It’s somewhat rare for a series to be simply described as a solid throwback to the dubious “glory days” of the OVA boom, because that’s a big kind of claim with a lot to unpack inherent to it. Something trying to evoke a high-quality, highly-acclaimed production like Patlabor (1988), Aim for the Top! Gunbuster (1988) or Bubblegum Crisis (1987-91) is going to be doing something very different to something steeped in nostalgia for MD Geist (1986) or Angel Cop (1989-94). Arguably a lot of subsequent anime has respect and nostalgia for the very best of the boom era, and not so much has kept the same reverence for its trashier, more exploitative side.
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.
I was interested enough in Armoured Fleet Dairugger XV to keep watching past a point I’d usually give up a series that was not interesting me. It was a super robot show I was not familiar with outside of knowing that it was perhaps the biggest-crewed robot of that era of super robots (with fifteen pilots), that it was (seemingly uncharitably) parodied by Robot Chicken for the length of its stock footage and that it had never featured in Super Robot Wars. And so, when I found out it was receiving official, subtitled streams on Youtube, I decided to watch it.
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.
School-set RPGs are not uncommon as a concept and so do not, themselves, need much specific introduction or explanation. Nevertheless, there is a subset that I find somewhat more interesting – those which take the idea of an academy for the young and influential to learn martial and political skills so they may become future leaders. The big one, for a while, was Trails of Cold Steel; I’ve written in the past about its slight inability to land its heavier political themes, and the inescapable tension between its ideas of personal friendship and intrinsic goodness versus wider-scale conflict. I like it a lot, despite its flaws (and will merrily play Cold Steel 3 and 4 when the chance arises) but it is a series of games, like Valkyria Chronicles 1 and 4, that raises a lot of very interesting critical arguments.
This article contains significant spoilers for Trails of Cold Steel 1 and 2 and Fire Emblem Three Houses.
As I continue to watch Gun X Sword I’m struck by several things. Firstly it does not get significantly less uneven in quality. Secondly, the El Dora V episode feels even by the halfway point like a weird anomaly of sincerity – although other episodes, in their own ways, hit equally weird and interesting concepts. Thirdly it is a series that has an unbelievably strong villain even before he actually does anything.
I started rewatching Gun X Sword just after beginning to play Super Robot Wars T and was seriously wondering after two episodes if it was actually as good as I remembered. I would fully understand someone, after two episodes of the series, being just about done with it because the opening absolutely does not touch the show’s real strengths. You have two episodes of character humour that might be grating without the opportunity to get to know the characters, and of incidental combat against largely irritating villains. There are flashes of interest, for sure – the moments where the mask of slacker comedy breaks and Van shows his crazed side suggest there is something more going on here, made all the clearer by the fact the setting is called The Endless Illusion. But ultimately it is a kind of badness driven by simply being ordinary when you have probably, if you have been convinced to watch Gun X Sword, entered expecting something extraordinary.
There are quite a few comedy fantasy anime in the vein of The Slayers and, unfortunately, most of them are varying degrees of quite sexist. Even The Slayers has some episodes that really don’t hold up as very good, although it also has some extremely funny episodes and some action scenes that work quite well. There are certain tropes that come through in a number of the series in this vein that, depending on execution, feel a little awkward; lots of cross-dressing, lots of jokes where the punchline is pretty much “man tries to spy on woman and gets punched” and so on. The execution varies for better or worse, but nevertheless it seems this sort of adolescent humour is a recurring theme and it’s wholly understandable that that might not appeal to people so much. Konosuba goes perhaps even further by having a masochist-fetish defender and various other more direct sex jokes.
Kamen Rider Gaim is a very different beast to the previous series in the franchise I had watched and enjoyed; perhaps the closest comparison is 2018’s Kamen Rider Build in terms of tone, storyline and general feel, with heroes on all factions trying to get ahead of each other and eventually realising this is playing into a greater threat’s hands. But even so it is quite different, and the purpose of this review is not really to compare the series directly but to talk about what makes Gaim so compelling to watch.
It is fair to say I am watching Dororo (2019) with absolutely no knowledge of the original 1969 TV anime or 1967 Osamu Tezuka manga. As a result I cannot comment on how good an adaptation it is, in any useful sense; my understanding from secondary reading is it is making some plot changes, but beyond that I do not know anything. So, that reservation in mind, would I recommend Dororo (2019)? Yes. It’s a series which has in its first three episodes generally presented a praiseworthy attention to detail, some good action and a straightforward plot which hits some generally tough moral beats with the uncompromising didacticism that I grew to like about series like Harlock SSX.
Note: This article discusses the plot details of episodes 1-3 of Dororo (2019) including the way it handles the narrative depiction of suicide in episode 3.