Arise, O Youth-Trails of Cold Steel Review

The Trails games are easy to think about in terms of duologies. Sky FC and SC (3rd being a somewhat separate game), then the Crossbell era with Zero and Azure. Trails of Cold Steel brings us into the “modern” era of the Trails series but continues with this format. In fact it serves as the first game in what has ended up being a quadrilogy of games in the Cold Steel era, with 2 pairs of games making up the total 4. Allegedly, Falcom was not going to make Cold Steel III and IV at first but felt like there was more story to tell. This has led to half of the series, not to mention a significant amount of real world time, being dedicated to the Erebonia arc. There were a lot of big changes and shifts with this arc and I have a lot to talk about so lets dive into the first game.

This time more characters are added to the menu as you progress through the game. All screenshots in this article were captured on my own copy of the game.

Cold Steel is certainly a break point for the series as it represents a big shift for many aspects of the franchise. It also happens to be a completely valid place to start the series as well. I would not really recommend starting with Zero, but Cold Steel can definitely be an entry point. This is 100% the same series and story but Cold Steel does a lot of its own thing and makes references to other events rather than direct story follow ups (we’ll get to III and IV). You will certainly get something from bringing previous knowledge in but it is not strictly necessary for CSI and CSII. Cold Steel modernized the series in a lot of ways and new players may find them more appealing. So while my recommendation is to play in order and start with Sky, trying Cold Steel instead may work better for you.

Trails of Cold Steel was released in Japan in 2013 for PS3 and Vita. It would get localized in English by Xseed in 2015. There was a Windows port in English also by Xseed in 2017 which actually added additional voice acting. That’s right I said voice acting. While previous games had individual battle lines that were voiced, Cold Steel brings us forward into the world of full voice acting. At least for some of the lines. Trails has a recurring theme where some conversations will be half voiced or situations where voiced lines will be answered by non-voiced lines. It is unfortunate but probably necessary due to budget and time. Another port was released for PS4 in Japan in 2018 and worldwide in 2019. Then a port for Switch came out in 2021 in Japan and Asia. Trails has managed to find a quite annoying pattern where games come out in Japan right at the end of a console cycle and then the ports are slow to come in English. As I type this we are awaiting the official English ports of Zero and Azure but also for Reverie. Kuro no Kiseki has already had a sequel announced in Japan and there’s no word at all on localizations of those. So we’re falling years behind at this point.

Cold Steel takes us to the often mentioned and militaristic Empire of Erebonia. Timeline wise the events of Cold Steel I and II actually occur around the same time as Azure and some events get mentioned back and forth. We shift perspective again to a group of students attending a military academy. That’s right, it’s anime school time. I know it’s a common trope and I know it’s something anime and jrpg fans have seen dozens of time before. Ya know what though? I’m here for anime school. I think it provides a nice home base plus persistent NPCs in the form of other students and staff. It’s also still backed up by the rest of the Trails setting which I think makes it a nice addition.

Our new Protagonist Rean.

Our new protagonist for the foreseeable future (5 games!) is Rean Schwarzer, a member of the newly formed and experimental Class VII at Thors Military Academy. Erebonia has a class system of commoners and nobles that will serve as the main backdrop for Cold Steel and will be explored quite a bit. Rean finds himself in a unique position and I like his story of trying to figure out how he fits into this world. Rean has grown on me with subsequent playthroughs but I’ll save debating how he compares to Estelle and Lloyd for some other time. He does serve as a great perspective character to explore Erebonia with.

Erebonia is a huge country compared to Liberl and Crossbell and the cast of characters and party members here is fittingly large and diverse. I love Cold Steel’s characters and think top to bottom they are my favorite cast in the series. Getting to know their own homes through them is a big part of the game’s structure. Like the other arcs you will be visiting various locations within the country and will be learning all about these characters and locations. The party members may all be students but their roles and perspectives are still quite varied.

I have called this the start of the modern era of Trails games and some big changes were made to make me say that so lets go ahead and jump into those.

Gameplay

We’ve got a lot to cover here. For starters, as you may have noticed in the screenshots, the entire game has seen a graphics/engine overhaul. It is no longer presented in the top down style and has full 3d models with the camera set behind the character. The game now takes place in 3d space and the developers definitely use that space. Some players may find it to look more generic now given that is one of a legion of jrgps that look roughly like this. That being said it definitely still looks like a Trails game and you can tell they kept the style and look of the series but with updated graphics and a new perspective. While navigating the world the party no longer follows behind the lead character which makes avoiding getting blindsided by enemies much easier. Overall I find it a well done transition to the 3d era even it loses some of that classic feel.

