A First Timer’s First Impressions
Despite playing a lot of JRPGs, The Legend of Heroes games have been a bit of a blindspot for me. I never owned a Vita, and I don’t play video games on a computer, so I was really happy to learn that at least some of this sprawling epic JRPG series would make it to the PS4 and (eventually) the Nintendo Switch.
I had the first two Trails of Cold Steel games on PS4 in my Amazon cart for, like, two years. Something just always kept me from pulling the trigger. But with Trails of Cold Steel III coming to the Switch, and NIS America repeatedly reassuring gamers that III is a fine place to start, I gave in and purchased the Thors Academy Edition. Because of shipping, the game didn’t arrive on Day One, which meant I decided to download the demo and give it a try.
This is completely a review based on a newcomer’s experience. I’m calling it “A First Timer’s First Impressions” because it has a nice ring to it.
In other words, ALL of this review is assuming you haven’t played any of the other games in the series, either. So let’s begin, shall we?
The opening menus have all sorts of character bios and plot summaries from previous games. So if you’re worried that you won’t be able to follow the story of Trails of Cold Steel III, don’t worry. I read/watched quite a few of them before even playing. And while it can be a bit overwhelming trying to cram dozens of names and plot points into your brain before starting an 80-hour game, I thought it mostly worked well.
I lost interest before going through all of it and figured I’d catch up once I gave the demo a shot. The point is, it’s there for you if you want it.
There’s also many different difficulty levels to choose from. So if you’re worried about being new to the series, you can play in Easy, or even Very Easy.
At the beginning of the demo, a citadel is under siege and you control a small band of characters with titles like “Red-haired Girl” instead of real names. Everyone is at level 35 and throwing in random French (and pseudo-French) words. And without much explanation, you begin walking through the battle zone and fighting mechs. Good luck!
I honestly wasn’t sure if this demo was a random part taken from about halfway through the game or if it was really the beginning. So I googled it. Yes, it’s the beginning. The game starts in medias res, which can sometimes work in JRPGs like this. In Trails of Cold Steel III, it doesn’t. The beginning is clunky, confusing, and I care nothing about what’s going on. If you aren’t a newcomer, then maybe you’ll be fine.
The New School…
Still, it kept me interested enough. Especially once our hero Rean shows up and the screen fades to black. Turns out, that was the prologue, after all, and we now jump to a few months earlier. Rean is a new teacher at a new school, and he’s kind of famous now after all the events in Trails of Cold Steel I and II.
What unfolds is WAY too many cutscenes jam-packed into the opening. Thankfully, this is on Switch, which means you can sleep the system and go through the cutscenes a bit at a time (like I did). All of it is fairly interesting, but it’s still a lot to take in. And from purely a demo perspective, it’s not great. It means more than half of the demo is just watching cutscenes, which means you might not get a good feel for everything that main game has to offer.
After a clunky opening and ungodly amount of cutscenes, the game (and the demo) get much better. You soon meet about a dozen characters (hope you can remember their names), and then you encounter a bunch of tutorials that shed light on some of the more confusing stuff you were doing in the prologue. Through the cutscenes, you also get most of the answers to the names, terms, and issues going on in the prologue.
This is mostly why the in medias res stuff doesn’t work. There’s all this false suspense and a lot of confusion, and then it’s instantly followed up with cutscenes explaining everything you just watched. It’s repetitive and awkward from a narrative standpoint.
Also, instead of putting the tutorials at the beginning, you learn about them once Rean is at Thors Military Academy. This works fine; it happens organically, since he’s the teacher and he’s showing his students the ropes of combat. But it’s weird having it happen AFTER all of the combat in the prologue.
Picking Up Steam…
Once the demo gets past the early, awkward parts, things get good. Rean and his three students are in a testing facility where they have to take down monsters. You’ll learn a lot about combat mechanics, but you’ll also get to know these characters quite well. They develop some nice repartee, and I enjoyed these parts a lot.
No more spoilers, but the demo ends right as things are getting good. It’s definitely enough to make me eager to play the main game (but I’ve already bought it, remember?).
Is it enough to convince someone new to the series to purchase it, though? I’m really not sure. Because the cutscenes are so heavy, and the gameplay is a bit scarce outside of tutorials, it’s hard to say.
I think a game like this would’ve benefited from a much longer demo, especially considering it’s (A) an 80-hour game and (B) the first Trails game to release on Switch extremely late in the series’ lifespan. It isn’t a bad demo, by any means, but it’s certainly far from the best one I’ve ever played.
If you’re on the fence about buying the game because you aren’t sure you’ll like the combat, cutscenes, or other gameplay features, then definitely give the demo a shot.
But if you’re worried you won’t be able to enjoy Trails of Cold Steel III because you haven’t played the other games in the series first, then don’t worry. I can assure you the game does a great job of filling in plot holes and explaining past exploits. And the character bios in the title screen menu are invaluable.
Update: Now That the Game is Here…
Now that the game has arrived, I’m loving it. I’ll probably snag I and II for PS4 sooner rather than later as soon as I finish up III. Currently I’m a little over ten hours into the main game, and it’s been a blast. The beginning (mostly the demo) is honestly the worst part.