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.
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.
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
Recently I have got very into the wargame Horizon Wars, and as part of this focused on devising background for my army. I tied it into my recent Trails of Cold Steel inspired fiction, about the science-fiction / fantasy Habsburg Empire analogue, the Double Nations of Prenzer.
Now I am beginning to populate Prenzer with named characters, who will take roles in wargames played in the setting – first was Andrew Jackson, the Lawrence of Arabia-esque tanker who featured in a few of my short stories, and now there is Prince Matthias Valon – a fighter-ace, the son of the Archduke of Prenzer and an all-around rogue and playboy.
This story owes much to the excellent novel Winged Victory for giving me a tone to aspire to in writing about the pioneers of air combat, but equally much to the Trails games for their character Olivert…
This story is a follow-up in setting terms to The Meravian Officer, and is really me accepting that the original piece was unknowingly a kind of hybrid of my take on Valkyria Chronicles and Trails of Cold Steel. It doubles down, in effect, on the industralised central European aesthetic that makes those games so aesthetically interesting while trying to add a more “period” feel to the high-school tropes of Cold Steel‘s military academy.
A group of military cadets are being sent to the border of the Austria-esque Prenzer and the Turkey-inspired Meravia, and none of them want to be there…
I wrote this story, about trains, and unusual local customs and about the different ways the laws of an empire might be understood in its remotest quarters, a long time ago but I never put it on this site.
It came to mind again as I played Trails of Cold Steel, which seems to be very much like this in its strange little towns, its Austro-Hungarian-German-Russian aesthetic, its quirky military postings and so on. Trails has made me return to this fantastical counterpart to Austria to write more, and so I decided to put this story up.
Recently I have been playing two games from the Legend of Heroes series; Trails in the Sky and Trails of Cold Steel. Both have impressed me with their storytelling decisions; although their stories may not be those of the most novel characters, and their settings at first glance do not seem significantly original, a number of fine details make the games stand out as a quite different approach to well-worn ground. The games make use of their protagonists’ inexperience in a way that does not immediately suggest some world-changing destiny and thanks to more leisurely pacing provide a much stronger sense of a coming-of-age story. Any development into the resolution of a nationwide conspiracy thus becomes a political awakening as much as a heroic destiny.