The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV Review

A Series Newcomer Makes A Grave Mistake

The Trails series has been going for 16 years, with 9 games under its belt (10 in Japan). Trails of Cold Steel IV acts not only as the endpoint for the Trails of Cold Steel sub-series, but as an Avengers: Endgame of sorts for the whole series, placing the characters from the Cold Steel games, Trails in the Sky games, the never localized Zero no Kiseki and its sequel into one game. After hearing good things about the series, I played this game with no context of any of the games that came before it. Here’s how that went down.

A Bit of Light Reading

Luckily, Trails of Cold steel IV has a backstory section to educate those unfamiliar with the series. After 2 hours of reading about the world, the characters and the events of the previous games, I thought I was ready, but oh boy, I wasn’t even close.

An Unexpected Beginning

Trails of Cold steel IV screenshot

Rather than starting you off with the Cold Steel characters, Trails of Cold Steel IV has a prologue section where you play as the characters from the other games. It just kind of throws you in with little explanation of what is going on, who these people are or the significance of the battles. The prologue’s purpose is to show you that the older characters are aware of current circumstances. Once players complete the prologue, the main story begins.

The Story

We rejoin class VII two weeks after the events of the last game, where the team has witnessed both death, and betrayal and is now preparing to face a world ending threat. As a result of this, a curse has been released onto the continent, which has led to the citizens of Erebonia waging war with the neighbouring country of Calvard. As if that wasn’t enough, class VII, currently missing main character Rean, alongside Ash and Musse, is now being pursued by the Erebonian army. This (sometimes) evil Ouroboros organisation, consist of an ancient group of evil wizards called the gnomes and the Jaeger mercenaries. The remaining members of the new class VII now have to regroup, save Rean and stop the war before it gets out of hand.

While the setup is good, it becomes formulaic as the plot progresses and more characters get introduced. Act 1 sees the characters go to an area, find a magic “singularity”, fight a boss and get saved at the last minute by other characters. In act 2, the party constantly gets challenged by people who have to test their resolve and save two waifus and act 3 is lengthened by the story being literally blocked off by a force field for the sake of meandering. This might be in part, due to the sheer number of characters.

Characters

To put the number of playable characters this game has into context, Final Fantasy VI has 14 party members and Chrono Cross has 45. Trails of Cold Steel IV has 39 playable characters and 7 semi-party members with an usable special ability, taking the total just over Chrono Cross at 46. While the number might be intimidating, there are a lot of guests (mostly non-Cold Steel characters) and the only time you can actually have all of them at once is the final battle, but you still have 21 permanent party members.

This insanely large cast is both one of the game’s biggest strengths and greatest flaws. I do like how each character has at least one or two cutscenes to shine but I don’t like how they all have to say something in every cinematic. The worst point is where someone mentions a 15 second time limit (or something like that) and everyone decides it’s time to have a monologue. The ridiculously sized supporting cast doesn’t do the bloated cutscenes any favors. The problem is less that they’re all talking, but it’s that they’re saying nothing. The prime example of this is when the old class VII says “No, we’re all class VII, we’re a team” to the new class VII. This happens time and time again from the very beginning of the game right to the very end. It is cute the first time, but after that, it’s just irritating.

Okay, But are They Interesting?

As for the characters themselves, I didn’t dislike many of them, but I can’t say I actively liked too many either. Maybe it’s because I haven’t played the other games, but I didn’t find many of the characters that interesting. The worst offenders for me were Juna and Kurt. Juna is Happy-go-lucky, energetic and has a strong sense of justice. That’s it. She doesn’t have any flaws, nothing to challenge her optimism and nothing past the very beginning forces her energy to shine through and solve the problem. Kurt is a similar case, except Kurt is a non-character. He’s just there and his only trait is that he values his family’s sword fighting style. What’s especially irritating about him is that every other member of his family is more interesting than him.

On the other hand, Ash and Musse are far more intriguing. Ash has to cope with being the target of war provoking propaganda for shooting the Erebonian emperor in the previous game. At the same time, his past as a survivor of a massacre is creeping up on him, which comes into conflict with his “too cool for school” attitude. Musse is torn between her nobility and her desire to just be normal, while she has been put in charge of the war effort against the Erebonian army. It doesn’t take much to see why I prefer these two over Kurt and Juna. Their conflict pushes the story forward as they grow, which is much more interesting than them just being present.

What About the Main Character?

Trails of Cold steel IV art

As for the main character Rean, he’s okay. Standard protagonist stuff; everyone loves him, he does everything for his friends, goes super Saiyan, standard stuff. One thing to note for people who want to get back to playing as him, it took me around 40 hours to get to that point, so don’t expect him to come quickly.

