I'm sorry...who are you again?
Ask yourself why you play JRPGs. For me, it’s all about the adventures, the battle systems, and the melodrama. Everything else is decoration, and that decoration can interfere with the overall experience. That’s what happened to me throughout The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III. If you enjoy the accessories, however, this game is absolutely for you.
Trails of Cold Steel III is the first in the Legend of heroes series to hit a Nintendo device, so it’s likely safe to assume you’re coming into the story cold. That’s a significant drawback because the game is constantly referencing earlier events and characters. Each person who’s important to the story gets a bit of an introduction, but a knowledge of the previous games would certainly help you care more about what’s going on. The game provides the entire backstory if you want to read it, but it’s a lot to take in when you just want to play a game, especially considering all the other reading the game asks you to do.
So, you start as the young hero of the series: Rean Schwarzer. Rean’s a bit of a celebrity now based on his actions from Trails of Cold Steel I and II, and is known throughout the land as the Ashen Chevalier (someone alert the NFL that the Washington Ashen Chevaliers has a wonderful ring to it). Despite (or maybe because of) the fame, he’s appointed as an instructor at the new branch campus of Thors Military Academy, where he will lead Class VII: Special Operations.
Plenty of the early game focuses on getting to know the students and the campus. That’s fine, as Trails of Cold Steel III uses this opportunity to help you get into the flow and to teach you its mechanics. But even after you’ve learned what you need to proceed, the game still lingers around school/town life. It’s much like Fire Emblem: Three Houses in that regard (or perhaps Three Houses was like The Legend of Heroes). If you play JRPGs because you enjoy friendship management, swimming/fishing mini-games, etc., then cool. If not, be prepared for long segments where you’d prefer to cut class.
Trails of Cold Steel III includes “free days” that allow you to move through the campus and the various towns. Here, you can find and accept side quests to complete, bolster your relationships with various students and members of the faculty, buy equipment, and participate in training exercises. You can even challenge people in a tactical card game much like that one in The Witcher III…which I also skipped entirely.
Some of the characters and their mini-stories here are quite charming, and things do get more interesting as the game and your base of operations expand. But it all takes up a bit too much time, causing the already overwhelming story to drag down considerably. Again, I can’t help but feel I would’ve enjoyed all of this more if I’d played the previous two games and was more vested in the story arc.
Thankfully, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III perks up considerably when you’re out on missions. The Erebonian Empire is huge, giving you plenty to explore as the game slowly opens up. Most of the combat takes place between cities and larger locations as you travel to connect them. The game is fairly linear in that regard; the roads between locations don’t branch very far, and you get turned away from areas that haven’t yet been revealed by the plot.
You can see the enemies scattered about, and contacting them initiates the battle sequence (you get a slight combat bonus if you sneak up on them from behind). The battles are turn-based, allowing you to see who moves when and to plan out your attack with up to four team members.
There’s a crazy amount of strategy involved here, but the basic approach is to break the enemy with repeated attacks and then unleash the hurt. You can acquire and assign arts that allow you to customize your approach. You can link your team members for specific supports that can trigger during battles. You can move for better positioning. You can use items to improve attack/defense or heal/cure. You can cast spells that are more effective against certain enemies, but that takes time to work and drain your CP that could be better saved for a massive special attack at the right time. It goes on and on.
And there are the Panzer Soldat battles. These massive mechs have their own unique battle system that focuses on attacking an opponent’s weak spot while protecting your own.
The game does a good job of easing you into all of this, but it’s easy to forget some of the strategies you’ll need to master to be effective. You may go hours between mech battles, for example, forcing you to relearn everything by the time you get back to it.
Still, because of the crazy number of ways you can customize your heroes, it’s easy to settle into a routine that will work even if you’re not fully optimized. This level of customization will be helpful, because the game shuffles your party around throughout the lengthy adventure. It focuses on the Class VII characters, yes, but they won’t be with you throughout.
That, perhaps, is the strength of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III. Although I didn’t know who everyone was, and although the game does slow to a crawl at certain points, the story compelled me to push everyone through. It’s not shy about setting up possible betrayals and teasing us with new enemies, providing plenty of incentive to move forward. Once you get past the general brattiness of the students (and past one uncomfortably inappropriate scene in particular), you really do want to see how things will turn out for most of the characters.
And even if you don’t like them all, you can at least dress them up however you want. There’s a ridiculous amount of paid DLC available to give them everything from new hair color to angel wings to bunny ears to self assertion panels. I didn’t spend a dime on it, but there’s plenty to keep you occupied if you’re up for it.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III should, therefore, provide some comfort to JRPG fans suffering a post-Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition letdown. As far as inbetweeners go, this will be one you’ll recall fondly even when you’re in your next major JRPG relationship…which could very well be The Legend of Heroes: Trailers of Cold Steel IV.
Review: The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III (Nintendo Switch)
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III drops JRPGo fans into the middle of a massive story arc and then has a tendency to meander. However, it provides more than enough thrills and compelling moments to make this an adventure worth taking.