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Trails of Cold Steel, Parting Thoughts

After playing probably over 400 hours of these games, some final parting thoughts on the Cold Steel franchise. I tried to organize this into a good part/bad part format so that it doesn't seem like I'm just ragging on the games. I truly enjoyed these games more than pretty much any JRPG I've played in recent memory (well other than maybe Undertale), and even though I do think Cold Steel is not as well written as Sky or Crossbell, I would happily recommend people play these games.

Is Big

There are very few games that have as both wide and deep as the Trails games have, and Cold Steel is no exception. Both in the sheer size of Erebonia as a country and the sheer amount of locations and characters that exist across the land, and in this large land Cold Steel absolutely nails one of the most beloved aspects of the Trails series: a focus not just on the star studded protagonists, but detailed little arcs for the myriad of NCPs you meet across your travels.

This feels most poignant during Cold Steel 4 where a Draft is slowly draining all the towns of their characters, which over the course of the game is felt more and more as there are simply less people to check in on as time goes on. This really drives home the urgency of the oncoming war, and weaponizes this aspect of the games against the player in a very clever way.

Harem? Barely Know 'Em.

The Harem aspects of Cold Steel suck and are a drag on the entire arc. Beyond just the normal aspects of why Harem writing is problematic at best, the constraints that the Harem stuff puts on the narrative hurt it in various ways.

The most prominent frustration caused by the Harem structure is that Rean is, for all intents and purposes, a flawless perfect person. This results in him not really having a character arc. The game attempts to force a "flaw" on him by arguing that he's too self-less, but thats a bit like saying your too good at your job when asked what your only flaw is on a job application.

This really comes to a head for me in the final game, where the first third of it is every member of Class VII old and new is going out of their way to rescue Rean. On its own this story wouldn't be bad, having a period of a game where your party has to go rescue the Main Character is a classic JRPG situation as old as Chrono Trigger, but in the context of the Harem writing it just feels so self-serving to the player in a way that feels really off-putting to me.

Geo-Politics Man

One of the greatest aspects of the trails series, and something Cold Steel nails, is its insistence on keeping the geo-political aspects of any conflict front and center. Of course, at the end of the day, resolving whatever conflict that is going on in each game is up to your rag tag group of adventurers, but on their way to solving it the game will constantly remind you that theres more at play here than just beating some evil monster. Their are other countries, other governments, other political entities that are constantly both invested in and working either with/against your goals depending on what is in their best interests, and the game constantly weaves them in and out of the story as necessary.

Someone get me off of this Escalator

One not so great change in the Cold Steel series is that it really struggles with handling escalations of threats.

In previous games (Sky in particular), the games for the most part stayed heavily grounded for the vast majority of the story, only spiraling into that classing JRPG escalation towards attacking and dethroning god late into the games. This rubs some people the wrong way, but in my opinion, this slower way of telling a story gives them more room to properly build stakes and make it so when things truly go off the rails it matters.

Cold Steel clearly took feedback from people complaining about previous games being "slow" however to heart, as every game in the series tends to escalate things much faster than the previous set. This does manage to keep tensions high, but it also doesn't leave them a way to de-escalate situations reasonably, resulting in a lot of situations where you fight like some of the most powerful people in the series and then magically get away before either of you conclude the fight.

Compare Sky in which you fight Loewe (not in disguise) exactly once and his loss and subsequent death is a huge fucking deal, vs in Cold Steel how many times you fight McBurn or Arianrhod. They are two supposedly much more powerful characters, but ones that you somehow *keep* running into and sort of winning against (or at least not losing against) and they don't really resolve into a real fight until the final game.

Order Me A Battle

I think by the end of the series the battle system got to a pretty good point.

Now I'm not gonna sit here and tell you a fully turn based system is great, but for a fully turn based system its pretty interesting.

I think the Order mechanics add a real nice way to shift up battles without having to fully redefine your team, and the turn bonuses that have been around from Sky give battles just that little bit of randomness to make them more interesting. I'm not sure how well that system held out over 4 different games, definitely got a bit tired near the end, but it held out better than expected.

There are also lots of options for you to customize your characters and many builds that all work, which makes it fun to mess around with various quartz and equipment combos. From perfect evasion builds to super speedy "you never get a turn" builds, the game isn't super hard to break, but I think thats a good thing.

Too Many Dicks On The Dancefloor

My final thought: There are probably too many characters and arcs going on between the 4 games.

Part of this is a problem of them wanting to reference and shout out the previous games as much as possible, resulting in a cast that includes probably far too many guests characters by the time Cold Steel 3 and 4 roll around. Now don't get me wrong, I absolutely loved every bit of Sky and Crossbell story I could get out of Cold Steel 4, but it definitely feels a bit odd, especially as the game nears its climax and it feels like the older games should be moving to the side to give space to Cold Steels story.

A good example of doing cameos well is actually in the Crossbell games. In Zero, Estelle and Joshua play a major part in the story, and the arc between them and Renne is resolved. This serves as a good continuation of the Sky story for fans of Sky, but also by having it happen in Zero (the first game), it allows them to move totally out of the way for Ao, giving Crossbell the full spotlight.

Beyond the references and the guest casts though, even just the regular cast of Cold Steel feels a bit too large. There are 11 members of the original class VII and 4 of the new Class VII, plus the supporting characters who are in that inbetween area (e.g. Sara, Towa, Angelica).

It's pretty daring to try to juggle such a large cast, and in a lot of cases It actually works. They manage to give a lot of these characters their own arcs, distinct personalities, interesting relationships. However, I think overall it makes the games feels less focused in some sense. Especially when your concluding like 6 peoples arcs in a row near the end, it starts to just feel crowded.

Ultimately I think the culprit lies with the original Class VII, I think they just made that original cast far too large, and I suspect part of the reason its so large is because of the Harem structure (in order to give the player many different options to date from)