First Look: Trails of Cold Steel – Northern War

Alternative title(s): Sen no Kiseki – Northern War
Game spin-off by Tatsunoko Production
Streaming on Crunchyroll

Premise

Branded with her grandfather’s reputation as a traitor, Lavian Winslet joins the Northern Jaegers where she’ll put her life on the line to protect her country against an invasion by the mighty Erebonian Empire.

Aqua’s verdict: The Trail Goes Cold

Look, I get why you might think you could watch this show without having played the games.

Yes, this was billed as an anime adaptation that understands that if you take the video game out of a video game, there’s not a fat lot left — *coughNierAutomatacough* — and that to get anyone to care, you need to tell an original story in the same world.

And yes, if there were any JRPG series for which this could work, it’s the Trails series. Its biggest strength by far is their intricate world building and the dense spider’s web of alliances, rivalries and straight-up conflicts that serve as its fundaments, each game cleverly referencing events, locations and characters from previous games, while slowly unwrapping the true scale of the geopolitical turmoil on the Zemurian contient piece by piece, along with the involvement of various shady organizations that could give Akatsuki, Organization XIII and the Espada a run for their money.

And yes, while I’m not a big fan of spin-offs, making them based on world as elaborate as this one is worth applauding. The rich history of the franchise can serve as good groundwork for a new story to be built upon, and if told well, can ease newcomers into it, while rewarding loyal fans for their long-term investment. One of the achievements I would praise Trails of Cold Steel — the original game — for is exactly this, its ability to welcome people into a world that was, at that point, five games old already, and take them along on the ride.

And yes, the fact that I knew the series was capable of this, had me hoping that Northern War could do the same.

But come on.

In a way, this is understandable. Trails of Cold Steel, back in 2013, had five prior games to do its whole “reference them extensively but also make sure new players get enough information to know what is going on” thing with. Northern War, in 2022, has twelve. Try as it might — and let it be known that it tries — this show is not going to do anything for you if you don’t know what a “jaeger is, where “North Ambria” is located, or who the “Purple Lightning” is supposed to be. Despite being a spin-off, despite the main cast being characters we’ve never seen before, and despite the franchise’s surprisingly decent track record with allowing different ways into itself, Northern War is a hard sell. Heck, it looks only slightly better than the games’ infamously cheap opening sequences!

Nevertheless, I can tell that if you are a dyed in the wool Trails aficionado, this next chapter in the story is everything you could have ever asked for.

Having played only the first two Cold Steel games — to put into perspective, that’s only half of all Trails of Cold Steel games, and only one sixth of the entire Trails story up until now — I had just about enough knowledge to know where and when Northern War takes place, and what the heck is going on. I did have to look some things up — some of them introduced in Trails in the Sky, some in Trails from Zero, some even in Trails of Cold Steel games canonically set after this spin-off. Yet every time they mentioned something I did recognize, I felt a tiny twinge of excitement. I felt curious, intrigued, driven to know more about this world. Imagine having played all twelve games in the Trails series and then watching this, and getting this feeling every other second. Then who gives a crap about this show looking like shit?

Nevertheless, Northern War is, to bluntly conclude, not for people who haven’t played the games. It might try to be, with its change in setting and cast, and its attempts to explain some key concepts in a way that doesn’t feel like being read the dictionary, but it isn’t. But hey, that’s okay. We anime fans have a tendency to scrutinize each and every show that comes our way, as if there is some semblance of a chance that we’ll love them all. As if we’re entitled to each and every anime the industry produces. Imagine if other “fandoms” did this. Imagine reading the first few pages of every single book that comes out every week and then getting upset you don’t know what’s going on in book 4 of the Lesbian Necromancers in Space series when you haven’t read the previous three.

If you want to know what the hell is going on so desperately, there’s only one thing for you to do. Go play Trails of Cold Steel. Make it all the way up to the point where the boy accidentally falls on top of the girl, inadvertently grabbing her breast and getting called a pervert for it. get back here to yell at me that you were promised geopolitics and intricate world building. Get “It gets better, I swear” as the reply. Then, play like 250 hours more to see if I’m telling the truth. That’s the true Trails experience, baby!

Zigg’s verdict: Steel Yourself

I am exactly the hypothetical ignorant schmuck that Aqua envisages, having never played a Trails game beyond three aborted attempts to get into Trails in the Sky, and I’m here to tell you that without that experience this was a pretty tough watch. Even with the extensive coaching that watching it alongside people familiar with the franchise provided, it felt like so much important context and meaning were going over my head. That’s not to say it was unwatchable though – on the contrary it was actually quite nice to sit down with an honest-to-god fantasy anime which seems to be interested in stories about politics and culture. I’ll take an endless well of backstory over your standard ultra-shallow isekai setting every day. With that said however it remains difficult to recommend this show in isolation, which is kind of a shame, as it seems like there could be some decent stuff in here.

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