Also available on Switch and Windows
Review written by Stephen Deck; originally published 03/24/2021 on Teacher by Day, Gamer by Night
Trails of Cold Steel III is the eagerly awaited follow-up to the incredible Trails of Cold Steel II taking place about a year later, and normally, I would have started up Cold Steel III as soon as I finished my replay of Cold Steel II, but a friend of mine said that some character from the Trails in the Sky games were in Cold Steel III and that I really needed to play those three games first to really appreciate their roles in this one. After powering through all three of the Trails in the Sky games, I finally started Cold Steel III, and pretty immediately, I saw what he meant; Tita Russel, the absolute best part of the Skies games, is a pretty significant NPC in Cold Steel III, so I’m definitely glad that I took his advice.
If you’ve played the first Cold Steel, you pretty much know what to expect from Cold Steel III as far as the basic structure of the game goes. Most of it takes place at Thors Military Academy although Cold Steel III takes place at the new branch campus in Leeves, a suburb on the opposite side of Heimdallr from Trista. Rather than being a student in Sara’s class, Rean himself is now the instructor of the new Class VII. On free days, Rean does the same kinds of things that he did in the first game except from the perspective of a teacher helping his students rather than a student helping his teachers. The only major gameplay difference is the “brave” orders that can be used in battle for a variety of stat boosts for a few turns and the ability to set a sub-master quartz in addition to your master quartz (which, admittedly, was probably my favorite new gameplay mechanic). Like the field studies that Rean went on as a student, the branch campus goes on field exercises with each of the classes – Class VII: Special Operations, Class VIII: Combat Tactics, and Class IX – Military Finance – doing different kinds of exercises. Class VII’s Special Operations activities look suspiciously similar to the Bracer-esque things that the old Class VII did on their field studies. -insert thinking emoji-
Over the course of their field exercises, Class VII confronts the social and political issues brought on by the fallout from the civil war, Ouroboros’s continued schemes, and the Erebonian annexation of North Ambria and Crossbell. Along the way, they uncover a new insidious plot and see the effects of Erebonia’s rapidly deteriorating relationship with the Republic of Calvard. In terms of the world-building the game does, it’s phenomenal. The game’s narrative framing is, however, very derivative. The narrative structure, progression, and whatnot in Cold Steel 3 are almost a carbon copy of Cold Steel 1 right down to the game ending with a super climactic and world-changing cliffhanger. That’s not to say that it’s bad – the formula they’re copying is an excellent one – but it is a bit off-putting, or at least was to me, to have the third and presumably fourth game so exactly mirror the story dynamic of the first and second game. Thankfully the game’s field exercises take all take place in areas that Rean didn’t get to explore in the previous games, and there are plenty of new characters to get to know and interact with, so the game never feels stale, but the word “derivative” really is quite apt for the game’s structure to a degree I haven’t seen in any other series.
Visually, the game looks pretty similar to the PS4 remasters of the first two Cold Steel games. The details on the models and textures are definitely improved, but it’s not as dramatic an improvement as one might expect going from a PS4 remaster of a PS3 game to a game that actually made for PS4. Still, though, the game looks good, and I only encountered one noteworthy bug (plus one hilarious bug) during my roughly five-dozen-hour playthrough. The music is a mix of tracks familiar from the previous games and new compositions, and while I personally prefer the music from the first two games, the soundtrack is still solid, something I’ve noticed is the case in all of the Trails games. Likewise, the voice acting is extremely well done for the main characters; it’s a little more hit-or-miss for the minor side characters. My only complaint with the voice acting is that they changed Millium’s voice actress. The new VA did a great job, but it was a pretty noticeable change for me; it was a bit lower pitched and didn’t have quite as memorable a “cutesy” and aloof inflection as the original VA’s performance did, and those are two of Millium’s core character traits. It’s by no means a bad performance, but I definitely preferred the original VA.
All things considered, Trails of Cold Steel III is another solid entry in an incredible JRPG franchise and an excellent follow-up to its predecessors. I didn’t find myself quite as grasped by the characters or story in 3 as I did in 1, but that’s entirely down to personal preference. If you were a fan of the other Cold Steel games, definitely play this one, but before you do, make sure you’ve played the three Trails in the Sky games. It doesn’t matter what platform you play Cold Steel III on as there’s no save data importing like there was in Cold Steel II, so if you played the first two on Vita, no worries. Likewise, if you played the first two on PS4 but want to play III on Switch, no worries there. No matter how you play it, though, make sure that you do; the Erebonian Empire’s continuing trials make for a great story, and the characters from the first two Cold Steel games have matured and developed remarkably.