|Trails in the Sky (2004)|
You haven't heard much about The Legend of Heroes series. The franchise has been going strong in Japan since nineteen eighty nine, but has mostly flown under the North American radar, despite PC and PSP localizations. With the 2011 release of The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky (affectionately referred to, simply, as TitS), the franchise suddenly became... dare I say it? The next Persona.
Not by way of edgy, mature themes, though. Instead, Trails in the Sky distinguished itself with a legitimately epic scope and a dazzling amount of heart in its finer details. It is a traditional JRPG, but it's traditional JRPGs at their best. Each and every NPC in the game, for example, has an arc over the course of the story. The kids chasing each other in the first town you encounter? They will grow and change and react as the narrative takes place around them. The shopkeeper at the general store? She has an opinion on things, and the depth of the script - and XSEED's heartfelt localization effort - ensure TitS as an utterly charming, absorbing affair, even as it suffers under PS1-era technology and presentation. It ended on a cliffhanger, and after a notoriously hellish localization process that spanned four years, Trails in the Sky's Second Chapter was released just last month to universal acclaim. Despite its ancient presentation, despite its good-but-not-great combat system, its marvellous world and living, breathing characters make it an exceptional little (colossal) game.
With the critical acclaim of Trails in the Sky, the stage was set for a triumphant step forward for the series, and so far - with about five hours under my belt - Trails of Cold Steel delivers.
My only complaint, so far, is that Cold Steel's animations aren't quite up to snuff (critics have suggested that its sequel - which dropped in Japan in 2014 and has been confirmed for localization by XSEED - significantly improves this). Elsewhere, it's a well-crafted, well-executed jaunt. Cold Steel liberally riffs on the social link systems of Persona via optional events you can participate in with your classmates, and doing so will open up new combat abilities tied to taking advantage of staggers in combat. Each enemy is more likely to be stunned by this type of weapon or that type, and when a hero capitalizes on this and lands a stun, the party member they share a "combat link" with (entirely chosen at your discretion) can move in for additional damage, or a support move (I think - it's early yet!)
The red-jacketed students of Class VII at the prestigious Thors Military Academy (shades of Valkyria Chronicles II, there) are all archetypes, but perhaps the series - and Cold Steel's - greatest strength is that all of them feel far from two-dimensional. The game's lively writing, and an affectionately charismatic localization from XSEED, make the Elite Girl Who's Awesome At Everything From a Noble Family interesting and mysterious again, and the Easygoing Giant From A Rural Area feels like someone you really do trust to have your back.
These are, of course, the early hours, and Cold Steel is nowhere near finished doling out its mechanics and revealing its true breadth - but the further I come with it, the more confidently I believe that I'm in good hands, with this one. The way I kind of stumbled across the noble who was fishing by the river, and he just like gives me a book on how to fish and a rod! He was super-chill for a noble - a lot of them (not all, mind you) are kind of stereotypical elitist douchebags - so I got right down to discovering Cold Steel's simple but satisfying fishing minigame. What a nice fellow!
For the first time in a long time, I'm feeling very positive about a JRPG. I enjoyed dipping my toe in Trails in the Sky, for the first time, earlier this year - but I'll admit its semi-ancient presentation and technology marred the experience. Cold Steel isn't perfect, but it's modern and beautiful enough to sidestep that admittedly wrong, and judgemental part of my gamer brain.
For the first time in a long time, there's a JRPG I'm pretty damned excited to keep plucking away at.