When I first saw the announcement of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III coming to the Nintendo Switch, I was flabbergasted. They are all part of a continuous narrative, so why push people to play a game in the latter half of the story? Well, given how Cold Steel II ended, Cold Steel III is revealed to be a much more viable entry point than I thought. HOWEVER, I will be spoiling plot aspects of both previous games, as well as expecting you to know basic gameplay mechanics. Read my review of the first game if you are interested in the franchise. Unfortunately, if you couldn’t tell from the title of the post… I have some issues with this one.
When we last left our intrepid hero, Rean Schwarzer, he concluded his first year at Thors Military Academy by fighting a palette swap of the first game’s final boss that LITERALLY HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THE OVERARCHING PLOT (sorry, still salty about that). With the war over (at least as far as Erebonia is concerned), what could possibly go wrong? Well, a year later, in a suburban town west of Heimdallr called Leeves, Rean becomes an instructor of a new Class VII to take on an old threat: literally Ouroboros again.
Cold Steel III comes off as fanfic-like at the start. In fact, things wind down so much that this is perhaps the slowest opening—narrative-wise—in the series so far. The war is over, people have graduated… if it weren’t for the flash-forward intro, similar to the first game, I wouldn’t have been willing to believe that III had a plot at all. Fortunately, it does do some good things, one of which is including tons of areas entirely new to the franchise. From Sutherland Province, to Crossbell (which has a lot of references to the Japan-only Crossbell games that Western players will be hopelessly confused by), you will be visiting locations that have been merely mentioned in previous games. Erebonia feels bigger than it ever did before!
Furthermore, there are a number of new, big plot developments. Thanks to being able to experience Crossbell firsthand, we finally get to see just how much weight Erebonia has been placing on the small province. It is quickly made apparent that the war is far from over, and things ramp up like they never have before. We also get some much-needed insight on the Gnomes, Black Workshop, and Hexen Clan.
But at this point, the series starts to become more like its JRPG cousins, and by that, I mean it has more of the soap-opera-like plot twists that make no sense (For example (SPOILERS): Crow is alive, and George is evil (END SPOILERS)). Also, I realized that you can’t really get by with Cold Steel alone. I began to lose track of all the different terms and factions, and it got to the point where I was straight-up lost in the plot. Whatever they’ve been building up to is something that began since the first Trails of Heroes (or whatever it’s called). If I actually played all—what, ten?—of these 80+ hour apiece JRPGs, I’d probably have all the familiarity I need to truly understand the series.
New school means an entirely new student body, and new towns means entirely new NPCs. Since you’re expected to have grown attached to the cast of the first two games over the course of 160-200 hours, Cold Steel III has the hardest cast of characters to like. Fortunately, it does a good job of distributing familiar faces. For example, one of the new Class VII members is actually Altina from the second game. Also, the Principal is the sexy General, Aurelia le Guin. People like Alfin, Elise, Sharon, and more all appear (and Prince Cedric actually DOES stuff for the first time in the series). For the record, I ended up really not liking—or rather, not understanding—Alisa’s mom more than ever. While she always had a weird way of loving her daughter even though she seemed like a crappy parent, Sharon’s backstory (SPOILERS) that she actually murdered Alisa’s dad, Alisa’s mom knew this, and yet… raised Sharon as her own? God, even by JRPG standards that’s a leap in logic… (END SPOILERS)
In any case, a Cold Steel game is a Cold Steel game, and the new faces end up being loveable enough. Overall, it was hilarious to see Rean’s new students react to all the different tidbits about him, such as all the famous people (and women) he knows. Juna is an interesting case; she’s from Crossbell, which doesn’t exactly have the best impression of Erebonia. However, Altina and Kurt ended up being kind of underwhelming by the series’ standards. The former comes off as a PTSD waifu that the MC has to teach to “have a soul” through “wove”, and Kurt is basically a combination of Cold Steel I Rean and Machias. Also, a lot of the other students outside of the new Class VII were pretty unremarkable as well. Fortunately, my favorite quickly ended up being Freddy. Who doesn’t love a beady-eyed weirdo who cooks bugs?
Many Thors alumni appear in the game. We get to see the adult forms of the old Class VII, as well as other students. The thing that they all have in common is that they haven’t changed, and they’re all very physically attractive (seriously freaking adult Elliot is a smexy boy right out of Liberty’s Kids). Surprisingly enough, the OG Class VII still has some new stuff for us to learn, even after all this time. The game makes up for its low amount of total party members by having some of the old gang appear as temporary party members.