Supporting Cast

There are a ton of characters that aren’t party members. These characters come from all of the games in the series and they all have their own little (missable) stories to follow. The villains are odd. One minute they’re evil, the next they’re having a swimming contest with you. I’m not sure what the specifics are with each character, but for those who haven’t played the games, I thought it was worth sharing that there is a fire wizard unironically, deadpan seriously called Mcburn. I’m still in fits of laughter thinking about how that even happened.

Final Words on Storytelling

I’m not sure if Trails of Cold Steel IV is a satisfying conclusion or not, but from a standalone viewpoint, I was a bit disappointed with the amount of deus ex machina stuff that came out of nowhere for the sake of fanservice. It ended up taking away any stakes that the story had. I still have no clue what a sept-terrion is or what happened in the other Trails games. I would’ve thought that there would be a short recap in the recap section, but there’s nothing. This doesn’t help, even for Cold Steel only players as they have no idea what on Earth the Orbal shutdown event is.

I like the game’s world, with the industrial revolution aesthetic being unique as far as JRPG locales go. There is this great contrast between the rural villages and the grand cities. The only thing I dislike about the world is the modern clothes and laptops. I know it’s nit-picky, but they completely break the otherwise fantastic world-building.

The other thing I have to say about the writing of the game is that its relentless anime tropes ruin its best moments. It’s weird when every woman Rean looks at falls in love with him. This includes his students (one of whom is 14), his old classmates, his old teacher and even his sister. It’s just uncomfortable, especially when coupled with the countless hot spring scenes and the head patting… so much head patting. The bottom line is that if you can name an anime trope, it’s there, and I feel the writing is needlessly dragged down by that.

Gameplay

Trails of Cold steel IV screenshot

Trails of Cold Steel’s combat is a mishmash of other RPGs that blend together surprisingly well while adding its own touches. There is an element of positioning and a focus mechanic for magic (called arts in game, there’s apparently a difference) that is very similar to Dungeons and Dragons, with different special moves and magic having different areas of effect. There is not only HP for health and EP for magic, but there is also CP for special moves. These special moves, or Crafts as they’re called, can cancel enemy spells and attacks, inflict status ailments or even heal. Saving up your CP allows you to do a Final Fantasy style limit break, or S-craft.

Enemies have both a health bar and an armor meter. Breaking an enemy’s armor lets you deal more critical hits, which build your BP. BP is another meter that you can use for orders, a system that gives a stat boost such as reducing damage or buffs like damage reflection. You can upgrade arts through trial chests, which are special treasure chests that gives you a set party for a unique boss fight. You can also use BP for assist attacks and a persona style rush attack, where the whole party attacks the enemies for extra shield damage.

Rather than summoning a monster like a typical JRPG, in Trails of Cold Steel IV, you summon giant robots, which fits the aesthetic better. The last important thing to mention is the lost art system. There are five optional bosses in various locations throughout the game. These give you a lost art, which is ridiculously powerful magic with a massive animation.

Does It Work?

All of this made next to no sense to me when I started and I had no idea what a lot of it meant. The UI was just a bunch of things and big numbers that were there. I did figure it out over time, but it was overwhelming at the start.

After the initial hurdle of understanding combat, boss battles allowed it to shine. You will have to adapt to each battle with the parties and abilities you’re given. The only boss fights I didn’t enjoy were the solo bosses toward the end of the game (the final boss was pleasantly challenging though). They are just damage sponges and you win the battle 20 minutes before it’s over. Luckily, there’s a fast-forward button so you can get through them quickly.

Bigger and… Worse?

Trails of Cold Steel IV Divine Knights

There are also giant robot battles, where the characters get into their mass produced Panzer Soldats or magical Divine Knights. For the most part, these are easy trial and error affairs where you have to find a weak point and exploit it to deal more damage, but toward the end, there’s a huge difficulty spike. You go through most of the game practically just mashing the X button in the right place until you can do a bigger attack, but the battles at the end see you carefully choosing support characters, timing every heal and perfectly managing your limited item supply with no warning. I preferred the more tactical later battles, but I didn’t like the over reliance on items.

The Trouble With Money

Equipment in this game is a nightmare. With 21 permanent party members, 16 of them need new weapons and the rest constantly need new armor and accessories. The problem is that you never have enough money to purchase new gear. Your main source of income comes from selling magic crystals dropped by enemies and old equipment. Side quests will give you 5,000 to 10,000 mira (the game’s currency), which will get you one weapon. You still need 15 more weapons and armor to go along with it. Granted, I didn’t really feel the need for armor a whole lot (I played the game on hard mode) and party members are given to you in waves, but once they’re all there, you don’t really have the money to buy everything else.

