Review: The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV

At the risk of incurring an eye-roll or two from you, my humble readers, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV does indeed feel like the Avengers: Endgame of Nihon Falcom’s long-running staple of JRPGs. Not just because it’s a grand, more-than-a-decade-in-the-making, plot-thread-closing, near-perplexing assembly of one of the largest cast of characters humanly possible to keep up with. And not just because it’s an entry that is paradoxically both the closing chapter yet not entirely the end to Falcom’s saga set amidst the fictional continent of Zemuria. More so, if there’s one series of games that’s proven time and time again — and continues to do so here — that it can draw people in through its characters, its world-building, its delving into the politically-tinged subject matter and all the many interactions such elements procure, the Trails saga is up there as one whose staying power and repeat appeal has withstood any and all critique with its visuals, aesthetic and presentation alike.

Trails of Cold Steel IV does, in a number of ways, admittedly feel like the tipping point for this particular tetralogy of games. Nihon Falcom’s continued reliance on the PhyreEngine, the first of many pointers as to this year’s initial worry that an all-too-familiar offering with all-to-familiar issues barely addressed, if at all registered, would in some way sour the experience. A worry that makes itself be known around the first ten-or-so hours — amidst such a grandiose requirement of many a ten’s of hours to see its climactic ending, that these sorts of game often require. On top of each and every requirement needed to see what the game dubs its “true” ending. These are concerns even harder to ignore during the early parts of Cold Steel IV. Those that frustratingly persist thereon for many an hour across its four act tale. A nagging feeling of deja vu; that immediate response of: “hang on, haven’t we done this already?” And not just from some more distant entrant on another platform, but something we went through not twelve months prior with Trails of Cold Steel III — as terrific a journey that, all things considered, was.

Cold Steel IV very much keeps in tradition with the entrants that preceded it. More so perhaps with last year’s effort; it wouldn’t be a stretch to describe the final part of the Erebonia arc, much like Cold Steel II before it, as the second “half” to the game before. But one whose suggestion of simply carrying on the story is more apparent. Of course, the fact that IV is set a mere two weeks after the cliffhanger ending of III aids with such comparison, but this year’s effort doesn’t offer anywhere near the same amount of additions on-top and surprising assembly of smaller details to consider that III wowed fans over. There are small changes and improvements that aid in one’s journey with the combat for example — Battle Points, for one, have now been increased from a maximum of five BP to seven. By contrast, not all alterations to the core RPG progression feel entirely rooted in benefit. You may gain a slight increase to EP by upgrading the level of your Quartz slots, but the fact that this in itself is another barrier — a barrier with which at times prevents you from equipping certain stat boosts and Art abilities — feels more like a change for change’s sake. That Nihon Falcom knew fans would quickly grow tired if something, anything, wasn’t different.

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If that was the case, then perhaps the first couple of Acts to the narrative may have been better served by an addition of a new locale or environment to explore. Or at the very least, been cut down despite the justifiable premise of having to reunite the party given III‘s closing events. As such, it shouldn’t be understated just how worrisome an impression IV creates when you find the early parts of Cold Steel III near-repeated in much the same fashion, a year later, so far as where the game takes you and the manner at which story beats are presented, despite the difference in characters present on-screen. If all this sounds like it’s spiraling towards some definitive negative — that Cold Steel IV has in some way dropped the ball with everything it’s built up, both narratively and in RPG mechanics — it’s only because the Trails saga has created for itself such an almighty bar, that IV‘s occasional scuff’s are more apparent this time round.

Because when all things are considered — the characters (returning and having crossed over from entirely different sub-series alike), the music, the combat, the [ever continuing] world-building in all its juggling of many a plot thread — Trails of Cold Steel IV remains successful and resolute enough for its greatest feats to shine. As ridiculous its writing can get or even just its delivery might be at points — a touch overblown on having each and every character contribute to a single conversation…again — Cold Steel IV still manages to sink its hooks into those who are in it for a bevvy of twists-and-turns. To copy the praise granted to last year’s game, on gameplay alone IV still encapsulates the best of what turn-based combat can be. A system that near-impossibly manages to balance so many components on show, yet in no way feels convoluted out of some desperate attempt to look complex.

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If anything, one of IV‘s many small tweaks can be found in the increased reliance this time on all forms of attack/abilities. Where in III players could theoretically get away with sticking with regular attacks and Crafts for combat, the argument can be made that attack Arts play a more pivotal role this time round. Enemy variety serving to test even the most veteran of fans on their know-how around the entire battle system and of exploiting weaknesses hidden from initial sight. The management of such things like Brave Orders (on top of how many Brave Points you have at your disposal) and the manipulation of turn orders too become evermore crucial during the many key boss battles. Another area that looks, thankfully, to have been better balanced this year so far as difficulty goes, whilst still maintaining that familiar air of unpredictability that will keep players in a constant state of planning and peril.

