I’ll admit—initially The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel annoyed me. A vapid interaction framing tension between the male and female leads over an accidental bust-to-face encounter, made my eyes roll. Fortunately, first impressions aren’t always set in stone, and Cold Steel deftly dismissed my reservations.

For the past few years, I’ve been at odds with my love of JRPGs. Lately, the genre has felt tiresome, with little innovations to break up their formulaic nature. A part of it is familiarity breeding contempt, and the other part is my changing interests. I worry that my favourite series will fall into a sameness—becoming bland for sticking too close to what made them successful. I worry too that radical changes may mean following popular trends in gaming, which in turn will feel like cash-ins and unrecognizable as to what makes the genre unique.

It feels a little unfair at times—placing all these expectations, stipulations and hopes on something, but it’s that familiarity that makes you most critical. It’s funny then, if not unsurprising, that Cold Steel won me over for blending new with old.

How Persona of You

The most obvious thing about Cold Steel is its connection to Persona’s style, specifically the Academics route of Persona’s daily cycle. Cold Steel follows Class VII—a group of 9 new students learning combat strategy while balancing Academic life at Thors Military Academy. While there are School Clubs to join, main character Rean Schwarzer (who you control) will find himself pushed into the Student Council as per the story’s dictation.

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Your fellow classmates, who are also your controlled combat mates, will join the other clubs such as Art, Lacrosse and Music. On free days, Rean is given the option to meet with various key people to strengthen bonds by studying with them or learning more about their backgrounds, including those of his combat fellows. This in turn levels up special linked combat skills between party members.

There’s also an Old Schoolhouse on campus property which acts as a tutorial for Class VII’s training, as well as a mystery to solve for its strange secrets it holds—with changing layouts, new threats to defeat and areas to explore. Sounds a lot like Tartarus in Persona 3, doesn’t it?

What’s great about this approach is not only this full immersion into Class VII’s curriculum, but the routine of school life allows for interesting character development. It feels natural, and sells this idea that this is school but routine doesn’t have to be dull. The interactions serve as a way to enhance combat in a way separate from endless battles, while engaging your team members and other key characters in the story, uncovering their personalities as additional ties to their importance to the game’s main story.

Sure Persona does this, and does it well. Social Links in Persona are a big reason why those games work, but Persona’s also great at grounding the concept of the modern facets of regular, everyday happenings into stories of magic and the occult.

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It’s a tricky, gutsy move to borrow so heavily from a recent successful game like Persona, but Cold Steel borrows the best and integrates some of these similarities—at least in terms of school life—into its Legends of Heroes DNA, and crafts an added level to traditions that already make the game a solid JRPG experience.

A Good, Politically Charged Narrative

Much like its Persona similarities, it is honestly a little bit like Suikoden as well. I’ve yet to encounter anything as emotionally gut-wrenching as Suikoden II proved itself to be but politically, the Legend of Heroes series universe is weaving something on a massive scale. There are major nations, each with its own political strife and interconnected relations to explore. In Cold Steel, the story is set in the Erebonian Empire with (the much-talked about) Trails in the Sky set in Liberl Kingdom. Historical and political faction narratives unravel slowly in Cold Steel, laying out an intricate plot as it relates to Erebonia, with a tale that spans across all the nations and the games in the series.

Despite its similarities to two of JRPGs finest series in Persona and Suikoden, Legend of Heroes and in this case, Cold Steel, has its own strength as a JRPG which makes it distinct.

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In addition to this greater scale narrative, Cold Steel has a depth to its characters with their own mysterious histories. One of the most intriguing aspects of Cold Steel is how heavily it broaches topics of its social and class relations. Nobles and commoners make up Thors Military Academy, fostering this idea of segregation based on a long history of societal class distinction. Class VII is in a unique position of attempting to erase these divides as their own members comprise students of both social standings, making for social tension and layered backstories to its cast.

Much of Class VII’s school life and exploration of Erebonia on field studies touch on this political strife and class relations unrest, through the interactions they encounter and engage. Cold Steel brilliantly sets up this ideal that its characters must overcome. But with larger things at play which could fracture relationships within Erebonia (with hints of dealings in the other nations as well), as well as the mysticism and unexplained nature of characters’ backgrounds and lore of each territory, Cold Steel balances a lot threads that have the potential for anything but a simple JRPG story that can be reduced to “saving the world”.

