The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV Review
Although steps have been taken to remove specific details where possible, spoilers for Trails in the Sky, Trails of Cold Steel I-III, Zero no Kiseki, and Ao no Kiseki may be present.
The Beginning of the End
The situation has rather slipped out of the heroes’ hands as allies perish, the Great Twilight kicks off, a continent wide war looks set to begin, and the main protagonist has fallen into the enemy’s hands. As the final part of the Erebonian saga, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV has an awful lot to resolve and plenty of expectations to live up to. Nihon Falcom has provided a rollercoaster of emotions wrapped in a 100-plus-hour adventure and fans of the Trails series will find this tale worth the heavy time investment. With further refinements to an already solid combat system, a wonderful localization, and music that perfectly fits every high and low of the culmination of a long tale, there’s little to find fault with in the final chapter of the Cold Steel tale.
It should come as no surprise that Cold Steel IV does an excellent job bringing together all the clues that were scattered through the first three games while maintaining an overall incredibly consistent lore. A top-notch localization, including fabulous voice acting, makes the characters of Erebonia spring to life. While little about the Cold Steel IV story is entirely original, what Falcom does exceptionally well is taking a common trope and twisting the cliché in unpredictable ways. Though the friendship speeches can get a little out of hand, it’s nice to see Class VII old and new banding together into a loving, solid unit despite their varying origins. Rean’s redemption arc is particularly memorable, as it’s nice to see a main story character acknowledge their role in a larger picture, and move to correct past errors; naturally Nihon Falcom has ensured players are left with enough uncertainty to prime the next title in the ongoing series.
Much like Cold Steel II, school isn’t currently in session and the game doles out additional story and broader lore through the use of missions between major story sections. Technically only some of these assignments need to be completed, but undertaking all in each chapter of the game gives Class VII a broader view of how Erebonia’s curse is affecting the larger world. Revisiting past people and places, mixed between new regions to explore, is very much enjoyable. It feels a little weird that Rean doesn’t show up for the game’s first act, and some events could have easily been reshuffled to let the story’s protagonist enter sooner, but the considerable size of the cast by this point practically demands it. The game deftly utilizes those hours by giving the new Class VII some well-deserved time in the spotlight before throwing the veterans back into the mix.
Bonding points return, with a new twist: certain events are marked with a heart, indicating a more intimate connection can be made with the ally in question. It’s impressive how Falcom has managed to pivot teenage stories into adult relationships without making them trashy, and it’s refreshing to see a localization that handles one-sided love, relationships in a holding pattern, and platonic friendships in a nuanced way. While many of these quests are technically optional, skipping them would be practically criminal; some of the most emotional moments are during these small quests, and players should keep tissues handy during many of these scenes. A game that can evoke laughter, tears, incendiary anger, and the heights of joy are few and far between, and Cold Steel IV absolutely nails all its emotional moments.
Transportation options introduced in the previous game have also returned, as both Orbal bikes and horses are available for the party to travel at a rapid pace; these faster options now more sensibly unlock after a region has been completed, as opposed to when first arriving. As many quests encourage the player to revisit previously treaded ground, or the continuation of a storyline requires returning to a cleared zone, jumping onto a horse to skirt around enemies is a nice touch. While the game’s menus have largely remained static through the Cold Steel series, it’s nice to see continued small improvements, and while status effects and stat changes remain frustratingly small in combat, and U-Materials desperately need their own listing with other forms of currency, there’s little else to detract from an otherwise excellent UI.
Much like the previous game, numerous characters from previous Trails games are available both as permanent and temporary party members. The new Class VII has loads of choices for allies, always more than can fit into the party. As a large cast is available right from the start and grows to twenty playable characters by the final chapter, the U-Materials used for crafting special equipment, buffing weapons, and creating powerful orbments is highly coveted right from the start. It’s easy to feel both a little frustration and some choice paralysis when it comes to how to use a limited amount of U-Materials, especially considering there’s now ample motivation to keep everyone well equipped as certain characters become unavailable for a period of time for story reasons, or the cast breaks up into multiple teams for bigger missions. Characters not in the active party continue to gain experience but will only unlock new abilities while in the active party. Thankfully most characters can be equipped freely.