Combat has also seen a bit of an overhaul. Battles are still turn based, still use the AT Bar, and still have turn bonuses. Characters still have the same actions, arts and crafts available to them. The grid that battles took place on is gone however as the characters now move freely in space rather than on squares. This slightly changes how certain area of effect abilities will be able to be placed to hit multiple targets. Cold Steel also introduces link attacks and the unbalance system. When an attack unbalances an enemy a linked party member can perform a follow up attack. More options for the link system become available as you play. The games make such a big deal out of this story wise and I’ve never found it to quite match its actual effectiveness in game but hey I get the idea.

The biggest change to combat comes from the new way orbments, quartz, and lines work. Sepith values are completely gone. No longer will you have to add up the values of quartz into lines to unlock the use of certain arts. Instead, most arts will be set from the returning and expanded Master Quartz system. Master Quartz now come with a set list of arts as opposed to a set sepith value, and more will unlock as they level up which makes it feel more tied into natural character progression. There are also now quartz that simply unlock an art immediately, so instead of needing a green/wind quartz to use the “air strike” art, there is now simply a quartz called “air strike” that will unlock it. Master Quartz also have powerful abilities and are really tied to how a character plays. You can find more and swap them out but I honestly tend to keep the default ones on as they are plenty powerful enough and fit the characters well. Do what works for you though. Characters still have certain slots that require specific elements/colors of quartz, but because these are no longer the source of arts they don’t make or break how a character can play (but coupled with their Master Quartz still hint pretty hard at it).

You can also now stack stat boosting quartz and that is a huge deal. Before, to equip an “Attack 3” quartz a character could not have another “Attack” quartz equipped. In Cold Steel you can stack these and end up having any amount of the same stat boosting quartz as long as they are of different values (so yes on having an Attack 2 and an Attack 1 but no on having 2 separate Attack 2s). This means if you so choose you can min max characters and really focus them on their roles, especially because their arts are mostly tied to their Master Quartz now. This system can get pretty broken on certain characters if you abuse it. This can make some characters feel more unique because they won’t just end up with the same massive list of arts. The flipside is every physical attacker just wants the exact same set up. Now the Master Quartz and crafts each character has really determines their play style. Personally, I find the game much more focused on basic attacks and crafts overall compared to arts and spells. The pendulum of Trails balance is constantly swinging wildly.

This new system is much simpler and easier to manage than in previous games. It technically flips the orbment system on its head as now lines almost serve no purpose which to me does take away a bit from the uniqueness of the series. In fact technically characters with more lines can be a bit more versatile by fitting in more quartz that cause statuses but I’ll leave nuances like that for everyone to discover on their own. I do think this was a smart modernization for the series even if in the next games it will become pretty horrifically unbalanced. Fair warning, save up sepith to stack those Attack and Action quartz. If you are hurting for money you can still trade in sepith for money but Cold Steel adds “sepith mass” which is a new elementless sepith that can only be traded for money. Every enemy drops it and there’s no reason to keep it so its basically earning money with every fight.

Finally we move on to some structural changes. I mentioned this above but the game being set in the school, as well as its lovely town of Trista, really makes it feel like you have a home hub to get to know. You will have free days to help out around the school and town and will slowly get to know the other students and NPCs in Trista. The main story will involve going on “field studies” with other members of Class VII to visit towns and cities in Erebonia. These field studies basically serve as the main focus of each chapter as you work through side quests and main quests while of course getting to learn about each location, your classmates, and Erebonia. The new core loop is basically free day/sidequests in Trista, then the field studies. It won’t take long to discover the new rhythm.

A big new addition is the way bonding events work. On your free days you will be allotted a certain amount of bonding points which can then be used to see event scenes with some of the available characters. These are basically Persona-esque hangouts that then boost the link level between Rean and the chosen character. Increasing the link level improves the abilities between linked characters. These events will allow you/Rean to get to know the main cast more. As is usually the case they can be hit or miss depending on how much you care about the character. In the Cold Steel series they are typically pretty simple little character moments. Unfortunately on a first playthrough you are only given a limited amount of bonding points and therefore can’t see all of the events in one go. On subsequent playthroughs you can choose to max out the bonding points in order to see all of the events. For what its worth, Trails seems to treat the “canon” as always seeing everything, sidequests, hidden quests, bonding events, everything. They won’t really come up in the main story or anything, but they will allow you to learn more about the characters and fill in the notebook entries about them.

The bonding events serve as simple little stories that let you get to know the characters more.

The simple metagames are also back. There is a returning and improved fishing minigame. More books and news issues to collect (with a ton of backstory and history within if you seek it out). An expanded system of recipes to find and make. Finally there are character notes that can be found by talking to various characters and NPCs at certain times. Oh and a card game called Blade.