Cold Steel’s strength is in its detailing these finer points in an already well-established world, full of its own technological progress, religions, secret organizations, industrial revolutions and politics. It’s not the JRPG that sets its characters off on a grand adventure to discover strange new lands—though it has that too, just not quite in the same way JRPGs are wont to do. The spectacular journey is more grounded, developing its characters through a political standpoint, and coming to know its world inside out from a more character driven perspective.

Engaging Combat

One of the things that makes the Legend of Heroes series so engaging is how strategic its battle system can be. There are times, hordes can overwhelm your party if you’re not careful and planning is key. Cold Steel uses a similar battle system as Trails in the Sky, where characters and enemies alike take ordered turns which can be altered depending on movesets made. For instance, special moves called S-Breaks can be used to skip ahead of another, and turns can be changed for strategic plays depending on arts used, or other factors. In this way, battles can be exciting, and quite challenging as well.

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Enemies are visible on the map too, which in itself makes for planning attacks for gaining the upper hand on enemies when available. It can feel a little cat and mouse with stealth mechanics tossed in, which is a mini-game in itself. Or you could bypass monsters altogether if you wanted to. Status effects and exploitation of enemies’ weaknesses are important in Cold Steel too, so switching actions and thinking about moves is often required for success...the same as enemies can quickly turn the tide of battle by inflicting status effects of their own.

Links are a way to strengthen party bonds for special attacks with members helping each other in battle when dealing critical damage. S-crafts and S-breaks are powerful move-sets which rebuild after use during battle, and can mean the difference between life and death.

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Dabbling in unlocking abilities, leveling up quartz (which grant special status effects, magical abilities), gaining various quartz—there’s a great deal of customization in Cold Steel to add even more depth to its combat.

I can’t stress it enough though, Cold Steel can be quite the challenge. It’s the best kind of planning, timing and thoughtful decision making which make boss fights and even regular battles, quite engaging.

Erebonia, its People, Characters and Mature Script

Erebonia’s a mix of vast countrysides with gorgeous farmland, windmills and decadent cities. Exploring, fishing and engaging in conversations with the people are a treat for how familiar, seasonal and quaint Cold Steel feels. With a strong cast, a mix of spoken dialogue (with a mostly fantastic voice-acting cast), and heavy texts of conversations that do not feel dense, clunky or contrived; Cold Steel delivers a rich experience that’s honest and doesn’t feel particularly ridiculous or over-the-top, nor does it suffer for being an unbelievable world.

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That’s not to say fantasy isn’t there that gives Cold Steel a bit of magic or colour to it, but it’s a wonderfully built world that’s rather rich in its politics and people, more so than bombarding the senses with overly fantastical locales so common of JRPGs. Neither approach is a bad selling point to the genre but in this case, Cold Steel’s world blends regular aesthetics with magic—cleverly and predominantly as advances in technology—in a way that sustains its normalcy for a long haul narrative.

This is clear in the maturity at which Cold Steel handles its script. As previously noted, I didn’t enjoy the interactions between two of the main characters at the beginning. Teenagers and their journeys of self-discovery are plot points I have very little patience for these days. Clichés aren’t always terrible if delivery makes sense, and with Cold Steel the situations may stay a little true to the awkwardness of teenage problems, some times but they rarely feel trite.

However, those moments are hardly the focus given the mature themes and plights Class VII are faced with. Some of the problems may resolve in the most expected of ways—for example, classmates Jusis’ and Machias’ inherent dislike of each other due to strains between nobility and commoners. They have to work together eventually and it takes a little bit of an expected turnabout for them to see eye to eye, but characters will surprise by not reacting quite the way you’d expect them to.

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Sometimes, they’re not quick to resolution, preferring to hold on to some of their prejudices or pride but ultimately learning, and developing into fully-realized characters on top of already holding their own ideals. They may change some but they’re also not exactly blank slates. It’s a very human script, and characters are nuanced in their interactions. This is in part thanks to their complicated dialogue, sharp tongues, astute observations and rationale in analyzing and overcoming these obstacles.

