by Sean Martin
reviewed on PC
Back to School
I have a lot of great memories from JRPGs: the absolute joy of ship battles in Skies of Arcadia, the interesting live-action combat system in Tales of Symphonia, the feeling of success at beating a hard level (without anyone dying) in Fire Emblem, but it has always been a genre that frustrated me as much as I enjoyed it. There are the overly convoluted combat systems, where bosses sometimes get three attacks instead of one, and wipe out your entire party with a single attack. There are the information dumps, overwhelming you with places, people, factions and histories. There are the often stereotyped characters who are all so polite and apologize for everything, making you want to shout at them to start standing up for themselves or at least start swearing at each other a bit. For me, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is a game that couldn’t help but remind me of what is both best and worst in the genre.
You are Rean Schwarzer, newly enrolled student and swordsmen at the Thors Military Academy, most prestigious military school in the Erebonian Empire. You form part of the new initiative called ‘class VII’, a group of nine students brought together because of their proficiency to ‘combat link’. The story begins with an overwhelming action sequence in which you are granted all the combat abilities, but when it ends you flashback to five months earlier, doing the old “Here’s a taste of the best abilities, now you’ve got to earn them”. The story then takes the structure of the academic year; you have practical exams, mid-terms and free days, in which you get roped into completing tasks for the student council (which often left them feeling decidedly unfree). On these days you can also complete ‘bonding’ with your classmates. You also have field studies in which you and a group of your classmates go off to a new area to complete more tasks for the locals, often including monster slaying and mystery solving, for which you also get graded. This narrative structure is really successful and the field studies give you glances into the overarching political upheavals that threaten Erebonia, before returning you to your sheltered academic bubble.
So the main unique mechanic is called ‘combat link’ and this allows you to link members of your party in turn-based combat. This means that linked characters will sometimes have a chance to follow up their attack with an attack from their partner, or a variety of other moves. Combat link abilities are unlocked by strengthening your bond with characters, which gives you more of a reason to make an effort with your classmates. I liked this mechanic but it did annoy me slightly when it came to bonding activities. I wanted the choice to bond with whoever I chose, as opposed to having to bond with the characters who I thought were jerks (I’m not talking damaged because of backstory, one of them is actually a jerk), but often the only choice I was given was to bond or not to bond. Also if I didn’t bond with them our combat link would suck when it inevitably came to fighting alongside them. Though a lot of the characters appear to be fulfilling stereotypes at first, most of them are actually pretty engaging. I was made to think twice for prejudging one of the bratty characters when I heard his backstory and I found that despite myself I was getting invested.
The other combat mechanics are fairly usual; you have health, EP and CP. You need health to live (as in real life) while EP is used for ‘Arts’ (*cough cough* magic) and CP is used for ‘Crafts’ (special moves). And yes, you read correctly, you use Arts and Crafts to defeat your enemies. Of all of this the combat link is the standout mechanic and undoubtedly makes the combat flow far better than most of its turn-based counterparts, but unfortunately this ability takes time to develop and without it the boss difficulty is somewhat absurd. There was one two-part boss especially who had a move called ‘Double Cracker’ which would instakill a member of my party, and one turn for no conceivable reason I could see, it got to do a Double Cracker twice (Quadruple Cracker) which wiped out most of my full health party. When you die there is an option to ‘weaken enemies and retry’ but when you’ve had to do that three times you begin to ponder if it’s perhaps the game that’s the problem. Before I got the advanced combat link abilities, most of the boss combat for me was spent desperately healing while building CP to perform the special moves, the only attacks that would really dent a boss’ health pool (also because I wanted to watch the pretty animations.)
As with other JRPGs, the game has a tendency to info-dump. My first realization of this was when a credit sequence played after the intro in which it named and showed every single character I was going to meet in the game (which felt unnecessary). Also when characters introduced themselves it would show me a text version of their name before they literally told me their name. There were also those inevitable points of exposition in dialogue, where a character would answer a simple question by telling you the life story of Emperor Dreichels the Lionheart. JRPG players are probably quite used to this and I often think that immersion in this genre comes in the form of info-dump. It has a steep immersion curve in which you have no idea what’s going on, but then a few hours in it clicks and you’re suddenly at one with the world. I’m not sure if I really approve of that kind of investment though, because it’s almost impossible to tell if you are invested simply because you’ve forced yourself, or because it’s actually interesting? I know I’m invested now, and I can certainly list the game’s qualities, but I can also list its flaws. But I think in the end what it comes down to is the fact that this game’s qualities feel individual, whereas I perceive its flaws belonging to the genre as a whole, which, to me, makes them far more forgivable.
Surprisingly engaging characters, great narrative structure
Absurd boss difficulty at points