Unfortunately, I had some issues with the way the characters were handled (other than the fact that you get way too many character notes). Character development was all over the place. A lot of the time, it felt like the game actively disliked the main party members. Like I said before, old characters become guest party members throughout the game. However, they always end up at higher levels, with more well-rounded abilities, as well as the whole “temporary” thing adding incentive to use them. New players will likely gravitate to them just for the manpower, and it kind of undermines the actual new characters. You could argue that it’s symbolic; it shows that new Class VII has a long way to go before they can match O.G. Class VII, but it doesn’t help that there are entire in-game days that are spent entirely with members of the original gang.
Furthermore, I feel like they mucked up Reany-Beany a bit. First off, a major event happens in between Cold Steel II and III: the Northern War. You get to see a bit of this at the end of Cold Steel II, but it’s basically a hostile takeover of a country called Northern Ambria. It’s such an important event, and it’s mentioned so often that I thought it was its own game. I came to realize that the whole thing was made to justify re-learning Rean’s Spirit Unification (okay maybe it’s not the WHOLE reason), and it felt kind of weak.
Things have improved substantially in terms of audio and visuals. With this being the first game in the series released on PS4, the visuals have the stylized look that has become the standard for anime JRPGs. The models are all updated, and they look amazing. From the fabrics of clothing, to lighting, I can finally feel truly immersed in the world Zemuria. The soundtrack is around the same quality, but it feels much less intrusive than in previous games.
Before we get into gameplay, I must make a quick declaration. If you are marathoning this on PS4… BUY THE DIGITAL GAME FROM THE PLAYSTATION STORE. The physical edition of Cold Steel III does not give you the DLC, unlike the digital version (and MacBurn taught me that I NEED all fifty Zeram Capsules if I’m gonna beat all four of these games). The Switch version does have the DLC, but I read (on an Amazon question) that the fourth game will include the same save data carryover mechanic from Cold Steel II, but APPLIED TO ALL THREE PREVIOUS GAMES. Use these factoids to decide which version you want. If you do buy the game digitally, keep in mind that the stupid expensive deluxe edition only comes with exclusive cosmetic DLC, but none of the item-based DLC (yours truly learned that the hard way). So if you only want your fifty Zeram Capsules, buy the standard version. Also, it’s sad to say that Turbo Mode is no longer with us. Press F for respect. To compensate, you can use the Options button to skip cutscenes.
There is one immediate difference with your Orbment settings: the ability to have two Master Quartzes at once… sort of. The second Master Quartz slot is for a Sub-Master Quartz. Whatever Master Quartz is set to the Sub slot will be much weaker, but still immensely helpful, especially since there seem to be less slots for regular Quartz in this game. The cool thing is that you can equoi something as a Sub-Master Quartz while it’s equipped as someone else’s main Master Quartz without actually taking it OFF of that person. It helps streamline Quartz management and makes it a LOT easier to level up multiple Master Quartz at once. Another thing about Master Quartzes is that there are a lot of new ones (fortunately, Moebius is still in this game. Thank Aidios). Heck, there aren’t just new Master Quartzes, but new Arts as well. It was really jarring to relearn all of this stuff. In fact, it might’ve been easier if this was my first game in the series.
Since we’re back at square one, we have to open slots on the Arcus units all over again. Fortunately, as long as you get Septium Vein as soon as possible, you can easily max out everyone’s slots. But… that doesn’t mean you’re done with Sepith. Not even close. All Quartzes can now be used at an Orbment facility to be upgraded into their rarer form with the usual stat boosts. You need three regulars to get a rare, and three rares to get a super-rare. That’s a lot, especially if you want more than one. Also, U-Materials are needed to this, making them more valuable than ever. The other thing is that you can trade rare Quartzes at the pawn shop to get one-of-a-kind Quartzes that are usually obtained in quests… including duplicates. I was able to get three Septium Veins pretty quickly (which only needs a rare Crest and a few U-Materials) and have the amount of money I normally have by endgame by the end of the third chapter. This is an interesting system because it makes you decide if you want to grind to get a powerful Quartz early, or wait until you get it for free. It’s a tough call, especially when you unlock the ability to obtain the Gem series of Quartzes, which are more broken than ever.
In addition to the usual junk, scenes called Sub Events now need to be sought out. They’re generally marked on the map, unless there are hidden ones I don’t know about. The bathhouse in the dorm always triggers one such event, so use it whenever it’s available. While some of them seem meaningless, I like doing all of them because it feels good.
Just because you’re an instructor now doesn’t mean you don’t have to worry about AP anymore. In fact, you also have to worry about the academy’s Campus Enhancement Rating. Basically, completing quests specifically related to the school (which have their own section titled “Branch Campus Quests”) as well as doing the aforementioned bathhouse events increases this number. AP and CER contribute to two separate ranking systems, which doubles the rewards as well as the stress.
