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October 2018

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita
Genre: RPG/Strategy
Publisher: XSEED Games
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Release Date: Sept. 6, 2016


PS Vita Review - 'The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Sept. 6, 2016 @ 6:00 a.m. PDT

Awakening one month after the events of Cold Steel, Rean tries to find his friends and reunite with his sister Elise. Rean and his fellows try to find the remainder of Class VII and Thor's military school.

Buy The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II

A warning before this review begins: The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II is less of a sequel and more like the second part of the previous game. It's impossible to discuss the title without dropping major spoilers about Cold Steel I. In addition, the plot depends on the player having knowledge of the events and characters from the first game. In short, you absolutely must play Trails of Cold Steel before this sequel!

Trails of Cold Steel II picks up about a month after the first game ends. Thors Military Academy was captured by the combined forces of the rebellious Noble Alliance and former Class VII member, Crow. Players rejoin Rean Schwarzer as he awakens from a mild coma caused by his injuries at the end of the first game. He's alone except for a talking cat and the giant robot who mysteriously appeared at the end of the last game. Confused and separated from his friends, Rean must get the gang back together and figure out how to prevent the country of Erebonia from descending into chaos. Meanwhile, the Noble Faction wages a civil war against the Imperial Army for control of the Erebonian Empire, a mysterious force causes monsters to become more dangerous, and an evil group seems to be playing all sides for their own malicious ends.

One of the more frustrating elements of the title is in its world building. ToCS2 wants to make sure you know that Class VII is only part of a greater, stronger world. Unfortunately, this is presented through an excessive amount of unwinnable boss fights and NPC characters swooping in to undermine your work. The worst excesses are early in the game, where every chapter ends with an absurdly strong supervillain showing up and clowning your party. It's understandable from a world-building perspective to make sure you know Rean and friends aren't the best, but it's tough to see your hard-fought battles devalued in a second. To the game's credit, it avoids one of the major flaws of unwinnable boss fights: The majority can't be won in the traditional sense, but damaging an enemy enough earns bonus AP, so you're still encouraged to try your best.

The other flaw is that ToCS2 consists almost entirely of resolutions to the events from the first game, and it can leave things feeling both thin and bloated. The main cast feels simpler compared to the heavy development it received in the first game. They've either reached the ends of their arcs or a critical breaking point in their arcs, so they're all on the same page with little in the way of melodrama. Likewise, the cast is gigantic and consists of dozens of characters, some of whom appear for moments and others who are long-term recurring villains. The interweaving plots and characterizations can be tough to keep track of, especially if your memories of the first Cold Steel are a little hazy. This gets even more excessive when the end of the game brings in events and characters from the unlocalized The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Zero. For more casual players, several plot points will be lost since they skip events from titles that English-speaking gamers haven't had a chance to play.

By and large, these complaints are minor warts on what is a genuinely fun experience. The characters are likeable, and even the villains are charming and have amusing quirks. The translation is top-notch, with a lot of genuinely funny laugh-out-loud moments. For much of the game, the plot is more of a straightforward JRPG than the prior title, but the ending sets up the upcoming Trails of Cold Steel III, which has already been announced for Japan. The tale doesn't end on quite as much a cliffhanger as the first game; while quite a few plot arcs come to a satisfactory resolution, there are more that are only briefly developed.  Don't expect things to be wrapped up cleanly, since there's another game on the way.

The core gameplay of ToCS2 hasn't changed too much from the prior game. The major difference is that it has some non-linearity. The first chapter of this title sticks closely to the feel of the first game, with Rean's hometown of Ymir replacing Thors. However, once you hit the second chapter and gain access to your airship, you have more freedom to explore the world. Your progress is still gated by how far you can get in the story, but even if it's merely an illusion of freedom, it's an effective one. Being able to go where you want makes the experience feel a lot less constrained, even if you're only going where the game asks.

The airship functions as your home base. Not only can you use it to freely travel to any location that's not under the Noble Alliance's rule, but you can also recruit ex-Thors students to increase the airship's available options. You'll eventually unlock specialized shops, minigames, extra challenges and more. None of them are game-changers, except for the student who unlocks the ability to customize Valimar, Rean's giant robot. It's satisfying to see the memorable cast of characters from the first game becoming your support crew in the second.

