This is going to be a fairly comprehensive look at Trails of Cold Steel 3 and as a result is probably going to be best read if you have played the game already. It isn’t often that a game makes a big enough changed impression on me to want to discuss its story at length both at the midway point and the conclusion, but – and this may be a flaw in some ways – it backloads a lot of its plot, and does so in a way that works effectively as a mirror of the way CS1 saw tranquility fall apart.
And while this article is going to go into some heavy places in terms of discussing the game’s political themes and inspirations, it’s important to remember it’s also very funny a lot of the time. Some of the jokes are wearing, particularly the “comedy lesbian” characters, but a lot of the time there are some sharp scenes and charming interactions. It’s worth considering it in comparison to a game I watched a playthrough of recently, Tales of Symphonia 2. That was a sequel to a beloved RPG that brought back, as visiting characters, the old party. It did so in a way that mostly annoyed the player, as it felt that character development was undone and beloved characters were reduced to one-note gimmicks and punchlines. CS3 largely avoids that; it remembers that the party have all matured as characters, have now settled down into new jobs and it offers a fairly charming depiction of a circle of friends trying to recapture the old magic.
It’s fairly plain to see CS3 is a clever kind of revisiting of CS1 with some age, experience and the world not being in such a good place any more. It has a very close structure of school trips to see the problems with the world, a gradual building of unease and cold war tensions, and then a shocking assassination, the betrayal of party members and a dramatic cliffhanger ending. But it’s quite different, too, because of the changed perspectives. You, the main character, tried to help for two games and ended up being quite responsible for making the world worse. The true price of modernisation – that it is often just exploitation and imperialism under a new veneer of democracy – has been laid plain. The villains seem to be working (on the surface) to put things right and maintain a better status quo, the heroes (so it seems) are pushing more and more into a desire for retribution and subjugation rather than reconciliation.
It feels, with hindsight, a more nuanced and interesting version of stories about rebellions and coups because it presents a well-motivated antagonist with noble goals who nevertheless goes too far in a fashion that feels realistic. Too often to demonise the freedom fighter, the opposition to the nobility, fiction has to paint all rebellions as innately driven to wanton killing and cruelty, to be corrupted by personal greed simply because it is human nature; opposing the status quo is implicitly going to lead to corruption. “Rebels” or “Resistances” are easily demonised in fantasy fiction as terrorists, in order to create a false equivalence – sure the nobility are bad but perhaps the other side are just as bad.
Cold Steel 3 offers as its “good intentions but bad methods” villain Giliath Osborne, a fantasy equivalent of Otto von Bismarck. When I say “fantasy equivalent of Bismarck” it is not subtle; the historical Chancellor of Germany was the “Iron Chancellor”, who aligned with liberal politics, implemented social reforms including a welfare state, played the international politics game ably and had close ties to the royal family (this is of course a simplification of pre-WW1 German politics, but it should suffice). Cold Steel’s Chancellor of Erebonia is called the “Blood and Iron Chancellor”, implements social reforms and appears to be a people’s politician, plays international politics ably, and is a trusted advisor of the royal family. As a common-born politician who rose to the top apparently by his skill and talent, who was instrumental in ending a bloody war and seeking justice for war crimes committed by his nation, who oversaw massive developments in technology and modernisation and is actively fighting the overreach of an unaccountable nobility, he is a character who is genuinely doing some good things for his nation and yet he is also unbelievably unpleasant and a worthy villain.
Because his methods are credibly unacceptable. In order to paint the reformist, the anti-nobility political faction as worth fighting against rather than joining Osborne is shown to also be very much in favour of invading smaller countries and bringing them within the empire, of walking all over minority cultures to bring them in line with a greater nationalist vision, of rapid militarisation and, ultimately, reshaping the “modernisation” process into one of consolidating control into a new group of power-holders often counter to the wishes of other liberal factions. The game is not painting “liberalism” or “reform” as innately compromised positions but presenting Chancellor Osborne as a politician with some good policies, a lot of very good rhetoric and some incredibly bad ideas. That’s the crucial difference here. There are moderates, and even very strident reformists, the party meets who nevertheless oppose the sheer extremism of the Chancellor; the fight is not against the slow decline of the old Establishment but against a charismatic, clever man appropriating it. Cold Steel does not really paint the usual bland centrism, that both sides are as bad as each other, as the prominent voice; it says “here is someone capitalising on liberalisation to do some really dubious stuff.”
As to why all this dubious stuff – and dubious it is, involving deals with secret societies, unearthing ancient superweapons, capitalising upon attempted assassinations and more – happens? Well, this is the part of CS3’s story that will need some extremely delicate treatment in CS4. This is because ideas of “national character”, of some innate human nature shaping cultures, of evil deeds being “necessary” or justifiable by some vague imperative, are really dubious ground in fantasy fiction. Dungeons and Dragons has moved away from the idea of entire cultures, species or civilisations being evil by design, of evil begetting evil, precisely because it leads to some extremely dubious moral messages about killing “inherently” evil people.
Cold Steel 3 reveals that the nation of Erebonia was founded in the aftermath of a massive war led, effectively, by two avatars of gods. The two gods merged into a new deity, and that was sealed away. Its avatars occasionally resurface in the form of giant robots, things get very vague about heroes potentially being immortal, but fundamentally there is a massive problem, which is that the nation was founded on top of a sealed Elder God with evil intention. This manifests itself as a kind of tempting, chaotic voice driving people to do terrible things. We are effectively – to use other pop culture touchstones – looking at something vaguely like the role of Tzeentch in the Warhammer universe. Osborne’s plan at the end of CS3 essentially releases this dark tempting power across the whole, newly expanded empire to be the tipping point he needs to stage a coup and start a world war. He capitalises upon the public furore following an attempted assassination of the popular monarch in a country already paranoid and beset by terrorism, corruption and inequality. Just after an operation which revealed enemy spies in the capital. And then shortly after delivering a thundering speech demanding immediate vengeance by way of total war and instigating martial law, he unseals the power of a chaos god that drives people to violence. It’s a surprisingly ruthless plan, and a remarkable cliffhanger for the end of the game. The whole continent is on the verge of war, an elder thing is at large, and with the help of a number of terrorist groups and secret cults the Chancellor has just staged a coup with the help of a member of the royal family.
I liked the reveals here, the way the game quite ably mimicked elements of the cliffhanger endings of CS1 and CS2, but with some hindsight I have a slight reservation about the big plot reveal being a whole nation is cursed to do awful things because of an evil god. That could, handled badly, be used as a way of obviating or eliding over the political nuance at play, the story of a country trying to actively deal with the fact its government has a dark side. If everything can be written off as divine intervention, well we’re back into the realms of “Always Evil Alignment” and so on. Because CS3 has played extremely well with building questions of how a country or an individual should take responsibility for their sins, their nation’s crimes or their family’s deeds. That is a key, fundamental character driving force for the really good individual-level storytelling. But we shall see about that when CS4 comes out.
And at the end of the day even if there is some innate “madness” or chaos influence at the hearts of the nation’s dark past, even if ancestral curses are not always great storytelling devices, this – when the previous games are considered in light of the reveal – does not feel like it has previously undermined the theming. Whatever drove people to do awful things, the driving theme has been celebrating those who stood up to them, celebrating resistance and principles and seeking appropriate justice and recompense. It may well be that the perpetrators of crimes “weren’t thinking straight” when they did it but they still face justice, the people who did do the better thing still hold them to account. “A curse made me do it” has yet to, in this fiction, be used to successfully justify war crimes.