Contrary to popular belief with jrpg developers, pacing is important, doubly so in the first five hours of any game. I have to give them credit though, they stuffed about as much anime cliché into those first five hours as the lovechild of Naruto and Gundamball Z.
Upon first impressions, I was inclined to call this a poor man’s Persona- but price point aside, after the battle tutorial and walking around town tutorial section had dragged for far too long it starts to deviate enough to feel like its own game.
Right away you’re shown mini games such as card battles and fishing, fairly staple RPG elements, and introduced to a social system to get friendly with your students. The concept of having limited time each day to perform certain tasks, forcing you to pick and choose what you’ll do each day, as well regular side quests to complete for ranking and friendship points seemed fairly familiar. However, instead of giving you a large amount of options, and many days to manage those options- you get one day with only a few comrades to spend time with- so it feels less like you’re choosing whom to spend time with, and more like you’re choosing whom you ignore.
So far, so good right? Even if the start stretches a bit, it teaches you the basic mechanics of the game and what to expect. Combat missions, then a social day, rinse and repeat.
Except you don’t revisit it for a good ten hours. It turns suddenly into a rather straight forward explore and destroy RPG at that point, making you wonder what exactly was being taught with the overly long tutorial.
And I think this is a major shame, because chances are if there’s a part of the game that’ll alienate players it’s the first five hours.
For returning players there’s frequent cameos and references to previous games, most heavily the two Trails games, but it also gives you a storyline that can be followed perfectly fine without having played them (as I have put only a dozen hours into the first myself). The starting menu includes write ups on characters and events from the previous games if you want to learn more, and has that connected but individual balance that makes it easy to recommend for new players and veterans alike.
Graphically it’s clean and pretty, well coloured and with strong character and scenic variety even early on. I’ve no complaints with the soundtrack or partial voice acting, though it does have a few young characters with somewhat annoying voices as is seemingly the norm, I’m still not sure who that is supposed to cater to.
The battle system ends up being Cold Steel’s strength. Character abilities are highly customizable with various passive focuses and both spells with casting times and instant weapon arts. There’s a turn based combat system which indicates ally and foe order- which you can manipulate to ensure certain buffs that fall on a turn are yours rather than the foes, such as a turn where spells are instant and free, or a turn where your attacks cause instant death. Needless to say, learning to abuse turn order is central to play on higher difficulties.
Aside from health, foes have a break gauge which you can get through by attacking their weaknesses, allowing you to gang up on the enemy. Movement and area of effect also play a role- and overall the strategic elements of the game go well beyond what most other turn based RPGs manage, and make it the strong point of an otherwise decent game.
They’ve kept in mind some of the most annoying aspects of JRPGs- travel and finding sidequests. With easily accessed maps, fast travel, a dash and horse riding as well as indicators for missions the devs are letting us know they get what frustrates us most- and we don’t have to deal with it anymore.
Somewhat poorly paced introduction aside, this is one of the better JRPGs of this generation. It seems fairly standard fare for characters and story, pinpoints and eliminates most of the weaknesses of the genre with smart game design, and the well crafted combat system and overall aesthetic of the game push it close to the top of the list.
I can recommend Trails III to fans of anime and JRPGs, but it likely won’t be the one to change your mind if those aren’t the sorts of game you prefer.