Every so often an RPG comes along that makes me care so much about the characters and the world that it becomes easier to look past its flaws. This is exactly what happened last year when I embarked on the first entry in the Trails of Cold Steel trilogy, and this second entry is no different. Cold Steel II takes the cast and story in such interesting directions and provides so much to do that it’s hard to put down. If you enjoyed the first entry, you won’t want to miss out on this follow-up.
Cold Steel II picks up shortly after where the first game left off. Our do-gooder protagonist, Rean Schwarzer, is reeling from his friend’s betrayal and learning more about his new ancient, powerful mech, but he’s also right in the middle of a dangerous civil war. Politics are getting uglier, with both sides doing whatever it takes to gain more power. The narrative deftly showcases all the different sides, presenting various dilemmas and showing the harsh sacrifices that come in the face of a power struggle. For those wondering if you can just hop right into Cold Steel II without playing the first, you theoretically can, but I don’t recommend it. The characters and their growth are what makes the series so special, and you’re missing out on the full impact of some killer plot revelations that the first game built up so wonderfully.
Despite not being able to put the game down for hours on end, I wasn’t in love with it for the first 10 hours. It begins with Rean separated from his classmates, forcing you to track them all down, which is the weakest part of the experience. The characters add life to the journey, and being taken away from them and removed from the school setting from last game hinders the beginning. However, once you reunite with the cast and gain access to the airship, the game eases into a more entertaining rhythm.
Cold Steel II focuses more on the cast coming to terms with the war and what it means for them, which is my favorite part of the game. Some classmates are from nobility and have obligations there; others are dealing with looking in from the outside as a common citizen. Either way, the game has a strong message about choosing the path that’s right for you, and for every character that means something different. For instance, for Alisa that means reevaluating her relationship with her mother, while for Jusis it means standing up to his father. The social system allows you to spend time with the classmates of your choosing to get more insight into their mindset and struggles.
Cold Steel II doesn’t reinvent the turned-based battle system established in the previous entry, but it does add more depth. The battle system has a new overdrive system, which allows you to act in three consecutive turns, cast magic instantly, and restore all your health once you land enough attacks. This is a godsend in combat, and using it at the right time is vital, since boss battles can be super challenging. Bosses have a lot of HP, and the A.I. is smart enough to strike with an instant death attack or heal up just when you think you’re about to polish them off. Sometimes these are battles of attrition, but there’s a sense of accomplishment in overcoming them because it’s all about making the most out of your turns and using the most beneficial skills and buffs at the right times.
As introduced at the end of the last entry, you now can engage in intense mech battles, which are a big part of Cold Steel II. Depending on which classmate you link up with, you can gain access to some of their skills to use in addition to your mech’s special attacks. These break up some of the tedium from exploring dungeons and engaging in regular battles. Plus, controlling your own robot is pretty cool, and you can even customize it to your liking.
I also enjoyed the airship that acts as your headquarters. You can recruit former NPC classmates to help you on the ship with combat training and shops. Tracking down familiar faces and watching your once empty ship fill up with new places is fun in its own right. The airship also allows you to fast travel to places on the map, and once you visit certain locations you can use your motorcycle or horse to get around faster. I wish these were available at the start of the game to cut down some laborious hikes, but once you get them they make exploring much easier and fun.
The majority of the enhancements feel for the better, but Cold Steel II suffers some of the same issues that plagued the previous entry. The tedious, boring dungeons are too focused on hitting switches to unlock paths and battling enemy after enemy. I wish they had some more imagination; you fight through typical dungeons based on the four elements (fire, water, wind, earth). The later ones get a little better in terms of presentation, but then you get into a loop of endless boss battles that make them lose their luster and get predictably boring. I wish these later boss fights were spaced out better, so they could feel more exciting instead of exhausting. That’s what’s frustrating about Cold Steel; it has so much depth to its battle system and customization options that make it feel fresh for even a turn-based RPG, but the creativity falls flat on the dungeon design.
That being said, Cold Steel II does exactly what the middle arc of a trilogy should do – keep you intrigued and guessing. Upon finishing, I was even more invested in the narrative and characters and looked up how Falcom’s progress on the third entry was going. The wait already seems unbearable because I need to know what happens next; I haven’t had this much fun with plot twists and crazy villains in a while. When a video game story just gets its hooks in you like that, it’s done its job well.