A story that spans through 2 generations is finally coming to an end
Developer: Nihon Falcom
Publisher: Nippon Ichi Soft America
Release date: 27 Oct, 2020
The End of an Era but Does It Deliver?
The very first The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel came out in Japan in September 2013 and found its western release in the US in December 2015. Fast forward to today, we have finally reached the end of Rean Schwarzer and Class VII’s arc.
With a buildup of 3 games and a rather massive cast, the stakes couldn’t be higher for a fitting epic ending but that comes with an even bigger unsurmountable challenge.
A small warning, this review will have a heavier emphasis on the story because we’re looking at the finishing line. Is it going to be a disaster like Game of Thrones or a satisfying ending like Avengers: Endgame?
The Entry into the Trails Series Redux
There has been talks about how to play the Trails series as it’s a part of a greater story and there are references spread throughout the games.
1. Should I start with Trails of Cold Steel IV?
Definitely not! As this is built upon 3 games. Despite the game having a recap of all of them, it doesn’t manage to capture the massive amount of character building and lore to kickstart you into the final game.
2. People tell me I shouldn’t even start with Cold Steel but all the others before it!
This is a non-issue and more of a matter of perspective. While you will without a doubt, miss references to all the other games, on the other hand, you will have indubitably have an experience that is exclusive to YOU. Why?
Because Trails of Cold Steel is made as an entry-level game into the series. If you start with Trails of Cold Steel, you will look at the whole story as Rean Schwarzer. You will only know what he knows, therefore you will be perfectly sharing his perspective.
Series veterans will have a different experience from you and that’s ok.
Maybe you’ll like Trails of Cold Steel so much that you are going ahead and go for the other games in the series. At the end of the day, after the full journey, you will get a new perspective when playing Cold Steel once again. Creating a new experience with the revisit. Not as Rean Schwarzer but as an Observer of the whole story.
With “The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV” it becomes apparent that it’s just one piece of the puzzle. Characters in the prior mainline stories are making important guest appearances bringing their prior experiences and references with them.
There’s no doubt that it will give you an additional itch to look for the predecessors to experience their past exploits as there are multiple references throughout the game.
Story: More Characters, More Problems
Shortly after the heavy ending of Trails of Cold Steel III, Zemuria is facing the biggest crisis yet… Total War. The curse is permeating through Erebonia and the Empire is gearing up to sweep through the continent aiming for total domination. Aiding this cause is the mysterious Curse that permeates through the lands of Erebonia, which amplifies the darkness in the people’s hearts.
The empire declares sweeping conscription for all able men powered by the curse. Weapons are made at a speed never seen before to fuel the insanity.
Class VII new and old went into a short coma only to find that most of their friends outside of the members of both Class IIV’s have been scattered. The worst news is that our protagonist Rean Schwarzer has lost himself and is captured at an unknown location.
For the first time in Cold Steel, you’ll be forced to start without him.
Technically, all characters have finished their respective arcs and are awaiting their final touches here. The OG Class VII takes the backseat for most of the time with the initial chapter having a choice taking one of them with you that’s because their average level is higher than the new Class VII.
Rean is of course taking the reigns once again after returning but it also applies to him while putting all his past experiences into his decisions.
With over 20 characters plus temporary guest characters, it’s the biggest cast yet but make no mistake not all Thors Academy people are making their appearance. The writers had to choose who to use to create the narrative. As big as it might seem, there’s a feeling that the supporting cast of prior Cold Steel games is smaller than before and less rounded in favor of the guest characters who are also playing important roles.
One of the weaker parts of the story. A lot of the enemies are former friends, some were even in your team in one of the prior Cold Steel games. Honestly, it doesn’t feel like there are any real enemies at all. It all comes down to 2 parties. Those who are affected by the curse and those who are doing it because of their duty.
Ouroboros as a third party, are only supporting the enemies because of their own goals.
This results in dramatic scenes that fall flat due to the lack of a proper build-up within the game itself. Most of the time it’s just a meeting to fight with very few story snippets before it.