Materi-uuuuuhhh?

Trails of Cold Steel IV screenshot

The other main thing you need to equip and manage is the quartz system. It’s Materia from Final Fantasy VII with a lot more steps. Rather than just having magic and some stats tied to quartz with limited slots, you have to equip a master quartz, which gives you a main spell loadout and a ton of passive bonuses. This is coupled with a sub-master quartz, and a limited number of slots for regular quartz which are more like materia.

These slots are element-based, which limits which quartz you can give to each character. The characters are pre-optimised, so I didn’t really want to play around with the system too much just in case it ruined the characters in battles. What I did do was upgrade the slots to equip better quartz. You can also craft and upgrade quartz with  materials you get from battles, treasure chests and destructible objects. You can do the same with weapons and upgrade materials are also used to make items for the robot fights, so once again, you don’t tend to have enough unless your willing to grind for it.

Side content

Trails of Cold Steel IV’s side quests are honestly my favorite part of the whole game. They’re more character focused and just more fun and self-aware in general.The quests also give guest characters form the other Trails games their time to shine. If you’re looking forward to playing as Lloyd or Estelle in this game, you get five opportunities to do that.

The other major bit of side content, aside from the lost arts and trial chests are bonding events. This is another aspect of the game that’s similar to the Persona series, where you have a limited number of interactions with party members that develop them. There are also “special moments” with the female characters which often end in them confessing their love for Rean. This is where the aforementioned weirdness tends to come from, because what would be a fine little moment for each character becomes an awkward exchange where Rean just says “uuuuhh, I’ll think about it” and things go back to how they were. You don’t have to see the special moments, but you’re missing out in some interesting character interactions if you don’t. At least in Persona, you choose to make things weird.

Minigames and Other Fun Stuff

Trails of Cold steel IV minigame screenshot

The game has a ton of minigames and other things to do. You can fish, cook, play Poker and Blackjack, give characters gifts, buy and find cosmetic items for almost every character and so much more. There’s even a trading card game that is one of the best parts of the whole package. I almost forgot Pom Pom Party, which I can only describe as “The poor man’s Puyo Puyo”, but it’s still a surprisingly fun time waster. Perhaps the most interesting thing is the world and how each town changes as the story progresses and the war gets closer.

For those into the world and its lore, you can read a huge variety of books and newspapers that put Skyrim’s to shame with the amount they pack in there. The only problem with the side content is that it’s extremely hard to find. There’s no indication on the fast travel map other than a “new” label to tell you what to find. You never know what to look for, which could lead to you missing things like recipes or card game opponents. Apart from that (and the boss fights), the side content was my favorite part of the whole game.

Presentation

While Trails of Cold Steel IV isn’t exactly the best-looking game ever, one look at the horses will tell you that, there are some interesting locations in Erebonia. There are a number of interesting towns and cities, but my favorite has to be Crossbell. It’s a huge area in the game with such diversity in each section’s atmosphere. It was a joy to explore and see all of the different sides of the city. While the areas between towns are somewhat monotonous, the towns and cities themselves more than make up for it.

Music and Voice Acting

Trails of Cold steel IV music screenshot

The music in Trails of Cold Steel IV varies in quality. Some of it is generic, but other parts, such as the town themes capture this classic JRPG energy that I really like. The battle music’s fine, but the boss music is my favorite part of the soundtrack. They’re all great and capture the mood of each fight well.

I didn’t like the game’s English dub. The voices either didn’t fit the characters or they just irritated me. Despite some great voice talent with the likes of Johnny Yong Bosch, Joe Zieja and Cassandra Lee Morris, it just didn’t work for me. The Japanese dub is better, but only because it felt right. It wasn’t particularly astounding, but it worked.

Conclusion

After committing the ultimate sin of playing this game with no context, I’m not sure how I feel about it. For everything I enjoyed, there was something that I hated. Trails of Cold Steel IV manages to stretch itself to an extremely long 110 hours. With it’s long dungeons, lengthy character arcs, and a true ending that’s only unlockable by beating the final boss twice, the game just has too much padding. On the other hand, the battles, some story moments, the world and the optional content make you want to keep going.

Fans have probably already bought it and I wouldn’t recommend it for newcomers. If the positives of this review sound interesting to you, maybe play the older games first so you can fully appreciate the conclusion.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV is available now on PS4.

Review copy provided by NIS America.


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mazen haggag

Video games, films and books have absorbed my life for as long as I can remember. The love of engaging stories that these three pillars of my life provide through works like Discworld, Final Fantasy and a whole load of weird films is probably what inspired my similar adoration of writing.

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