Easily one of our favourite role-playing games of the last year, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel came as something of a surprise to yours truly, given that it's a series that has had a bit of a spotty history of releases in the West. Set in the world of Erebonia, a nation on the brink of war, it was a game that introduced us to Class VII, a group of nine or so teens whose unusual curriculum made for all kinds of hair-raising adventures, taking in epic battles, betrayals and political unrest - as well as a heavy dose of high-school banter. Now, the sequel, the cunningly named The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II, is hitting up the Playstation 3 and PS Vita just in time for Christmas - and picks up right after its predecessor's cliff-hanger ending.
Following on from the moment high schooler Rean was separated from the rest of his classmates, amid a vicious battle, Trails of Cold Steel II begins with our favourite swordsman waking alone on a snowy mountain top. A month earlier, Class VII, an elite squad of promising students trained in battle, had found themselves in the firing line of one heck of a social class war - caught in between the Noble Alliance, who want a return to the past where they ruled the roost, and the opposition they face across Erebonia. Whisked away from battle moments before death, by his robot-god-like mech, the Divine Knight Valimar, Rean finds himself separated from his friends, who themselves are split up all across the land, sending Rean on a globe-trotting adventure to reunite with his classmates. But when his sister, and the Princess his family were sheltering get kidnapped by the Noble Alliance, Rean and the members of Class VII really have their work cut out for them, if they want to see them again.
Trails of Cold Steel II is a bit of a weird one, in that it doesn't feel as much of a sequel so much as a direct continuation of the original game, and not just because the story picks up a mere month later. For starters, Rean and co start on at least level 40, now battle-hardened following their first year at Thor's Military Academy, while the game itself is very similar too, featuring the same cast of characters, visiting the same places and using the same battle system. However, while the original game focussed a lot on Class VII's day to day life, lessons and all, school's been cancelled thanks to the war - which has played havoc with the usual format of field assignments followed by free days filled with character-specific bonding events. Now, with Class VII at the top of the Noble Alliance's most wanted list, Rean and co will have to be much more covert as they continue to search for their classmates, Rean's sister and the missing Princess - although there'll still be plenty of time to get to know your party members better over the course of your journey too!
As you explore the Erebonian Empire, from Ymir's snow-capped mountains to Celdic's sprawling green fields, you'll encounter all kinds of hostile wildlife wandering around. Coming into contact with one will trigger a fight; simple turn-based battles, in which characters take it in turns to attack, defend and use items. Trails of Cold Steel II has a choice of two different classes of special attacks, called Arts and Crafts - Crafts tend to be more character-specific signature moves learnt through levelling up, while Arts are more akin to magical spells, and depend on which stones you have set in your ARCUS units (more on those later). Pairs of characters can also form 'Links' with each other, letting them leap in after their partner for a follow up attack, or use special, more powerful link attacks together, with new moves being unlocked as their friendship grows. Clever use of Arts, Crafts and Link attacks is key to victory, especially when faced with a more formidable boss character.
Occasionally, Rean will even need to jump into his giant robot mech, Valimar, for a battle against other similar ancient beings. As with standard battles, 'Divine Knight Battles' see you and your mech-like opponent taking it in turns to attack each other, focussing your attacks on the head, body or arms to try and inflict as much damage as you can.
One of Trails of Cold Steel's more interesting features is the ARCUS unit each and every student wears, which are a fully-customisable way of chopping and changing which elementally-charged 'spells' your characters have access to. By setting different 'quartz' stones into the holes of your ARCUS unit, you'll gain access to certain moves, whether it's the water-powered healing spell Tear, damage-dealing Fire Bolt or a wind-based evasion stat boost, Evade 1. Giving you some flexibility in battles, you might find yourself piling all your best offensive quartz on one offensive character, buffing a weaker character with entirely stat-boosting stones or making sure every character has at least a basic healing spell in their arsenal just in case - it depends entirely on how you like to play.
As with the previous game, Trails of Cold Steel II is chock full of likeable characters and funny moments, with a well-written script, and plenty of school-like banter thrown in. Like most Japanese role-playing games, scenes are a mixture of the voiced and unvoiced, but, whereas most games tend to voice only the main story sections, Trails of Cold Steel II takes a bit more of a haphazard approach. Often, only half of a conversation will be voiced, with other characters talking out loud while Rean replies just with text, or vice versa - it's not exactly a huge, game-breaking issue, but it can feel a little jarring at times.
It's also worth noting that the story can be a bit hard to follow if you've not played the original, and given the amount of buzzwords used in the first half hour or so - jaegers, Valimar, the assassination of Gillath Osborne, Bracers, Divine Knights, Ouroboros - Celine the helpful talking cat may as well be talking in Chinese for all the help she is. While there is the option to catch up on the main events from the predecessor via the 'Backstory' section should you need a refresh, you're probably best off ploughing your way through the original first, if you haven't already - especially as a) the original game's well, well worth playing (seriously, do it!), and b) by its very nature, the recap is full of potential spoilers.
For fans of Japanese role-playing games, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II is definitely worth a look - just make sure you've played through the original Trails of Cold Steel first, as it's less of a sequel and more of a continuation of the first game. Mixing a Tales of-style cast of characters with Persona-like bonding events, all wrapped up in simple turn-based battles, Trails of Cold Steel is a fun little adventure, and one that may sadly be overlooked, given it's 'last gen' Playstation 3 status.