Thank you XSEED Games for sending us this game to review on both PS3 and PS Vita!
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II is the seventh game in the 'Kiseki' series, as it's known in Japan. It is known as the 'Trails' series in the west. This is the fourth Trails game released here, immediately after Trails of Cold Steel, which we reviewed. This game is a direct sequel; if you would rather not skip the first movie in the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings sagas, then I would highly recommend not doing so here as well. Since this is a highly connected series, you absolutely must play The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel before playing this game. If you skip directly to this game, there are many scenes that will not make sense. Do not do this. While I would recommend playing Trails in the Sky FC and SC (or 3rd once released) before playing this game, it is not strictly necessary.
Below this point there will be spoilers for Trails of Cold Steel (the first) below. This review assumes that you have played Cold Steel already. If you are looking for appropriateness changes, it is mostly the same as Cold Steel, with some small additions. Please refer to the highlights box. You have been warned!
Trails of Cold Steel II takes place just a month or so after the events at the end of Cold Steel, where Valimar takes Rean after his nearly fatal battle with Crow and Ordine and spends a month healing and recuperating. When he finally awakens, he finds himself alone on a snowy mountain path near his hometown Ymir, along with the cat Celine, who has been watching over him. Valimar needs time to recharge, so Rean and Celine head down the mountain towards his home, where he finally meets some unexpectedly powerful opponents.
Soon afterwards, in typical Rean fashion, he decides that he must reconnect with his friends from Class VII at all costs – and only then will he know what to do next. During this process, you come to realize what incredible impact the civil war between the Noble Alliance and the Imperial Army has had on Erobonia. Their reunions are each rather touching and well done. Falcom has always done a great job drawing out emotional scenes to give them extra impact, and this is no exception.
Without getting too far into spoiler territory, Rean and his friends go to great lengths to reunite – but that's only the beginning. Rean, and his powerful Divine Knight, work hard to make a difference in a way only he can – and the results are spectacular.
It's nice to start off the game in Rean's hometown Ymir, though it is really important to read the first of the two Memoirs on http://www.trailsofcoldsteel.com in the Trails of Cold Steel II section. This actually takes place near the end of Cold Steel, but for some reason it wasn't included in the game, so they decided to back-fill in this event in a drama CD that was included in the Japanese release of Cold Steel II. Rather than reenact the whole drama CD in English, XSEED decided to put the transcript up on the website above. It's strange, because if you don't read it before playing Cold Steel II, you will absolutely be confused as they refer back to the event depicted there many times in the first chapter or so of the game.
Once you get past the game's early linearity, it really opens up in a rather pleasing way. You have the opportunity to travel across all of eastern Erebonia at will, and that non-linearity is a welcome change from the point A to B that Cold Steel has you do. You can explore the countryside as you wish (and you should!), as well as do quests in any order you like. If you are thorough in talking to everyone, after each main story event it is common for people all across the continent to have different things to say as the story progresses. This has always been a strong point of the Trails series; if you want to get to know each and every character, you can – there is a ton to explore and discover, including hidden quests. Finding and completing every quest, including hidden ones, has a big payoff, so it's very much worth doing.
If you are like me, and want to see and get to know each and every NPC that is there to be met, and you explore every nook and cranny, you can easily spend well over one hundred hours playing this game. I completed it in over 135 hours, and there is even content hidden behind a new game + if you so choose. I wish I had time for such things, but alas, that is the life of a reviewer.
Each character, and especially Rean, grows in some wonderful ways throughout the story. If Cold Steel is the origin story, then Cold Steel II is the story of how Class VII matures and becomes a force to be reckoned with. Even some of the more powerful opponents, over the course of the game, come to respect the power and conviction of the heroes. If you didn't love them already, this game drives you deeper into emotional attachment to these characters. Every member of not just Class VII, but the entire school at Thors Military Academy plays a significant role in what comes, and it's wonderful. The amount of people you become close to, and the relationships you forge are all very memorable. It's a great journey all around that just keeps building from game to game. But like all Trails games, you have to be prepared for the slow burn. But then again, if you played Cold Steel first, you know this already.
The main gameplay systems are largely the same as Trails of Cold Steel, with some small but very welcome tweaks. The playable character roster is just huge, and has some characters that were formerly introduced become playable. It's fun to finally get to play as some of the people you became friends with in Cold Steel.
Battles are very much like Cold Steel, which is fully turn based. Each character and opponent is shown in a list on the left, with various bonuses or detriments that will happen on that turn when it's up. If you don't like what is coming, there are plenty of ways to adjust the turn order, including casting arts, or simply using crafts that delay the opponent. Some attacks and other abilities also target a specific range, so placement on the field can also be really important. It's a system that works well. It's good fun, fast paced, and the fully 3D rendered battles look great.
