Title (JP): Eiyuu Densetsu: Sen no Kiseki III (英雄伝説 閃の軌跡Ⅲ)
Title (NA/EU): The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: Nihon Falcom (JP), NIS America (NA/EU/AU)
Release date: 28 Sep 2017 (JP), 22 Oct 2019 (NA/EU), 29 Oct 2019 (AU)
This review was written based on the Japanese release of the game, and may not reflect changes made to versions released in other regions. As this game is a sequel, the review may contain spoilers for previous instalments in the series.
Also see: Review- Trails of Cold Steel IV
As the latest installment in Nihon Falcom’s long-running flagship Legend of Heroes series, Trails of Cold Steel III had a great deal to live up to, and thankfully, it for the most part does so fully.
The Eiyuu Densetsu series has long-running roots, beginning with Dragon Slayer: Eiyuu Densetsu for PC-8800 home computers in 1988, which was itself the sixth installment in the Dragon Slayer series. The setting used in Cold Steel III, however, was first introduced in Eiyuu Densetsu VI: Sora no Kiseki (later retroactively subtitled “FC”, for “First Chapter”, as it was the first of two parts) for the PC in 2004. VI spanned three titles – Sora no Kiseki FC, Sora no Kiseki SC, and Sora no Kiseki the 3rd – Which were initially released on PC then subsequently ported to multiple platforms, and were eventually released in English by Xseed Games under the title The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. This trilogy was followed up by a duology – Eiyuu Densetsu: Zero no Kiseki and Eiyuu Densetsu: Ao no Kiseki (though initially promoted as Eiyuu Densetsu VII, the numbering of titles was later dropped) for the PSP, later ported to the Vita – and then by Eiyuu Densetsu: Sen no Kiseki and Eiyuu Densetsu: Sen no Kiseki II for the PS3.
Excluding spinoffs like the online browser game Akatsuki no Kiseki, this makes Cold Steel III the thirteenth instalment in the Eiyuu Densetsu/Legend of Heroes series, the eighth instalment in the Kiseki/Trails series, and the third instalment in the Sen no Kiseki/Trails of Cold Steel series. While the older Eiyuu Densetsu games are entirely disconnected from the Kiseki series’ world, the Kiseki series’ games’ stories are all deeply connected, and while Cold Steel III does come with a recap of Cold Steel and Cold Steel II, it would not be an overstatement to say that this is mainly to help players of the two previous games to recall what had happened before, and not for new players to catch up; New players to the series would be far better off starting at Sora FC or Cold Steel. It should also be noted that due to the chronology of the series, Cold Steel III contains far more references – including massive spoilers – for Zero and Ao, which as of yet have not been officially released in English.
The story picks up some time after the events of Cold Steel II, with the player again taking control of protagonist Rean Schwarzer, who has since the end of II graduated from Thors Military Academy, and is just starting his new job as an instructor at the newly-established Thors second branch. Though the protagonist is now an instructor rather than a student, the general structure of the game is highly similar to that of Cold Steel I – Each episode is clearly divided into a part which sees the player explore the campus and town while handling small sidequests, and a part in which they are sent off on a field trip-cum-military exercise and explore a new locale.
While formulaic, this is far from repetitive, as the events and locales are all unique, with strong characters moving the story along. Rean’s class, which also serves as the player’s party for the majority of the game, initially consists of two new characters and one returning one (Altina from Cold Steel II, who might as well be a new character considering how little attention she had in that game), with two more joining some time later. Having far less main characters than the previous games (to compare, Cold Steel had the class starting with 9) is mostly a good thing, as it means more time to focus on this select group. It should be noted that this does not come at the expense of the older characters, who do show up as guests frequently enough.