Speaking of extra rewards and stress, reporting character notes, battle notes, and book notes now nets you rewards. As usual with the games, some Bonding Events yield character notes and some do not, making save-scumming a must if you want to get 100% (btw one person’s character notes are obtained out of sequence for no reason). I literally drove myself insane making sure I talk to everyone, and even with save-scumming for Bonding Events, I missed several notes. Since the final reward is most likely a Master Quartz, I will never get 100% in those either. Oh, and milestones also increase Campus Enhancement, making a THIRD thing I couldn’t 100%!
Bonding gets more complicated than before. In addition to your disgustingly limited Bonding Events, Cold Steel III adds Gifts. These are sold in various shops, and can be given to a specific character directly from the inventory screen. to increase your Bond with them. Some of these Gifts expire, so I’d make sure you have a pretty far wad of cash on you at all times. Also, the nakama power you get from bonding no longer goes to your link level; instead, it goes to a separate Bond Level, which measures just how 007 you are. Okay, maybe that last part was a joke… In actuality, increasing Bond Levels does… nothing? Kind of a disappointment. But at the very least, this new way of handling relationships finally gives an even balance between Rean and everyone else’s link levels.
Fishing has changed substantially. First off, instead of Angler Points, you trade specific species of fish for goods. Plus, you can buy upgrades to your fishing capabilities. “But fishing is easy in these games!” you think. Well, the mechanics are a lot newer and a lot harder now. The amount of fish you can get is based solely on your bait count (which can FINALLY be purchased for Mira instead of five U-Materials). When you fish, you must press the circle button when the arrow points to a specific line on the circle. The great thing about this is that you have to press the circle button when it lines up with a line that has blue, green, and yellow sections (in order of difficulty to hit). At first, I thought the smaller, yellow section meant rarer fish. But no, this part determines the rarity of what the fish drops, which I found to be a great improvement. Instead of mashing face buttons, you hold the circle button to reel the fish in. The line can break if you hold it for too long, especially if the fish is mad while you’re doing it. But since you’re able to catch such wildly different fish at once, knowing if you have caught all the fish you can at a given point in the game is next to impossible.
Recipes get a new upgrade as well. In addition to finding books, you are able to try a restaurant’s recommended dish. This allows you to learn new recipes that way too. But the best improvement is that you can have people cook from outside of your party! Now you don’t have to reorganize everybody just to make a specific Unique Dish.
If things in this game couldn’t get any newer, Blade falls by the wayside like any fad among elementary schoolers and is replaced with Vantage Masters. This game is… a lot. It’s basically Yu-Gi-Oh meets Triple Triad meets Pokemon TCG. It would take a whole separate review to describe the rules, and even then it won’t make sense to you. You just gotta experiment, and find those exploits that every card game has. But since there are now visible penalties to losing, save-scumming is recommended.
Field studies return in the form of field exercises. They’re basically exactly the same, but the entire student body goes to the location. In addition to the quests you’ll receive, the students that come with you can give additional quests that go towards the Campus Enhancement Rating. Unfortunately, they follow a much tighter formula than the first game. Basically, you start Day 1 by going down the highway to receive your requests, then you do those requests, along with an investigation report, to finish the day. The bad guys of that particular arc attack at the end of the first day, and then Rean is forced to spend Day 2 fighting those bad guys with several Old Class VII members. While there is a little variance, I did not welcome this dip in variety.
Just when they couldn’t add any more to do, they did. Munk is now working at Radio Trista, Rosine is apparently a secret service nun (which is a scene I missed in the previous game?), and Vivi is a journalist. Munk wants material for his radio shows, which are obtained from NPCs that have Sub Event icons over them. Rosine wants the Black Records, which are found as treasures. Vivi wants photogenic, well, photographs of nature. Turn these in by calling them on the ARCUS, which can also be used to check mail and stuff.
Many new mechanics are introduced right off the bat. One is the new Charm status effect. It’s like Confuse, except that they ONLY attack allies. Obviously very sexy and very dangerous. Also new is the Break system. This functions just like the Ys series and Octopath Traveler; hit people enough it reduces their defenses to nothing while stunning them for a turn. Inflicting Break will make enemies lose their next turn, guarantee item drops, and make every regular attack and Craft Unbalance them.
Ever feel like you have too many Bravery Points? Well, now you can spend them on Brave Orders on any character’s turn. They don’t actually use that turn, so it’s objectively good to do. They provide all sorts of useful effects to the whole party, after all. Also, you can earn Bravery Points as turn bonuses now, as well as receive a bonus that lets you use Brave Orders for free. This makes it much more difficult to decide if you want to use Burst. Fortunately, using Burst does increase Break damage by 900%, making it a good panic button if you just need to Break something fast. An ideal strategy is to save up for Burst, use it at the start of a battle to Break all the enemies instantly, and then wail on them with attacks and/or Crafts to get the guaranteed Unbalance and gain back all five Bravery Points. But sometimes, the Brave Orders can turn the tide of a fight in an instant… which is why Overdrive is no longer with us.
