This series has consumed my time for the past couple months. In anticipation of Cold Steel III‘s release, I went and played through I and II, two games that have been on my backlog for years. It was my first time playing a game from this monster of a series and I was pretty impressed, so of course I was excited to get into Cold Steel III.
Great story-gameplay balance. Perhaps what the series is best known for is how it is able to blend JRPG gameplay with an actually well-written story. Cold Steel III is no exception to this, offering up the perfect balance between the two. On the gameplay side, you have quests to complete, dungeons to explore, and bosses to fight. Then on the story side, you have dialogue scenes that build characters, cutscenes with major twists, and an overall plot that is constantly evolving. You’ll go from exploration, to dialogue scene, to boss fight, and then back to cutscene in the most seamless manner. The series has pretty much perfected the story-gameplay balance at this point and Cold Steel III is a shining example.
Fun turn-based combat. One of my favorite things about the Cold Steel series has been its combat. It takes the tried and true turn-based combat of old and adds a bunch of cool mechanics on top of that, changing the formula just enough that it becomes its own thing, but staying true to what makes that style of combat fun. As with the previous two games, the combat is played out with actions dependent on one’s position on the action bar. Crafts are still there, arts are still there, and of course, combat links are still there as well.
However, Cold Steel III makes a few changes to shake things up. For one, the overdrive mechanic introduced in II is replaced with a new “brave order” mechanic. This mechanic basically allows you to buff your entire party using the same action points used during link attacks. Given that these action points now have multiple uses, it creates this cool balance between saving them for strong link attacks or using them to pop some buff. The buffs are pretty powerful too, with some granting 100% damage reflection and some making all arts free to cast. However, these buffs have a limited amount of turns that they stay active, so you’ll need to constantly reapply them or swap them around to keep them going. It’s a cool mechanic and definitely an improvement over overdrive.
Then there’s the break mechanic, which is pretty much how break works in other JRPGs. You attack a single enemy enough and their guard will break, at which point every attack will unbalance the enemy until their guard recovers. It’s a powerful mechanic and one that I did end up relying on for tough boss fights. Of course, those are just a couple of the changes. You also have secondary master quartz, divine knight battles with more than one unit, and an upgraded HUD to top it all off. I can’t say that I’m the biggest fan of the new HUD (as it’s harder to get info at a glance than the previous), but all of the other changes are definite improvements, making for the best combat I’ve seen from the series thus far.
Interesting and well-written story. Of course, the story-gameplay balance would be wasted if the story wasn’t any good, but that is fortunately not an issue here in Cold Steel III. Here we have a story that is not only long, but well-thought out and with a bunch of characters that actually get some development. In fact, the Cold Steel series has some of the best character development I’ve ever seen in a JRPG series. It doesn’t just introduce characters for the sake of it, but actually gives each character a backstory and some reasonable motivations outside of simply being a “good” or “bad” character. It isn’t just the main cast either, this treatment is given to a lot of the supporting cast as well and even to random NPCs that you only see a few times over the course of the game.
Even excluding the character development, I have to give some credit to just how fleshed out the main storyline is. It takes place on a massive map, features a ton of different characters, and has a lot of political and military elements to it. It’s actually quite impressive how they can keep the same story going not just through the Cold Steel subseries, but through the larger Trails series without ever losing focus. Given that, this is definitely a game I would not recommend playing if you have not at least played Cold Steel I and II. The game does offer a “story so far” section on the main menu (which basically gives you several walls of text to read), but that doesn’t compare to the experience offered by the first two.
Cold Steel III also uses some characters from Trails of Azure and Trails of Zero, which have not seen an official release in the West. I personally haven’t played those two and had no trouble keeping up with Cold Steel III, but if you’re really set on getting the full experience, you can get fan translations for both of them.
Nice quality of life features. Another area that Cold Steel III has improved upon is with regards to quality of life features. The fast travel system is still in place, but you are now able to fast travel from anywhere on the map, even inside of dungeons. It’s an immense time-saving feature and one that I am glad to see in more JRPGs, as I recently saw the same in the past couple Atelier releases. Aside from that, Cold Steel III also has auto combat, auto equip, and various warnings when entering areas from which you cannot return. These may seem like small features, but they make the game a lot less frustrating, especially given how many JRPGs go without them.
