Official Trails of Cold Steel art, Artist: Enami Katsumi
Note: This article discusses in detail plot events from Trails in the Sky and Trails of Cold Steel
In my previous article about Trails of Cold Steel 2 I mentioned how its story seemed to be a safe, comfortable sort of power fantasy at odds with how the characters described their affiliation and intentions; the player spends much of the game gathering allies for various missions in a manner similar to Mass Effect 2 and games in its vein. Each location liberated gives a new set of goals and allies to find, and the aim is to recruit a strong force for the ultimate recapture of the hero’s school, currently occupied by enemy forces. This in its own right is a good example of how the game’s narrative logic falls squarely into adolescent power fantasy; the primary objective for what rapidly becomes an immensely powerful paramilitary force is recapturing a school of symbolic, if not strategic, value. This is in service to a larger goal – trying to convince an enemy soldier who personally wronged and abandoned the heroes to return to the fold. To this end the player takes part in military operations of ever-increasing scope which call into question the “neutrality” which the characters keep referring to.
So far it all sounds like the game is about extraordinarily privileged young heroes having their cake and eating it; they equivocate until their actions can be seen as “neutral” while working closely with the government-in-exile and the “loyalist” military during a civil war, using some of the strongest military assets available to their nation to pursue a strategically questionable initial goal, and end up with a powerful warship that was given to them by an elite crew of the nation’s military heroes staffed by cadets – with the final mission, as if the lack of neutrality needed reaffirming – being a raid coinciding with the main force’s recapture of the capital to rescue the legitimate monarch from imprisonment signed off on by two members of the royal family and planned by military high command. Throughout the game the heroes lean on royal approval for their actions, and I found by the end I was waiting for it all to go wrong because had it not, it would have been a very uninspiring narrative. Simply being made to feel all-powerful is not always interesting, especially because the previous Trails games I had played made the heroes’ powerlessness into a way of making the story personal. It made the endgame the culmination of a number of small, earned victories. On the other hand, Cold Steel 2 begins with Class 7 being handed all the tools they need to complete their mission, and simply becoming even stronger.
The continued almost flawless victories build up and up with saccharine scenes – the greatest setback, the destruction of Celdic in a revenge attack, simply paying off with a miraculous concert that raises the sick from their beds and the ultimate liberation of the military academy being an almost non-entity of a grudge match between students over points of honour. By the climax of the game it feels like the whole world loves your group of heroes, and that is actually quite wearying. They are justified and right in their actions, and the world does not hesitate to tell them they are wonderful and the brightest hope of the new generation. This on its own would be dull and uninspiring, and set up for a very cloying finale. But instead, the grand finale, the decisive battle to end the game’s apparent A-plot, is a total demolition of how powerful and well-loved and perfect you seem to be. Earlier in the game your class get repeatedly humiliated by powerful agents of the enemy faction, who seem to toy with them – a standard game narrative arc would have you become stronger and beat the enemies. In Trails in the Sky SC, there is a similar setup – each initial plot arc has a named villain introduced with a link or rivalry with some member of your party, and in the final dungeon you refight them all, wise to their tricks, and finally settle your disagreements. In Cold Steel 2, you watch as your heroes rush into their refights with their rivals, “win” each time and then discover that they stood no chance and the actual military – or the actual adult heroes – need to clean up their mess.
It feels quite strange, and very refreshing after how saccharine your previous victories have become, to ultimately be playing out a delaying action for the game’s “grand finale”. All your “victories” have in the past been against figureheads, people who have already lost or who had no skill at all – and compared to the enemy’s true heroes, you are insignificant and have to simply buy time for the truly strong soldiers to arrive. What this does is make the dungeon seem more foreboding; you are not even strong enough to beat the “lieutenants” and yet keep getting lucky enough to proceed, and so when you reach the top what chance do you stand? The answer is none, and I like that decision. The main body of the game is about children playing soldiers – army cadets given a command way out of their league and winning victories mostly through the element of surprise and picking battles against weak targets. Their ultimate aim is “saving” one specific enemy, who treats the war in its own way like a game, and also stopping one evil mastermind. You complete both those aims, in a form. The leader of the rebel forces, Cayenne, manages to alienate most of his lieutenants to the point where two of them actively fight against him in the final battle – and the battle ends with him under arrest. You roundly defeat Crow, the “traitor” you have been trying to redeem, and he sacrifices himself to stop Cayenne (in a scene which reminds me, I guess, of Loewe’s redemption in Trails in the Sky). It is something of a Pyrrhic victory, although that seems fitting for such a petty main goal stapled to a far more serious conflict.
And then you lose completely because the civil war, it turns out, was over before it really began. The assassination that sparked it was, in fact, some kind of trick and Chancellor Osbourne is very much alive and now in possession of quite a lot of new military technology courtesy of the rebel army’s superweapons. One of Cayenne’s co-conspirators was actually a double agent, leaping in at the last moment to apprehend Cayenne with the help of the secret service. And, it turns out, you are not merely working closely with the legitimate government, your hero is the son of the Chancellor. Throughout the game I was increasingly looking for things that were not as they seemed, because it all seemed too easy – everything fell into place, the naïve talk of “neutrality” and being a third faction not gelling at all with the missions you were given, and the “civil war” being apparently some disjointed affair of a number of highly inefficient officers commanding ruthless mercenary forces who did all the actual work (but apparently the noble commanders didn’t realise they were being played despite their “allies” continually abandoning them at crucial moments.)
When you realise that the whole climax seems to build up to a combination of events that has identified and neutralised several vocal opponents of the legitimate government, spurred rapid militarisation and development of combat robots and brought into the open a number of powerful Ouroboros agents who Osbourne feels he can “use” as assets, it seems somewhat cleverer. And thus the game enters its epilogue. The “civil war” is over, the government is stronger than ever and the new, futuristic army that has been built is rapidly turned on overseas foes. This is the twist comparable with Sky FC‘s revelation of Weissmann as the villain. Your heroes have spent a game working in blind faith with the secret service, special forces and government – and as a result the country is stronger than ever, and your heroes look weaker than ever. In a way, it is the ultimate ironic payoff for a story about military cadets trying to save the country in some Tomino-esque “the children are wise, the adults are stupid” sense. Idealistic children with all the resources and opportunities that can be convinced their cause is personal revenge are useful soldiers. And, of course, so many of your missions involve the “villains” making the war very personal by picking on your characters’ families…