They added the overdrive system, as well as some new powers for Rean (which would be spoilers if I went into too much detail). The overdrive system is neat because you can activate the ability to have two turns in a row, with one turn in between with your link partner. Used correctly, this can do a ton of damage or otherwise be very effective.
Another addition is the new Lost Arts. These are new spells that cost all EP when cast, but have massive effects. Rather than follow the earth/water/fire/air/time/space/mirage elemental system that all Trails games use, these are based on unknown elements from ages past. Though very expensive, they are very often worth it. They are basically S-Crafts in spell form. One of the spell animations does have pentagrams in it, which is unfortunate.
Like all Falcom games, the music is simply fantastic. More than once a child of mine walked by and commented on the awesome music. While I couldn't always let them watch, that much is certainly true. The graphics are a bit dated, but pleasing. Like Cold Steel, there are times when the frame rate dips, especially on the Vita version. It’s a shame, but doesn’t really detract from the overall enjoyment of the experience.
With great music, a lovable cast, and a deep and interesting grand adventure, there is a lot to like with Cold Steel II. Falcom in many ways is a master storyteller. However, like many of their more recent efforts, there is quite a lot to talk about when it comes to appropriateness issues to be aware of.
There is fairly constant RPG violence, where you choose 'fight' and watch an attack happen. There are some cut scenes with blood as well. There is PG-13 level language, with words like 'd*mn', 'a*s', 'b*tch', 'b*st*rd;', and 'sh*t'. I found the foul language a bit more common than Cold Steel, but not dramatically so. There is magic, and plenty of it. Most of it is in the form of orbments, which are a quasi-scientific power source that can be harnessed to power both vacuum cleaners and magic spells.
Undead and various ghost-like things, including demon spirits, are present. The Trails' world has a monotheistic goddess named Aidios, with many of the trappings that make it rather similar to the Catholic church. This one explores other beliefs that exist outside of Aidios, like local animism to various regions. Some regions believe in the 'wind', and others believe in the 'spirits'. There is also a 'Spirit Path' that is referenced and used. One of the animistic symbols looked a lot like a Celtic cross. There is also much more talk about witches and witchcraft, as well as a girl who is part of the Occult Research Society, who plays a more prominent role than in the last game. Where her divination skills come from is unclear, but she said "whenever the whispers of my guardian spirit and the devils beckoned me, I answered their call."
The most appropriateness issues probably revolve around sexual content. One of the main characters shows off a ton of midriff. Her shorts are extremely short, and much belly is shown. Other girls are well endowed, and their clothing doesn’t hide it, though cleavage is not visible in most cases, other than with Instructor Sara. The other girls' outfits are stylish but not extreme, with one rather significant exception. She is playable near the end of the game, and wears an outfit that is ridiculous, especially around the posterior. Other than these cases, the outfits aren't that bad.
Most of the characters in the first game that had rather unwholesome hobbies keep them. Some girls still love to read and write stories about boy lovers, and that is explored a bit more here. Other characters, like the lesbian Angelica, has less time to talk about or explore that side of her as she is too busy with the conflicts going on in real life. There is still the older, pervy grandpa, and he still manages to sneak in a comment or two. Rean’s adopted sister still has romantic feelings for him. Rean himself, while still a gentleman, finds himself in a few more inappropriate or unexpected circumstances than before. While he still acts with respect, he sometimes finds himself in compromising situations and (deservedly) incurs the girls' wrath. He means well but is stupid sometimes... Girls still talk with each other (and Rean) about various insecurities about breast sizes as well.
Other characters who would occasionally make lewd comments continue to do so, though less frequently than before. One girl talks about sexual encounters that never actually happened, but jokes as though they did for comedic effect. Strong warrior women still seem to attract the affections of other girls, despite the feelings not being returned in that way. In summary, many of the same issues with sexual content that existed in the first game also exists here. There are probably less jokes, as the overall tone of the game is more serious, but it's not without some laughs. Like before, this game is not for children, or perhaps teens.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II is an excellent follow up to the already great Trails of Cold Steel. It’s really more of a continuation of Cold Steel rather than its own game, and should be treated as such. As before, the writing and localization is excellent, and if a potentially very long main game isn't enough, there is good replay value with a New Game+ mode, with some content only available there. It is highly recommended that you import your save data from Trails of Cold Steel, as certain relationship choices from that game make an impact here also. As before, if you are uncertain about appropriateness issues, please consider this game along with Trails of Cold Steel together, as they are both part of a whole. If the content of Cold Steel was acceptable, then this game doesn't really push the envelope too much farther. If you have already played and enjoyed Cold Steel, this game is a must buy.