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Nihon Falcom is a Japanese developer that has earned a name for itself in the West with the Ys and The Legend of Heroes series. After the highly anticipated release of Trails of the Sky SC on the PSP, the developers have brought their next entry in the Legend of Heroes series to the Playstation 3 and Vita. Originally released in Japan in 2013, Trails of Cold Steel is the first in the trilogy to be localized for the West with XSEED Games publishing the first two games in the series.

The story takes place on the Zemurian continent with the Erebonian Empire facing political conflicts between the Noble and Reformist factions. In the Thors Military Academy, the newly formed “Class VII” breaks tradition with hand-picked citizens from various backgrounds based on combat skill criterion. You are Rean Schwarzer, one of the elite “Class VII” members bearing a crimson uniform who has witnessed the intensifying clash between the two factions for many years. As each of the Class VII members undergoes special training, they are forced to set aside their differences to prevent a looming civil war between the nobles and the working class. Along your adventure, the elite Class VII members include Alisa, a skilled archer, Elliot Craig, an orbal staff user, Laura Arseid, a skilled swordswoman, Jusis Albarea, the son of a powerful noble, Machias Regnitz, shotgun specialist, Fie Claussell, an agile gunsword fighter, Emma Millstein, the class president and Gaius Worzel, an adept spear warrior. Each elite member has their own unique personality with Nihon Falcom weaving together their stories to tell a grand and captivating story. It is clear the developer put a lot of time and dedication as the narrative and the deep character development in this game is nothing short of phenomenal for a console JRPG.

The game utilizes an active time-based system with the conventional order of battle between your allies and enemies mixed with real-time combat. Moving your allies strategically can easily disrupt the turn order to your advantage as you boost your stats, aggressively attack or use abilities to delay your enemies’ turn. Different weapons allow you to slash, thrust, pierce or strike your enemies down with varying degrees of damage. You can switch between your allies in battle without sacrificing a turn at all as your allies wield magical spells or “Arts” against your foes. Character specific attacks or “Crafts” can be leveled up and unleashed as an ultimate “S-Craft” attack at any time in battle. The opportunity to link up to four special attacks simultaneously is both strategic and satisfying as you turn the tide of battle.

The Orbment system from the previous Legend of Heroes games makes a return with a bit of a twist as you utilize mobile ARCUS devices to equip “Quartz” or magical orbs. This grants you special abilities that boost your stats with numerous orbs to be found in the game with specific benefits for each one. The bond between your characters is vital in battle when deploying the Tactical Combat Link system for stat bonuses and team attacks on powerful enemies. Bravery points are granted for successful combat links that unlock “Link Rush” attacks with a specific ally or the entire team. Emphasis on the relationships or camaraderie you share with others is very similar to that of the Persona series.

There was initial concern at first glance that this game may not translate well from the classic 2D world to a 3D environment. My worries proved to be needless as Nihon Falcom has done an exceptional job with the character development, storytelling and finely tuned battle system that keeps you on the edge on your seat.  The ability to bond and build relationships with your team members leads to a deeper and more emotionally invested experience that is immersive and truly rewarding. The new Combat Link system is a welcome addition to the traditional combat system the series is known for as it keeps players fully engaged throughout the game.

You are given the option to maneuver the 360 degree camera to your liking at any point in the game. Character animations and designs appear a bit rough as the visuals are not as polished or detailed as the PlayStation Vita version. The texture and lighting isn’t always smooth that tends to temporarily draw attention away otherwise from the game’s attractive aesthetics. Where the visuals fall short of the mark, the voiceover work and music shine as the soundtrack features gentle, light, soulful and emotionally evoking tunes that draws you into its world. You may find yourself humming to the game’s tune and melodies long after the game is completed.

Where other developers have valiantly tried and failed, Nihon Falcom has managed to strike the perfect balance of storytelling and combat in Trails of Cold Steel. Though the game has its shortcomings, the cross-save game feature and the combined character development, plot and intuitive game mechanics make Trails of Cold Steel one of the best Nihon Falcom games to date. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is an innovative and beautifully polished game that stands as a top contender for the best JRPG game of the year.

SCORE – 90%

This review is based on a digital copy of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel on the PlayStation 3 provided by XSEED Games

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