September seemed to be the big month for RPG fans in 2016, what with a new Trails, Dragon Quest, and Final Fantasy landing weeks apart from one another. And while Final Fantasy XV eventually got delayed (yet again), the fall season still has no shortage of lengthy adventures. The first of these is The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II, an eagerly awaited sequel to last December’s military academy JRPG about a group of elite students who get caught up in their nation’s troubles. If you managed to wrap up the original in time for this release, you’re in for one hell of a treat.
Of course, if you haven’t finished or played the original Trails of Cold Steel, I should preface this by saying that you really should before even thinking about starting this game. It’s a direct continuation, so many plot developments would be lost on you, as the game already assumes you know what’s going on and who the characters are. In a sense, it would be like skipping to the second half of a book. These two games truly form one whole, so if you are thinking of breaking into the Trails franchise, I implore you to check out my review for this title’s predecessor or even the original Trails in the Sky.
Now with that out of the way, keep in mind that I will discuss spoilers from the previous game, so do not read past this point if you haven’t finished Trails of Cold Steel. You have been warned.
As I stated before, the game begins immediately after the conclusion of the prior one. Rean wakes up in the mountains with Valimar, the giant robot he found in the old schoolhouse and Celine, the talking black cat that took up residence at the academy. Perhaps even more surprising is that a month had passed since the assault on Thors academy, and the whereabouts of his classmates are unknown. Oh, and there’s a civil war going on amidst the class based factions of the country. To say that things look grim is an understatement.
Due to these circumstances, the entirety of the plot is essentially divided into two halves; the first focused on rounding up Rean’s missing classmates from Class VII, while the second entails recruiting other Thors attendees for the purposes of bringing things to a close. It’s this very structure that follows in the footsteps of the Suikoden franchise, as everyone you win over to your cause has something to offer, whether it be opening new shops or housing a stable of horses for your benefit. Despite the scale of the events, most of the proceedings focus on the exploits of Class VII and their role in the conflict, so as to tie up any loose ends on each character arc. I was also impressed that they never fell into the trap of becoming the most powerful characters in the game even by being controlled by the player. You’re made to feel like a small part of the conflict and it’s always made very clear that many of the antagonists could easily destroy you, which is a more believable approach in my eyes. All of the classmate searching and political proceedings are book ended by a conclusion that drags out far, far too long, though to its credit, it does end on a satisfying note.
As before, Falcom lays the exposition on thick, building the plot very slowly over time and putting an insane amount of detail into every character and NPC that crosses your path. There’s even an entire segment dedicated to learning about the antagonists and their motivations that was executed so well that I wondered if my characters were even fighting on the right side. Very few JRPG’s manage to go beyond the “this world sucks, let’s end it all and start over” trope that so many villains like to follow, so this was a storytelling breath of fresh air for this genre.
In addition to the members of Class VII, there are a number of other characters that join your party throughout the game. Usually situations like this lead to party member bloat where throwaway characters with no development take up space in the roster, but each addition is fully fleshed out with a unique skill set and a background that’s relevant to the story. Not since Final Fantasy VI have I seen such a large cast successfully juggled around like this. The one downside is that you can never truly build a party with just anybody, as the game forces you to bring with a minimum number of Class VII members. Granted, the game is about Class VII, but it does limit party customization somewhat.
Though because the Trails games are so slow moving, Cold Steel II just does not seem to know when to end. Just when you think all loose ends have been tied up and things are about to wind down, as anyone would expect a segment titled “Final Chapter” to do, the game throws more crap at you. Fortunately, the conclusion it does get is a satisfactory one and the writing is excellent as always, but one wonders if Falcom could’ve trimmed the fat a little. It especially doesn’t help that many of the late game dungeons are very exhausting and irritating to navigate.
The presentation and gameplay are basically identical to the prior outing (again, two parts of a whole), but it isn’t without a few new features. Perhaps the biggest addition is a new form of combat introduced at the end of the previous game, where Rean climbs into the mech Valimar and heads into a solo melee against other large mechanical monstrosities. Valimar can target various parts of his adversaries, such as their head, arms or body. Each part has the potential to be that enemy’s weakness depending on their stance, and targeting said weakness will cause Valimar launch a followup attack. With enough successful followup attacks, Valimar can perform a Finisher or a Unite attack that does huge damage. He also has access to crafts, like Rean, plus members of Class VII can support him by supplying unique abilities, like fire spells or healing. Valimar is not just limited to scripted battles either, as Rean can summon him in standard battles, giving the game a Xenogears/Xenosaga flavor which I didn’t know I wanted until I got it.
An Overdrive meter has been added to the upper right corner of the screen that fills as you inflict damage on enemies. Once full, a pair of linked characters can unleash an Overdrive that fills up all of their gauges and gives them a combined 3 extra turns to do as much damage as possible without interruption. In addition, every attack will trigger a followup blow by the linked part member, increasing damage output further. Not every party member is able to do an Overdrive with one another from the get go, but there are chests scattered throughout that unlock this capability if you complete the trial within.
Late in the game, you’ll gain the ability to fly to any unlocked region you’ve previously explored, which is great for picking up missed chests and the like. Despite this, there are still a ton of missable quests, so you’re not off the hook for using a guide if you want to gain everything in one go. At least New Game Plus is still a feature. You’re also forced to return to your ship before traveling to a new city rather than just going directly there and assuming the ship carries you, adding more loading time into the mix. At a certain point, you can summon a horse or an orbal bike at will, which makes getting around much quicker than your standard running. The bike is customizable with parts found during exploration, which I thought was great.
One disappointing aspect, which seems to be commonplace among Trails sequels it seems, is that nearly every location you visit is a retread of somewhere you went to prior. It makes sense narratively, as you didn’t suddenly jump worlds or anything, but it’d have been nice to see more areas outside of Erobonia or maybe check out what Liberl looks like in 3D. As it stands, you’ll be required to go to nearly every area of the original at some point, and sometimes for reasons that hardly seem organic for the story.
At the end of the day, Trails of Cold Steel II is an extension of its predecessor. If you played and enjoyed the original, you should know exactly what you’re getting into. The story picks up right where it left off and the gameplay is just as you left it, with a few improvements. What changes were made transform it into a sort of hodge podge of Suikoden, Xenogears, and Final Fantasy VI and it doesn’t dilute the experience one bit. It’s more of the same and then some, which is never a bad place to be for a sequel to such a great game.
Short Attention Span Summary
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II is the latest release in the much adored Trails extension of The Legend of Heroes franchise. It continues where the previous one left off, so finishing its predecessor is practically a requirement to enjoy this one to the fullest. However, once clearing that hurdle, players will be treated to a satisfying conclusion to the exploits of the students of Thors academy. The writing is spot on, and the gameplay is as enjoyable as ever with the addition of elements that closely resemble those of Suikoden and Xenogears. The plot is as slow moving as other entries in the franchise, and the conclusion drags on far longer than it should. But those shortcomings aside, Falcom has produced another title worthy of being in every JRPG fan’s library.