The combat system also hasn't seen too many significant changes. There's a new overdrive mechanic that allows you to build up a special meter. When the meter is full, you can use it with two characters to engage in an overdrive attack. This gives you three turns in a row during which all attacks knock enemies off-balance, all arts are instantly cast, characters are healed, and the EP and CP of characters are restored. By default, Rean has to be one of these characters, but by completing optional combat challenges, you'll unlock the ability to utilize overdrive with other characters.

Otherwise, not too much is different. There have been a lot of small tweaks, but you'll only notice if you get extremely deep into the combat system. Certain quartzes and abilities have been rebalanced to either be stronger or weaker. Physical attacks seem to have gotten a large accuracy debuff while arts seem to be more reliable. The difficulty level in ToCS2 is higher than in the first game, but it's not punishing.

The biggest addition to the combat system is Divine Knight battles. If you finished Cold Steel, you might remember the mecha battle at the end. Divine Knights are effectively a more fleshed-out version of that. Since Rean is the only person with a personal robot, the fights use only one party member, but the enemy can have two or more. In the Divine Knight battles, you can target enemy body parts. Prior to attacking, every enemy enters a different stance, which gives you forewarning of the attack and has a "weak" body part. Attacking that area does extra damage and builds up link points that can be used to perform special attacks, similar to the regular combat system.

While you don't have other party members, every other member of Class VII is a subcontractor and can contribute their abilities. You choose one person, who can be swapped at will from all available party members, to serve as a secondary pilot. This pilot doesn't control the robot but can use the robot's EP to buff itself, debuff the enemy, cast magic spells, and heal. The difference between the party members mostly involves which buff or debuff they can apply and the element of their special attack, though the latter is mostly for flavor. Valimar can also be temporarily summoned into regular battles, where most of the mechanics don't come into play, but you get to launch a few powerful attacks.

The Divine Knight battles aren't deep enough to be a main combat system, but they are a fun break from the regular fights. Balancing your healing and resources while figuring out the optimal ways to break through enemy attacks offers a surprising amount of enjoyment. It reminds me more of the duels from the older Suikoden games but with more depth. If Divine Knight battles return in Cold Steel 3, then they'll need some additional depth to remain interesting.

Understandably, ToCS2 recycles a lot of content. You'll revisit the same areas, meet the same characters, and fight a lot of the same monsters as in the first game. It makes sense from a plot perspective, but whether the recycled material feels repetitive instead of nostalgic will depend on the player. There is a fair bit of new content, but it's interspersed with the original, and there's a lot less new to see than there was in the first game. It feels like a somewhat smaller game since you're traveling the Empire in a matter of moments instead of taking days to get there by train. More areas (particularly the Nord Highlands) have actual fast-travel options, and you can ride a motorcycle or a horse through most highway areas, which makes it faster to get around for side-quests.

Unfortunately, ToCS2 also retains some of the flaws of the previous game. There's a lot of hidden content that involves going far out of your way. There are a lot of hints, but it's still easy to miss a side-quest or character. There's some content that can only be seen if you play through the game a second time. Side-quests also tend to involve revisiting areas filled with harmless enemies. Your various modes of transportation speed this up, but it does get a little tedious.

Our review of Trails of Cold Steel was the PlayStation 3 version, while our review copy this time around is the Vita version. Visually, ToCS2 is identical to the previous game, but the Vita version doesn't feature the best optimization. The frame rate frequently dips into single digits, especially during any scene with glowing particles. The loading times are noticeably longer than in the PS3 version of Cold Steel. It's nothing that harms the experience, but it's worth keeping in mind if you're deciding between the two. Players should also note that the game allows you to load your save from the previous title for a bonus and some plot changes, and this does support the Cross-Save feature. Beyond that, not a lot has changed. The graphics are still workmanlike, and the voice acting and soundtrack are absolutely top-notch and carry the game through some weaker elements.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 2 is a solid and enjoyable sequel. The tone has changed, but the characterization and combat are back in full force. There are a few nagging complaints here and there but nothing that should sour the experience for people who enjoyed the first game. At worst, it feels too familiar in both strengths and weaknesses. Almost every complaint and praise about the first game can be leveled at the second. ToCS2 is not a game for newcomers at all and is only for fans of the first. Likewise, be prepared for a game that leaves as many questions as it answers. It's a more satisfying ending than the first game, but there's still a lot more going on in Erebonia.

Score: 8.0/10

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