If the first Trails of Cold Steel opened the door into the modern era for the Kiseki series, then Trails of Cold Steel III kicks that door off its hinges. Everything here has been improved upon in terms of visuals and animation and while we could debate if it carries the charm of the original games, there is no debate that the series is pretty firmly on par with standard JRPG fare at this point. They aren’t going for anything photo realistic like in modern Final Fantasy games, but Cold Steel III manages to bring the series another step forward while still maintaining the look and style of the series. That doesn’t stop at the visuals either. Everything in Trails of Cold Steel III has been kicked up a notch as we start the second half of the Cold Steel sub-series and the pieces fall into place for the closing of the saga that began 8 games ago. As always the usual minor spoilers follow but nothing you can’t gleam from looking at literally any piece of promotional art.
Trails of Cold Steel III released in Japan in 2017 for the PS4 and saw its worldwide release in 2019. In 2020, ports for PC and Windows were released. This makes the third game that follows Rean Schwarzer as our main protagonist and he becomes the first, and currently only, character who has been the protagonist for 3 (later 5) games. Cold Steel III takes place a little over a year after the ending of the previous game, no matter how many times my brain wants it to be a 2 year time skip. Only making it 1 year may seem odd to many players given that all of the previous characters have made that wonderful JRPG leap to “adult model.” Plus Rean is a teacher now. It’s the equivalent of walking out of high school and taking summer off just to be teaching at the same high school after summer break. Except this is Rean so “summer break” of course involves war and trauma. Fun fact, at the time I am posting this there is actually a brand new anime series currently airing that at least somewhat covers the events of the Northern War that took place between games.
Whereas Rean spent his days as a student at Thors Military Academy he is now a teacher at Thors Military Academy…Branch Campus. This proves more interesting than it sounds as there are some political motivations at play for the very creation and staffing of the Branch Campus in the town of Leeves, which proves every bit Trista’s equal from the first 2 Cold Steel games. In fact, I believe the new school setting truly shines. The new graphics allow for a well realized school and town and Falcom also upped their game exponentially in terms of the side characters and side students that populate the academy. The Branch Campus is purposely small and every single student has a name, personality, and some character traits. Some of them are so fully realized it seems like they were actually cut party members. I’m looking at you Leonora.
I guess that’s a good place to talk about the party. In Cold Steel III Rean primarily serves as the leader of a group of students forming the new Class VII. These students consist of Juna, a transfer student from Crossbell which leads to a lot of emotional baggage and some very interesting persepectives. Kurt, who is a swordsman from the famed Vander family. Finally, there is Altina, who will be recognized if you played Cold Steel II and who must be protected at all costs. They are later joined by Ash and Musse who somehow have everything going on. A quick Musse note. She is simultaneously an amazing and complex character and also is the epitome of the absolute worst instincts of Falcom. Serving as fan service and constantly, and I do mean constantly, hitting on Rean, her teacher. They’re both technically still teenagers at the beginning of the game but still. I figured a good solid warning was a good bet.
That is not to say the old Class VII is gone however. As they will all also be party members for sections of the game. You might be thinking that sounds like way too many party members right? Well more on that below. See, this is where the weight of what the game is trying to do becomes clear. This is obviously Cold Steel III. That makes it the 8th overall game in the series. However, it is also the 3rd game in the Erebonia sub series yet simultaneously the start of a new duology. This proves a double (triple?) edged sword as you might imagine. The plot in CSIII feels jump started compared to previous “first” entries but there is also a lot to squeeze in. For now though I want to jump into talking about the actual gameplay additions.
The gameplay of Trails of Cold Steel III largely matches that of the previous Cold Steel games but with some rather large additions. Obviously players are still in control Rean and will be doing all of the usual JRPG fare that I’ll just skip over in favor of talking about what has actually changed, the vast majority of which is in combat.
Combat in CSIII is once again turn based using an action bar style system. Characters once again have access to basic attacks and abilities called crafts. Arts are the same magic system we know and love and follows the Cold Steel system. By that I mean the sepith values of the early series are still gone and the simplified systems of Cold Steel era are still in use here. Unfortunately, arts feel terrible in this game and have been mostly nerfed. I had much more success spamming strong crafts and physical abilities unless an enemy was literally shielded from them. The delay in using even basic arts is just too high unless you use some specific and niche builds.