I never mentioned the mechanics of breaking crates before, but it’s really important to do it in Cold Steel III, not that they weren’t great for grinding items in the previous games. In this game, breaking crates fills up a little charge meter. When it’s filled up enough, you can perform Assault Attacks, which greatly damage all enemies’ Break meter and give you a big advantage. The same actions that fill up the assault meter also restore CP, so make sure you always break stuff!
Mech battles are better than ever. Thanks to Mr. Schmidt, a whole slew of Panzer Soldats are now distributed to students. This means that *foams at the mouth* you get to fight with multiple mechs at once. The mechanics are largely unchanged, but it’s good to know that there are now consumable items that can be used specifically for restoring mechs. Fortunately, the EX Orb mechanic isn’t any more complicated than it was before; any EX Orb applied to Valimar affects the whole team.
The few changes that are present serve to make these fights much more difficult. Charge only restores 500 EP instead of the full thousand, for one thing. The most stressful aspect is how it handles partners. All selected partners alternate between each other. This means that you can’t have Altina spam her physical reflect shield and win every fight; you actually have to think now. My brain welcomed this change, but my heart sure didn’t. For the record, these take the place of practical exams, both on dedicated Panzer Soldat days and on optional battle during Free Days which increase Campus Enhancement.
Enemies get some new toys as well. Some can enter an Enhanced state, which comes with boosted stats at the expense of a weaker Break meter. YOU NEED TO BREAK THEM IN THIS STATE ASAP, unless you WANT your face to get ripped off. In fact, I died to the FIRST BOSS because my normal defensive plays just didn’t work. But as soon as I prioritized inflicting Break, I was able to do it. It gets much easier when everyone learns their S-Crafts. One helpful thing is that it seems like bosses can’t use S-Crafts unless they’re in their Enhanced state, allowing you to stop what are usually instant game overs.
I knew it was a risk trying Trails of Cold Steel, due to the length and amount of missable content. The first two games felt manageable enough, but III pushed me over the edge. They really don’t want you to earn AP in this game. From Chapter 3 onwards, there’s a serious spike in the amount of quests with multiple outcomes. Some of them aren’t so bad, such as “win this tough battle”. But some of them are really arbitrary, such as a bike chase quest that doesn’t actually have you race with the bike but instead do a series of adventure game logic bull. Also, you will be expected to have knowledge of previous Cold Steel AND Legend of Heroes games (gee good thing they’re trying to get Switch players into the series STARTING with III), as well as some remote real-world stuff. In addition to that, some AP events feel like they require trial and error (unless I’m as dumb as a ignoramus). But hey, at least hidden quests are no longer a thing (which is ironic because this is the first time they actually warn you about them even though they’re all marked on the map)!
When I say it pushed me over the edge, I mean it. I mentioned this once on the mystery award blog, but I got autism. I’m gonna be real, when I had a rough time with AP throughout the series, I had an honest meltdown. It was about the level of a Getting Over It or Cuphead rage video. I would hit myself and the floor of my house, and it was not a good time. Normally, I wouldn’t be so salty about it, but Trails of Cold Steel IV has a true ending, and I probably need AP past a certain threshold to get it.
“You’re not finishing a game?” you ask, “Filthy casual…” Look, I’m not a professional gamer. I rarely have time to game versus my other stuff, and so, I need to choose wisely. I need to choose something that won’t drive me to drink (since the real world is perfectly good at doing that on its own). I just don’t know if Trails of Cold Steel is worth it. What also made me consider this possibility was an even more obscure RPG, which has become one of my favorite games of all time: CrossCode. It’s tough. It has its issues (like really picky puzzle execution), but it’s a game that I can deal with. The combat is more fun to boot, and the combat was my one incentive to finish Cold Steel. Well, I still have my PS4, so if I want to finish it someday… it’ll be there.
Current (Possibly Final) Verdict: 9.5/10
Trails of Cold Steel III is definitely the best installment thus far. However, things are getting more stressful than ever. Going into this series without a guide is suicidal if you want to get 100%, but I should at least be proud of managing as much as I could (Oh, and since these games are so niche it’s questionable whether or not there is a good enough guide to begin with). I come off as a hypocrite, potentially dropping a game I gave such a high score. I don’t want to undersell what a well-made series Trails of Cold Steel is, it’s just not the kind of game for me. With my new gaming-oriented schedule, I’ve been branching out the different types of game I play, but ones where you can miss a lot of stuff, on top of having to worry about getting a good ending, are not ones I can tolerate. Reading this, you’ll know exactly what you’d be getting into with Cold Steel. So, look at yourself and judge accordingly.