Trails of Cold Steel 3 Review: Christ, Who’s Gonna Die First?

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If a stranger ever cornered me on the street, held a gun to my head, and said, “Nadia, describe Trails of Cold Steel 3,” I wouldn’t squeak “Trails 3 is good” (even though it is), or “Trails 3 is bad” (because it isn’t). I’d say, “Trails 3 is dependable” in the steadiest voice I could manage while teetering on the edge of potential death at the hands of a wacko who loves niche RPGs.

“Dependable” games aren’t the titles you turn to because you want a brand-new experience that’s powered with bold new ideas. You turn to them because they offer a sense of homecoming. When I entered a library in Trails 3 and saw the shelves contained copies of Christ, Who’s Gonna Die First—a book title that’s been a running gag since the first Trails of Cold Steel game—I realized I was well and truly back “home” in the country of Erebonia. Trails 3’s gameplay isn’t a showcase of mechanical innovation, but if you’ve followed the games to this point, you’re in it for the next chapter of the Erebonian Empire’s tumultuous history. Luckily, Falcom piles on slabs of story content, twists, and character development in Trails 3. Keep your arms inside the orbal car at all times; the ride gets a little wild.

The story for Trails 3 starts off quietly. The civil war that tore up Erebonia in Trails 2 is seemingly over, and surviving citizens try to restore some sense of normality to their lives. The calm and kind-hearted Rean Schwarzer steps into the lead role again in Trails 3, but nearing the age of 20, he’s no longer a student at the prestigious Thors Military Academy. As a fresh graduate, he accepts a teaching role at a new branch of Thors that springs up quickly in the quiet town of Leeves.

Rean’s told the new branch campus is a dumping ground for problematic students, while the Imperial family’s children attend Thors’ main branch. (Think The Simpsons‘ Utility Basement B at Springfield Elementary, where Principal Skinner locks away Bart and other troublemakers so they’ll be out of the way for the Superintendent’s visit.) Before long, however, it becomes clear there’s much more to the establishment of this “lesser Thors”. There’s also a great deal of political unrest still simmering at the heart of Erebonia, even though the civil war between the Empire and Erebonia’s noble families is supposedly over.

Rean is quickly put in charge of a brand-new Class VII that performs a lot of special ops work—much like Class VII did when Rean was a student. There are lessons, combat training, chances to spend time with your colleagues, and monthly “free days” where you run around like a sucker and complete tasks for other people on campus. Except Rean now has the added stress of students who think he’s a total lame-wad despite being the hero of the civil war. If Thors had an equivalent of a “Shut the F Up, Boomer” meme, Rean’s face would be all over it.

Don’t worry too much about poor Rean: He eventually wins the respect of his students. He also gets to catch up with the old Class VII—and tons more characters from past games—as he takes his class on “field exercises” across the Empire. Much of Trails 3’s story unfolds on these exercises, which are also where you can expect to do the bulk of the game’s exploration and fighting. Again, your To-Do lists work much the same way they do in previous Trails games, except this time you get to jet across Erebonia on a sweet-ass armored train that also serves as your base of operations when you’re out and about.

“Mom’s gonna be so proud of my A in Tsundere 101.” | NIS America/Falcom

It’s important to take breaks when you can, because there’s a lot of combat in Trails 3 when you’re not locked into a long spell of story exposition. The Panzer Soldat mechs from previous games are utilized in some fights (the new Thors branch specializes in Soldat training), but most of your fighting is done through Trails of Cold Steel’s unique battle system. Enemy weaknesses go well beyond the usual elemental shortcomings; every character specializes in a weapon, and different weapons have different effects on foes. Gun weapons have a “piercing” effect that can rip apart hard-shelled enemies like insects. Swords and other blades are effective against “squishy,” furry monsters. Orbal (read: magic) staffs are effective against mechanical monsters. Every monster has their own weaknesses and strengths, and that little bit of constant guessing keeps you on top of your game.

Like its predecessors, the combat in Trails 3 strikes a very compelling balance that makes you seek out combat rather than avoid it. Fights rarely feel brainless no matter how many times you jump into the fray, but they usually end before you start feeling frustrated. It helps that Trails 3 gives you so many systems to play with. The attacks you choose determine how long you have to wait before your next attack. If you button-mash blindly, especially after an enemy gets the jump on you, you might wind up in a lot of trouble. That goes double for boss battles, which get pretty brutal. If you spend all your combat points and ability points on your best skills and spells right out of the gate, you might run out of steam just as the boss whips out its worst attacks.

While Trails of Cold Steel veterans will notice the battle menu’s been streamlined a bit in Trails 3, everything else is more or less how Trails 2 left it. If you’re back because you want to see what wacky adventures Rean and Friends get into, Trails 3 lets you hit the ground running. That gives rise to another question I might hear if the gun-toting maniac from the opening paragraph of this review comes around again: “Is Trails 3 a good place to jump into the series?”

Picking a fight in Trails 3 still feels great. | NIS America/Falcom

Frankly, no. I skipped over Trails 2, and I still feel like I’m missing parts of the story. There are detailed story summaries and character guides that go over the events of the previous games, but reading them isn’t nearly as fun as experiencing them. Despair not, though. Trails of Cold Steel and Trails 2 both have remasters on the PlayStation 4. Getting caught up on the games is as easy as carving Red Beast Flesh from a Crop Muncher—if you have considerable free time to spare.

It’s definitely worth spending some time with Trails of Cold Steel if you’re a fan of RPGs. It’s also worth your time to play Trails of Cold Steel 3 if you’re already a fan of the series. Jumping back into the games isn’t unlike picking up a new book in a long-running fantasy book series you already enjoy. That’s a rare experience in a genre that’s obsessed with bringing new settings, new mechanics, and new characters to games released under the same title banner. Trails of Cold Steel knows what it’s about, and it continues to perform admirably in a world of change.

Trails of Cold Steel 3 doesn’t offer much in the way of gameplay innovations, but if you’re even glancing in the direction of this game, you’re not interested in new ideas. No, you’re interested in continuing the dramatic, twisty-turny story of the Erebonian Empire’s shenanigans. Trails of Cold Steel 3 resumes the series’ magic-infused story of politics and scandal, and the unique battle system still holds up well.


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