Official Trails of Cold Steel 2 art, Artist: Enami Katsumi
Currently I am playing Trails of Cold Steel 2, which picks up directly from a significant cliffhanger in the same way Trails in the Sky did; it begins with the cast divided, the enemy holding the upper hand and the situation generally bad except certain fundamental details of scale are different, which puts a very different tone on it and one that makes the whole “message” of the story different. It builds on a different set of pop-culture references, evoking more the “magical high school” kind of anime story rather than the easygoing pastoral fantasy Sky built on and so focuses on a cast of truly exceptional, highly-specialised heroes who fill various expected role of that sort of ensemble. Certain decisions in the sequel double down on this, taking the story outside of its initial high-school setting, which create some interesting questions about the story. As it stands I have yet to finish the game, but am some significant time into it, and this article reflects my initial thoughts on where Cold Steel stands as a series narratively.
Note: This article deals directly with story details of Trails of Cold Steel 1 and 2, as well as referring to Trails in the Sky
Trails in the Sky ended with a sequel hook that was in many ways very vague in political and world-building terms, but very personal in ways that mattered. Your protagonist had lost her adopted brother. He had walked out on her, and it was obvious to you the player that the true villain of the story was responsible. Throughout the whole game there was a balance between doing something good for the world and getting back at a smug, calculating man who had ruined your personal life. Trails of Cold Steel ends (and 2 begins) with a variety of betrayals and losses, but they are quite different. The seemingly progressive Chancellor of your nation is shot by your hero’s closest school friend, who reveals himself to the world as the masked terrorist C and leads an army of robots to oppose the reformist he has deemed wanting in the name of a rebel faction. At the same time a global Illuminati, Ouroboros, reveals it has a hand in it all, there are airships in the sky, mecha in the streets and your school is overrun by the enemy’s newest-model mech. A lot is happening, and then more happens; the hero gets a super-robot, fights, loses, escapes, has his sister and the nation’s princess kidnapped before him and his father shot. By the time you properly regain control in Cold Steel 2 the nation is engaged in a brutal civil war, the royal family are missing in action, and all your party members have vanished. By contrast, Sky Second Chapter begins with strange portents of something happening, but most of all the driving need to rescue Joshua.
A defining thing of Sky was how the whole conflict skirted difficult boundaries between national interest and something else; the Bracer Guild is supposed to be apolitical, even if the cases you took increasingly had political import (culminating in talking down an enemy nation’s tanks at your borders). Even in the first game, where you ended up rescuing the reigning monarch from a planned takeover of the throne, it was all in service to advancing Weissmann’s aims and reaching the basement of the castle. Cold Steel is purely political from the start. The hero and his party are an experimental mixed-class unit in a socially stratified military academy. Every case they do turns out to be involved in some way with a group of dissatisfied nobles staging a coup. And now the second game puts you on the back foot because of that coup, and what needs doing is, apparently, stopping a civil war that has started. Yet the recurring theme of dialogue is that Class 7, the mixed-social-class unit that has trained at the nation’s top military college to serve its legitimate government, that includes close relatives of key landowners, politicians, generals and industrialists and which takes orders directly from the royal family (up to acting as executors of the princess’s judgments) is an apolitical third faction with no direct stake in the war.
The hypocrisy seems self-evident, especially in the disconnect between what you do in the game (and how it is set up to make knocking members of the rebel army down a peg hugely cathartic) and what you would expect from an “apolitical” faction not intervening directly in the war. Apolitical seems to mean deniable – Class 7 is entrusted by powers including the legitimate government the nation’s strongest weapons (the royal flagship, the royal family’s direct word and – via supernatural means – a super-robot) and works directly alongside the loyalist military up to and including hostage rescue missions and direct apprehension of enemy commanders for war crimes. You are, effectively, a special forces unit performing black ops – and the dialogue is preoccupied with the heroes trying to equivocate out of this role by stressing that these are personally-motivated acts for a higher good. What this does is give Cold Steel 2 much more of wish-fulfillment feel – you begin at your lowest ebb after having had your teenage years “made” by a cute date with your girlfriend, saving the school from supernatural forces, saving various towns from evil landowners and build back up to even higher heights – you have a super-robot that beats up enemy robots with magic finishing moves, the fastest, coolest airship in the land given to you by the nation’s high command and prince, the cute princess lusting after you, and a class of the coolest, strongest, most right-thinking people in the country behind you.
By contrast, what does Estelle have in Sky SC? A stick, good friends, two of whom happen to be in high places, and eventually dispensation to use the royal airship by simple virtue of it being the only one that still flies during a nation-wide blackout. Not effective captaincy, full operational discretion and the ability to talk on even terms to military high command. In both games the arc villains have a personal disagreement with the party, for sure, but even then I think there is a slight difference. The Ouroboros agents in Sky were broken people some of whom had directly wronged your party in civilian life – Luciola’s childhood with Schera and Walter’s rivalry with Zane, for example – but the villains you take down early in Cold Steel 2 are your party’s parents and friends, elevated to military command and committing heinous acts. And this brings it back around, in a way, to the “third faction” question. The rebel army (and it is very clear that the game frames this as a rebellion against what has been painted for the whole game as a legitimate, if not wholly popular government and one unpopular because it is shifting from feudalism to capitalism in the name of social reform) has rogue generals who try and seize control of corporations, kidnap innocents and burn towns. They form a “third faction” in their own way – people working nominally for the rebels, but not endorsed by them (much as Class 7 are effectively working for the legitimate government, but not claiming direct endorsement).
Thus Cold Steel 2 is a war of black ops, factions on the edges of a war. Which in turn makes you, the player, feel even more empowered. Your army above the normal army fights the worst bad guys, who do undeniably bad things and so need to be apprehended without anyone ever needing to question whether this is taking a direct political stance or impacting the course of the war (which would no longer be being a third faction but actively influencing a military conflict to the benefit of one side). Of course, there is still a lot of plot to be played through; much could change (and there is an interesting cutscene where one of the rebel commanders does approach Class 7 on neutral terms to discuss the mutually beneficial removal of a particularly cruel commander) but as it stands it feels to me as a player like Cold Steel 2 is almost like one big jab at the characters, with the player in on the joke. You do the things that make you feel cool and powerful, helping the likeable characters you spent the first game helping, and it is very clear you are being shown one side as good and one as bad – except the characters you control are trying to rationalise this not being the case.
The “antiwar third faction” is something central to a lot of Gundam series, and it does feel to me that Cold Steel 2 is exploring it in its own way, potentially critically. If the game continues to be about the “mission creep” of Class 7 (as military high command continues to work alongside them in the suppression of the rebels) it would certainly be an interesting twist. Of course, there is also the more straightforward, Tomino-esque reading of what is being set up – adults, being irrational and classist and divided over pointless issues, need to be beaten by a socially-mixed but politically unified liberal newer generation who have learned the most important life lesson of all – that we are all, fundamentally, the same.