For all, with distance, I can see the grain of some good ideas in Trails of Cold Steel 2 it is fundamentally a weirdly paced, unrewarding game which serves some necessary story purpose – marking the characters’ development from students reacting to an unfair world to young adults trying to take action against it – but does so in a slow, inconsequential fashion. The story it covers needed to be told to bridge 1 and 3 both for political and character developments, and I am unsure how exactly it could have been done better, but nevertheless I am very glad Cold Steel 3 has gone in a different direction and made something thematically and narratively stronger.
Spoilers for the Trails of Cold Steel series follow.
I had reservations about Cold Steel 3’s core conceit; a new school, with new students, felt like too much of a drawing back to what appealed about the first game. Given one of the things I appreciated about 2 was that it was unafraid to move on and show that the characters were maturing and their school days were over, I was not sure a strict return to a school setting would work. This proved to be a misjudgment, because there was one very significant point that made it an effective character arc; you are now playing the teacher, facing all the problems your heroics in the first game would have caused – and facing the problems Rean’s offscreen heroics in Cold Steel 2 have caused.
One of the things I like across many of the Trails games is how the heroes are invariably out of their depth, and there are functional authorities and establishments that step in and handle big problems. Their approach is not always right, but never purely antagonistic either. This small detail – that this is a world where there are larger forces at play, that even world-saving actions are still but a small part of global politics and that there is always a bigger fish with better backing – makes the world feel distinctly more alive and well-rounded. It felt pushed a little too far, in a way, at the end of Cold Steel 2 where the party completely fail to achieve anything meaningful in the final dungeon and might as well be spectators to fights between their more powerful parents – and I was initially a little put out that it felt like the offscreen action between 2 and 3 was a lot more interesting than most of what you did in 2. After all, a whole war was fought and ended, two countries were invaded and we returned in 3 to be told we’d won.
Trails of Cold Steel 3 is about someone who didn’t do very much in a war in the grand scheme of things, who was carried by superior technology and very powerful backers, and whose actions were morally suspect and in service to someone with dubious aims and methods now having to deal with the consequences of their actions and that is honestly why it is so immediately compelling. 2, for comparison, was about the hero getting knocked back and trying to find themselves (and ultimately, apparently, failing). But Rean the celebrity, the Ashen Chevalier, the conquerer of nations and super robot pilot who has everything and is set for greatness is in fact living in the shadow of having been able to do nothing without powerful allies, not having the strength or resilience to achieve anything that matters and nevertheless being painted as responsible for a lot of things. You fail when you control Rean and his spirited, idealistic friends fighting villains. Rean succeeds when you don’t control him and he’s fighting as a soldier. His heroism is grossly overstated because he’s a useful figurehead, the son of the returned Chancellor, the pilot of his nation’s most powerful robot, the man who saved the day (with help).
I quite like the fact you play someone who’s a cardboard hero. And a lot of why that works is because of the weirdness of the setting. It’s immediately evident that the Branch Campus is a deeply suspicious institution, a place where a new group of disparate, unhappy people have been put together to try and make the Thors idealistic magic happen (as Thors 1.0 without Class VII rapidly turns into the nobility-to-war-hero pipeline it might have initially seemed to be). The same hand of “let’s bring people who have seen how bad things can be together and show them how much worse it really is” hovers over the new Class VII except there’s one huge problem and that’s Rean. Old Class VII were brought together to see the sins of their fathers, so to speak; Alisa confronted her mother and grandfather’s war crimes, Jusis saw the unaccountability of the upper class, Machias the deeper problems of the class system and so on. But the whole party were unified in this position of learning they were all from flawed backgrounds, that their preconceptions were wrong.
