Please bear with me as I begin this review with a caveat: RPG games are not my forte, which means Japanese-style RPGs are completely, well… foreign to me. In fact, I have always had a mild aversion to Manga-style things in general as, in my opinion, they often carry with them a type of sharp and brittle anger that gets under my skin. Maybe it’s the eyes. Creepy! I mention this because you are about to read a review of a JRPG game written by someone brand new to the genre and consequently almost wholly unaware of things like lore and canon. Proceed accordingly.
The game at hand is The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel, produced by Falcom and XSEED Games. It is the continuation of a lengthy series of Legend of Heroes games, but as it is the first episode in a trilogy that starts a new branch, it is reportedly considered to be an adequate first experience and is at least partially tailored to people having their first experience with the overall storyline.
I went in with certain preconceived notions, chief among them being the idea that the translations from the Japanese language to English would be similar to the nearly incomprehensible and often hilarious instructions that sometimes come with foreign made products that require assembly before use. The exact opposite was the case - the language and grammar was perfect. In fact, at the risk of getting too far ahead of myself, I found the story telling to be far better than I had expected. There are many games that I just fast forward through that kind of thing, but in this case I found myself quite interested in the dialog, albeit with one cavil: every now and then a character would add nothing of consequence to the conversation other than an “Uh” or similarly useless utterance. Things like that would not normally be worth mentioning, but when you’re on the hook to press a button after each and every character speaks (or grunts) to move the conversation forward and advance the story, it’s an unnecessary delay. Additionally, because roughly 90% of the game involves reading the dialog, you can see where minor irritants can blossom into slightly more grating issues.
I would describe the overall story as being very much like Harry Potter goes to Japan. I started out on a train heading to a mysterious school (Thor’s Military Academy) and possessing very little knowledge as to what to expect. I ended up being put in a special class at the school based on by tremendous innate abilities, the presence of which had been completely unknown to me. And sure enough, the class I was assigned to was an experiment in removing the social class/status distinctions between nobility and commoner that were causing so much trouble in the world, which naturally led to the type of friction extant between Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter. The parallels weren’t too close to wreck the story, though, and the natural differences of viewpoint were handled well by the writers. For the most part I found the story to be interesting and well-paced. Again, with a majority of the time spent in the game being very similar to reading a graphic novel, it is important that the story be an enjoyable component of the game. With the reading/activity ratio being so heavily biased to the reading, I soon started viewing the game as something like a Stephen King novel: enjoy the journey because the ending is probably going to pale by comparison.
As a foreigner to this kind of game, I did struggle during the introductory chapter. Being thrown into battles with absolutely no tutorial or help seemed kind of off-putting for someone brand new to not only the series but the entire genre. That turned out not to matter in the long run; eventually interstitial help pages would be displayed as new situations arose. That having been said, I never quite shook the feeling that the tutorial/help always seemed to lag the game play. That can be disconcerting, to say the least. I also had to turn off the background music once I realized that the heavy-on-crescendo style, which would have served well as an introduction to a scene, never faded away. It quickly became a distraction.
At this point you might be getting the impression that there’s nothing to do but read a story, but that is not the case. Once I was turned loose to do a few things on my own, I found that Hogwarts Thor’s was adjacent to a small town called Hogsmeade Trista that I could walk around in and interact with other characters. It was on one of those jaunts that I learned that I could fish the small river that runs through the town, buy and sell things at the pawn shop, and buy new clothes. I also found that I had to/could perform a series of side missions which took the form of finding lost things, delivering things for busy people, and bonding with classmates and friends. And, much to my chagrin, nearly always had at least one fight with one scary creature or another. Each task was flagged as must-do or optional. Some tasks were designed such that they would close out the day, and in these cases there was ample warning that closing the day too early would result in missing the opportunity to perform the other side missions. I appreciated the hand-holding.
The fighting was no surprise - Thor’s is a military academy, so pretty much everything you do that isn’t direct combat is intended to improve your combat abilities. Bonding with friends increases your “bonding points” (seemingly everything is about gaining various types of points) which improves your team’s fighting ability when linked with that friend. Linking is a pretty important part of the battles. Basically it’s a way for your character and another teammate to double up and get two attacks in one turn, which can make a very real difference in the outcome of any given battle. It came in quite handy during the practical exams.
The practical exams were just another type of fighting, albeit against machine opponents. Very much to my pleasure, due to the fact that I am absolutely terrible in any kind of real-time give-and-take fighting model, the combat fighting is turn based. That’s a boon to a slow thinker like me - I had plenty of time to analyze the situation, choose my battle tactics, and…. still lose. There is a lot of information about your opponent readily at hand, such as the efficacy of each type of attack against a given type of opponent (although during your first encounters with a new type of opponent you don’t know as much as you will after fighting it a few times), the relative strengths and weakness of your friends, and most importantly, whether or not ignominious retreat is allowed. Not surprisingly, I hated the battles that I wasn’t allowed to run away from. Also not surprisingly, I was happy to see a post-death option to “weaken the enemy and try again.”
I made prodigious use of that option. Even so, it took an average of three battles before I could win.
There is a lot of preparation that can be done prior to a battle. I was offered the opportunity to select the members of my team, their relative positioning in the group, what equipment to use, and various other refinements. With the “give me a weaker opponent” option acting as a crutch of sorts, I fortunately didn’t need to get too deep into that stuff. At least in the earlier fights, anyway. There's a fairly steep learning curve on the fighting aspects, but it isn't well supported with the in-game tutorials. It's more than likely to b more easily understood by folks with prior experience with this kind of game.
There’s also quite a bit to learn about things that seem as if they would be routine. Prior to our first Field Study, for example, I was advised to visit the shops in town to stock up on supplies. Without any idea regarding what supplies would be necessary or desirable, primarily because none of us knew what a field study even was, I just bought a couple of cookies that would restore 700 HP (Hit points? Health points?) thinking that if a fight were to break out, those cookies might come in handy. Given that fights had been breaking out since almost the first moment of arriving at the academy, I thought the odds were good that there would be more. Our teacher, who was often more concerned with where her next beer was coming from, was of little help.
The first field study found us all on the train again. While riding on the train, we were able to play a clever little card game called Blade. The rules are simple to pick up, but the game itself can be pretty challenging to win. Or that’s what I like to tell myself, having gone 0 for 4 on games on the first attempt. Win or lose, it’s still worth playing because you increase your bond with the opposing player either way.
About that field study? Well, it’s best that I don’t talk too much about that, although I will say that it turned out to be a good idea to look at the items we had carried with us to determine which of them had restorative properties. Those cookies didn't last long.
For the most part I am enjoying the game. I have a lot to learn about fighting, but with enough preparation I can survive enough losses to eventually get through a battle successfully. I also found simply running away to be a fairly strong tactic. I got more and more into the story itself as the characters started to show some depth, and the societal difficulties the kids had to deal with rang true. One of the more difficult things to get used to was that when traveling in groups, I could only see or control one of the team members. Once in a cut scene or a battle, though, the rest of the gang appeared. There were some issues with the camera having its own point of view, so to speak, that didn’t always agree with what I wanted to see at times, and there were large segments of conversation that didn’t have voiceovers, which kind of wrecked the mood, but for my first exposure to this type of gaming, Trails of Cold Steel was a great choice. While I was able to muddle through as a neophyte, this felt like a game that had plenty to offer for players ready for a more complex experience.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.
My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.
While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.
My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.