I’ve been giving playthrough times so for me Cold Steel is about a 60 hour game and Howlongtobeat has it listed at 60 to 80 hours.

Thoughts

I played Cold Steel for the first time after playing the Sky arc and before the Crossbell games. On my first playthrough I enjoyed it but it didn’t quite click for me the same way Sky did. Anyway it’s now my favorite game in the series. I’m not even sure I can really explain why except that it just feels cozy and right to me. I think the modernization makes it easier it easier to get into and there is more focus on the party characters from the beginning. It is interesting to get to see Erebonia from after how much the empire was talked about as an aggressor in the previous games. There is a real tension that the Cold Steel series plays with, especially in the later games, where these characters are confronted with the harsh realities of their own homeland being the villain to much of the world. A particularly effective segment of Cold Steel is basically dedicated to the students confronting their own country’s military might and what it means.

The game sets up the class system in Erebonia and explores the problems between nobles and commoners quite a bit. It proves to be somewhat interesting. I think most of us would naturally be very wary of any class system and instinctively side with the commoners. There are certainly some of the classic rich and haughty nobles here. However, the nobles in Class VII are presented as genuinely good people and there are some complicating factors here. In addition, if you have been following the entire series you will recognize a certain leader of the commoner faction. I’ll just say that there is a bit more going on than initial appearances may make it seem. I don’t want to give away anything but I think re playing Cold Steel with knowledge of where the series ends up going adds a certain tragic edge to it.

I am certainly not qualified for this next part given that the extent of my writing knowledge is basically writing these for fun and pretending I’ll write fiction some day. I have seen many fans express that the writing gets worse at this point in the series. Not so much the worldbuilding but the character and dialogue writing. I think it definitely gets a bit more tropey and there are patterns that emerge a lot (expect a lot of scene transitions punctuated by a character exclaiming exposition). There’s more clunky exposition here where characters do the thing where they talk like they know there’s an audience to explain things to. There’s more anime trope stuff and a lot of talk about the “way of the sword.” I also talked about this in the Crossbell arc but the jokes about breast sizes and underwear are here as well and while they don’t happen often its a valid turn off.. I think there is also an interesting phenomenon where hearing the voice acted lines as opposed to just reading them contributes a bit to that vague feeling of “cringe” when you have to listen to the lines rather than reading it.

I also wanted to make sure I mentioned a certain character. Lets just say there is an LGBT character that is very out and proud. She is simultaneously a badass that kicks ass and is true to herself and is also a horny goblin here to hit on every girl with a pulse. Your mileage is gonna vary a lot on what you think of her. On the “bright” side all the other characters are presented as being accepting of who she is. It just falls into the unfortunate trope of a queer character being the one who just openly flaunts their every sexual thought. There is a lot here that you have seen before especially if you take in a lot of Japanese anime and games and its unfortunate. It’s in here and I wanted to make sure I mentioned it now especially because it quite frankly gets worse from here as far as this character is concerned.

The gameplay changes are almost entirely for the better. They are certainly for the simpler. I do think a bit of character to the orbment system is lost due to the orbment lines not mattering and sepith values not being a thing. Though honestly those were hardly limiting once you knew what you were doing. The issue here is more how hilariously broken the new system gets with the stat stacking. It feels like the devs realize this to a certain extent and the games start trending toward easy mob fights but much harder spikes in difficulty for the boss fights. I do think there is a lot of room for experimentation within the system and the way I’ve found to play it will not be the way others choose to. They also improved all the jrpg metagames like the fishing, recipes, and character notebook and I always take the time to finish all of them now.

The bonding events feel straight out of Persona, Fire Emblem, or ya know, basically any modern game. They are short and sweet and open up an oh so prickly conversation. Welcome to the harem era. Cold Steel goes the way of many modern games and allows the player to choose what characters to spend time and increase bond level with before unlocking a final bonding event. Best girl/boy wars are here. The Crossbell games had begun this but Cold Steel is when it really goes over the edge. I have a lot of thoughts about this and have gone back and forth on it so I’ll just say this. Players getting to pick what characters they like and want to spend time with is fun. It has certainly done a lot for the fans and fan art community. However, Rean is not a blank slate created character. So for me it ends up in this weird place where one of the major appeals of the series feels hamstrung by the fact that the games can’t ever acknowledge any “canon” relationship. Instead we get the 4 game slow build to every female character falling for our protagonist. You could do a lot of interesting stuff with relationships in a series like Trails and they just kinda don’t. Cold Steel I and II do heavily imply (see: basically scream at you) who the “canon” choice is though. I’ll save a longer discussion for when I get to CSIV but Estelle and Joshua’s relationship was a big part of Sky’s appeal to me and that style of writing seems lost at this point.

