Canon romance vs “pick your waifu”

Some of you may already be aware, but I’ve been completely absorbed by the world of Kiseki recently — Trails of Cold Steel specifically. I was rapidly approaching the end of the story, but then I was suddenly stopped by a feature of the series that I have had both positive and negative feelings towards: the bonding events of the game.

It’s fairly common nowadays that JRPGs include some form of romance or relationship element that isn’t tied into the main plot of the game, but rather contained in “free time” sections. The Persona series contributed a lot to the popularity of these elements, and while I overall enjoy them, I do have some mixed feelings about them that I will be going over throughout this piece — let’s talk about “pick your waifu”!

Canon Romance vs Pick Your Waifu

Cold Steel’s bonding events

So this will mainly pertain to the way in which these bonding events are implemented throughout the Cold Steel series, as it’s during my playthrough of these games that I started to notice my feelings changing with regard to these mechanics that I previously thought I was all for. 

Similar to the way the Persona games give you periods of free time in between trips to Tartarus (Showing your age there, sir – Ed.) or before you send out the next calling card, Cold Steel will give you periods in which you explore parts of the game that are not directly relevant to the main plot. A handful of these are the optional bonding events with specific characters: spending time with characters raises your relationship with them, which then has an effect on the combat sections of the game — again, similar to the Persona games. 

The main areas in which these two series differ are their use of this bonding/social link mechanic — and the difference is quite significant. Let’s say you’re going for the Tae Takemi romance route in Persona 5 — cultured lady/gentleman, excellent choice — but one day where you have the option to spend time with her, you instead opt to build up your stats doing something else. Doing so won’t mean that you just missed out on whatever that event was with Takemi; you can just get round to seeing next time she becomes available. 

Cold Steel, on the other hand, has set “Free Days” where you are given multiple bonding points which you can use to view specific characters’ bonding events. That all seems fine at first, but then you realise that you only have so many bonding points, and there is no possible way to view the events for all of the characters in a single free day. This is made even worse when you learn that if you miss out on a certain character’s bonding event, it’s gone — you missed your chance at seeing whatever that bit of character interaction and development was. 

This is even worse in Cold Steel 3 and 4 where the character interactions — specifically the romantic ones — are serious hard hitters in regards to character development. As of writing this piece, I have just made my romantic decision in Cold Steel 4, and let me tell you it was not an easy choice to make.

I was mulling over the decision for at least an hour, and this was in a game where I thought Sara was a clear winner for best girl in my eyes. Yet, I picked Emma. Why? Her developments in the bonding events stood out to me more than anyone else’s, and the way she puts her feelings out differed from a lot of the other girls. 

What if I had picked differently though? What if I never saw these specific events, some of which feel important to said characters’ developments in the story? In one of Emma’s bonding events, she attempts to free the main character of a curse that’s gripping him, and in doing this puts her own life in danger — a risk she is fully aware of and willing to take. This was a huge interaction that completely swayed me, and yet it wasn’t something that every player has seen — maybe I’m being silly, but that seems crazy to me.

Canon romance

Now I’m not saying that the Persona build-your-waifu method is bad, but when it comes to real, significant character developments and interactions being locked being a finite number of events that you can possibly run out of, it just doesn’t seem worth it to me. This is all made worse in a series like Cold Steel, as the game isn’t self-contained in one game. This is a story that spans across four games, and each begins almost feeling like a reset of the decisions you made throughout the ones that came before it — who even knows how my big final romantic decision will carry over into Trails of Reverie, or if it even will. 

I’m left thinking back to Trails in the Sky, a game that focused on the story of Liberl and its main characters Estelle and Joshua Bright. This game placed its romance front and center, running alongside the main plot and pushing the story forward — and I think I much preferred this method. Their relationship felt much more real, as we were there through each and every emotion, each argument, every meaningful event that led to them finally admitting their feelings for one another. 

Cold Steel instead suffers from a system that makes some of the character relationships feel tacked on, missing some of that drama and gravitas that makes the connections between two characters feel more authentic. I know that Alisa was pushed as being the “canon” love interest throughout the series, but it really wasn’t done all that well. A large part of what contributed to my picking Emma at the end was because I thought her and Rean’s relationship felt better and much more compelling. 

Even then I feel that they missed out on numerous opportunities to create amazing and meaningful interactions between Emma and Rean. The wandering witch is destined to watch over the divine knight and its awakener — echoing something similar to that of Crow and Vita’s relationship. 

Conclusion

In the end, I think that social link/bonding event systems aren’t bad; in fact, I really do enjoy them. However, sometimes in a hugely story-driven game spanning numerous titles in which a large amount of in-game time passes, maybe having a canon romance where characters can have real meaningful growth that isn’t wiped clean with each sequel is better than letting the player choose. 

Having a canon romance also allows for characters outside of the main ones to build relationships as well! Just look at Jusis and Millium throughout the latter parts of Cold Steel —  I certainly didn’t see that coming, but I enjoyed their interactions and found it to be a breath of fresh air to have a character who wasn’t entirely obsessed with Rean. I adore these games, but as someone who also loves romance, it left me feeling a little bit salty.

What do you think? Do you prefer the opportunity to pick your waifu, or do you prefer a game where a canon romance is established and followed through on in greater depth?

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Conor Evans
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