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.
It’s been a while since I reviewed one of these narrative games, but a recent conversation about the RPG Dread and its use of a physical, inevitable death timer in a Jenga tower to evoke the progression of a horror film got me revisiting a game from the collection I downloaded.
Acceptable Loss (by @rpgnatalie ) is a simple game, although perhaps a little more complex than Dread in order to expand the theming and add an almost competitive element. It sits in a very strange place between competition and co-operation as, in contrast to the usual social contract that the GM-player relationship should be more than simple hostility the “GM” figure (or closest analogue as there is not a usual table power structure here) plays an embodiment of hostility pushing inevitably towards the other character’s death.
This article was originally written for Who Dares Rolls (www.whodaresrolls.com) and is reproduced here with permission.
Laser Beams… is by Taylor Smith (@whimsymachine)
In the game’s own words, its premise is as follows:
“You are a huge fan of mechs and their amazing pilots. You love to watch their heroics on the news, you visit when pilots come to your town, you own multiple letterman jackets emblazoned with mech pilots’ insignias. You’re burdened with the dream of piloting, eclipsed by the fear that you will never be more than a spectator. You love that which is unfathomably above you. Let’s talk about that.”
Quote, of course, from the inimitable @dril
It is sadly possible that before long I will be intensely frustrated with Fire Force, because the things I liked about its first episode are things that will probably end up less prominent, and there is a whole fascinating world of things I will not like lurking in the wings unless it lives up to some interesting foreshadowing and pulls off some good revelations. But nevertheless the first episode has spectacular energy to it, combining great aesthetics of combat, a visually impressive setting and a concept that is simple, elegant and effective for setting up an ensemble-cast superhero series. It is not far removed from a Super Sentai series (or perhaps even more like Rescue Fire or one of the Metal Hero series like Winspector) – a team of heroes themed around the emergency services fight monsters related to their specialisation. In this case, in the distant future(?), people often explode into flaming skeletons and it falls to the FIRE SOLDIERS to kick the skeletons to death and shoot them with guns.
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.