An Understated, Fantastic Soundtrack

The tracks can sometimes be a surprising mix of modern, jazzy sounds during free days in school life:

Then there are local shops that make me yearn for JRPGs of yore:

The soundtrack couldn’t be more fitting to describe Cold Steel reminiscent JRPG standards and all new discovery. It’s well-put together to represent each of its areas—for a bit of adventure and exploration with rolling green countrysides playing songs to describe breath-taking scenery. Shops and busy markets carry inviting tunes. Many of the tracks employ a delicate use classical sounds of strings and keys. They’re fanciful, pensive and deliberate. Battle themes have enough tension to carry their purpose, sometimes with the expected roaring guitar licks (which aren’t always the best use but do give Cold Steel’s soundtrack some variety).

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There are some really standout pieces, such as this one:

It’s a damned fine soundtrack though for what it is, and what it does. Like its story, Cold Steel’s compositions will often trade in a bombastic soundtrack for something more reflective. That isn’t too surprising given the nature of Cold Steel’s overall grounded characters and narratives. The soundtrack embodies that approach seamlessly—with a military intensity when needed in its evenly-paced sounds.

But like its story, don’t be fooled by its seemingly traditional use of classic JRPG sounds to express emotions. There’s strategic execution in a lot of what Cold Steel presents, and that applies to its soundtrack as well that swell at times in grandiose moments which are delivered with an understated greatness.

Streamlined JRPG Experience and Little Touches

Cold Steel does something cool by allowing fast travel. It cuts out a lot of padding that the game could have tacked on that would make it feel tedious. Although there are times where there’s the option to bypass running around on foot if you don’t want to, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stop to talk to the people who all have interesting, different things to say during the course of the game.

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Days go by, and as such, life moves forward not just for your characters but for each of the NPC students too who are enrolled in Thors. Cooking club members have drama of their own, for instance, and it’s fun to check in on them when given the opportunity to see how life has changed, even in the smallest ways, and even if it’s not necessarily important to the game’s overarching plot.

There’s also a lot of sepith (the game’s equivalent to magic arts that can be created and used) to manage, translating to an inventory management that has the potential be a headache. Menus in Cold Steel pack a lot of information from ongoing quests, recipes, information, equipment — it’s a reader’s heaven. Luckily, the menus are clean and easy to navigate. Plus ahead of huge field missions where party members separate, items are automatically de-equipped which is just smart.

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With a lot of story objectives and optional sidequests that mix both quirky and serious, and fun mini-games, Cold Steel has all the great elements to classic JRPGs. It pays attention to its characters to flesh them out, while not forgetting how to be charming in interactions and as a game, amidst its more plot driven advancements.

Slow Burn

The slow burn to Trails of Cold Steel means that even though it takes a while to get into, there’s a lot of ground to cover. It’s slow to start, and it can feel like a lot of rinsing and repeating in the early hours while getting to know the expansive cast. The rinse and repeat is also attributed to the structure of the game in which Class VII is part of an Academy, with routine schedules as part of their learning.

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Cold Steel takes its time to build these relationships, and may lose those without a whole lot of patience. It does enough to keep piling on mysteries in each chapter, and respects players enough to develop other areas as the story progresses. There’s a lot to appreciate in all the hints, and how the narrative unfolds even if at times, the repetitiveness may feel glaring.

Load Times

Load times between entering towns and at the start of battles are noticeable on the PSVita. Will it spoil the overall flow of the game? Not necessarily but they’re prevalent enough to warrant mentioning.

If you’ve played Trails in the Sky or SC, Cold Steel is familiar in its combat and depth of story. That’s a great thing for fans of JRPGs looking for a rich story with engaging gameplay. Trails of Cold Steel continues this world with its own cast, and own building of a new area in the Trails universe. But the game also manages to pull some of the best of modern JRPGs to create a new experience mixed into the traditional. If you haven’t played a single entry in the series, this is a wonderful place to start.

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But The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is more than just a continuation of an established world. If a solid JRPG is something you’re looking for, it should not be missed. Even if you have no strings attached to the series, it’s one you may just want to form a bond with—as it’s a great reminder of what this genre is capable of.

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Follow N. Ho Sang on Twitter at @Zarnyx if you’re feeling adventurous, or you can read her articles here.