When it comes to fantasy school settings in video games, there aren’t that many examples of games that have utilized it well. After relatively high profile attempts from titles like Valkyria Chronicles 2 and Final Fantasy Type-0 failed to light much of a spark, Nintendo’s Fire Emblem: Three Houses entered the scene to demonstrate the enormous potential the setting has when properly utilized. What many people don’t realize, however, is that there is another series that has gone criminally underappreciated yet uses the fantasy school setting just as well as, if not better than, Three Houses. That series is called The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel.
Welcome to Thors Military Academy
Trails of Cold Steel steps into the shoes of Rean Schwarzer as he enrolls in the most prestigious school in the Erebonian Empire, Thors Military Academy. He soon finds out that he is assigned to the newly established Class VII, a social experiment that mixes noble and commoner students in the same class. For a country that not only has a deep history of using the class caste structure but is also on the cusp of reforming such a system, this experimental class is both unprecedented and a pivotal turning point for the country as a whole.
Much like Three Houses, Trails of Cold Steel portrays this dichotomy between nobles and commoners in shades of grey rather than stark black and white. Various degrees of resentment, haughtiness, and discomfort clash in Class VII as each student is pushed to the forefront of changing times and told to adapt to it. Watching those negative feelings grow into genuine camaraderie over the course of the game is one of the greatest joys of Trails of Cold Steel. What makes the Thors campus feel so alive and believable, however, isn’t just how Class VII develops, but how everyone else in the school also develops over the course of the games.
Every single NPC on the school grounds is named. What this means is that they aren’t used simply as a way to dump background or one-off exposition on the player like many JRPGs use their’s for. They are instead unique individuals, each with his or her own life that progresses throughout the course of the games. Adding to this sense of routine and progression is how their activities and location will change numerous times in the same in-game day; they always, always, have something new and unique to say when they do. Every. Single. Day.
Trails That Are Not Your Own
In other relationship heavy RPG’s like Three Houses and Persona, development of other characters is more or less driven by the protagonist’s — and by extension the player’s — interactions with them. Support conversations in Three Houses are unlocked by having members fight with each other while confidants in Persona 5 only develop if the player initiates their storylines. Without the presence of the protagonist in those games, it would be difficult to argue how those characters would have developed. That narrows the scopes of the worlds to revolve around the protagonists, as a result. Such a hands-on approach doesn’t apply to Trails of Cold Steel, though.
Whether or not Rean interacts with them, the students will continue to develop on their own. There are any number of examples to demonstrate this. There’s the rambunctious, young merchant with a charming Scottish accent, Becky, and the rational Hugo who are locked in an eternal rivalry to always outperform each other in sales. You have the commoner and noble pair, Alan and Bridget, that awkwardly stumble through their budding feelings for one another and what that means for themselves and their families.
These stories even extend outside the school into the neighboring town of Trista, where a constantly feuding husband and wife struggle to come to terms with each other while trying to care for their increasingly disillusioned son.
Rean may eventually receive a request to lend a small helping hand but for the vast majority of these stories, he plays little to no part in them. These windows into peoples’ lives can only be followed by regularly checking up on these characters as the game progresses even when, more often than not, the player isn’t receiving any extrinsic reward for doing so. It’s not like you get experience points or money for every time you talk to these characters.
Instead, the player is intrinsically rewarded with a growing sense of pride from seeing these characters develop over the course of such long games. It’s these intrinsic rewards that lend the military academy of Trails of Cold Steel such an incredible sense of life and richness despite the game’s incredibly simple graphics.
The series doesn’t place Rean at the center around which every character in the game revolves. This creates the rare feeling of a world continuing on, even when the console is powered down at the end of the day. Even without the protagonist around, the people of this world are capable of growing on their own. That’s just what we call “life.”
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel I & II are available on PS3, PS4, Vita, and PC.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III will be launching exclusively for PS4 on October 22nd for NA and Europe.