Awakening Lions- Trails of Cold Steel II Review

As always I captured all the screenshots myself from my own copy of the game.

An interesting challenge of this little project of mine has been trying to keep spoilers to a minimum while still talking about the series how I want to. This has led to some generalities and vagueness being necessary in spots as my game analysis is very much colored by the maximalist video essay style where I’m fighting my instincts to break down the entire plot and what I think. No where is this proving to be more difficult than in organizing my thoughts on Trails of Cold Steel II. The reason for that is simple. The plot is the part of this game I most want to discuss. The plot of this game is the one I spent more workdays thinking about than any other. It inspired to constantly think about how I would have done it, which in turn inspired me to actually write stuff on my own for fun. Was I so fixated on it because it was so good? No, not really. I was fixated on it because my first time through it felt like wasted potential to me.

I’m still not going to write about specific plot happenings here but just know that Cold Steel II proved to be the most difficult game in the series to write about so far. There are spoilers in the gameplay section that I have to talk about but I’ll put it under a spoiler box. Everything else I’m going to be very vague and annoying about so if it seems like I’m not completing a thought that may be part of it.

Anyway! Trails of Cold Steel II was released in Japan on Vita and PS3 in 2013. It was localized in English in 2016 by Xseed and a port was done for PC in 2018, also by Xseed. Remasters were also released in Japan for the PS4 in 2018 and worldwide in 2019. Interestingly enough they did a pretty sizable update post release just to add more voice acting and voiced lines of dialogue. This is actually the final game in the series that was localized by Xseed with future games being taken over, somewhat controversially at the time, by NIS America.

Cold Steel II is juggling a lot after we were left off on a pretty massive cliffhanger at the end of the previous game. We have gone from dealing with the beginnings of villainous machinations in the shadows to outright war and conflict. CSII is structured into distinct acts the game plays pretty differently after a big change about a third through. Overall I think the best way to describe this entry in the series is “messy.” That being said it’s definitely one of the games where the addition of future games changes how I view it a good bit. Things that bothered me before about the plot make more sense after seeing what is coming and the game has a pretty tragic edge that would continue with Rean moving forward.


The core gameplay remains essentially unchanged from Cold Steel I. Well that was easy. At this point all the usual adjustments between games are here. The characters get more levels and abilities and the Master Quartz also get more powerful. Much more powerful quartz become available. Characters can get absolutely absurdly bonkers uber-broken in this game if you want them to be. The thing is the devs seem to know this to a certain extent. While basic encounters won’t be much trouble the boss fights definitely start getting tuned up a notch.

There is a new mechanic introduced called overdrive. Essentially a bar/orb is filled up as you fight battles and once full you can activate overdrive between 2 linked characters (as long as they have it unlocked which is done by clearing “trial chests”). Overdrive then gives the linked characters 3 uninterruptible turns between them while clearing any negative statuses and providing some HP, EP, and CP. It’s a good way to get the strongest characters some extra turns on bosses.

Click the box below for a brief gameplay spoiler.

Gameplay Spoiler

Cold Steel II also adds mech fights to the game in the form of Rean piloting his Divine Knight, Valimar, against the Panzer Soldats of the army. These fights end up being almost a rock-paper-scissors match as you have to pick the right body part to target based on the opponents stance. These battles are used to punctuate almost every section of the game so you’ll have to get used to them. You also gain the ability to equip Valimar with orbs of his own to boost his stats though it is much simpler than on the characters. You can also pick a party member to be a back up character and they each have their own attack and ability in the Divine Knight battles. These battles are okay. There isn’t really a lot to them honestly from a gameplay perspective and I honestly found the addition of mechs to this world rather off putting my first time through. I’m fine with it but I’m also not gonna say it’s something I’ve loved even with more time and replays.