Master Quartz return and still grant strong effects as well as providing a list of arts as they are leveled up. Players will find more as they play and can put any Master Quartz on any character, though the default ones serve to show the player what role that character will likely excel at. Despite playing these games a lot I still can’t break out of just using the default Master Quartz on everyone but more creative players will find a lot of room to experiment and try things. New to Cold Steel III is the addition of sub Master Quartz. This allows the player to equip a second Master Quartz that grants much smaller stat boosts and only the first of the 3 effects every Master Quartz has. Master Quartz can be equipped as a sub quartz even if they are already equipped as a main quartz on another character but can only be set on 1 character at a time as a sub quartz. This is important because as mentioned previously, the party continues to balloon in size. The game does a decent job of automatically equipping good combinations but it is not perfect. I promise this all makes sense in game.
There are 2 bigger changes in terms of how combat plays out. The first is the new break system. Monsters and enemies now have a break meter and when it depletes they enter a broken state where they are more vulnerable and every attack lands a critical hit. Breaking enemies is hugely important in Cold Steel III and serves as the backbone of the combat system now. Breaking enemies and proceeding to gain as many turns as possible is a very effective strategy. Because you will be landing a lot of critical hits, it also allows for a lot of follow up attacks that earn brave points, which make their return. These brave points can again be used for “rush” follow ups where 2 linked characters attack, as well as the full “burst” where all active characters attack to do a lot of damage. However their best use lies in the new system called “Brave Orders.”
Brave Orders consist of battle wide buffs or effects that are activated by spending brave points. Every character has at least one Brave Order and they all cost a different amount of brave points. They all activate different effects and last a different amount of turns. For example, Juna’s Brave Order increases your break damage, and Altina’s shields you from damage. Brave Orders, in combination with the new break system and Master Quartz, provide a lot of options for customization at every level. I have my preferred way to play but I imagine there are many possible builds and combinations that take advantage of the system.
Structurally, Cold Steel III takes a lot of beats from the first Cold Steel game, whereas Cold Steel IV will end up feeling similar to II. Got it? III is to I as IV is to II. The game largely follows a similar pattern to the first Cold Steel game. Time will be spent at the school followed by traveling to special “Field Studies.” However this time around everything has a more militaristic feel to it and you really get the sense that the respective Thors academies are being used to prep for combat. The entire student body now participates in these military exercises with Class VII, led by Rean, undertaking special operations missions that serve as this entry’s way of getting you out there doing missions and goals. This might shock you, but inevitably things go wrong.
In fact it is important to note here that there are really two sections to these trips. A New Class VII section where Rean leads the young students in very traditional Trails quests. Then an Old Class VII section where things became dangerous and so Rean and his old classmates try to handle it themselves. This is how the game manages having both old and new Class VII be party members, by splitting them up for the most part. Of course there are then some larger sections and set pieces where everyone comes together, including a massive late game dungeon where every single character is available.
Things kick off quickly in Cold Steel III and I think this is probably the game where the big threats arrive the soonest. Ouroboros is here from the jump and there are some hidden machinations going on that Rean and his allies must piece together quickly. That does make some things feel a little strange in typical JRPG fashion though. There are school students facing off with people and forces that we already know canonically could probably tear right through them. The game avoids some of this by often making the goal to just lower an enemy’s HP by a certain amount rather than fully defeat them.
Mech fights also return and are the best they have ever been. They still aren’t complicated but there is at least a lot more going on than in the previous game. Valimar will often be joined by the students of Class VII in their own Panzer Soldat mechs which adds another element to the previously one man fights. There are also all the standard Trails side content things to do. Bonding events return. Minigames like fishing and a new card game called Vantage Masters are much improved and actually fun. There are the book notes, character notes, and recipes available to find as well.
Cold Steel III takes me about 75 hours to beat and Howlongtobeat? Has it at 62-100 hours which is a pretty wide range.
The most obvious thing to start with is just how much more modern, fast, and smooth everything is. The new graphics give everything a new shine to them and there are a lot of quality of life improvements. Cold Steel III is easier to just jump into quickly as by now they have really sanded off the edges of some of the more esoteric features of the series. That could sound worrying but I truly believe they still managed to keep the heart of the series true while making the experience of playing it a smoother one. The adjustments to the battle system still need another level of refinement and balance (that will arrive in IV) but the new additions feel great.