The series staple of having a ludicrously finely-crafted world continues; The vast majority of NPCs, which includes every single student and staff member in Thors branch II, is unique with their own story, with new lines whenever time passes in the world. Many of the NPCs are also returning characters- Some are graduates of Thors who were Rean’s former schoolmates and comrades in the previous games, while some are people previously encountered out in the world. You also encounter relatives of characters from previous games, and in the second chapter’s return to the city of Crossbell, which was the setting of Zero and Ao no Kiseki, many NPCs from those games return, with their lives and stories having carried on in the years since those games were released. Also of note is how Cold Steel III also has more references to the characters and events of the Sora no Kiseki series, with one of the main characters from that series, Tita, enrolling in Thors branch II, and several other main characters from that series joining as guest party members.
The battle system on the surface appears to be mostly identical to the previous games’, but a quick glance reveals that this is not entirely the case; Slight balance changes have been made so that combinations that would break the game in the players’ favour no longer do so, while new additions to the system (such as the Order system – a party-wide buff that uses up pips on a bar built up from hitting enemies with weaknesses or criticals) allow them to break the game in entirely new ways. As usual, understanding the game’s mechanics allows the player to, if they so wish to, do things like generate infinite money from potatoes, and stunlock bosses for perfect wins.
Also like Cold Steel and Cold Steel II, and Tokyo Xanadu which runs on a similar game system, Cold Steel III remains a completionist’s dream: Doing, obtaining and learning everything is not too difficult, there are records of what has been accomplished, there is ample warning for story triggers that might have the player miss an opportunity, and some items can still be obtained after the primary means of obtaining them is “missed”. Additionally, story sequences, battle animations, and battles entirely are easily skipped, making subsequent playthroughs easy.
The greatest flaw of Cold Steel III would be its graphics and some of its animations- Despite the transition to the PS4, the quality of the graphics, while better than those of the PS3 games, still seem highly dated. That being said, the modelling itself is on-point, and the designs themselves go very far in making the game visually pleasing. The animations, however, are a different story- Many of the motions remain the same as they were in Cold Steel, Cold Steel II, and Tokyo Xanadu, meaning you will see different characters doing the exact same bow, or exact same wave or exact same odd guitar-playing animation over and over again, sometimes from multiple characters within a relatively short span, which can be very jarring.
Additionally, aside from a select few tracks, Cold Steel III’s soundtrack seems to be a bit weaker than previous instalments’. One really does have to wonder why they did not just make a remix of Fateful Confrontation for the fights against Ouroboros agents, though there are a few very welcome exceptions in which themes from previous games are brought back. One can also not help but notice by this point a slight bit of repetition in the narrative, with Ouroboros agents being cryptic and mysterious, a dead comrade seemingly coming back to life, putting on a mask and working for the enemy, and numerous adults who have ridiculous superpowers who invariably have a tendency to sit back and let children do all the work while they wait for a chance to show off later. Finally, the game ends on a massive cliffhanger, like Sora FC and Cold Steel did, which may bother players who were expecting a conclusion.
Ultimately, Trails of Cold Steels III is a sequel. Though it has a slightly new setting and a number of new characters, the story is directly connected to not just the previous Cold Steel games but also to the Sora series and Zero and Ao far more than Cold Steel and Cold Steel II were, and most of the new characters are connected to people and events of previous games anyway. The payoff for fans of the series, however, is far greater than ever before- The first chapter’s climax, which sees the party visiting the remains of Harmel village while a quiet remix of Gin no Ishi plays in the background, for example, is a far more tasteful and poignant piece of fanservice than, say, having the protagonists of Sora showing up out of nowhere to fight a giant robot.
The Good: Strong narrative and exhaustive worldbuilding, fun battle system, skip features allow for easy replays, massive payoff for long-time fans.
The Bad: Dated graphics, soundtrack is slightly weaker than previous entries’.
Conclusion: A traditional Japanese RPG to the core, Trails of Cold Steel III is sure to satisfy anyone who has followed the series to this point. New players, however, should start with Trails in the Sky FC (Win, PSP, PS Vita) or Trails of Cold Steel (Win, PS3, PS Vita, PS4).
This review was originally published on 15 March 2018, and was updated on 2 October 2019 with information on the western releases.