Rean Schwarzer and Class VII spend a lot of time in Trails of Cold Steel II waxing poetic about friendship and diversity affecting change on a country embroiled in a civil war. It’s an idealistic naivete that seems plausible—until Lieutenant General Craig undercuts hope with words echoing a harsh dose of reality.
Nihon Falcom’s The Legend of Heroes: Cold Steel II story picks up a month after its predecessor ended. In that ending, all hell broke loose, and the game became something of a different beast. ‘Bizarre’ may be a good word to describe what happened. It began as a journey of discovering youth and self, and an astute observation of strained class divides as the underlying problems within a military-heavy Empire. By its end, it transformed into a JRPG with mechas. Giant, ass-kicking mechas.
Despite this, Cold Steel managed to deftly put all of these threads into motion—mixing in magic, witches, mysterious and powerful secret societies—in a way that’s a shocking turn of events but makes sense in its direct sequel. Cold Steel II continues all of this juggled madness to deliver an impressive world strengthened by its impeccable characterizations.
But Rean, Laura, Elliot, Fie, Jusis, Emma, Gaius, Alisa, Machias, Millium and Crow do not have a perfect adventure. Cold Steel II has its problems but it sure as hell still fantastically proves that it’s something special, in spite of its missteps. It’s part of something larger, while holding its own specially crafted tale. The game shows that it truly is a part of one of the best JRPG series, and that it really shouldn’t be missed.
If you’re wondering if every plot thread put forward in the first game is resolved in the second, I can only say the story satisfies some of those teases. It also creates some more questions along the way. That shouldn’t surprise with Cold Steel III in the works, Trails in the Sky TC being localized and on its way in 2017, and the Crossbell series yet to be localized. It’s never been clearer that that would be ideal in order to see all its interwoven points resolved across the series, with Ouroboros’ schemes (and others!) tying it all together. Thus far, we’re fortunate that the publishers, XSEED, pour a lot of love into the series’ localization efforts.
What can be said of Cold Steel II itself is that it’s wonderful. The story wastes no time in catching up with some members of its cast, prolonging the mystery surrounding others, unfolding new twists, and introducing its opponents. Even with all it packs in, the game keeps throwing complications after complications. The first game set the stage for something even greater, and Cold Steel II doesn’t disappoint in delivering on lots of its promises, and developing those points. This is a satisfyingly bittersweet and wholly personal story for Class VII but it’s also one steeped in Erebonian history, its culture, and its future, too.
And yeah, it’s still pretty freaking insane before it comes to a finale.
Class VII spent time getting to know themselves and each other at Thors Military Academy in the first outing. In this game, they find themselves on a different journey of discovery. This one entails finding their role in the civil war that follows the conclusion of the first game.
The events of the first game positioned Class VII as observers to the tension between class distinctions of nobles and commoners. Their field studies gave them a point of view to be open-minded, and not bound by their standings in society. The reality is that it’s never that simple, and that’s where Cold Steel II radiates. Life may not be a series of blacks and whites but the classmates are, in some measure, tied to honouring their backgrounds. So ingrained are their societal prejudices built by class structures in Erebonia, that it’s hard to comprise and find a middle ground for what’s an extension of themselves.
For Class VII, the struggle is in accepting change, enforcing those changes to better themselves, and imparting their new found knowledge to breakdown those predetermined cultural structures. Jusis’ story in particular hits hard, highlighting the strain of being dutiful in comparison to what’s right.
Cold Steel II may have its mechs and magic—and sometimes it may feel a little crazy with so much typical absurdities that anime and JRPGs can and have produced. Overcoming impossible odds presented by a host of villains and situations by people from all walks of life, isn’t a new story. The overall plot may not even be the strongest or new.
Yet, none of these things detract from what makes Cold Steel II uniquely strong. What makes it fantastic is largely thanks to its execution. It’s in the relationship the class has with one another, and their standalone stories. And it’s in its war narrative, and how it affects its citizens and cast. The delicious strings pulled from behind the scenes in various scenarios makes the world compelling, believable, and serious.
But it’s not always so serious that Cold Steel II doesn’t know when to have its fun… from sidequests like azuki bean quest to character interactions such as Celine’s consistent snark—the game balances it all to create something intimate in the face of a large scale war.
A lot of the credit for the richness of its world goes to Cold Steel II’s conversations and relationships between main cast members, secondary players and NPCs alike. Much of what makes the Trails series so good is the attention paid to all of its characters, no matter their roles.
Thors Academy students and faculty are funny, have problems of their own, and are handled with care because they matter. Their lives and the issues brought about by the civil war are a nuanced collection of personalized stories that tell the civil war story from various angles through differing individual perspectives. The student and faculty are a strange, realistic bunch and their bond to their school and one another highlights the importance of Thors Military Academy.
