What a fantastic way to start a video game. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel is a JRPG I knew next to nothing about before I started the Vita version recently. It begins by thrusting you into the action with a levelled up, ready-assembled party. The attacks are bombastic, hit points are in their 1,000s, and the plot has clearly reached a moment of significant drama for the close-knit cast. And then… silence. A date appears on the screen and the number winds backwards by five months. Now it begins.
You arrive at a military training academy, ready for your first day. You alight and the camera sweeps through the rather beautiful campus, alive with spring's blossoms and a tangible sense of expectancy, just like a real first day at a new school.
One by one, for the next hour or so, the characters are introduced in impeccable fashion. Everybody talks in full sentences, many making phatic niceties and talking about their hopes and fears for the years of study ahead of them. Important characters are fully voiced too, even though their dialogue is also typed out in bubbles which means you can take it as quickly or as slowly as you like.
And that's where this game really surprised me. It's the thoroughness and 'will not be rushed' attitude of the world-building that the game exhibits unapologetically. The way the characters walk to class, listen to the teacher and talk amongst themselves. Each line means something so it never feels like you just want to skip ahead. And the scripting is strong – a really good localisation. The way they react to being put into a brand new class, the way they overcome awkward social situations (or not as the case may be)… it's all explored properly before you finally get handed back control of the battle system.
Only… it's gone. It's just the bare bones of the one you were smashing stuff up with a short while ago. But while that was a confusing power trip, full of arts, crafts, team-ups and goodness knows what, everything now is introduced and explained by the teacher. Again, in full speech, like an actual college lesson.
I know deep down this is really just the intro and the tutorial. But it's delivered so gently, so naturally, and in this perfectly acceptable environment for learning new things, it doesn't feel tedious in the slightest. Sure, the 'girl and boy fall on each other and it's awkward' scenario has been done in everything from Buffy to Evangelion, but the slap did make me laugh.
Maybe the reason such a slow-burning prologue works here is the way you're shown there are bigger things at stake, but then takes the time to focus on the small details. The way all the characters have names and surnames, along with family history and social class – each introduced with enough time to let you get to know them before another is added to the mix (and it really is a mix). It's genuinely like the first day at a new school. And when the shop doors on the campus are closed to begin with, that's OK, because you feel like you're going to be spending time on this campus and you've got all year to explore it.
I'm already invested in the game world. And, after a couple of hours, once you've enrolled, admired the other student's weapons and skills, and fully embedded into its cosy setting, only then does Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel display its title screen. What a fantastic way to start a video game.