A little more than a year after Trails of Cold Steel III‘s release on the PS4, North American fans are finally being treated to the conclusion of the war epic that began in 2013 on the PS3, and it delivers in so many ways.
What Is It?
That’s a loaded question.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV is the final game in the Trails of Cold Steel saga, a sub-series in The Legend of Heroes franchise that got its start on the PC in 1992 with Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes. While good games in their own right, The Legend of Heroes didn’t really catch fire until the franchise’s sixth installment–Trails in the Sky (on PC and PSP) which launched a trilogy in what’s now arguably the most impressive world-building in the JRPG genre and perhaps even gaming in general. Based in the Zemurian Kingdom of Liberl, those games told the stories of Estelle Bright in her journey as a member of the Bracer Guild as she dealt with issues seemingly beyond her control as the evil group Ouroboros sought out artifacts to take over the world, and to make matters worse, the neighboring Empire of Erebonia had seemingly been planting seeds for war with neighboring countries.
The Trails in the Sky trilogy was followed up by the Crossbell dualogy, Zero no Kiseki (Trails from Zero) and Ao no Kiseki (Trails to Azure) on both the PC and PSP, but as popular as they are with fans of the series, neither of the Crossbell games were released stateside and while they’ve received PS4 remakes in Japan, it remains to be seen whether they’ll make their way here. The Crossbell dualogy followed Lloyd Bannings, head of the Crossbell Police’s Special Support Section (SSS), as the team fought to maintain the peace and independence of Crossbell State, an independent region sitting in between the Erebonian Empire and the Calvard Republic, the two powers constantly at each other’s throats in the hopes of obtaining Crossbell.
Finally, that brings us to Trails of Cold Steel. Made available on the PC, Vita, PS3, and PS4 (while Cold Steel III and IV will also be on the Switch), this saga tells us the story of Rean Schwarzer, the do-good leader of Class VII from Erebonia’s Thors Military Academy who would eventually become the instructor for a New Class VII in the last game.
So why is all this important? It’s all connected. Every major plot point that players saw through as Estelle in the Kingdom of Liberl, Lloyd in Crossbell State, and Rean in the Erebonian Empire has all led up to this.
This game is to the Trails series as what Avengers: Endgame was to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Except unlike the MCU, you’re really better off starting from the very beginning. Almost all the heavy hitters from the Trails games are here, and even with the hours of fan service to be had, Cold Steel IV never strays away from what makes the series fantastic in the first place.
Why Should I Care?
If you’re reading this, odds are you’ve already made your decision on purchasing this game after playing the previous Cold Steel games and wanna see if Cold Steel IV is good. So if that’s the case, you can rest assured knowing that the game is fantastic–even more so if you’ve been invested in the series starting with Trails in the Sky.
If you’ve never played a Trails game, much less any of the Cold Steel games, I’d avoid Trails of Cold Steel IV like the plague. Yes, there’s a codex in the game’s main menu that’ll pretty much sum up the events of the previous three Cold Steel titles, but they’re really more of a refresher to remind you about what’s happened leading up to Cold Steel IV. Each and every one of these games took me way upwards of 60 hours to finish, and there’s just no way to replicate that with a few lines of summary text.
So if you’ve never played any of the other Trails games, feel free to close this tab and come back when you think you’re caught up.
Now if Cold Steel III is still fresh in your mind and reflexes, it’s worth noting that you’ll be able to transfer your save data so you can get some bonuses as soon as you start Cold Steel IV, and it’s a seamless process. Just to quickly preview the plot: Cold Steel IV takes place a couple months after the events of the last game and initially gives you control of Juna Crawford and the rest of new Class VII in addition to Randy Orlando, one of Rean’s Co-Instructors at the Thors Branch Campus and a member of Crossbell’s SSS, as they try to figure out what happened to Rean after waking up in Eryn Village, the hidden home of the witches. New Class VII also lost their equipment, quartz, and sepith, so this is how the game addresses nuking your main party.
In the most basic terms without spoiling anything, essentially everybody not in Old or New Class VII has gone AWOL, and the first act is all about finding them and Rean before the real stuff begins. Early on in the game in a separate place, players will even gain control of Estelle and Joshua Bright, as well as Lloyd Bannings and the SSS–fully integrating the crossover. Fans of the series can appreciate all the banter between their favorite major characters in the series, and it’s all pretty heartwarming stuff. It’s worth noting that not every character you’ve ever gained control of in the series is in the game though, and while that’ll upset some fans, the game’s plot does a fine enough job in making it all hold together well anyway.
Moving forward to actual gameplay itself, Cold Steel IV to Cold Steel III is essentially what Cold Steel II to the original Cold Steel was. Like Cold Steel II, you’re not at school anymore. There are no classes, and you won’t be spending much of your time in trains. Your whole group are now wanted felons, so a lot of the travel you’ll be doing will either be on foot or on airships away from sight. All that said, relationships with all the major characters and even NPCs matter, so you have to make sure you’re talking to everybody–sometimes even twice or even three times to make sure you’re absorbing every morsel if you’re a completionist type. That said, there’s A LOT of text here, but if you’re a fan of this series, you already knew that, and while we’re on the subject of completion, fishing and cooking are back, and they’re exactly the same as they were last time.
The Trails core loop is easy to follow as it’s pretty systemic. Each chapter covers a goal that must be accomplished at various places on the Erebonian map, with optional sidequests that range from simple fetch quests easily done through quick travel or more time-consuming ones that can even feature their own dungeon. As mentioned earlier, your connections with all the major characters still matter, as every chapter in the game will provide you with bonding points that you can spend with characters you really like. The Romance system also makes a return in much simpler form, as there’s now a heart gauge for characters you can woo over… because we all need a little love to go with war.
