Good morning everyone and welcome to another article! This is one I've been thinking about for a while now, and yet could never find the time to write. I'll admit, it's been some time since I've played the first two Trails of Cold Steel games (I have yet to play three and four for reasons explained below), but my impression of them is still rather clear. Conversely, I just finished playing Persona 4 Golden and finished Persona 5 a few years back, so both are fresh in my mind.
As a disclaimer, this isn't so much a critique of either series (as I very much enjoy both) so much as it is a comparison of certain aspects that stood out to me. I will also attempt to avoid spoilers as best I can. Finally, I'll organize the article into categories so that you can skip to the part you want to read. Without further ado, let's begin!
The Cold Steel games take place within a much larger universe dubbed "The Legend of Heroes," and are technically the sixth and seventh games in the main series. Most hardcore fans would tell you to play the first five games, but I jumped in with Cold Steel specifically because I had heard folks comparing it to Persona 4 and 5. I do not regret the choice, as although I surely missed out on some greater context and worldbuilding, the more modern presentation made it easer for me to get into the game.
(As an aside, you should avoid playing Cold Steel 3 and 4 until you play the first five games in the series—only Cold Steel 1 and 2 are relatively safe to play as a stand-alone experience. This is why I have yet to play 3 and 4, as I want to play Trails in the Sky and Trails from Zero/to Azure first.)
The protagonist of the Cold Steel games is Rean Schwarzer, who is quite similar to the protagonists of Persona 4 and 5. All are natural leaders with a rather unique set of powers and abilities that lead to key twists and turns in the story. Schwarzer, like the Leader in Persona 4 and Joker in Persona 5, is a bit bland personality wise, likely so that you the player can better place yourself in their shoes.
The Cold Steel games contain stories that are much more political and I would argue complex than the Persona games, in part due to the much larger universe of games and lore they draw upon. While there is a school in the Cold Steel games, and you are building relationships with your party, the intrigue, mysteries, and plot twists are more akin to Fire Emblem: Three Houses than they are to Persona.
In contrast, Persona 4 is a murder mystery that takes place in a small town, and like all of the Persona games the story eventually transitions to a place where you're trying to kill gods. Persona 5 differs thematically; instead of solving a murder you're taking down a political conspiracy. Both games, however, hit many of the same story beats.
In terms of scope, the Cold Steel games feel much more grand than the Persona games. In the first Cold Steel alone, you'll be traveling to various towns, cities, and expanses of wilderness as part of your quest. There's even a mementos-esque dungeon that changes at various points in the story, and which you must keep returning to. That's not to say that the smaller scope of the Persona games is a problem. Inaba and Tokyo both feel like living breathing places that you'll feel nostalgia for as soon as the credits begin to roll.
These games don't have the best graphics, with all of them being built with engines meant for the PS2 or PS3. The Cold Steel games are a bit more bland in terms of its 3D art, however both it and the Persona games have fantastic 2D art, especially for the character sprites.
Beyond that, there isn't too much to say. The best looking of all of these games is Persona 5 Royal, as it has an art style that really pops, and uses an engine that is about a generation ahead of what is used for Cold Steel I and Cold Steel II.
Nevertheless, you aren't playing any of these games for the graphics. It's the story, characters, and gameplay that keep you coming back for more.
All of these games employ turn-based combat, though there are major distinctions. The Persona games, which were formerly a spinoff of the Shin Megami Tensei series, employ a familiar system where you attack enemy weaknesses in order to knock them down and attack them again. The goal is to down every enemy in order to prime them for devastating all-out attacks. You'll also be gathering and fusing Personas, leveling them up and trying to figure out the best move-sets to overcome your foes. Buffs and de-buffs are key.
In that respect, the Cold Steel games are very much like the Persona games. Buffs are important (there is one called "Resounding Beat" that most people will rely upon heavily in the first Cold Steel) and party composition, move-sets, and the like matter.
What differentiates Cold Steel is its use of the "orbment" system. In simple terms, this lets you equip your character with a variety of quartz crystals that buff your character in a variety of ways. You'll be upgrading these and trying to find the right synergies throughout the game. When you do find the right combos, it makes fighting a lot easier.
Whereas in Persona you're trying to knock enemies down and find weaknesses, in Cold Steel the name of the game is delaying enemy attacks. During battle there's a timeline of events displayed, and your goal is to optimize your party so that you can attack in quicker succession than your enemies can. Unlike in Persona, you are also able to move your party around the battle space. Positioning matters, and you actually have to line-up attacks properly if you want to hit your opponents. (Perhaps you could think of this as a turn-based version of the real-time combat present in the Tales series.)
Bosses in both series are equally challenging. Playing on normal difficulty in both games, I'd often have trouble with them. I would find that they'd drain me of my items and bring me to the brink of death unless I leveled up my characters more. All things equal, I'd say Cold Steel is a bit tougher to beat than Persona, and you may find yourself needing to lower the difficulty at a certain point.
I'll touch upon three more topics here that weren't quite worth their own section: characters, relationships, and music. The Cold Steel and Persona games each feature large casts of characters that you'll get to know over fifty to one hundred hours of gameplay, cutscenes, and various other interactions.
There are no social links in the Cold Steel games, but there is a similar system that Persona fans will find familiar. There is also a calendar and a time system in Cold Steel, but it is quite pared down compared to Persona, and to be honest isn't really comparable at all. Cold Steel is not a daily life simulator, indeed, its time management and relationship systems aren't as complex as Fire Emblem: Three House's let alone Persona's.
That said, the amount of lore, dialogue, and readable material packed into the Cold Steel games is staggering. Every character given significant screen time is memorable, and by the time you finish the games you'll feel that you've been on just as long and epic of a journey as you would playing Persona 4 or 5.
Regarding music, well, there are stylistic differences. Persona 4's soundtrack is influenced by J-pop, Persona 5's is jazz-based, and Cold Steel's is more orchestral—the melodic main menu theme of the first game is as likely to get stuck in your head as any tune out there.
There is more to say of course, but perhaps I'll leave that to a future article. If you have played the Cold Steel and Persona games, feel free to comment your thoughts below. Which did you prefer, and why? How might you go about improving each game?
Thanks for reading, and have a great day!
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