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The Legend of Heroes, Trails in the Sky, and Cold Steel: A Primer

by Jordan Rudek - June 17, 2020, 9:00 am PDT
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Happy Trails to you, until we meet on Nintendo for the first time.

When a long-standing RPG series makes it way to the West for the first time, it’s always a cause for excitement, but it also brings potential confusion. Such is the case with Trials of Cold Steel 3 coming to Switch in just a couple weeks. Cold Steel 3 is a spin-off of the Legend of Heroes series, which now spans a total of 14 games. Unfortunately, half of those have either never been localized into English or remain trapped on a single console like the PlayStation Portable, and only one (Cold Steel 3) will be available on a Nintendo platform. For that reason, I’ve created a brief primer to introduce new players to The Legend of Heroes. And the best place to start on any trail is at the start.

In 1989, developer/publisher Nihon Falcom released Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes on the 8-bit home computer NEC PC-8801. The game didn’t see a console release until coming to the TurboGrafx-CD in 1991, and this version actually did come to North America a year later. In Japanese, the next four games would all be numbered sequels, from The Legend of Heroes II to V, with the third, fourth, and fifth entries only available on Sony’s PSP. The North American naming convention was a little messy, and fortunately none of the first five entries in the series appears to have a definitive connection to the titles that would follow. While the sixth entry, known in Japan as The Legend of Heroes VI: Sora no Kiseki, would have a number in its title, it would be the final one to place that number after “The Legend of Heroes.” All subsequent games from this point on also contain the word “Kiseki,” which roughly translates to “trails” or “tracks,” and fittingly the English title would be The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. Given the shared world of every “Kiseki” game in the series, it makes sense to focus on them moving forward.

The Trails in the Sky games form a trilogy that follows the exploits of Estelle and Joshua Bright, at least initially. The final game in the trilogy, Trails in the Sky the 3rd, is a marked departure in setting and structure from the first two games. In the first game, Estelle and Joshua become bracers working for the Bracer’s Guild and complete odd jobs and requests for various citizens. While the Kingdom of Liberl is the primary setting for the first two titles and the prologue of the third, the entire content of Zemuria comes into play, particularly the western half. Estelle and Joshua travel to the five main cities of Liberl over the course of the first game: Rolent, Bose, Ruan, Zeiss and Grancel, with each having its own culture and character. These locations are revisited in the second game. Estelle and Joshua encounter a number of characters, some of whom join them at different parts of their adventure, such as surly Senior Bracer Agate Crosner and Tita Russell, granddaughter to one of the men responsible for the Orbment technology that powers much of everyday life. These characters and others return in the sequels, with Estelle as the primary character in the second game and Kevin Graham, a knight of the church, as the protagonist of the third game.

The next two Legend of Heroes games form another separate arc within the Trails incarnation. The Japanese titles are The Legend of Heroes: Zero no Kiseki and The Legend of Heroes: Ao no Kiseki. Unfortunately, neither of these titles has been localized into English. These two games form what is referred to as the “Crossbell Arc” given that they are set in the state of Crossbell, located to the northeast of Liberl between the much larger Erebonian Empire and Calvard Republic (which will feature much more heavily in the Cold Steel games). Zero no Kiseki is actually a direct sequel to Trials in the Sky the 3rd, taking place a few months after, and features appearances from Estelle and Joshua, even if most of the cast is entirely different. It follows rookie investigator Lloyd Bannings who joins the police to learn more about the death of his brother. The sequel, Ao no Kiseki, sees even more returning characters from the Trails in the Sky games and continues to follow the exploits of Lloyd and others within the Special Support Section (SSS) of the Crossbell police department. Lloyd would go on to make an appearance in the second Cold Steel game as well.

Much of what occurs, the places you visit, and the characters you meet in these first five Trails games won’t have a major impact on your experience with the real focus of this primer: the first three Trails of Cold Steel entries (Yes, there is a fourth and final game on the way that is coming to Switch in 2021). It is interesting to see the political events and storylines unfold in these aforementioned games, but it’s much more valuable to your playthrough of Cold Steel 3 to know what has transpired in the two entries leading up to it. Fortunately, both the full version and the demo version of Cold Steel 3 have fairly concise but helpful summaries of Cold Steel 1 and 2, including pictures, character profiles, and an introduction to the world of the Trails games.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel originally launched in 2013 in Japan on PlayStation 3 and Vita. It came to North America a little less than two years later on the same platforms, but Windows and PS4 versions would eventually follow. I myself played through it on Vita and was captivated by the characters and the way Cold Steel showed you much more of the world compared to the more insulated Trails in the Sky. Centering on protagonist Rean Schwarzer and the Thors Military Academy, you join the newly-formed Class VII, which is made up of talented students of different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. The group travels by train to various cities in the Erebonian Empire as part of their field studies each month, and then returns to the academy for classes, free time to socialize, and investigating the mysteries of the Old Schoolhouse on campus. One unique element is that your party contains a different permutation of the members of Class VII during each chapter, so you have an opportunity to learn about each one and get to know them better. This is one of the main reasons the cast is so likeable and endearing: you feel close to every single one of them.

Trails of Cold Steel 2 takes place a month after the cliffhanger ending of the previous game (Light spoilers ahead). Separated from Class VII, Rean has escaped in the Divine Knight Vallimar, a combat mecha, and is able to make it back to his hometown of Ymir thanks to the help of Toval, one of the few bracers left in Erebonia. The nation is embroiled in civil war, and Rean’s friends and squadmates have scattered, so it’s up to him to get the band back together, with a little help of some familiar faces from the previous game. After reuniting with the members of Class VII, Rean and the group set out to liberate Thors Military Academy and the surrounding town of Trista. After helping the Imperial Army liberate a villa where the Imperial family and Rean’s sister were being held prisoner, Class VII battles through the dark and imposing Infernal Castle to confront Duke Cayenne, one of the main antagonists and leader of the Noble Alliance, which had instigated the civil war. Cold Steel 2 ends with the members of Class VII graduating from Thors, except for Rean who stays behind. One and a half years later, Cold Steel 3 picks up the story from there with Rean now acting as a military professor.

While not every Trails title is directly linked to one another, characters and locations from one set of games do crop up enough that the sense of connection is noticeable. You certainly don’t need to have played all the Legend of Heroes games to enjoy Trails of Cold Steel 3, but it might be worth returning to earlier games to learn about the origins of some of the guest characters originally and how their cameos came about. With any luck, we’ll eventually be able to at least play all of the Cold Steel games on Switch one day. At any rate, before you start your playthrough of the third game, take some time to read over the synopsis of the previous two games, the character profiles, and the history of the world; all of these materials will heighten your enjoyment of the game.

For now we can look forward to another RPG that by all accounts is as complete and engaging as its predecessors. If you haven’t tried it yet, there’s a demo for Trails of Cold Steel 3 on the Switch eShop that gives a pretty good idea of what you can expect from the full game. It won’t be long until RPG fans will have the chance to blaze their own trail, even if their legend is starting in medias res.

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