Story and gameplay wise, I’m going to be bold and say that I think Cold Steel III has my favorite first 3 chapters in the entire series. The plot really does start moving quickly with enough intrigue to pull you forward. The early chapters of CSIII manage to balance getting to know new characters with larger plot and story elements. The Crossbell chapter (yes there’s a Crossell chapter) ends up being one of my favorite sections in the entire series, juggling character beats, big story events and the subtle yet harsh reality of Crossbell under Erebonian rule, extremely well. I think the main criticism that could be leveled at the story without spoilers is that for all that buildup and intrigue it ends up landing somewhat flat in terms of resolution. That being said, the ending of this game has the harshest cliffhanger in the entire series and cements it as the Empire Strikes Back of the Trails series.
The new characters are of course going to be personal preference but I found that they hit the mark for the most part. In addition, the branch campus manages to feel even more alive than the original Thors in part because of the improved engine and graphics, but also because it feels like they really wanted to give even the small characters enough personality to shine. I’m not a Rean hater, but Rean as an instructor has really rounded into a more complete character. This an older (slightly) Rean who knows he needs to grow but also has seen some shit. His character traits end up matching his new role very well as he comes into his own by helping out all of his students. The relationships between Rean and his new students are actually really well done as he tries to find out how to push and help them as a teacher.
If there is a place where the story suffers it’s in the split of the new and old Class VII. There are a lot of characters to manage and Old Class VII ends up mostly just being around without much in the way of new ground being tread. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The entire point is that they are adults and are capable on their own. It does mean that the time is being split and if you were a big fan of Old Class VII, or end up a big fan of New Class VII, you may end up wishing that time was being spent differently.
While playing I also came away very impressed with the way they make the Erebonian characters confronting the history and sins of their own country a major theme. These are morally good characters who are living in the most antagonistic overall country in the setting and they aren’t shying away from the fact that their own home is the villain in the story of basically every other country in Zemuria. I will say that they don’t fully follow through on this because they do the thing that I hate more than anything else in this series and end up replacing political tension and motivation with some “JRPG bullshit.” However, throughout the game the past mistakes and current problems of Erebonia are coming out into the open and are on full display for our heroes to grapple with.
When I first played Cold Steel III I ended up pretty blown away by how much I enjoyed it. At that point it was the most polished and quickest to get going game in the series. The plot does not mess around for half the game because the devs know we are too deep in to spend an entire game solely to establish new characters. The combat system is the best one so far and everything about the basic acts of just playing the game feel better than ever. Even Rean feels much more established and well rounded as a character here and the new Thors, students, and side characters are incredible. With replays and knowing where the series goes from here the shine has come off a little bit sure but overall Cold Steel III is a very successful launching into the modern era of Trails. Thank you for reading and continuing to indulge me in this absurd little project of mine. Trails of Cold Steel IV is a massive undertaking of a game so please give me a little time as I finish figuring out how to even properly send it off.
- There is a bit of a strangeness that occurs because of the existence of Juna as a character, perhaps the biggest retcon in the series. Juna being from Crossbell serves the role of having the empire’s imperialism front and center as a perspective character who has seen the takeover on the ground and is not shy about her opinions on the matter. The weird part comes because they also say that she was there for the events of the Crossbell games, Zero and Azure. This was simply not true when those games came out originally but in playing Cold Steel III and later IV, Juna is shown to know the entire main cast of Crossbell and sings their praises constantly. She appears to be serving in game as a character who can provide exposition on the events of the Crossbell games for those who have not played them. It is not out in English at the time of this writing but I happen to know that the newest re-release of Azure has actually added Juna and her family into the game at some points.
- So here I’ll spell out just a touch more of my plot grievance. The first 3 chapters are spent trying to figure out what these various factions of Jaegers and enemies are actually up to and who is on what side. Then in chapter 4 suddenly you are hunting down spies and whoops, those spies became vampires because they were corrupted by an evil dragon living underneath the capitol. Then all the enemy factions who seemed to be working against each other are just suddenly all working together at the end of the game. It’s just a bit disappointing after the game does such a good job of building that intrigue only for it to amount to nothing.
- I didn’t mention it anywhere above, but there are actually some voice actor changes in the English dub and if you played the first 2 Cold Steel games and got used to everyone’s voice that could be jarring. Millium is the most obvious and while I don’t think her new voice is bad, it just isn’t right.
- Making every terrible thing Erebonia has done be because “the entire nation is cursed to do terrible things” is much less interesting than it being normal people doing evil acts for literally any other motivation.
- There are some absurdly difficult battles in this game. Mostly the individual ones clearly set up to be super challenging for Rean.