And of course, I should also mention the turbo mode, or as I like to call it, the single best quality of life feature you can add to a JRPG. With it, you can ramp up the internal game speed up to 6x, with Cold Steel III letting you set different speeds when in-battle and when on the map and in cutscenes. It makes several minor JRPG annoyances a lot more bearable, including slow panning cutscenes, lengthy battle animations, and long travel times when on the field. Sure, it could be improved by allowing it to be activated with a toggle instead of holding down a button, but it’s still an incredibly handy feature and one I wish all JRPG ports would adopt.
Excellent port. I know a lot of people get concerned when they see NIS America publishing a JRPG port to PC. I myself am one of those, as not even a couple months ago I played their release of The Alliance Alive HD Remastered and ran into quite a few issues with the port. However, the port here with Cold Steel III is actually pretty good. Although NIS America is publishing the game, the actual port is being done by the same guy that worked on the past two games, two games that I already consider top-tier ports. That top-tier effort carries over into Cold Steel III, which not only runs well, but has a ton of customization options to it, much more so than we usually see with such JRPG PC ports.
You have your framerate options, resolution options, anti-aliasing options, and even various shadow options. The “absurd” shadow option completely tanks your fps, so I ended up setting that to high and had no issues running the game at around 120 or so fps (with the cap set to 240 as my monitor goes up to 155). It’s definitely a bit more demanding than the previous two games, but nothing too crazy. As this comes from the PS4 instead of PS3, the game does at least look better. As for controls, the game offers customizable button prompts and rebindable controls on both controller and keyboard and mouse. Although I ended up using a controller for my playthrough, I did find the keyboard and mouse controls to be serviceable.
The only technical issues I had with the game were a single instance of me getting stuck in the environment (which I was able to quickly get out of) and a single instance of the game hanging on me in the middle of a fight. Fortunately, there is an auto-save feature, so I didn’t end up losing more than a few minutes with that last issue. Other than that, the port is solid and is definitely a standard I would like to see other ports measure up to.
Slow pacing and structured storytelling. The overall writing may be well-done, but Cold Steel III still has some of the same problems as the previous two games with regards to its story structure and pacing. When it comes to pacing, the overall story is a bit slow to get going. By that, I mean that you’ll be spending roughly the first 60% of the game in what feels like a prologue, a means to introduce all of the characters and establish how the game world has changed since the end of Cold Steel II. I can understand maybe dedicating the first 20% to this, but it was at least 60% if not pushing 70%.
In fact, I’ve seen many describe the entire game as a prologue to Cold Steel IV, and now that I’ve played through III, I can definitely see where they are coming from. The first game kind of followed the same formula, but it didn’t feel as bad as it did here in III. Cold Steel III is also a downgrade from II in terms of structure, following the same overall story structure used by the first game. You’ll find yourself in a loop of having a day of lessons, a free day, and then a field exercise split up into multiple days. Tutorial segments are done during the lessons, character bonding events during the free days, questing during the first couple field exercise days, and major story developments at the end of each field exercise. It’s a pretty boring structure and felt like a downgrade compared to how “free” Cold Steel II was.
Uninspired dungeon design. Cold Steel III might be a graphical improvement over its predecessors, but unfortunately its dungeon designs have stayed pretty much the same. They’re generic, hardly encourage any exploration, and are sometimes even padded with unnecessary gimmicks. There’s no reason to require the player to go through a long air duct just to pull a lever that activates a bridge back where they started, especially when there’s no loot or enemies to be found along the way. At that point, it’s just padding.
Another issue with the dungeons is how blocky and structured they are. It was like many of them were made in a DOOM level editor, with square rooms and long hallways that just lead to more square rooms and long hallways. The “practice dungeon” that you have to go through at the beginning of each chapter is the worst offender here, as that is literally all it is. There are some dungeons that are better than others, but it felt pretty uninspired overall, about on par with what one would expect from a Compile Heart game.
Cold Steel III is a solid followup to its predecessors, further expanding upon what made the previous two games great. Fun combat, great writing, well-developed characters, excellent quality of life features, it has all the makings of a great JRPG. It did take a step backwards with regards to its pacing and story structure (more in-line with Cold Steel I than II), but it’s still a solid JRPG all things considered and definitely one I would recommend. Just be sure to at least play the first two games before giving this one a shot, less you want to be very confused as to what’s going on.
You can buy The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III on Steam here.
I was provided a review copy of the game in order to write this review. Read more about how I do my game reviews here.