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.
Official Trails of Cold Steel 2 art, Artist: Enami Katsumi
Currently I am playing Trails of Cold Steel 2, which picks up directly from a significant cliffhanger in the same way Trails in the Sky did; it begins with the cast divided, the enemy holding the upper hand and the situation generally bad except certain fundamental details of scale are different, which puts a very different tone on it and one that makes the whole “message” of the story different. It builds on a different set of pop-culture references, evoking more the “magical high school” kind of anime story rather than the easygoing pastoral fantasy Sky built on and so focuses on a cast of truly exceptional, highly-specialised heroes who fill various expected role of that sort of ensemble. Certain decisions in the sequel double down on this, taking the story outside of its initial high-school setting, which create some interesting questions about the story. As it stands I have yet to finish the game, but am some significant time into it, and this article reflects my initial thoughts on where Cold Steel stands as a series narratively.
Note: This article deals directly with story details of Trails of Cold Steel 1 and 2, as well as referring to Trails in the Sky
This was the first time my CEF army had been used, and only the second my Southern forces had seen the battlefield. Now better-equipped with the rules, battle was joined between the ill-fated Southern forces and the untested CEF:
Writing backstory for a villainous army, who mostly use disposable, mind-wiped troops, was quite challenging. However, according to my understanding of unit choices this army has all of two human pilots in it, the rest fanatically loyal (maybe) personality free (in theory) clone troopers…
Before reading up on the background for the Caprice faction I wasn’t sure if I would find them interesting – afterwards, I found their background appealed very much, as I am a huge fan of the mecha series Fang of the Sun Dougram.
The idea of being able to play either the collaborating forces of a colonised planet or the resistance working against them seemed very interesting, and as I worked on building this army I realised it would have to be a Militia or Resistance list all the way…
After playing a couple of demonstration games of the new edition of Heavy Gear Blitz, and having painted two full 150-point armies, I had a go at playing a full-sized game – a rematch between my North (played this time by my friend Phillip Preece) and my South army (played this time by me). In a previous solitaire game to learn the rules, the South heavy units had dealt horrible damage to a Northern patrol – in this larger game, the tables would be turned!
Objectives: North: Assassinate (Shou Kyao, Hooded King Cobra), South: Wipe Out (Fire Support Unit, Quincy Piloledge et al)
Prior to watching Rurouni Kenshin I was unaware that Ryosuke Takahashi, a producer of science-fiction anime I greatly respect, had worked on it. And yet, as I watch it, I can certainly see how his experience in working within a very different genre pays off and elevates Kenshin above what I initially expected. Kenshin is ultimately a fantastical period drama, set in an interesting and real period of history and adding supernatural elements to it. Yet on a fundamental level its setup is not significantly unlike Takahashi’s science-fiction works; it is a series, behind its visual comedy and comfortable, sometimes moralistic early episodes, about a confused post-war world and someone who is no less of a supersoldier and outsider than Eiji from Layzner or Chirico from VOTOMS.
Sketch of a Gear pilot, drawn by request and reproduced with permission from ilisvela.tumblr.com
In writing this half of the story I found myself looking somewhat more closely than I ordinarily would at the mechanics of mech combat – how smaller, “real robot” type mechs like those of Heavy Gear would lead to brutal, uncomfortable battles – the pilot close to the action rather than in a small part of a much larger machine, heavy weapons deployed against what is ultimately personal armour rather than a whole fighting vehicle, and an immediacy and physicality that makes the breeziness of rolling dice on a wargaming table a little more interesting from a narrative perspective.
It is easy to get excited as a wargamer about cool unstoppable unit combinations that mitigate the probability of a dice-based system and assure you victory – my Southern Fire Support unit (which turns up in slightly stylised form here) is an impressive wall of armour and guns built around highly effective rotary cannons and laser rifles. In game terms this means I can roll a lot of dice. But as I ran some basic statistics, effectively playing a solitaire wargame to see how this scenario might play out, and then thought about how this reflected on what you might watch in a robot anime, the combat itself became perfunctory and brutal.
This ended up being, for all it set out to be a heroic army background piece for a tabletop game, a depiction of the sort of grunt mech slaughter usually reserved for an OVA like War in the Pocket.
This story, initially written as a brief idea, ended up significantly longer than initially planned. It has also shifted between being a properly researched bit of backstory for my Heavy Gear army and being a generic 1980s mecha anime inspired bit of pulp sci-fi. It still wears all its inspirations – Heavy Gear, Metal Armour Dragonar, Armoured Trooper VOTOMS, etc – very obviously, but it is rather more my own universe than any existing one.
Consider this the first episode of a television series’ arc, or maybe even the first half of an episode.
Pictured above are its principal characters, kindly illustrated for me by request by an artist taking suggestions for drawing topics.
It is impossible to talk in too much depth about the plot of Fafner of the Azure at only three episodes in; it is a series that, like Rahxephon, holds its secrets close and plays on the characters’ and audience’s different levels of knowledge for dramatic effect. At this point the viewer knows next to nothing about the enemy, or even about the status quo. Using implication and secrecy for dramatic effect is something an awful lot of anime tries to do, and with highly variable amounts of aptitude; I abandoned my weekly write-ups of Macross Delta because it became apparent that it had reached a kind of stasis of plot; very little happened to progress the story, and the progress of the characters in discovering mysteries was not interesting. Currently it is too early in Fafner to comment on this aspect in relation to the whole series, but there is something its third episode does which I feel stands out as taking the technique in a fruitful direction.