Review: The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II

Rean wakes up at the crash site of his Divine Knight Valimar on some snow covered mountains, unsure of where he is or how long he has been out.  He is alone, save for the companionship of a talking cat who goes by Celine who is able to fill the gaps in his memory.  After Rean is able to ascertain his location as being near his home village, he and Celine make the trek down to more familiar and hospitable surroundings, only to find his fighting strength is not quite where it should be.  This is how The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II begins and Rean’s quest to be reunited with his colleagues in Class VII.  Every attempt was made in this review to not contain any spoilers from the first title, though certain events may be vaguely hinted.

There are some sequels that bear almost no connection to their predecessor, with the exception of the title and some recurring elements or characters.  This is not of one of those sequels.  While playing the first Trails of Cold Steel is not a requirement it is strongly recommended.  For starters The Legend of Heroes:  Trails of Cold Steel II begins one month after the conclusion of Trails of Cold Steel, with Rean’s predicament being a direct result of those events making this title a direct continuation of the story.  Players who have completed the first game may import their data into this one and it will have an impact on the experience, much like a popular sci-fi trilogy some doctors turned game developers are known for.  Importing data will grant certain bonuses to the player as well as carrying over DLC costumes, but more importantly the relationships that were shaped by decisions will impact events in the sequel, leading for more personalized conversations with the party members.

For those who have not experienced the first title and want to dive right into Trails of Cold Steel II their experience will still be a positive one.  Glimpses into the events of the previous game are gradually shown throughout the story progression and there is a primer for the events leading up to this title in the main menu.  However, these tools are more useful as a refresher course for what happened in the previous game, for bringing a newcomer up to speed they get the job done but only in the most rudimentary way.  As a stand alone title, Trails of Cold Steel II is a great time, but completing the first game will lead to a much richer experience.

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Much like its predecessor, this is a JRPG with an immense emphasis on story development.  The prologue alone is over three hours in length, and the majority of this is spent reacquainting Rean with the people he grew up with and interacted in his previous adventure.  While the prologue focuses on setting up the story over exploration and battle, the plot moves at a pace that is able to maintain the player’s interest.  The characters, while somewhat falling victim to fitting certain RPG archetypes, are developed and nuanced enough to be memorable and worth caring about.  As Rean talks to the various people he develops his plan to find the other members of Class VII which shapes up to a journey with numerous distant destinations.  Rean and the other party members’ dialog keep him on track by correcting him if he tries to venture off the beaten path in a way that is contrary to the objective at hand.  This does force some linearity into the game’s progression, but this device to block off certain areas of the map for plot related reasons feels much less artificial that what has been done in other titles.

Enemies are visible on the map and can be avoided (sometimes) if the player does not wish to fight.  The battle system is in many ways a traditional turn based affair that is common for RPGs but it is one of the more complex ones.  Technically, there are two main different battle approaches but we will get to the second one in a little bit.  The “normal” battle system is Rean and company against a group of enemies.  Everyone can do the basic attack that costs nothing and depending on the equipment damages one enemy or may have a small area of effect.  In addition to that there are two different menus of special attacks that use different types of resources, EP and CP.  EP is essentially magic, or MP in countless RPGs.  This is a finite amount of points that are used to power special attacks associated with orbs that can be equipped called arts.  EP can either be restored by resting or using an EP replenishing item.  CP is used for crafts, which are special techniques that add element damage to an attack or provide a status buff.  CP has a maximum limit of 200, and it is gained by inflicting and receiving damage.  A special craft attack that is extremely powerful becomes available when a character’s CP reaches 100 but this attack consumes all CP.  This attack is even more powerful if executed when CP is at max, so the debate of using many CP attacks versus saving up for an ultra attack is one factor in developing a battle strategy.

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It is possible to link one character to another, which will allow the second character to perform an additional attack if the first character’s attack knocks the enemy off balance.  Having characters link does allow their bond to increase which can unlock more powerful combinations.  There is no downside to having characters linked so it is advisable to have each member linked to someone at all times.   The link system is old hat to those who completed the first game, but it has been upgraded with the new overdrive mode.  When this mode is activated, the player may attack for three turns in a row with the linked characters and all arts will have an instant casting time.  The overdrive function is not so overpowered it makes any encounter an instant victory but during the review process it has led to a favorable turnaround in more than one losing battle.

The second battle format mentioned above is when Rean takes control of Valimar to battle other mechs.  These battles require a different strategic approach.  When battling another giant mech, Valimar can target the head, arms, or body.  This works like a game of rock paper scissors where depending on the enemy’s stance a certain target can knock the enemy off balance, which allows Valimar to deliver an extra attack.  Learning this strategy can make all the difference in this type of battle as most battles seemed to give the enemy an advantage if each round only resulted in one hit.

Traveling across the land of Erebonia on foot all the time can become tiresome to a young hero trying to make his mark on history.  Fortunately Trails of Cold Steel II offers a few different means of conveyance.  This may not be the first RPG to ever offer the use of a personal airship for the party to use but having a flying boat to quickly move from one location to the next is never an unwelcome travel option.  This may not be the most stylish form of transport, especially since Rean seems to be in that edgy teenage phase so to complete that image he will eventually get access to a customizable orbal bike aka a motorcycle powered by orbs instead of petroleum.  And since this is a world of machine guns and giant mechs yet a sword seems to be the hero’s weapon of choice, to complete the medieval throwback transportation we have horseback as a swift travel option.  The American Humane Association can confirm that no animals were harmed in the playing of this game, so the horses may be ridden without guilt.

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This is a two year old game that was released for the previous console generation so that needs to be taken into consideration when judging the graphics.  Naturally with any two year old game the graphics are showing signs of its age and new console generations excel at pointing out the limitations of the previous generation.  All that being said, this is still a great looking game with interesting character and creature designs.  The Playstation 3 might be getting near the end of its life cycle but it still has some respectable graphic prowess in today’s market, especially when it comes to games with an anime inspired art directions.  The soundtrack is another area where this title excels, it is contemporary and unique but shows hints of influence from classic RPGs such as older Final Fantasties and titles from the Ys series.  The elements are so subtle, and while not directly sounding like the music is lifted from those games there are but hints of these RPGs hidden in the musical undertones paying homage to what came before.

Cross save functionality is supported between the Playstation 3 and Vita, which is always a plus when debating about buying the same game on two different systems.  Loading times are negligibly faster on the Playstation 3 but neither version has a significant advantage over the other, and while having the option to play on the go or at the home TV is nice most people are likely only going to get this title on one platform.  Because the two formats are comparable in overall quality, it is recommended to choose which one based on whether you prefer the Vita or Playstation 3.  One final plus is Trails of Cold Steel II is not a slave to the archaic save point, allowing the freedom to save the game pretty much anywhere outside of a battle.

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Closing Comments

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II is a modern JRPG masterpiece.  It is the perfect blend of the classic JRPG formula mixed with contemporary features.  Almost everything this title does has had some equivalent seen in RPGs that came before it, but they have been tweaked where the experience still feels fresh.  A single playthrough can easily stretch to sixty hours, but the emphasis on story telling and immense cast of memorable characters make the large time commitment worthwhile.  It is doubtful that someone who hates JRPGs will be converted by this title, but for anyone who is a fan of the genre, this is one of the stronger offerings in recent years.