The ultimate plot device that comes with muddled rules. It’s shown early on that it affects a huge portion of the Erebonian population, which is the sole reason for the game’s premise. With Chancellor Osborne leading the war efforts, the whole empire falls into a warmongering frenzy. There are no clear-cut rules about the effectiveness of the curse, except filling the heart with darkness. Not only does it corrode the people but also buffs them up.
In the end, all enemies except Chancellor Osborne and Ouroboros have a severe lack of agency. Fighting against them in a showdown is only barely different from fighting against normal grunts despite the attempts to generate emotional scenes.
Road to the final confrontation
Due to it being the final game in the Cold Steel Series we’re taking a closer look at the actual story without spoilers while pinning down the pros and cons.
Rescuing Rean Schwarzer
The first Act is all about New Class VII going from one place to another to put stakes into specific locations to triangulate Rean place where he’s secretly imprisoned. Every time they head out, one of the original Class VII members comes with them.
Most of the time is spent pinpointing the locations with the help of the Branch Thors Academy members who are also scattered throughout the continent while collecting information to help when they are needed. They provide information giving a shortcut to the actual goal.
This is done to show the player the state of the world after the curse has taken hold of the empire and seeing what their Thors Academy colleagues are doing. The atmosphere is gloomy, oppressive, and full of tension as you go around and witness people being forcefully conscripted into the military to fight in the war.
In this Act, it’s portrayed that Rean has always been the pillar of Class VII and it requires his student Juna to talk pep into them to move forward. It shows how much the New Class VII has grown and started to become independent.
The second Act is a little bit strange as it opens up more but follows the M.O. of the first Act. Scouting, finding helpers to locate and create a plan to save their friends but this time with more available characters to choose from.
It shows the situation of supporting characters who’ll be at the frontlines. As mentioned before, most of it comes down to supporting the protagonists but still being bound by duty, forcing them to participate and conducting in the war.
There’s not much difference when it comes to both Acts aside from a bigger cast and the a buildup to the final confrontation where all sides are showing their cards in preparations for the war. Some questions are also getting cleared up, such as the origin of the curse.
The Final Act moves at a brisk pace with everything coming together and the final puzzle pieces put in place. Confrontations against major actors are playing out in full force.
All the major enemies are getting their closures with an explanation for their actions, it’s not much but at least it helps to understand their motivations.
There’s not much to criticize when it comes to the ending. All major plot points are getting a neat resolve to put the current arc to rest. It’s important to note that there are 2 Endings: Normal and True. You can’t skip the Normal Ending and the True Ending requires you to gather all Lost Arts and finish the last Act’s sidequests. Don’t worry, there’s a special save that puts you into the position to do that.
Most Trails fans already know that this is only the end of Rean’s story but expect it to not be the end of the Trails series as you get story pieces that show that there’s more to come.
Romance: Rean the Ladies Man
Across the story, you get the typical moments of bonding as Rean with other characters with one huge difference. A lot of the ladies have 2 special events where they lay bare their feelings for him, you mustn’t miss the first one otherwise the romance won’t get triggered.
At a special point of respite in the story, you can decide to spend some time with the ladies. These events will not only give you the option to decide on his final love interest but also nets him quite useful accessories.
As great as it is that you can finally put an end to his indecisive saga, there isn’t much content to accompany the final decision.
Summary and final thoughts on the story
The first Act does a good job of introducing you to the current circumstances while pushing the Cold Steel III newcomers forward and showing their growth comes to fruition. Act 2 on the other hand, feels more like a filler since you get to do the same things again but with different locations and an additional cast of characters.
Then it picks up once again in Act 3 in a sprint to a relatively well-done ending.
Overall, this is the weakest part of the Cold Steel Series as issues that weren’t that apparent before.
The big cast of characters proves to be a major challenge. You get to see much time in cutscenes that there’s a struggle to give each of them a piece of the spotlight by letting them speak out a comment to make them not appear as mere bystanders. Support characters on the other hand are being slimmed down to a few handfuls. The attention to detail from Cold Steel II when it comes to the Thors Academy colleagues is limited to a few handpicked. A lot of them are getting a mention at best.
