Monday, January 18, 2016

Review: Legend of Heroes Trails of Cold Steel

You've got to love Japanese developers. They don't need to worry about twitch FPS gameplay, HD graphics presented in Dynavision and ludicrous weaponry. Just give them a class of kids that mixes a bit of If, a dash of Toy Soldiers and some Dead Poet's Society, and you have a recipe for an epic slice of role playing.
This school, Thor's Military Academy, takes the best of the best (of the best) and the richest of the rich to churn out future leaders. Now, imagine if the current leaders are about to be dragged into an almighty war by some mysterious masked third power and a mercenary force. Enter the kids for a po-faced Scooby Doo style adventure (without the dogs, although there is a cat, and plenty of monsters).
In the same way Scooby Doo has some useful life lessons, given the pointless education today's kids get, perhaps the latest Legend of Heroes can also act as a useful political point. The upper classes are always trying to screw people over, or bomb the crap out of rivals, regardless of how smiley their press conferences are - Donald Trump, this one's for you ...

So, while a typical school day might involve sorting out the usual boy/girl issues, keeping staff supplied with their favourite magazines, and studying for those important exams, there's a lot more at stake in Cold Steel than a gold star from teacher.
Set in Erbonia, a first for the Trails series, you can travel by train, on foot, horse, or by handy automap to get around. The world does look gorgeous, ignoring the Vita's limited memory meaning there's a lot of reused textures, but in most cases the artists have done a fine job creative vibrant towns and epic vistas.
The Class VII you, Rean Schwarzer, get lumped in is a special one, mixing the toffs and a few urchins. They're soon throwing class war strops and hissy fits, before slowing bonding to form an arch team capable of going out and about, waving swords, staffs and firing off shotguns to prevent the villains from carrying out their plots.
Targets start out as little roadside bugs on your first practical outings, but soon ramp up to giant spiders and demonic hordes and the actual villains of the piece. This being an RPG, some kids are a little bit magical, with a huge range of spells and skills powered by the ARCUS Orbments - a neatly employed skill system driven by Quartz power.

As the plot rockets along, all sorts of curious folk cross the team's path, helping out or obstructing them. Some of it is ludicrous - the minute you arrest a bunch of enemies threatening world peace, you don't let one of them whip out a monster-summoning flute (twice)! Some of Cold Steel is deeply emotive, with a nomadic tribe threatened by gathering armies and young relatives used as pawns by the various powers in play.

But everything is on a grand scale, with challenge and betrayal on all sides. The epic scenery, for a Vita game, can chug in some of the cut scenes, but otherwise this is a fluid and exciting romp, and just when you think you're on the up, its back to delivering parcels for teacher!

They don't like the feel of Cold Steel up 'em

I'll keep the plot vague, as that would spoil one of 2016's must-own titles, which can be played as deeply or as lightly as you like. You don't have to fight every random battle out in the sticks, you can ride or race past most of them, and the difficulty can be adjusted if you find yourself up against a new rock hard beast. Side quests can, and should be ignored, as they are basically trophy fodder with no other reason to exist.

Battle is naturally repetitive, but rarely boring. You'll need to scan your enemy for its weakest point of resistance to the best physical and magical attacks. Then, swap out your party for the most effective warriors and lay waste to them. Special links are the reason why this team is so strong, bond pairs together and you get extra defensive skills or bonus attacks dealing massive power. The main annoyance is the team's constant moaning about a tough battle that you just waltzed through, due to a slightly borked narrative. There also no link between them looking wrecked after a battle, despite the cake walk you just waltzed through.
The only drag is the highly repetitive quest system and some of the noddy tasks you get, even though its obvious world peace is under threat. Fortunately, most of them are optional, but you need to raise your skills and powers somehow,  and getting some social points to spend quality time with your chums is useful, so don't ignore them all. Who will Rean end up dating is a midly itching issue throughout the plot.
With such a fantastically realised world, and some glorious orchestration to provide the soundtrack, it is a shame that your freedom to explore is limited. There are some decent characters among the usual RPG fodder, and while you might not like being able to decide their stat progression yourself, there's still the fun of juggling orbments, upgrading weapons and other tweaks to take up the downtime between quests.

While the first three quarters of the game is mostly fast-paced and fun, the last couple of chapters drag and drag, and drag some more. Guess the script writer was being paid by the word, but it really saps your will at times. Keep with it if you want to be prepared for Trails of Cold Steel II coming later in 2016.

This episode is easily a 50 hour plus game, and lunatics may consider it worth a second playthrough in a higher challenge mode, essential if you want all those trophies. With the sequel already well underway, expect this game to dominate Vita discussions in 2016. Not only does it shame western developers who claim they can't do much with the Vita but it is a hugely well-crafted adventure and universe that I look forward to exploring further.

Score 9/10
More reviews
Price: £29.99 on Amazon
Dev: Falcom
Progress: Completed story

No comments:

Post a Comment