Speaking of war, battles come tougher. With how easy the series has made it to maximize your Craft Points (CP) to unleash your ultimate attacks (S-Crafts), there were plenty of times where players would kill bosses before they even had an opportunity to do anything. While that’s still in play, enemies are now much harder to break. A lot of this is also reliant on having the best equipment for your character loadout, so a lot of the more “game-breaking” items and equipment aren’t made available until much later in the game, and I found all this to be a fair compromise. The AI feels tougher too, as early on in the game it was quite clear that enemies were zeroing in on killing specific characters (*cough*Kurt*cough*), forcing me to use items or spells I normally would train myself to avoid using until I was in a real tough spot, and those tough spots were definitely more frequent than I remember.
Character Brave Orders, commands that give your party specific buffs using accumulated Brave Points, are also now upgradeable by finding Trial Chests throughout the world. Trial Chests can only be opened by having specific people in your party, and opening them results in a miniboss-esque battle with those specific party members. With the largest cast in any Trails game to date, you’ll have access to a lot of characters and sometimes the Trial Chests can play the role of spoiler as there was one chest I found early on that required a certain character I thought I’d never even have the opportunity to use.
Mech battles also make their return, and you’ll find yourself operating multiple mechs fairly frequently, as opposed to the last game where for the most part you really just operated Valimar. The various battle commands are fairly similar to standard battles, except in mech battles you have to attack specific limbs to do more damage, and you’ll run out of EP pretty often, so you’ll have to adjust on the fly and understand the nature of the battle before acting. At the very least, mech battles are simply more strategic than a regular fight in the game.
In a nutshell, Cold Steel IV is really just more Cold Steel, and each of the games are great, so that’s not a bad thing. The main thing I have to criticize is the main thing I’ve criticized the game for since the original game out on PS3–there isn’t enough spoken dialog. It’s a shame, because for the most part, the voice acting is good, and the game’s excellent soundtrack does an awesome job really putting you in the moment. But when you’re in a pivotal scene and you hear the voice actor or actress really giving it their all, and then all of a sudden the main character is silent, forcing you to read everything–it just takes you out of the moment. Aside from the cost evaluation of the hours it takes for these voice actors to record their stuff, there really is no excuse for this–especially if you’re playing on a PS4 or higher end PC. This game doesn’t have the audio or visual fidelity that you see in Final Fantasy or Persona. Even Fire Emblem: Three Houses, a game on an inferior piece of hardware, has every line of dialog completely voiced. I understand that the localization of these games is hard enough given that every character in the game is named and has at least three unique things to say whenever spoken to, but at least the cutscenes should be voiced. Either that, or don’t have voice actors at all. The writers and localization team did a good job anyway.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
Anybody with a full grasp of the Trails series will tell you that the best thing it has going for it is its world building. Every moment from the Liberl trilogy, the Crossbell dualogy, and this Erebonian saga has led up to this game, and it’s absolutely fantastic. Every meaningful character in the game (and there are a lot of them) brings their own sense of individual charm to the experience, and Falcom deserves nothing short of a round of applause for making its fans care about its colorful extended cast.
Excuse my French–this is a bigass game, and it took every ounce of me to finish it and have this review ready on time. After fortunately unlocking its “true” ending on my first try, I clocked out at over 122 hours, and the only trophies I’m missing are related to the notebook, chests, and playing the game on its hardest mode. If you don’t do any of the extra content, I can see this game lasting around 70 hours, because there’s so much to do. It even has its own “match-3” puzzle game to boot!
So what’s keeping it from a five-star review? One half is taken away because of the inexcusable lack of anything close to complete voiced text, and lastly, it’s the fact that there’s no easy way to get into this game if you’re new to the series. Take Final Fantasy VII Remake and Persona 5 Royal for instance, two fantastic JRPG games that’ll probably dominate discussions for the best RPG of 2020 — the fact that these are standalone titles means more people will enjoy them. It’s all about accessibility, and that’s where Falcom falters and luckily for them, they have the Ys franchise for those standalone experiences (despite the fact that all those games are also connected).
For transparency’s sake, I’m an obsessively huge fan of the series myself. I have S-Rank playthroughs in each of the six Trails games that came out in the United States and ended up eating every bit of what this game has to offer. I also do want to point out that I’ve never played the two Crossbell games. I know that there are some good fan translations out there, but I already appreciate the effort put forth in Cold Steel IV to tie up all the loose ends that longtime fans have been salivating over. Yes, I got a code to review this game weeks before its release, but I still chose to buy the Collector’s Edition of the game for both the PS4 and Switch for the sake of supporting Falcom in the hopes that that they find a publisher to bring the Crossbell dualogy stateside. So before you flame me for not playing those games and not being a “real Kiseki fan,” just know that it’s because I want to do it in an official capacity, and I do sincerely believe that I’m qualified to review the game the way I did.
Again, Trails of Cold Steel IV is to the Trails series what Avengers: Endgame was for the MCU, and I’m both happy and glad that Falcom had me along for the ride. The only reason this game won’t get the attention that Final Fantasy VII Remake and Persona 5 Royal got is due to fact that you can’t just start your Trails journey here cold turkey. You have to earn it. So if you’re new to the series, you can start with Trails in the Sky and play through every game up to this point on Steam, but if you wanted to start with Trails of Cold Steel, that’s fine too–the superior Decisive Edition came out on PS4 last year. With the holidays coming up and no end to these stay-at-home orders in sight, you might as well give this series the try it deserves.