What They Say:
Nearly a year and a half have passed since the Erebonian civil war, and much has changed since then. From the shifting stances of countries to the internal politics of the Empire, and even the life of Rean Schwarzer, the shadows of the past have given way to the embers of a new chapter. Now graduated from Thors Military Academy, Rean has become an instructor at the Thors Branch Campus, a newly-opened academy that quickly finds itself thrust onto the national stage. It is here that he takes the lead of a brand new Class VII, and must guide a new generation of heroes into an unknown future. Though all is calm now, the nefarious Ouroboros organization continues to weave a dark plot that could engulf the entire continent in war…or perhaps something even more sinister.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 3 proves and secures that the series is one of the greatest video game franchises of all time. Taking place soon after main character Rean’s graduation from Thors Military Academy, we find him teaching as one of the new instructors at the academy’s first branch campus.
Alongside a couple of familiar faces like Towa, Rean is tasked with instructing the newest class VII, which is only composed of three members in total. First and foremost, Trails of Cold Steel 3 is one game that isn’t for newcomers to enjoy. If you are reading this, pause everything and go and at least play the first in this saga, if not the earlier trilogy Trails in the Sky, too (more on this in a bit).
Trails of Cold Steel 3 kicks off much like the first game in the Cold Steel series as you begin a new school year in an unfamiliar location. One of the surprising aspects of this was the fact that the game still mainly has you play as Rean for the duration of the game, instead of giving you primary control of one of the Class VII students.
This was an odd choice for the game as this does feel like a fresh start enough that it would be better off making someone like Juna Crawford the star of the show. This is especially apparent in a year like 2019 where we have Fire Emblem: Three Houses that was able to make teaching a fun and engaging activity.
That isn’t to say that Trails of Cold Steel 3 misses the mark but it rarely takes advantage of the teaching aspect. Most of your days will be spent after school, talking to students, finding out more about them and the locals of the town, completing side quests, and gathering collectibles. If you played the first game, you’ll know exactly what to expect here.
As you go along, you’ll be able to bond with each of the main characters and raise your relationship level with them a la the Persona series. The crux of the turn-based gameplay comes from adventuring once a week in the new training facility built on the campus or going on the field missions.
For the first chapter or so of the game, Trails of Cold Steel 3 feels a lot like The Force Awakens of the series. It is so similar to the first game in the series that, while it does benefit from better visuals and experience, isn’t too much different. In this regard, it does take a bit for the game to get going but it is worth it, without a doubt.
Once you get into the second chapter or so, Trails of Cold Steel 3 quickly went from being just a better version of the first game to so much more than that. In fact, I would argue that it is like a greatest hits of the entire franchise in general, introducing and showing love to characters from across both previous series in the franchise like Randy, Tita, and so on.
In this way, the game most benefits those players who have dug through all games in the franchise thus far and know each character inside and out. As someone who hasn’t been able to play the Japanese-only Crossbell series, there were parts that even a huge fan like myself missed out on getting the full experience of.
Regardless, Trails of Cold Steel 3 stands as one of my favorite games ever made and easily the best in the entire series thus far. It all comes down to three main things: the characters, story, and locations.
Starting with the locations, this game fixes my main issue of the second Cold Steel where you revisited a ton of previous areas. In this game, almost every area is brand new and some of them were genuinely surprising to me.
But what makes Trails of Cold Steel 3 fantastic is that every single location outside of the first chapter is more interesting than any other location that I’ve seen in a previous Trails game. While I’d loved to give you more info on them, I’ll refrain from spoiling any of them here, but just know that you get to see the better side of the Erebonian Empire for sure.
Then there are the characters themselves, both old and new, who are all vastly more detailed than ever before. The new characters like the members of Class VII and the rest of the branch campus are all surprisingly more interesting than almost anyone from the original Class VII.
This is because the game makes the smart move of focusing more directly on fewer new characters while making the existing characters more interesting. All members of Class VII with the exception of one get so much more screen time and development that allow them to prosper more in the overall story than the original class.