NPCs are important to propel Cold Steel II’s narrative forward. Their presence are of consequence to their world. The little things—such as the young boy in Roer who dreamed of working in technology but questions if that would be the right thing to do having seen some reprehensible war decisions made by the company he respected—and the great things all work together for a naturally flowing tale, and some of the most brilliant world building any game can give. In turn, the game feels alive because of it and worth investing time into. They’re not idle or one note.
Also of importance are Cold Steel II’s villains who also portray a wealth of personality. They’re hilarious, aloof, and as with war, some of them are not even necessarily raw evil. They’re in opposition because they may hold differing viewpoints or ideals. War blurs lines. For some of these characters their villainy falls in grey, complicated areas. For others their stories aren’t grandiose outpourings of maniacal plots but simple motivations that make them human.
Cold Steel II takes the time to get to know these people then builds relationships between the main cast and them. That’s not often the case with many villains in other games, often relegated to background stories and histories players do not get to interact with.
This goes along with the characterizations of the main cast—they really are charming because their relationships are so believable and heartfelt. I won’t spoil the reunions or the ending but they’re something incredible. It shows just how deep the characters are built because it’s really hard to not become attached or invested in their lives, and their futures.
As a group they stand united and are sweet together, but their individual stories are also strong. Each are plagued by their demons, others may lead happier lives with less intrigue but it doesn’t mean they do not serve to strengthen the overall story. Bonding links make a return, allowing for further investigation into the things that weigh on their minds in relation to ongoing story elements. At a certain point of the story, even someone like the often rigid, humorless Machias had my heart aching.
It helps, too, that the voice acting is really great in this game. Much of the old cast is back, and some newcomers do well with the new characters they portray (Duvalie comes to mind). Others aren’t so great but overall, most deliver the lines fluent in emotion, with just the right inflections and acting.
Not all the credit should go to Erebonia’s people as giving Cold Steel II life. Erebonia itself is beautiful. The Trails series knows how to create detail in the little things, and with the Empire it’s no different. Navigating through cafes with seating close enough to each other, or perusing streets of Bareahard are small wonders to behold even with the intensity of the story at the forefront. These little details are marvels, even if field areas my just seem like stretches of green or rocky canyons are shaded in brown.
Then there’s one of the final dungeons. It’s a test in endurance but it’s stunning—both for how it changes and interacts as Class VII explores, and for its overwhelming force of power in the monsters it holds within.
Cold Steel II presents quite the challenge. There are endless boss battles to tackle, some optional, and some that will require strategy. In the first game, it was easy to rely on S-breaks (special powerful attacks unique to each character) to end a battle. S-breaks are just as powerful but enemies are even stronger, and aren’t pushovers. Playing on normal, there were many battles I had to rethink what I was doing and when to execute certain moves. Planning is necessary. Keeping characters’ gauges filled helps, and managing when to use all the new tricks in battles helps as well.
So what’s new? Battles can be chained and triggered if there are multiple enemies on the board and your party triggers an encounter with them. The battles will come in succession and will net more experience. During my time, I found that chained battles happened infrequently as it was easy to lead an enemy away. In the final area this became a little bit trickier to pull off if not careful. The options there for those who want that challenge, however.
There’s also a new overdrive mode which linked combatants can activate. This allows them three turns in succession without delay. It can give a necessary boost for players to delay opponents, cuts arts (magic) casting time, or provide status buffs. But not all characters are just handed overdrive capabilities. Each member of Class VII are automatically capable of unlocking this new mode with Rean, but members need to earn this ability with one another. This is where Trial Chests come in. They’re scattered all around Erebonia, and tests two or more characters’ skills in battle. Upon successfully completing the trial, these characters will be able to use overdrive with each other. They make combat interesting for characters you normally wouldn’t use, even if not always too difficult.
Along with Overdrives, S-crafts, and regular crafts, there’s also sepith management and leveling up Class VII’s ARCUS (items which allow use of magic) slots which allows for greater magic usage with more powerful quartz. It’s fun unlocking these and requires a lot of sepith. By the game’s end, this won’t be a problem. There are also lots of different quartz to customize and make characters powerhouses that play to their innate strengths.
Strategy, again, is key to many of the tougher battles and they can be quite the doozy. From stat inflicting fights to endurance runs, and manipulating enemies’ weaknesses; Cold Steel II improves the party battle system just enough to stay true to what came before, while making it more bit more thoughtful in a lot of ways except for one standout nuisance. More on that in a while, as well as the other major battle system adapted for the sequel.