One last thing, newspapers and short novels are back so fans of some light literature can enjoy something new once again.
Gameplay: New and Old Additions
The battle system builds upon its predecessor and keeps all the changes of Fast Menus, Guard Gauge, and Brave Orders. Even the features have been transferred like NG+ that lets you keep everything by choice and gives you Bonding points to see all scenes in your second playthrough.
Mech Battles are obviously also making their return but this time it’s limited to mostly 1v1 and 2v2
Brave Order Tweaks
Yes, they are back and this time around with slight changes. They start weaker but you can find Trial Chests where you fight against an opponent with a fixed fighting team. Each order can be improved twice.
Quality of Life Improvements
Sub Master Quartz (MQ) is no longer fixed to the character and is available to slot in into multiple characters. This helps in offering better character customization as all MQ are available for the Sub Slots. For example, you can just fit all characters with the Emblem MQ and you practically always have full HP, MP, and CP for every fight against grunts.
Oberon MQ on the other hand helps you vastly reduce the chances of getting a status ailments.
Another improvement is that all Trial Chests you have found are Quick Travel spots! No longer do you have to find the Trial Chests again and on top of that, they are just two button presses away from access.
Quick Travel also got a slight improvement that details changed areas with a “NEW” right next to the potential areas. This is a neat addition in case you like to comb through them for every single bit of information as
Very Easy gets a full recommendation for those who are just there for the story without any grinding which leads to smooth pacing. And even if you lose, you can lower the stats of your opponent and challenge again. The debuffs will stack and therefore it’s pretty much impossible to get stuck.
People who’re looking for some classic JRPG challenge can settle with higher difficulties.
NEW: Pom Pom Party!
This is a simplified Puyo Puyo like a puzzle game. Instead of rotating the double blocks, they are always ordered vertical and you can only switch their places. Match multiple of them up and you make them vanish. Though it sounds simple, there’s a method to the madness to rake up combos. There’s also a unique option to utilize special actions to either eliminate lines or increase them on the opponent’s side. If you’re a fan of such kind of games, you’ll find some long-lasting enjoyment out of it for sure.
When it comes to Sub-Quests, as always, make sure you don’t rely too much on the message system as it’s only one part of the equation. Many of them are discoverable via the Map highlighted with green exclamation marks. Unfortunately, they are not highlighted in the Quick Travel Menu.
In conclusion, there’s no big change in the gameplay. If you liked it before you will like it now.
Graphics and Sound
I couldn’t find any noticeable changes when it comes to the graphics so you can expect medium spec visuals, HD towns that are split into multiple areas, and acceptable textures (though they certainly don’t look good close up) and effects.
As undemanding as it looks, there were a few instances where my PS4 Pro went into Jet Engine mode. One of those was a cutscene where a lot of effects were on the screen but otherwise, I couldn’t see anything that could pose any issues.
One of the drawbacks of higher graphical fidelity is once again the increase in load times that wasn’t an issue with I and II.
The soundtrack is pretty good overall with the least preferred being the tracks with E-Guitar riffs. Aside from the new tracks it also brings back some blasts from the past. Most of the time it’s to emphasize Rean and old Class VII.
Just like before the games with partial dub in Japanese and English in their typical good quality.
As for the translation, I couldn’t see any major problems aside from one or two typos and very rare occasions of text that breaks outside of the textbox.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV strives to finish a long story that began years ago but manages to stumble at the finishing line.
What should have been a thoroughly grand ending, we a relatively dull Act 2 that plays the damsel in distress game 3 times with a few interesting scenes and picks up close to the ending. It’s no Avengers Endgame but also not a complete tirefire like a certain TV Show.
The gameplay, QoL, graphics, and soundtrack are mostly on par with its predecessors but the story has without a doubt some problems that lead to the final verdict of a Save.