Even if you're into your Japanese role-playing games, we wouldn't blame you if the name 'Legend of Heroes' or 'Trails of' means nothing to you. In fact, we wouldn't even blame you if you thought we meant "Tales of", not "Trails of". After all, the Legend of Heroes series has had a fairly sparse set of releases in the West, with naught but a PSP game, Trails in the Sky, for those UK players to enjoy, and only a handful of older titles for the Americas. Troubled localisations and delays have marred the history of the series outside of Japan, and it seemed like things just weren't meant to be. But finally, the stars have managed to align in just the right way, as the latest game, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel has finally hit shelves in the UK - and within a year or two of it's Japanese debut, too.
By now, after a little intro, you're probably wondering what Trails of Cold Steel is all about - and, if we're honest, so were we when we first started playing the game. One of our pet hates with games is how they sometimes have a tendency to throw you head-first into the action, with little in the way of explanation - and while in the case of a Mario platformer, your average LEGO game or even Call of Duty, you can usually figure it out, your average role-playing game tends to have more complex and convoluted battle mechanics, many of which aren't that obvious from the outset. Presumably intended to kick things off with a bang, Trails of Cold Steel does precisely this, hurling you and your group of folks - and it's a pretty big group - into some kind of military facility, which seems to be under attack. Needing to reach a pair of big guns before the invaders can, you split into two groups and explore the maze-like base, fighting off any bad guys you come across along the way. Turn-based battles mean it's not quite as incomprehensible as some, but there's still an awful lot of menu options and seemingly hidden mechanics that come into play that are largely lost in translation, as the game simply doesn't tell you how to do anything. What makes allies pair up and attack? What makes them not? Why are there two different types of special moves, each with their own meter? What's the difference? Why are some pairs of characters joined by a line? What's with all these status effects? How on earth do you even heal? Too late - how do I revive?
But once the prologue is out the way, things start to make a lot more sense, as time rewinds and you find yourself back in the shoes of main character Rean, as he embarks on his first few days, weeks and months at Thor's Military Academy (sadly, not the Asgardian god). Assigned to an elite class known as Class VII - which is the sixth class at Thor's, and is comprised of nine students because Trails laughs in the face of logic - your curriculum involves the odd lecture, performing quests to help the local (and later, further afield) townsfolk and, of course, battling plenty of fearsome enemies along the way. Set in a world teetering on the brink of a war, fuelled by a volatile and chasm-like difference between nobles and commoners, even at Thor's, nobles and commoners are kept totally separate, with their own dorms, classes and uniforms. In that way, Class VII is seen as being something of an experimental class, as it fuses the two - much like Trails of Cold Steel fuses the light-hearted anime style of the Tales of games with Persona's classmate bonding to create a solid, enjoyable role-playing adventure, heavy on the story-telling.
Rather than playing out each day of the calendar out in turn though (which could get a bit dull), you'll instead play through what we assume are the 'highlights' of Rean's time at school - a class on the history of the Erebonian empire here, a short fetch quest from a teacher there, and the occasional a field trip to a local market town.
Every so often, you'll get a 'free' day, which you can spend sitting down with your fellow party members for a chat to boost your relationship, which in turn gives you various bonuses in combat, from healing partners to follow up attacks and more. Each character has their own unique back story, personality and events to take in too, and everyone is well-written and likeable, with witty dialogue throughout. For example, friction between Machias (a commoner who hates nobles), and Jusis (a noble who feels he's above everyone) is pretty much daily event, while Alisia is your typical tsundre, holding a grudge against main man Rean for a totally accidental and innocent boob/face-plant in the game's opening hours, before gradually warming up to him as the game goes on.
But Thor's is a military academy after all, so it comes as no surprise that exploration and combat takes up at least some of your time. From quests to practical exams to field trips, getting into scuffles with all kinds of enemies is pretty par for the course, and - unlike the game's intro - here, you'll actually get some kind of explanation of how Trails' various systems work. Battles themselves are turn-based, with you and your party members taking it in turns to lay the beat down on your enemies, and you can use a mixture of regular physical attacks, character-specific moves known as 'Crafts', and magical 'Arts' spells, which are more customisable and depend the specific gems each character has equipped. Each character has their own unique weapon too, with enemies tending to have strengths and weaknesses to certain types of attacks. Your party members can also link up in pairs for a chance to land extra follow up attacks on enemies, as per the social link bonuses we mentioned earlier.
To mix things up a bit, there's also a random chance of different effects occurring during battle - such as guaranteed critical hits, randomly healing a portion of health, or removing the costs for using spells. The only downside is these apply to both allies and enemies alike, and only to the character on whose turn the bonus activated - so it's entirely possible to have an enemy you've been almost managed to topple suddenly regain a chunk of it's health and send you back to square one; although it's balanced out by the fact you may luck out with a guaranteed critical hit yourself. While they can't really be relied on in combat to help you turn the tide, and they're unlikely to make much of a difference to a failing encounter, it's a fun addition when you luck out and get a good one.
The bigger issue with Trails of Cold Steel's battle system though, is one of difficulty - and one that only really becomes apparent a fair few hours in, once you've got the 'five months later' intro out the way. Playing on the normal difficulty, we found the enemies you come across from your first few assignments onwards are both tough and numerous, with an annoying tendency to swarm around your weakest character (which we found tended to be the main guy, Rean) and sap your health to dangerously low in the space of one go. Our best strategy was to knock out Elliot's 'Resounding Beat' craft skill on the very first turn, even if the team has full health, because they'll need its end-of-each-turn health restoration before long, and the fact it lasts for several turns should help ward off premature death for most of the easier battles. Somewhat perversely, we actually found boss fights tended to be easier, as there was usually only one foe to deal with - and therefore less chance of being mobbed. Unless you like living dangerously, Trails is much more fun on the easy difficulty, where you do ten times the damage and take much less too, saving us many, many treks back and forth between the dungeon's healing station to revive Rean. It's also worth noting that you can't change the difficulty once you've started, so once you've got past the deceptively easy intro and hit the harder battles, you've been playing for long enough that starting over to change down a difficulty is a bit of a pain.
All in all though, the illogically-placed tutorials and the harder difficulty than we'd like are only minor quibbles, and The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is still a solid adventure that feels like a half way house between Persona and the Tales of series, but with turn-based battles instead - which makes it a winning combination in our book! Whether you're building relationships with your team mates, exploring dungeons, fields and towns or taking down the bad guys in battle - or kicking back with a spot of fishing, cooking up some health-restoring dishes or helping out the locals with their problems - it's a huge world to lose yourself in, and one that's quite possibly one of the best role-playing games of recent years too. And even better - there's a sequel working its way through the localisation process too!