There’s some recycling of music tracks in Cold Steel II. These help facilitate that feeling of familiarity of Erebonia and the locales players are tasked at exploring once more. It’s not all the same, and some of the new tracks are fantastic. They speak to the military-based reality of the Erebonian Empire. Some continue the hauntingly gorgeous magical elements of the game.
And then there’s this piece, which encapsulates the very freedom and uplifting hope that Thors Academy and Class VII strive towards.
Cold Steel II, once again, uses these pieces aptly. They may be frequent and feel unchanging at times, but there are moments where you can’t help but feel that same enthusiasm that Class VII feels.
Cold Steel II takes Class VII and Thors Military students across familiar areas, in the ones visited during their field studies. It’s a neat way to show how the areas are affected by war which help in keeping the narrative grounded. There are new areas as well, and there’s little dawdling in certain areas through revisits, at least in comparison to the lengths in the first game.
There are, however, areas that do feel like a bit of retreading. Not just the actual areas (which makes sense in context of the story) but more so, there are specific instances that drag including the tutorial with Valimar. Rean’s reliance on Valimar comes in scenes that play out a bit like one trick ponies. It’s a bit of a rinsing and repeating from a story perspective—Rean faces an enemy he cannot defeat without the Ashen Knight’s aid, and needs to call on Valimar to help out. This happens on more than one occasion early on, and until it becomes relatively seamlessly integrated into the battle system, it’s really noticeable as being too structured an approach to the storytelling.
The same can be said of Cold Steel II as a whole. It doesn’t deviate much from the first game. There are things to be done, class ranks to increase and be graded by, a list of quests to do (some required, others optional), and there are few things that come as a surprise. It’s not a horrible thing but it’s an overly familiar, linear approach for the series. Again, this has its benefits that makes sense from a storytelling perspective. That’s where the strength of this series lies—in the details of narrative.
There are also many enemies that are familiar. But they’re tougher and there are reasons for their reappearances, but it still feels slightly mundane as if Cold Steel II rehashes some of what came before. This tedium can be said of some of the later dungeons which are really long. They’re by no means complicated, or filled with taxing puzzles. That just means they’re full of running up, down and all over. For a large part of the game, this wasn’t an issue but in the hours leading up to and during the finale, it was truly a trial.
For as great and natural as the dialogue is in Cold Steel II, Rean’s motivational speeches are often on the groan-worthy side. The fun thing about Cold Steel II is that it recognizes these things as cheesy, and pokes fun of itself through characters’ quips. It’s difficult to not cheer on Class VII’s exploits, and when scenes are crafted for this, the game really knows how to pull heartstrings and fulfill pride in players.
The cheesiness of Cold Steel II works, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself shaking your head with embarrassment, sometimes. Whether through all those rousing speeches by Rean and his companions, or the cutscenes of Class VII’s special crafts.
Valimar may be a cool addition to Cold Steel II, but Soldats (enemy mechs) battles with him are too easy to be much fun. They involve a series of hits and misses, while trying to find the enemies’ weak spots that vary between head, body and arms. While this changes up some when enemies go into special offensive moves, it’s still a series of trial and error.
Later, the combat gets mixed further when Rean and Valimar pair with Class VII members to infuse specialized arts and stats to the battle. It’s still very simplistic, and there are rarely any threats of real danger from any of the enemy combatants. There was, perhaps, just one battle that really threw me for a loop and had me thinking about how to approach it effectively but otherwise, they don’t involve too much thinking.
The only real complaint I have about many of the boss battles is that they tend to do something quite annoying: bosses heal themselves significantly and a couple of times during battle, rendering your hard hitting attacks to feel insignificant. Yeah, that might be something to get over and adapt to with agility, status effects where available, or whittling away health enough to put a dent in them, but it made some of the battles unnecessarily tedious. It happens fairly often, too, which is okay and surprising the first time but not when it becomes an expected action, which lends to some of the repetition discussed earlier.
*Mild Spoilers End*
I played the PS3 version of Cold Steel II, and there were some cutscenes that lagged a little. It’s noticeable enough to worth mentioning but doesn’t overall detract from the gameplay, just some small hiccups in presentation. Load times before and after battles are present but not terribly long either.
Trails of Cold Steel II is a hell of a ride. It’s long, and may feel like a tried and true story of JRPG routine and repetition at times: fight a boss, go on to the next mission, rinse and repeat. But it’s charming for its strength of characters, twists, mysteries, and all the rich history and secrets Erebonia hides.
Even when Class VII’s ideals and messages seem overbearing, that’s largely the point—it’s a worthy sequel to a tale that’s filled with an overabundance of heart. But it’s one that also remembers reality isn’t neatly tailored to the best possible outcomes or desires.
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