Outside of combat, though, the general progression is relatively untouched from the usual formula. While this can at times devolve into retracing one’s step a little too forcibly — going from A, to B, back to A again, as opposed to simply skipping the blatant padding in-between — the route there is complimented with reasonable detours. Added to by a soundtrack whose best moments are those that aren’t its most substantial or even its most grandiose, but are instead the smaller, humble, minimal piano pieces as you stroll down one of the many roads or off-road excursions. One of the most promising features, however, is the return of Trial Chests — temporary challenges that have players control a pre-determined set of characters against a higher-level monster, all for the potential reward of more advanced Orders. There are also mini-games both returning and new; while Pom Pom Party! is little more than Puyo Puyo in anything but name, it’s a pleasant-enough distraction that does reward you with precious upgrade material. The casino games dotted about the world may seem not all that important, but given the game is littered with many a rare and valuable item with lucrative costs attached, there’s incentive to stray off the main objective now and again.

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Even when Cold Steel IV confides too much in the regular pattern of hunting down icons to interact with — be it so as to progress the main story or tackling an optional side objective — that’s not to say the game can’t deliver a reasonably worthwhile interaction between NPCs as you go about resolving issues from town to town. The game can waver on how integral to the narrative and overall world the influence of what’s referred to as the Erebonia “curse,” or simply the outbreak of war, actually has. All the hallmarks of a MacGuffin more than anything. But the conversations had between such characters do help in making these local pockets of activity feel a little more livelier, even if — again — the game doesn’t go out of its way to properly flesh out the more interesting nuances surrounding war and its effects on the population. The first Act alone, if not as diverse with its actual mission structure, still delivers on some effective bit of writing.

As such, there are intriguing tidbits and twists that make themselves be known, beyond the absurdity that the game’s presentation offers. A notable signature of a lot of Trails games sure, but it’s pleasing to see that even at the fourth and final part in the Erebonia Arc, Cold Steel IV still manages to, somehow, have its cake and eat it. The only real part where complex turns into convoluted is in the sheer number of characters the game presents. Either as major players or at least those who have a significant enough contribution to the story — that their voice or at least their presence must be known. And herein lies one of the biggest caveats to Cold Steel IV when looking at it solely as a single JRPG title.

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Where people jumping into Cold Steel III could potentially get through with having characters and events referred back to — prior knowledge of the entire Trails saga, more a recommendation if not an essential requirement — with Cold Steel IV, such experience and personal history is needed. Not least because plot threads and character interactions from both the Liberl Arc (the Trails in the Sky sub-series) as well as that from the Crossbell Arc (Trails from Zero/Trails of Azure) feed back into the events leading up to and occurring throughout the events of the game. A more difficult investment to attain when you take into consideration that outside of fan translations, not all these games have been localized for the West. Ambitious this scale and sheer volume of characters to keep track of may be — and admittedly a touch satisfying for any fan of the series to see each arc’s main protagonists, Sky’s Estelle Bright and Zero/Azure’s Lloyd Bannings, teaming up and interacting with the world of Cold Steel — it can leave the game vulnerable to a spot of desperation in making sure everyone is served.

A frustration that was present in the previous game where, as mentioned, characters would appear to talk and offer a single, affirmative line of dialogue for the mere sake of it — whether that was out in the field or amidst tackling a dungeon. Here that problem is doubled-down on in such cases where near two dozen characters are on-screen. Where Cold Steel III just about managed to maintain a form of clarity during critical set-pieces, such moments can risk getting too perplexing when three entirely different arcs-worth of characters are jostling for screen-space. The cross-over element does have its moments, even if it’s mainly for the spectacle of having just over sixteen years worth of JPRGs concentrated so densely into one release. But in short Cold Steel IV isn’t so much hampered as it is chained to the history and lead-up that eight prior games have created.

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Closing Comments:

Though it may feel like a case of “more of the same” as opposed to some grand, fourth-and-final leap forward, Trails of Cold Steel IV just about manages to achieve success in maintaining that kind of familiar yet high standard the saga has satisfied long-time fans with. Through the fourth and final act of the Erebonia Arc, while persistent criticisms of previous are too visible to shrug off this time round, there’s still plenty of goodwill with the smaller moments and minor tweaks for both the combat and the narrative to entertain and intrigue alike. Further proof — not that we needed more of it — that Nihon Falcom stand alongside the likes of Atlus and Ryu Ga Gotoku as some of the best, most-trusted names in the RPG genre at present. An ambitious closer spanning nearly two decades of characters, storytelling and world-building, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV is both a fitting send-off and a satisfying reflection of what has made Trails such a fascinating saga to invest in.