The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II is the latest title to expand the already vast JRPG libraries of the PS3 and PS Vita. From darling developer Nihon Falcom and known in Japan as The Legend of Heroes: Sen No Kiseki II, the game is a direct sequel to last year’s Trails of Cold Steel, better known as the first non-Trails in the Sky related LoH game to release in North America in nearly a decade. It’s also interesting to note that we got this game only two years after the original release in Japan; a tiny gap considering eight year wait for The Legend of Heroes III.
The game continues the tale of the Ashen Awakener, with the story picking up right after the epic cliff hanger that the first game ended on. You can transfer clear data from the first game to unlock a special item. But even if you didn’t play the first title for some reason, the game includes a great summary of events that you’ll want to make use of. The recap seems pretty comprehensive, even including in-depth bios of all major characters. After reading everything you feel like you’ve got a good handle on what’s going on and can enjoy the game while understanding new developments even if you missed the first game.
Without spoiling anything, you are Rean Schwarzer, the leader of Class VII; an unlikely team of military academy students that are pulled right into the center of a politically charged civil war when a major power is assassinated. Class VII pilots a concept of mixing students of various social classes and wildly varying backgrounds while the academy otherwise systematically segregates nobles from commoners. This allows the game to touch upon crucial real world concepts like tolerance and acceptance of those with unique perspectives and beliefs, as well as the potent bonds and collaborations that can grow from such relationships.
The rabbit hole goes much deeper of course, with several factions playing one side or the other (or both) to further their own agendas and the high volumes of hostility and savage power struggles damaging both those vested in the war and those simply in the wrong places at the worst of times. The story is conveyed through cinematics 0r with tons of character dialogue, much of which is voiced — though the lack of the Japanese voices is not appreciated. The English character voices generally hold up pretty well, but I definitely prefer Japanese voices in JRPGs and Japanese games in general, and since it already exists it just seems like a strange omission.
There is tons of character development and the diverse cast is sure to feature at least a few individuals you can get behind. You’ll still of course have to read most of the dialogue and there are some strange scenes where multiple characters are speaking but only one of them is voiced. Just like the other games in The Legend of Heroes series though, you’ll gather a good bit of story from minor characters and NPCs as well.
You can talk to most characters multiple times to get different lines of dialogue, and this does a great job of conveying, for example, when a town ill-adjusted to long wars is running low on supplies and suffering at the hands of brutal Noble Alliance task forces. Some of the dialogue scenes can feel a bit long-winded, but generally the story-telling is engaging and entertaining.
There’s also a good dose of humor in many of the character interactions, and the game maintains the unique charm of the series despite making a big visual jump compared to the last main series entries. Visually, the game looks pretty good. The character models are detailed and crisp, with a look that anime fans will definitely find appealing.
The game also makes use of wonderful artwork for the character portraits and super attack cut-ins. There are several characters, making for a set of diverse character designs. The enemy models and environments aren’t breathtaking or anything and we’ve seen this art style in countless other titles, but everything looks neat and polished in the game. Much like visuals, the combat has received a big overhaul since the Trails in the Sky games were released.
You can take Rean and three other characters into turn based battles with six or more enemies. Combat feels fast and effective and there are various mechanics to spice up the combat and keep it from being a cookie cutter JRPG system. You can pair characters up within your party to unlock follow up attacks and a powerful team-up move nearly identical to the Persona series’ All-out attacks.
Each character has access to a variety of powerful attack skills, but share a uniform magic system that lets you equip any character with whichever spells you like. Enemies have elemental weakness as well as physical weaknesses to certain types of weapon attacks like piercing or slashing attacks. Exploiting enemy weaknesses allows you to make use of the linked follow ups and it quickly builds the CP you need to use the characters more powerful attacks.
When you’ve reached 100 or more CP you can access the mighty S-break attacks. These flashy cinematic super attacks instantly end most skirmishes and dish out tremendous damage even to boss characters. In addition to basic elemental spells there are also various buffs and debuffs you can apply to aid in unique strategies against bosses or other powerful enemies.
The big variety of attack options and factors to consider make it pretty interesting to customize your party and mix it up with different strategies. The game also thankfully doles out experience points to characters not in your active party, so if for whatever reason you need to switch a character out – which you can do mid-battle by the way – they won’t be leagues behind the rest of the team in terms of strength.
There are some segments where you’ll need to pilot a giant mech during combat and these are pulled off with surprising aplomb. The game progresses with surprisingly good pacing. In-game days pass after you’ve completed a certain number of tasks. Each day you’re allotted new bonding points to spend, harkening back to another Persona mainstay for a social link-ish system in which you spend time with characters and increase your bond with them.
The better your bond is with a character, the more options they have to assist you when linked with Rean during combat. The game has most of what you expect from a classic JRPG while being modern where it counts with the option to save your game anywhere and an apt fast travel feature to help you skip across the grand environments. You’ll never get off task thanks to a clear objective system and the characters chat back and forth during exploration thanks to a pleasant Active Voice system.
Random skirmishes feel too easy thanks to the S-break at times, but I’m not complaining since it lets you plow through trifling encounters and keep your character levels up to par without hours of mundane grinding. The big environments are worth exploring for the wealth of treasure they hide and you can complete quests in-between big missions to earn money and items. The quests also provide additional incentives to chat it up with NPCs and learn more about the game world; of course you’ll only get certain items and information from talking to people as well.
The camp menu contains a wonderful notebook resource that houses tons of information, such as details on enemy weaknesses, quest objectives, recipes gathered and much more. You can also discover books and newspapers, with the latter echoing the concerns of the people caught up in and ultimately hurt the most by the ceaseless fighting. Fundamentally, Trails of Cold Steel II has no glaring flaws that truncate its potential, like so many similar titles. This is a full scale JRPG that doesn’t cut any crucial corners.
The satisfying combat is rich with nuance and deep enough to allow freedom in creating your strategy, a task facilitated by the sizable playable roster. It also jumps past the presentation hurdle I felt was limiting the appeal of the franchise when I played Trails in the Sky with adequately detailed 3D characters and environments and slick artwork, on top of diverse designs.
The story events are engaging and the game even goes a way to cater to newcomers with a strong recap. You’ll get to know the characters quite well thanks to hours of character development and the vibrant game world and engaging story combine to make the game feel immersive. PS3 and PS Vita fans have no shortage of JRPGs to choose from, but The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II exhibits enough polish and quality to help it stand out from the pack and above several others. It may lack the innovation and whip appeal to draw players not typically into RPGs and it can’t match the production of the genre’s biggest brands, but it nails the important stuff. Genre or series fans shouldn’t miss this.