bonding scenes felt rather underwhelming and lacked much real sense of finality when maxed out.
For as appealing as the worldbuilding aspect of Trails is, the raw fundamentals of the combat systems kept me coming back. There’s plenty of depth to the battle mechanics, but it’s pretty simple to grasp in practice. That said, I think Cold Steel III introduces too much into the mix.
Like all prior Trails games, combat is in an arena space not too dissimilar from many turn-based strategy games, but otherwise plays similar to other turn-based JRPGs. Many skills have an area of effect rather than just hitting select targets. The two main forms of skills are arts and crafts, which are magic and character-specific abilities that use a separate resource (EP and CP) respectively. Every action has a certain delay value to it; the higher the delay, the longer it takes for that combatant to get their next turn.
When someone reaches 100 CP, they can perform an S-Craft, which allows them to cut in line on the turn order to perform a powerful signature skill. The turn sequence is displayed on-screen and also sometimes features an assortment of random effects (either beneficial or detrimental) for whoever’s turn it is. Paying attention to the turn sequence and being opportunistic with your decision-making is key to getting an advantage in battle, which keeps combat engaging.
You also have a resource shared by every character called Brave Points (BP). You can pair characters up to form a “combat link”, and any time a character hits an enemy with a critical hit or a weapon type they are vulnerable to, you can perform different follow-up actions that either grant BP or use BP. New to Cold Steel III are Brave Orders, which are temporary buffs you can use on your turns for a certain number of BP. Many of these have ridiculously powerful game-changing effects and are relatively spammable. Enemies also now have a “break gauge”, where if you do enough “break damage” you can put them in a much more vulnerable state.
Taken in tandem with the potency of S-Crafts, which have gotten considerably more potent, the combat system becomes severely abusable. It’s almost more difficult to not break the combat system than it is to do so with all these tools. On top of this, most sections in between the game’s bosses are a breeze, with few non-boss enemies posing any real threat. I still had fun playing the game, but I wish combat options felt more balanced.
I opted for Nightmare difficulty (the highest by default), an experience that I can only describe as a “beautiful yet a total mess”. Bosses feel ridiculous to match the absurdly powerful options the player has. Most bosses have a desperation mode when below 50% HP where they become significantly harder to kill, regenerate HP, and hit much harder. Fights that got to this state often felt borderline unwinnable.
Almost out of necessity, my strategy usually consisted of highly cheesy setups to circumvent this entirely. Typically, this would involve trying to set up in a way that I could skirt around this and load my damage into a super-turn to bypass this phase altogether. If that didn’t work, try until it did. This took care of most bosses, and I felt like I was fighting against the very game design itself rather than properly engaging with it. I had some fun breaking things, but it didn’t feel particularly organic.
Trails of Cold Steel III is a major step up in visual quality now that they don’t have to also make it run on a PS Vita like I and II did. While not awe-inspiring, the game looks fine in motion for a 2017 JRPG. I also dig most of the new and redone character designs and costumes. I have a couple of nitpicks with a few cutscene animations, and a number of the female character models have somewhat exaggerated proportions that go beyond simple fanservice. Still, overall the game looks much smoother than the first two Cold Steel entries.
I initially played the PS4 version of Cold Steel III on my PS5 to compare to. As an upgrade, this new PS5 release does have a couple of welcome performance touch-ups and loads slightly faster but is otherwise a marginal graphical upgrade. It also looked like the PS5 version has a slightly darker, less saturated color palette. However, the only aspect I found definitively worse was the choice of colors for combat numbers, which were odd and harder to read. The biggest perk to the PS5 version is definitely that it comes with all DLC pre-installed, which adds a lot of new outfits, cosmetics, and items for Rean and Class VII to use.
Combat animations range from simple to rather flashy. The game does have a highspeed function that speeds up much of the game if you find things too slow, and most cutscenes and combat animations have a button you can press to skip them. I find faster animations are nicer to look at than black screens over skipped animations, but having both options to play the game at my own pace was welcome given how long it is.
Falcom’s Sound Team (jdk) has a reputation for top-notch soundtracks, and their work on Cold Steel III continues that legacy. Boss themes kick up the heat to match the intensity of major battles, while the field themes beautifully match the tone of the various locales. Several beloved tunes from prior games are tastefully inserted into relevant scenes without leaning too hard into the nostalgia factor. While I found some tunes aren’t quite at their best in terms of mixing or arrangement, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III still has plenty to like.
The voice acting for both English and Japanese voiceovers is quite solid. Some characters that previously only had Japanese voiceover now have an English dub, and I like most of the casting choices despite being used to their Japanese counterparts. Several actors give some pretty fantastic performances here, with noticeable care put forth in bringing these characters to life. My only significant complaint about the voice acting is the inconsistency of which lines are voiced. Some cutscenes will have a couple of characters or lines with voice-over while the rest just use standard text blip sounds, which can be rather jarring.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III is difficult to recommend for Trails newcomers, though there are in-game resources to help bridge that gap. If you liked Cold Steel I and II, then there’s a very solid chance you’ll enjoy III, though plenty of scenes or lines probably still go over your head if that’s all you’ve seen.
With that said, Cold Steel III is incomplete by itself. Despite its excesses, its narrative builds slowly into something that isn’t fully resolved until the next game, and it has shortcomings of its own. I still find Cold Steel III to be the best game of the four narratively overall, but it’s also held back by significant pitfalls in combat. Nonetheless, I still got a decent amount of enjoyment out of the game thanks to the better aspects of the story and the core fundamentals of the Trails battle system. It’s a high-maintenance game to get the most out of, with rough edges, but I still found it enjoyable more often than not.
THE LEGEND OF HEROES: TRAILS OF COLD STEEL III IS RECOMMENDED
If you’d like to check out the next game in the series, here’s our review for The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV. If you are looking for another JRPG, you should check out our review of Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk DX.
Thanks to Reef Entertainment for providing a PlayStation 5 review code for The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III.
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Been playing games since my papa gave me an NES controller in the early 90’s. I enjoy games of almost all genres, but especially role-playing, action, and puzzle-platform games. Enjoyer of many niche things ranging from speedrunning to obscure music from all over the world.