/!\ WARNING /!\ This article contains spoilers on Trails of Cold Steel 1! Do NOT read further if you haven’t finished the first episode.
Despite my (relative) disappointment with the first Sen no Kiseki, all the new stuff announced for this sequel had me excited nonetheless. And indeed, the game I had in hand had been enriched in many ways.
Legend of Heroes Trails of Cold Steel II starts when Trails of Cold Steel ended (so far so good). Rean is alone with being Valimar, his newly acquired mecha, and Celine the Cat. He will therefore start looking for his comrades throughout the Elbonian Empire. Unfortunately, after the surprise attack launched by the aristocrats’ faction, the latter control most of the country. Class VII and the other members of Thors Academy scattered and organised themselves into small resistance groups to reclaim the land.
The general narrative of Legend of Heroes Trails of Cold Steel II does have a very good feeling. The politics/military aspect takes shape in a wonderful way in this sequel. The different stages of the reconquest are well detailed and will please Valkyria Chronicles fans as it’s pretty munch the same spirit. While the first Trails of Cold Steel was a accurate metaphor of the 30’s, Legend of Heroes Trails of Cold Steel II establishes clever parallelism with the beginning of the 2nd World War, particularly the interim government set by young princess Alfin. The very idea of progressively meet back your allies is also very clever and reminds us this great moment of Final Fantasy VI. It really helps the narrative as the game takes ample time to explain the stakes for every region and every character : lots of key elements will be revealed and the story will go much deeper in their personalities. If you liked them in Trails of Cold Steel, you will adore them here. Although the beginning and the end are once more significantly more intense than the center of the narrative, there’s no denying that Falcom found the right tone and structure to tell its stories.
No JRPG becomes great without great villains. Legend of Heroes Trails of Cold Steel II does an impressive job on the matter by introducing a group of formidable mercenaries, all of them having different personalities and motives. Adding the unscrupulous aristocratic leaders, Falcom’s new adventure boasts a large and diverse cast of opponents. Each one will see substantial character development, so much that you might come to like them as much (if not more) as the main cast. This goes without saying, but the fights against those powerful and sometimes funny opponents make a unforgettable RPG experience, directly inheriting the greatness of JRPGs of the former decade. I must also stress the astonishing epilogue that completely reverses the story’s perspective and features an awesome “final” boss like you’d never expect.
Whilst Legend of Heroes Trails of Cold Steel was sadly very linear, this sequel offers a lot more freedom and content. First thing, you’re now in command of the stylish airship Courageous, and can visit the places you’ve taken back as you wish! The player is therefore free to tackle secondary objectives or look for other classmates hidden in the various regions. The students you’ve welcomed on board will offer some services like establishing a shop or a training center, which will help your party quite a lot. You’ve also got a shiny side-car to travel through the roads opened between the towns.
This gives another dimension to sidequests, but the mini-games also evolve in a positive way because they’re better integrated into the story. You’ll for example enter a fishing contest following some curious encounter. The card game, cooking and fishing get more interesting in this sequel, especially the fishing because you can now actually go back to every river, pond, etc. to complete your collection and become the best fisherman. You also have new ones like the lottery or the snowboarding challenge. Probably also a reminiscence of some Final Fantasy… Legend of Heroes Trails of Cold Steel II doesn’t lack distractions and validate another good point of a great JRPG.
Another fantastic add of Trails of Cold Steel II, several secondary characters of the first one become playable. No less than 8 characters are added to the existing 10! For example, Elise, Claire and Sarah among others can be played on a large part of the game and in the last maze. Not only have you the immense pleasure to play characters you hadn’t before, but the new cast also add new strategic possibilities since they have a fighting style of their own.
Battles don’t change from the turn-based of the first one. Your characters still move freely around the battlefield and their position will be as crucial as usual : numerous spells and skills can target a wide area, might it be for attacking, healing or boosting status. Those capacities consume CPs or MPs. But the CP skills remains the most important ones because they don’t need cast time. I do lament that Trails of Cold Steel II wouldn’t fix the gameplay issues I had seen in the first game. On the contrary, because it amplifies them. It’s still not possible to hide objectives on the map, which hinders the exploration aspect (even though it’s a lot more interesting than before).
The most serious issues still lie in the combat system, because a KO character STILL LOSES ALL HIS FU** CPs! CPs being used for everything from attacking to healing and reinforcing, it’s pretty harsh if your several characters are down. Even if you revive them, they’re thrown back so far in the turns order that it’s difficult to maintain them alive. Also, the whole battle system stil relies a lot too much on S-Breaks, the ultimate attacks of each character which consume all your CPs. S-Breaks are so effective that it makes combat a bit repetitive, as you’ll want to use them as fast as possible.