Perhaps the biggest change is to the structure of the game itself. As I mentioned the game has pretty distinct acts this time around. The first act is spent reuniting the party and is generally more linear, low key, and somewhat sneaky given what is going on. I actually think they could have leaned way harder into that “sneaky” aspect as it is almost a non factor but it’s more a vibe than anything else. It feels like a very long intro before you get into the true meat of the game. With the next act the game really kicks into gear and changes to become much more open, with the ability to fast travel to various locations across the country and complete tasks in multiple cities. I actually think the way Mass Effect, especially 2 and 3, work is the closest comparison to how this ends up feeling. Traveling to discreet areas or “maps” without being truly “open world.”

You get a nice map of Erebonia to go with the new ability to fast travel around the country.

It’s worth mentioning there is a break chapter between these acts that is truly one of my favorite sections in the series and somewhat mirrors similar sections found in Sky SC and Azure. A lot of interesting character stuff happens in said section that serves to humanize some characters, hit some themes, and even build Rean’s character up. Once firmly in Act 2 then well, you are now real players in an actual war all while the real “anime bullshit” starts kicking off as well.

They don’t really call it an act but everything that starts with the “finale” chapter is truly its own third of the game. Cold Steel II stretches and almost feels like it could have been another 2 games on its own at times. Take your time and take a lesson from a Trails veteran. If you are approaching the end of a play session, think you are close to the end and just wanna try to push through and finish, don’t. The experience will literally get better. My first time through I thought I was ending the game and by the time I actually finished the sun was rising. This game has 3 endings. Not split path multiple endings but rather you will watch credits and there’s 2 entire sections left, the divertissement and the epilogue. Those sections are interesting themselves and serve a bigger purpose story wise and in terms of…catharsis? But they are lengthy in their own right. Take your time.

Like I said. Things are serious business now.

All of the side aspects of Trails are still here. Fishing, character notes, books, recipes, bonding events, a new snowboarding minigame too. There’s also some big optional bosses that start appearing in the world and they are meant to be big difficult fights that reward you with a very unique type of quartz. They are actually pretty serious fights and abusing some of the cheese strats may become necessary to get through them.

Howlongtobeat has Trails of Cold Steel II as 48-73 hours. For me it’s around 60 hours every time which is actually the same as the first game. This is simultaneously right but also doesn’t feel right if that makes sense. I genuinely feel the length of Cold Steel II a lot more and that is mostly down to how it’s structured and there being a lot more bouncing between the world.


I stand by my initial statement that Cold Steel II feels a bit messy. The opening act really does feel like a long intro section getting Rean back on his feet and reunited with everyone. Then the second act where you truly become a part of the war also feels weird. The game will say over, and over, and over again that you are a neutral faction trying to just unite your classmates and be a “third way” in the war. Which would be fine if you weren’t exclusively fighting alongside only one of the sides. It makes sense why, but not even once do you help out the other side or take action against the side you always help. So calling it a third way all game just doesn’t really work. This is one of those aspects where knowledge of past and future games plus lore in general helps a bit just because it becomes clear that there is less of a “good side” here than it seems, at least a bit. The game makes it pretty clear who the bad guys are but still puts in the work to humanize and complicate some of those characters. I just wish it put in that same effort with the overall war itself. On top of that if you are the type that hates the jrpg/anime trope of being a bunch of teenagers turning the tide of literal war you aren’t going to like this. Finally there’s the aspect where it only sort of feels like a war for most of the game. With one notable exception the actual cost of war seems almost nonexistent throughout (characters even comment on this), with the schemes underneath that war being the primary factors that move the characters to action.

Look it’s technically a spoiler but you try leaving this quote out. Fie is the best.

There is plenty here that I do like. With the beginnings of what would become perhaps Rean’s primary character focus coming to the forefront here. He is a genuinely good person forced to fight in bad situations because if he can help, he must help. A trait of his that gets more openly exploited in the next game. There’s a meme in the community about just how beaten down Rean is over the course of the series and that truly started here. It may be a rather common main character trope but they do it some justice here. The character work is up to its usual standard and there is some good stuff here about these students trying to find themselves and their purpose amidst real conflict. When I say there’s a heavier tragic edge to some of this game I mean that. In fact, according to some interviews with the developers, the epilogue section I mentioned before was added specifically to go out on a happier and more cathartic note after a downer original ending.

