Content Warning: Blood, gun violence
What’s it about? Lavian Winslet is a girl born to the poorest of the poor in North Ambria. Wanting to prove herself and project her homeland, she joins the Northern Jaegers as a hunter, and readily carries out her duties. That is, until one day, she gets reckless and disobeys orders, which results in her being placed in a different platoon that might threaten both her life and the home she loves…
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel – Northern War is something of an unlikely anime to me. I know of its source material–a video game franchise that goes back as far as the PlayStation Vita–and I’ve played a bit of it and the other related series but never got far because of platform availability.
I think that’s largely why I chose it: having minimal experience, I’m kind of a good litmus test for this series. Will a video game franchise anime translate well to an audience with no pathos or even a passing interest in the Trails franchise get it? Will someone unknowing understand that this takes place between two games–Trails of Cold Steel 2 and 3 respectively–and still like the characters?
Well, let’s find out.
Episode 1, “Appears He…the Hero in Twilight,” stars in medias res with a field of golden wheat…only to immediately reveal the ravages of war. The scene then immediately cuts to a unit on the march, heading through the snow to wage further war. And this is a land that knows devastation and war well: the world of Trails of Cold Steel is one teetering on the edge of another revolution with the memory of a previous war and revolution nipping at its heels.
From there, this premiere builds up a lot of background around the world, giving viewers the foundation for a place filled with monsters, war, and death, as well as the hopes of one young girl–Lavian Winslet, a child who fights for country and courage with all she’s got.
However, it’s shockingly underwhelming, and while a viewer in the know might like this, a viewer who’s coming to this fresh is likely to find themselves feeling lost, uninterested, and unexcited at the prospect of a cour of seeing Lavian slice and dice monsters on her quest to prove herself and continue to ignore her mission’s orders.
Trails of Cold Steel looks good, enough that I can’t really complain about, but also, can’t really think of anything to say either. The same can be said for the soundtrack, which doesn’t necessarily seem to borrow from the video games, but is instead doing its own thing.
All of that combines into one of the most middling premieres this season, full of things that should, hypothetically, be exciting but just fall flat. It doesn’t help that Lavian is a blank-eyed, emotionless character: a lot of the “impact” from scenes that involve her come from other characters. I’d like to think that this is just because we’re seeing her at the start of her story: she hasn’t become a tale to share around a fire or a woman fit for the annals of history. And yet that’s just not enough to make me care about Lavian’s story and why she’s fighting. If anything, it’s likely to quickly push potential viewers curious about diving deeper into the franchise away from it fully.
Trails of Cold Steel is kind of unremarkable, which begs the question “why now?” Why was this made? North America is slated to get a spate of video games in the Kiseki series, as well as a few of the other spin-offs and stories, but adapting a story that occurs between the second and third game and is only spoken about in passing seems…strange. I’d much rather have had them adapt the first game, which at least would introduce the story anew to the world.
That said, Trails of Cold Steel isn’t all that different from the other fantasy series out there, which is a shame because that doesn’t build a lick of interest in the world. And while I’d say that’s likely due to me not having an emotional connection to the franchise, here, that’s not enough. This anime is positioned as something a new viewer might come to: something that someone who’s curious might check out just for the heck of it–sure, Japanese audiences might have more access to the games, but even then the series is now a decade old. Relying so heavily on knowing lore and already being in the know weakens this premiere, enough that I kind of wish the games were fully available on Switch (the first and second were ported to PS4 worldwide, but for the Switch ports only three and four left Asia).
In the end, I can’t really rec this series to anyone but fans of the franchise who’ve spent hours playing the game. Anyone else is likely to just feel underwhelmed by the middling designs and plot, even thought it centers around the enticing idea of a revolution and saving the place you love with your own two hands.