New Class VII is a few people having to work together with the person who apparently caused a lot of these problems. And that is why Juna is the best character so far, purely because of what Chapter 2 of the game does with her character. Chapter 1 is fine, it has some extremely interesting Trails lore with a day trip to Hamel and has some interesting moments of introspection for Kurt as he meets people better at swords than him (Laura) and gets told he isn’t as hard as he thinks he is, but it is Chapter 2 that matters in terms of what the game is doing. At the end of Cold Steel 2 Rean leads the occupation of Crossbell. Which is where one of his new class is from. All of a sudden this opens up very interesting directions for character development; you have someone given actual responsibility over students having to account for their own almost unearned fame among their countrymen but also the fact that that fame came at the expense of other nations. Rean has spent two games building bonds of friendship with a disparate class of lovable but broken children and now they’ve all gone off and got jobs, and he is stuck with the fact that he doesn’t so much have friends as useful contacts and allies. In a lowkey fashion, Cold Steel 3’s most interesting theme is the loneliness of fame. Being a hero – a famous, television-star hero of the people – is not the same as being someone who does the right thing when it is time to do it.
So CS3’s chapters involve trying to show your students how bad things really are, accepting that perhaps some of it is your fault, then needing to abandon them to go off and work for the government to put right some problems (and make others worse). You’re not making friends with your peers any more, you’re trying to build bridges with a generation you ultimately helped displace. And the Crossbell chapter is where this is all made clear via some very good writing. Everything about it is deeply wrong; Juna’s false enthusiasm at going home, Rean’s concern that he has to return to a nation he invaded and occupied, all the walking on eggshells everyone in the occupied territory has at having to face the person who invaded them. You do extremely little in Crossbell, and yet every moment of it has a mild, uneasy tension to it. And you – and your party – once again learn how bad things really are. Learn how the war of robots and tanks is over but the economic pressure isn’t stopping, learn about the cold war, the way that inconvenient heroes are shipped off to remote places and put under surveillance, and even learn how Juna’s childhood heroes are now enemies of the state.
And you can’t fix any of it. You’re not there to fix anything except stop Ouroboros from doing their nebulous plan. An awful lot of the Cold Steel games is about powerlessness, about the crushing momentum of the Establishment, about how there is always a bigger fish. Class VII spend a lot of early CS1 getting arrested for trying to be heroes and going against the state when it overreaches. They then learn in spectacular fashion as romantic as it is to be the cool “apolitical” faction with a super robot and airship you can’t really achieve very much in an all out war fought between factions with a lot more powerful people like that. But that idealism, Rean’s niceness and passivity and good figurehead-ness, is easily commercialisable. And so even though in CS3 you’ve got the best resources yet, the strongest weapons and the biggest array of allies, you have no more ability to change anything than when you started and the local police were a threat.
Admittedly it’s hard to tell by this point politically what the best option is because the much-vaunted democratic revolution against the nobility is becoming a mire of questionable wars against smaller nations, economic warfare and concealed war crimes, there’s international magical terrorists causing trouble and the nobility are still as unaccountable as ever. Cold Steel 3’s world is impressively broken, and my speculation (from around the game’s halfway point) is the Branch Campus is being built up to bring together all the people with grievances against it to enact some decisive change from a more enlightened position.
This makes the game A Lot to deal with in a very interesting way. It’s a very lonely, empty world, in a way; you wander around with people scared of your fame, your students not wanting to cross the teacher-student relationship, trying to be the same relatable do-gooder you’ve always tried to be and then you end up sent to the site of a war you fought in taking one of the civilians affected by it on a field trip to their occupied state. You might think a game leaning so heavily on the loneliness at the top would be bleak and unrewarding to play but it isn’t because of the characterisation and the hints at the bigger picture; you’ve had two games of the value of friendship and camaraderie and now you’ve lost it. You meet your friends infrequently and even then the relationships have changed.
As ridiculous as it sounds, if CS1 was a game about the importance of the bonds built in school, and CS2 is about trying to stick together even when life gets hard, CS3 is the arc of the story about how eventually you might end up unfulfilled in your adulthood, with your best years drifting away and money and celebrity not really a good substitute for genuine friendship. Not exactly the usual arc of these sorts of things and I think this is a reading of the game overlooked slightly because it still seems from the outside that Rean is doing OK. He’s still in touch with his friends, he’s still got status and power and friendship. But it’s not the same, and it won’t be.