In fact, the way Nihon Falcom handles characters is so well done that I even memorized and got to know every single member of the branch campus as well. Though Rean is the teacher of one class, the relatively manageable number of overall students is enough to get to know them well through the optional conversations, side quests, and main story.
The same is the case for the residents of the town as well. Nihon Falcom is a master of storytelling, both with characters and environmentally, and it shows more than ever in Trails of Cold Steel 3. For instance, there is an optional scene where a little old lady is talking to a young man in the town near the beginning of the game.
You can pass by without saying a word to either of them since neither one is important to the story otherwise but I chose to spend time speaking with each person I came across multiple times, and you are rewarded for doing so. When I first spoke to them, I found out that the little old lady had fallen and the guy helped her up. I thought that was sweet and just moved on with my activities.
However, later on, I found out that the young man was the son of the mayor who was fighting with his dad and had struggles when it came to his job. In addition, I got a side quest much later on from the old lady who wanted to buy a gift for someone. When I got the gift picked out, I found out she was wanting to give it to the guy to thank him for helping her and to make him feel better regarding the circumstances.
That attention to detail shocked me and was made even more impressive by another side quest where I was able to help the guy solve his job problems and doing so made him suddenly a relatively important side character member in the story. All of this was optional and missable, just being a small slice of everything that you can find in the game.
The main story itself doesn’t hold back either, presenting the strongest single story in the entire series yet. It begins simple enough but quickly divulges into something that I could have never predicted. The game has many twists, turns, and brilliant surprises that you will not see coming. Trails of Cold Steel 3 does not play it safe, making some bold decisions that will change the series forever.
By far, the least changed aspect of the game is the overall gameplay. If you played the previous games, you’ll be good to go. Some of the newer aspects include the brave orders that allow you to make a command like reduced damage or increased damage that will remain in the fight for several turns. Another part is a major expansion of the mech fighting sequences, allowing for better team battles.
For the most part, though, you will know exactly how to play this game based on the previous ones. One weird thing about it, though, is the turbo mode of the game that seems much faster than the first two games and was honestly too fast, in my opinion. Regardless, you can get used to it and the game is still exceptionally long nonetheless.
In fact, at about 70 hours for doing most everything (minus a few things I missed) and beating the story, it is the longest game for me from among all of the Trails in the Sky and Cold Steel titles. And the craziest part is that I played almost all of it using the turbo mode, which speeds up the game considerably.
Nintendo Switch Version
When it comes to the Switch version of Trails of Cold Steel 3, this is honestly the best version of the game to date. So much so that it warrants a higher review score than the PS4 version. Though the resolution is lower and you don’t have access to the previous games currently on Switch, there is no better place to play it.
The game runs extremely well and looks good, too, especially when in handheld mode. Given that the performance is on par with the PS4 version, it has a leg up on that version since you are able to take it on the go and have that same experience wherever you want. To me, the mobile experience is intrinsic to the series as I got my start with it on the PSP with the original Trails in the Sky games, so this felt like the series finally coming home.
What’s even crazier is that I meant to only play through some of the game and check out its performance versus the PS4 edition, but I ended up beating the whole game yet again, which is rare for me to do, especially so soon after its original release. I liked it even more on the second run and it remains one of my favorite games of all time.
Here’s hoping the previous games come out on Switch so newcomers can enjoy this one and others as well. It isn’t the worst place to start the series (as it does a decent job of catching you up through the story), but it isn’t the best either, so it is hard to recommend it to someone wholly new unless they watch the previous games.
Trails of Cold Steel 3 isn’t just the best Trails game to date but it is one of the best JRPGs that I have ever played. The unbelievably impressive and surprising story is complemented by the most detailed and interesting cast of characters yet while still featuring the relatively and thankfully unchanged gameplay of prior games.
Though it does get off to a fairly repetitive start and the safe choice for main character is unfortunate, those do little to take away from a game that I still want to replay even after 70+ hours. It easily makes its way into one of my top five games of all-time, making the wait for the fourth game in the saga even harder.
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: NIS America
Age Rating: 13+
Release Date: June 30, 2020
Platform: Switch (reviewed), PS4, PC
This review was done with a review copy provided by the publisher. We are grateful for their continued support.