It’s a little too bad, because Legend of Heroes Trails of Cold Steel II benefits from the complex customization system inherited from the prequel. Quartz (which work like materias) provide a large array of elemental spells, support spells and passive skills such as inflicting abnormal status, lowering stats or reducing cast time. In this sequel more than before, you can improve those quartw in the (rare) workshops designed for that. This is absolutely addictive and you can spend hours merging quartz to get more powerful ones, and thus comfortable stat boost. You can make your characters even stronger by looking for S-rare quartz that grant very special benefits. The climax remains the quest for the Lost Arts, magic so devastating that you’re allowed to use it only once per battle. Master Quartz still decide the specialization of your character (healing, attack, defense, etc.) so you must set them in accordance with your general strategy or play style. A thoughtfully good system that’s been greatly enhanced in this sequel.
In battle, once again you can “connect” two characters so as to they support each other, like for example in adding an additional blow following a critical hit. The weaknesses of the enemies still depend on the type of weapon you use, so like before the point will be to use the right character at the right time. Legend of Heroes Trails of Cold Steel II adds an option called Over-Rise : under certain conditions, two characters will be able to unite their strengh for three turns while being healed, stronger and regaining some precious CPs. This new capability gives a nice advantage in tricky battles, and it’s consequently more than welcome.
Link Abilities are much more spontaneous now : linked characters will automatically react to each other more often, for example in healing their partner or getting stronger to avenge them. Last but not least, the sequel give one additional S-Break to each character, some of them, like Laura’s (see above) being really impressive and immensely powerful.
The biggest novelty is the battle between mechs. Those are very special fights but there are quite a lot of them, which is pretty nice. You play as Valimar, itself assisted by another character you can freely choose. Valimar has far less moves than a traditional character, mainly a few skills, 2 magic spells depending on the support character (Alisa provides fire magic for example), and its own S-Break. Those fights are a matter of observation since you’ll have to aim for the right part of the enemy mech to actually deal significant damage. If you attack the wrong part, you can be heavily countered. You do have to monitor your HP, MP and CP, because being one turn late can bring defeat. That said, those battle quickly become some kind of routine because of Valimar’s own counterattack, which grants enormous tactical advantage.
Still, the big problem of Legend of Heroes Trails of Cold Steel II is its punitive level of difficulty. I can count the number of boss I beat at first try on my right hand. I PERMANENTLY needed to retry by lowering the bosses’ stats (-10% each time), sometimes twice or thrice! Bosses in this game are abnormally strong, not to mention they heal themselves frequently and keep calling powerful reinforcements while increasing their own stats. Main bosses have their own S-Break, likely to destroy your entire team in a flash and very tricky to counter. Being taken by surprise leads to unavoidable defeat. You take so much damage that it’s impossible to survive in default settings, healing just cannot keep up. It’s a game made for the elite of the elite of JRPG players, because you need to master every strategic possibility the gameplay has to offer in order to secure swift victories. I do appreciate this retry system since I could finish the game thanks to it, but after being slaughtered countless times, the pleasure of fighting had waned dramatically. There is a difficult mode, there are also harder modes above, so I do expect to have a normal challenge when I set the game in normal.
Graphics and animation haven’t changed much compared to the first one, the same 3D engine being used. Towns, countryside and dungeon do look nice for the Vita, but the modeling of some characters feel a bit old. New characters like Altina feel a lot sharper for example. Overall, Legend of Heroes Trails of Cold Steel II still is quite above your average PSVita visually speaking, especially for having such great richness, colors and animation in battle. We lament some serious framerate drops here and there, though.
Aside pure technical aspects, it’s Falcom’s art that makes Falcom’s games so appealing. From the title screen to the crazy Lost Arts and S-Breaks, not forgetting the fine character design, Legend of Heroes Trails of Cold Steel II is as classy as you can get. The OST takes it full part in this, because it’s loaded of beautiful melodies during the 100 hours this giant RPG lasted. Battle themes are seriously good, especially the rocky Severe Blow, or the epic Blue Destination. Yumir no Keiyokudô as well as Shizuka na Ketsui are super powerful emotionally speaking.
Let’s have the final word about the final update of Legend of Heroes Trails of Cold Steel II, which happended 3 months after release in Japan. It added five playable characters (via skins) : Aflin and Towa, as well 3 of the «bad guys». That was only in the last dungeon of the game, but that was nevertheless a fu** immense pleasure. For many a dream coming true. I really want to stress this because as an update, it’s totally free of charge. In today’s gaming world where DLC prices are hiking like mad, Falcom’s initiative deserves praise.
Considerably enhanced compared to the first one by its improved narrative, its compelling game system, its higher degree of freedom and its numerous lovable characters, Legend of Heroes Trails of Cold Steel II is a great JRPG that just failed in reforming itself enough in gameplay. It’s a tough game that can become frustrating, but yet should be experienced for its artistic qualities and rich universe.