I think its worth pointing out that the switch to the new 3d engine and graphics do lead to some instances where the devs overextend themselves a bit. Trails cutscenes are always in-engine and there’s definitely some “crowds” that look hilariously small given how many people they are supposed to be representing. The cutscenes can also be pretty rough in terms of animation. There are some much bigger open areas, specifically the Nord Highlands, but they can feel big for the sake of being big and take quite a while to travel around. This is where playing on the modern ports really helps because the turbo function helps cut that travel time.

Additionally, Cold Steel feels perhaps the least connected to other games in the series. Don’t expect very many characters from previous titles to show up here. Cold Steel is an effective starting point for the series in part because past events are really only mentioned in passing if at all. This was a big disappointment for me the first time through but quite frankly having Cold Steel III and IV now has alleviated a lot of that. It also makes a lot more sense given that this game is concurrent with Azure not afterwards. That may be the craziest thing about this series. Due to its size and style future games have often really changed how I view past games. So far, with 1 notable exception, that has only been for the positive as future games have made certain events or plot points feel better or more thought out in hindsight. How much are they actually planning in advance? Totally unclear.

As mentioned the characters are incredible yet again and that is always going to be what I look for first and foremost. Class VII is a great crew and the structural changes actually contribute to you/Rean getting to know them and a lot of focus being put on them from beginning to end. Each chapter definitely has a focus character or two that the story really highlights for that section. The Erebonia arc really bumps the overall party sizes with the core cast being bigger than ever. The NPCs and students especially continue to be solid enough and also really contribute to making Trista/Thors feel like home. Getting to know Erebonia and its politics through the eyes of the characters is quite rewarding as well. Also as cliché as it may be I’m personally always down for an anime school.

Throughout all of these write ups I have talked about how much I like the political and ground leveling worldbuilding in the series and I think there are some interesting comparisons to be made between arcs due to their respective settings. For example, the Sky arc takes place in a relatively small country of Liberl and that naturally leads to very different political issues compared to Crossbell and Erebonia. Erebonia is not a small country and it is not a small buffer state. Erebonia is a true empire. A superpower in this world. Other countries are not a threat to Erebonia but Erebonia is a threat to everyone. What Cold Steel does is smartly turn the focus on its internal conflicts and systems and how our characters will work through them. The students of Class VII get a much more frank and honest understanding of their own country than many real world students today but I also like how they are still shown to be young students. A main theme of the game is them learning about their own country firsthand but it doesn’t act like they’ll have the answers for that right away. Its just about them seeing reality. Like all students they’ll have to figure it out from there. Sure there’s some ludonarrative dissonance as you decimate hordes of enemies as high schoolers but the game does not let you forget that these are still inexperienced, young, and raw people.

Trails of Cold Steel is truly the beginning of the new era of Trails. Smart updates to the gameplay coupled with the always strong characters and story lead to an experience I keep coming back to. This game is truly my warm and fuzzy happy place game. It just feels right to me every time I go back to it. It’s actually the game I play every time there is a major change in my life and it feels like home more than any other game for me. Cold Steel is also a great potential starting point for newcomers to the series and the Erebonia arc ends up taking the next 4 games as well so settle in. The game is certainly not above reproach but walking into Trista for the first time always puts a smile on my face and this is one I’m always happy to revisit.

Spoiler thoughts below including story spoilers. Avoid if you want no spoilers at all.

