One of the best Japanese role-players of the last gen makes its way to the PlayStation 4 and proves just as impressive as it did on PS Vita.
While the recent Persona Q2 will, probably, end up being our last ever 3DS review, the original version of Trails Of Cold Steel II was one of the last games we ever reviewed on the PS Vita. As youd expect from Sonys sadly neglected portable, that meant it must be either an indie game or a Japanese import, if not both. Venerable Japanese developer Falcom arent indie in the modern sense of the word, but for 38 years theyve toiled away on their own, making role-playing games few in the West have ever heard of. Which is a shame as most of them are really good.
The first entry in the Trails Of Cold Steel tetralogy was released on PlayStation 4 earlier in the year, with the two other entries already out in Japan and slowly making their way to the West as PlayStation 4 exclusives. Apart from simply wanting to have all the games on one format the first two feature a save data transfer feature that will presumably be carried through to the others, so theres a real incentive for playing them all on the PlayStation 4.
Although Falcoms early 80s work was highly influential on the action role-playing genre in Japan (the seminal Dragon Slayer was a big influence on the original Zelda), their most recent titles have been more traditional turn-based games. Trials Of Cold Steel takes place in a particularly well-realised fantasy world that has been turned upside down by a sort of magic-infused industrial revolution – where technology has gone from medieval to airships in the space of just a few decades. Which allows the game to feature both giant robots and a working class revolt.
Trials Of Cold Steel II works similarly to the Mass Effect series, in that if youve played the original you can use its save data to give your characters stat bonuses and extra items. More interestingly, it means the relationships you formed in the original are also carried forward. Most of the first game took part at a military academy and allowed you to form Persona style social links with different characters. So the idea of seeing how they pan out once youre sent out to war is very interesting.
The sequel starts just a month after the end of the first game, with the main characters scattered across the countryside after surviving a coup. Before long youre given command of your own airship, as you try to reorganise and help the civilian population. This works something like the castle from Suikoden II, as the airship slowly turns from an empty conveyance to a home-from-home teeming with friends and allies.
Your academy allies are from a mix of backgrounds, and the outbreak of war has many of them questioning their loyalty to not just each other but their own families. The dialogue which portrays this can be clunky, with a long-windedness that suggests a too literal translation from the Japanese original, but the depth of the characterisation, and very human stories, are still interesting and relatable.
The turn-based combat is the same basic system as before, but the new overdrive feature expands it considerably by allowing combat-linked characters to attack up to three turns in a row, use magic instantly, and heal at the end of your attack. This isnt just change for changes sake either, as the new techniques are vital for beating the tougher bosses, which are not only extremely difficult but often appear in quick succession. The mechs from the first game also have a much bigger role to play in the sequel, which helps to shake things up further.
Unfortunately though the problems with the original game still linger, primarily the slow pacing of its story and general structure. Theres a horse and motorcycle you can use to get around on the ground, which help to speed up exploration, but theyre not introduced until hours into the game. Similarly, the early dungeon designs are very uninspired, and its only later on they become more interesting. And as engrossing as the plot can be its still constantly getting snagged on minor sub-plots that should either have been cut out or sped up considerably.