The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel has found its place in the west. This successor to Trails in the Sky has given JRPG fans a saga that has stretched across years and platforms. Ahead of Trails of Cold Steel III’s English debut, Siliconera spoke to Nihon Falcom President Toshihiro Kondo about the series, its reception outside of Japan, and its more unique elements.
Siliconera: How do you feel about the enthusiasm shown for The Legend of Heroes series outside of Japan, and when did you realize that it was going to be a “special” sort of series?
Toshihiro Kondo: When we were working on [The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the] Sky, we didn’t know if we would be able to create a sequel. Of course, we were able to create the sequel, as well as another one called The 3rd, but we were really too busy to think about its popularity while we were making these first three. FC didn’t sell too well at first, but it eventually had a breakthrough and sales picked up.
When we were able to start working on Zero no Kiseki, we finally had a sense that things were different than before. Of course, Zero was where we switched to working on a consumer platform (Translator note: “consumer” here refers to basically any console that is not a PC or phone), and we thought specifically on how we could appeal to this new user base. For example, the character design had a different feel to them, compared to what came before. We also changed the setting from one that was pastoral and rural to something more urban, and we actually had some pushback internally to doing this because it was so different from what came before. And we didn’t know if this approach would work.
But when we released it, the reaction from fans was very positive, and by changing things up, we realized that we could continue to make games in the Trails series. It was at this point that I think we realized that we had something special.
There was almost a five-year gap between The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky’s Japanese and western PSP release. How was the decision made to bring it over and what was the process like when trying to reintroduce the series to an English audience?
Kondo: First of all, the game has a massive amount of text, and because of this, many North American publishers said that it was impossible to do since the localization cost would be massive. It also took a while before the series caught on in Japan, but once it did, we decided to bring it out to the West. However, because of the aforementioned amount of text, it took a long time to translate. This all contributed to that big gap that you mentioned.
How beneficial do you think the Trails in the Sky series was to Trails of Cold Steel outside of Japan? What kind of an effect has one had upon the other?
Kondo: Trails in the Sky was viewed as a game with a great story. In the West, this was due to the PSP version, but, for example in China, they had received the PC version, so they had been familiar with the series from a fairly early point, so there was a level of anticipation for Trails of Cold Steel. Overall, Trails in the Sky created a sense of positive expectation for Cold Steel.
You’ve acted as a producer on each Trails of Cold Steel game. How involved were you in each installment?
Kondo: For the Cold Steel series, the Link Attack system was thought up by me. Since the game is about forging bonds between people, the staff thought that the combat system should reflect that, but they were having a hard time with coming up with how exactly to do it. I told them that it might be difficult to have all four people link up, but what about putting them into pairs? And because of that, we made it a QTE feature that was supposed to improve the tempo of battle, since people had said that the tempo of combat was pretty slow. I also came up with the idea to make it a QTE in order to improve the overall rhythm of combat.
I also take a look at the first drafts of the stories whenever they are finished. I actually worked on the writing for the Sky trilogy, but that is mainly left up to the staff now. I do still write the scenarios for the Ys games, however.
I also play the early versions of the game to give feedback, as well as at the end of the development process. I make it a point to be the first person in the world to play a new Trails of game.
What kinds of opportunities do you feel having Trails of Cold Steel III begin with a time skip affords both developers and players?
Kondo: The reason we decided to do this is that at the end of [Trails of Cold Steel] II, Class VII is together at the academy and they are deciding how they can each best help the empire, and they vow to see each other again. In order to portray how this would play out from there, a certain amount of time needs to pass. Also, up till the end of II, we learn that Rean has basically been in the palm of Osborne’s hand. In order for Rean to make some kind of movement in this regard, he couldn’t still be a student, so time needed to pass.
What would you consider some of your greatest goals with the Trails of Cold Steel series and how did you help work to achieve them during development?
Kondo: One of the big goals from the beginning was to portray unrest on the continent, and this had to be from the powerful Erebonia, with Osborne as a key player.
On the other hand, we also have Rean and his classmates, some of whom are from prominent noble families, while others are commoners. They are all from different backgrounds, but they come together to form bonds and rise against the tide. This is one of the most compelling aspects of Trails of Cold Steel and its theme.
Which Trails of Cold Steel character do you feel has the most interesting arc during the course of the series and why?
Kondo: That would have to be Rean. From the start, he is shown to be from a lower-ranking noble house with a lot going on in his past. Without spoiling too much, Rean goes through a lot; for example, having this mysterious power within him, and dealing with the fact that the parents who raised him aren’t his birth parents. How he grows through all this is a very dynamic aspect of the tale.
Other than that, you have characters like Millium, who have an interesting setup, or other characters whose backgrounds play into the very lore of the world itself.
What made Nihon Falcom decide to include bonding systems in the Trails of Cold Steel series?
Kondo: Of course, the main story is to show Erebonia and its various internal struggles, but in the midst of this, we have Rean and his life. We wanted players to experience his life through the game. There is a definite story we have for Rean, but within that, we wanted to give players agency to decide certain things within his life. We had to think carefully about how much agency to give to players, and one interesting solution we came up with was this system where Rean could choose who to forge relationships with.
How far ahead did you all have to plan to prepare Trails of Cold Steel? Have such plans even extended into what could come after this installment?
When we created Sky, we already had ideas for Osborne and Ouroboros and Olivert, who would stand in opposition to those forces. We also knew that as Erebonia was a militaristic nation, the main character for that arc would somehow be involved in the military. So, as you can see, these broader areas were already in place from the beginning.
Once we reached The 3rd, we saw it as an opportunity to take a look again at everything, and get it all sorted out. We realized that we should build up Osborne as much as possible before entering the Erebonian arc, which is how we decided to make Zero and Ao—games that were not originally planned.
Of course, some things changed over the course of developing the games, or—like I mentioned above—deciding to make new games that weren’t planned in order to flesh things out. To put it one way, we are flexible in our development process in order to account for new ideas.
In Japan, we recently showed a map of the entire continent, which means we are finally ready to start moving toward the grand finale, and we have decided which regions these events will take place in, just as we had done when we were planning the Sky games. However, when it comes to who the main characters will be and what the game systems will be like, these are things that we will address once we actually start development.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III will come to the PlayStation 4 in North America and Europe on October 22, 2019. This comes after a recent one month delay. It is immediately available on the PlayStation 4 in Japan. You can read the second half of our interview here.