I talked about how this game goes sort of open world and on the one hand it’s done pretty well, you get some freedom to move between areas and even take on certain tasks in whatever order you want. That being said it has to be taken into account that this is still a jrpg. What I mean by that is that talking to a lot of NPCs or characters plus finding sidequests or hidden quests is one thing when you are in your set “box” for a particular section. It becomes quite another thing when you suddenly have the option to go on a world tour between any particular story event, lest you miss something. I honestly play with a guide so I make sure I know the important places I have to check for character notes and hidden quests.

This game also feels like Trails has just caved entirely to certain impulses, styles, and beats the devs must really love. There are so many battles where because you are fighting someone canonically stronger than you they will “win” the fight even if you demolished them in the actual gameplay. The devs also have fallen in love with some set patterns and that is something Trails would continue having a lot of problems with moving forward. I think there’s more traditional jrpg dungeons in this game than in any other in the series too. I hope you like the song they use for all of them because you’ll be hearing it a lot.

Get used to these places.

Despite all that complaining I still always enjoy my playthroughs of CSII. Unfortunately due to trying to limit spoilers I haven’t gone into detail about some of the more major plot stuff that I do like. I’ve talked about the war a bit, but the character stuff pulling Rean through the war is actually rather good with a major relationship hanging over this game as well as the rest of the series. I think the pacing might be off and the game needed an editing pass but the actual split acts become a good way to have multiple styles in the same game as well as focus on different themes and character beats. The party is still very strong here and everyone’s growth is plain to see throughout the game. Finally there’s the very real aspect that this is game 2 in a 4 game overarching series and we all know the how middle chapters tend to fare. That being said the ending really pulls us forward into the next major section of the Trails series in a pretty interesting way.

Well there you have it. That’s all I really have without going deep into plot details. I’ll save that for when I inevitably pivot to video essays. I do want to say that Cold Steel II is very worth your time and your reaction to both the plot and structure could be very different than mine. With this we have finished the first half of the Erebonia arc. Leaving us 2 more Cold Steel games to go. I’ll be replaying them to put them fresh in my mind and I’ll be back whenever I finally finish.


I don’t wanna just re write the plot here so I’ll keep it brief and focused.

The ending truly is a tragedy. Rean spends most of the game chasing his friend and classmate, Crow, who kicked off the civil war by seemingly assassinating the chancellor of Erebonia. At the end of the game Crow dies creating an opening for Rean to finish off the final boss. Even worse the chancellor is revealed to be very much alive, having planned for and manipulated a lot of the situation from the shadows. Finally the chancellor reveals that he is in fact Rean’s birth father and from there we cut to black. The Erebonian Empire annexes Crossbell and Rean even fights against forces from the Republic of Calvard trying to take it themselves.

This is one of the interesting things about this game. You may be helping the Imperial Army against the Nobles for the entire game but you as the player should know by now that if the end is the good guys winning the chancellor will not be a part of that. The combination of Crow’s death, the annexation of Crossbell, Rean being sent to war, plus the chancellor’s machinations putting Ouroboros of all people on the back foot makes it very clear that we are ending here in tragedy. Only the final section of the game which the devs specifically said they put in to have a happier ending alters that tone (and even then not fully given that Rean’s life has taken quite a turn).

There really is a lot in this game that is handled quite well when it comes to some of those heavier themes. I mean Rean actually kills someone in the middle of this game (or ya know fights them and can’t save them afterward). Then by the end we are moving into Cold Steel III with a lot of weight still very much bearing down on Rean plus the actual world changing events like Crossbell falling under the Empire.

I wanted to point out that there is a NG+ that adds some books called the Black Records plus a hidden scene when you collect them all that is actually a pretty important reveal. Cold Steel III will assume you’ve seen that scene too.