Spoilers
  • How do politics even work in Erebonia? There’s a system of nobles who have power and are led primarily by the 4 Great Houses and the Noble Alliance. They own and run land provincially. Then the Imperial Government has an appointed Chancellor and a Governor of Heimdallr (the capital). Meanwhile there’s also an Emperor who seems to have actual power but its very unclear where the buck actually stops.
  • Oh my word the nicknames. So many characters get nicknames and they love their “Color Noun” style of nicknames. Icy Maiden. Purple Lightning. Golden Rakshasa, Black Whirlwind, Blood and Iron Chancellor, Craig the Red, Radiant Blademaster, Scarescrow, White Rabbit and more are coming later. You ain’t shit unless you’ve earned a nickname, sometimes multiple.
  • Oh right….so Rean can also go super saiyan? He has a slumbering power within him that he can’t really control. You actually don’t get full control over it until halfway through Cold Steel II which is pretty remarkable restraint.
  • Okay the story. So there’s a terrorist organization led by a mysterious masked man known as “C” called the Imperial Liberation Front. They basically hate the Chancellor and want to kill him. You have many run ins with them as they often become the main story part of each chapter and field study. This culminates in them trying to take over massive railway guns and firing them on Crossbell during the trade conference we saw in Ao (if you played that) to kill Osborne and everyone else there. Another encounter with C leads to the destruction of the ILM’s airship and seemingly his death. However the game ends with this revealed to be a trick. Not only is C still alive but his true identity is Crow, a classmate. Crow succeeds in assassinating Osborne during a speech which is timed with the Noble Alliance beginning a civil war and taking over the capital with mechs. That’s right we have gundams now! Meanwhile, throughout the game Class VII has been tasked with exploring and figuring out the mystery of the ever changing old schoolhouse building. Every chapter it serves as a short dungeon and goes deeper and deeper as the game continues. It finally culminates in a strange barrier forming around it the night before the school festival. Class VII enters (the game’s final dungeon) and overcomes the final trial and final boss. This reveals a large mechanical knight seemingly in stasis. After the festival and then the assassination of Osborne by Crow and the sudden Noble Alliance takeover, more forces are quickly approaching Trista. The powerful instructors rise to meet them head on and defend the students but Class VII acts to guard from a flanking attack. During this attack they cannot hold out against the mechs, Panzer-Soldats. Rean however is able to recall the name of the knight in stasis in the schoolhouse, an ultra powerful legend known as a Divine Knight, for Rean is its Awakener. He calls its name, Valimar, and you literally end the game with your first ever Divine Knight/mech/gundam battle out of no where (insanity). Crow, revealed to also be an Awakener, arrives with his own Divine Knight and defeats the much less experienced Rean easily. The game ends with Valimar flying off (under the orders of a talking cat) with Rean inside so he can fight another day while the rest of Class VII vows to hold the line to give him a chance to find the solution to this new war and chaos. Rean calls out desperately that he doesn’t want to leave them and that they’ll die. He begs and screams for the knight to take him back, to no avail. Cut to credits, god, damn. Oh right also Ouroboros is here now on the side of the Noble Alliance.
  • This is one of the harshest cuts to credits in the series. In Sky you knew something was up and then the Joshua reveal hits emotionally before the end, but here you get the full explosion of chaos as everything kicks off and then are literally dragged away until next time. This only works with the sequel even moreso than Sky FC did. Also I can’t emphasize enough that it ends literally moments after you get a gundam!
  • Class VII is revealed to be one of Olivier’s gambits against the rising tide of chaos in Erebonia. Olivier is the ornamental chairman of the board at Thors and while he still has his comedic side, he is clearly fully in his element as the quite clever prince doing his all to steer his country in the right direction after his time in Liberl.
  • There are so many great side characters in Cold Steel. The instructors at Thors are all amazing, especially Class VII’s instructor Sara, a former Bracer. I really can’t even start listing them because it is honestly a ridiculous number of major side characters. Even the other students at Thors are great and some of them will gain more prominent roles in the future of CS3 and CS4.
  • At the school festival there is a competition between classes for what type of event they put on. Class VII brings rock to the Trails world and puts on a concert. The music for the concert is considered by many to be disappointing because its just re used music with no vocals. I basically concur with that. However the encore song is then the fully voiced version of “I Swear,” the lovely end credits song of Trails in the Sky SC.
  • These really are low budget games and I can forgive them. I get its really supposed to be more evocative. But it really is funny hearing them talk about massive population sizes in cities. Like the capital having 800,000 people. Grancel from Sky is said to be home to 300 or 400,000 people. We were there in sky, there’s like 30 NPCs.
Trails Needs Moms
  • Rean-adopted and both adoptive parents are alive. But being adopted obviously has some tragedy with his birth parents.
  • Alisa-dead father. Super busy mother who is plot important. Grandfather is a prominent character as well.
  • Elliot-dead mom, father is a general in the army, sister is also here quite a bit.
  • Gaius-big, loving, still alive family!
  • Machias-dead mom, also dead cousin he calls a sister. Father is the Governor of Heimdallr.
  • Jusis-bastard son of the one of the most powerful noble families. Dead mom. Dad is a dick.
  • Fie-grew up on war torn battlefields. Actual parents long gone. Adopted family of jaegers are now also split up after their leader, her surrogate father, died.
  • Laura-father still alive and quite important. Mom isn’t even mentioned.
  • Emma-well this is complicated but the basics are dead parents but alive grandmother.
  • Crow-everybody dead.
  • Millium-lol we’ll explain this later.
  • So of our core party members we have 2 alive birth mothers and 1 adoptive mom with a death count of 8 moms, 2 dads, 1 adoptive dad and a cousin for now.