Just as with the first two Cold Steel games, there are no major combat changes from Cold Steel III to Cold Steel IV, and the turn-based combat largely remains the same with some welcome quality of life tweaks. The party can now store up to seven Brave Points, making high-cost Brave Orders more appealing. The new Trial Chest system pits two to four specific allies against a mini-boss, encouraging plenty of party rotation by requiring specific characters; completing these Trial Chests upgrades the Brave Orders first introduced in Cold Steel III. Brave Order costs have also been shuffled, and the Trial Chest upgrades increase their length, function, and add new or improved stat buffs. Extremely powerful, optional bosses also await those willing to challenge their might, and have an appealing reward: five Lost Arts, powerful magic abilities with devastating power. As these arts can only be slotted into specific coloured ARCUS loadouts, party diversity is encouraged not just in weapon type but in elemental affinity as well.
Other than that, combat remains largely the staple it has been since the first Cold Steel title. Turn order is listed on the screen and choosing attacks and abilities which can alter the timing of turns is integral to success in combat. Each enemy has a meter under their health, and depleting this causes that enemy to enter a break state, increasing the amount of damage they take and delaying their next turn, often significantly. Most enemies are weaker to a certain type of magical element or weapon type, and exploiting the latter will result in a follow up, which can be powered up with Break Points. The S-Craft system returns to offer the strongest abilities, and as characters level up, each will unlock a second S-Craft, which often offers a different effect than their original S-Craft. Multiple difficulty options are available and can be swapped at any time outside of combat, except for the most challenging Nightmare difficulty. For those interested in focusing on the story, a very easy option is available, and players can even elect to retry a weakened version of any particularly wily boss.
Large mech battles remain a key part of proceedings as the Rivalries between the Divine Knights kick off, while an upgraded line of Panzer Soldats roams the continent awaiting Rean and his allies. Figuring out which of the three sections of each mech (arm, body, or head) is weak to attack during each phase in combat remains a crucial strategy in taking down each armoured foe, and weaknesses for each model can change from battle to battle, adding in a layer of unpredictability. Foes also more frequently strike the team’s weak spots, so using defensive abilities is strongly encouraged, even on lower difficulties. Mech combat certainly benefits from the small additional amount of complexity added to these battles. The game builds on what was already a battle system of the highest caliber — fluid, fast-paced, and incredibly fun — and the small changes show Falcom’s dedication to reinforcing that.
While combat may be the centrepiece of Cold Steel IV‘s gameplay, there are plenty of other activities for Class VII to dive into. The card game Vantage Masters (often referred to simply as VM) continues to gain popularity, and new opponents unlock as the game progresses, with new cards obtained from defeated opponents or purchased from shops. Cold Steel IV adds a hard mode to the card game, where players can continue to challenge players defeated at least once for both coveted U-Materials as well as bragging rights. Fishing returns with new limited-time quests to catch legendary fish that offer lucrative accessory rewards. Cooking is another returning element, with photography and books offering additional collection quests. The new photo opportunities are frequently tucked away and off the beaten path, and therefore easily missed. However, for those who don’t keep up with their literary or cooking opportunities, most books and recipes can be purchased from Jingo after the fact for a steep price.
Unique to Cold Steel IV is the delightfully named Pom! Pom! Party! game, and Puyo Puyo fans will immediately recognize the similarities. As the ARCUS units continue to be the in-universe equivalent of cell phones, a game specifically for these units was an inevitability. By pairing up three or more poms of the same colour, players can clear the set from the board; setting up increasingly large combos fills up a power meter that can be used to add lines to an opponent’s screen or remove lines from the player’s board. It’s another fun distraction and again entirely optional, but it’s a worthwhile time investment for the useful U-Materials it offers.
Visually, Cold Steel IV looks fantastic, with only minor hiccups; just as in the previous game’s Switch port, there’s still a little slowdown in battle with ranged allies, especially Alisa, and while it is noticeable, it’s not so disturbing that it breaks the flow of combat. Backgrounds continue to look amazing and even some zones which have been available in previous games seem touched up with little details. Character models and designs look fantastic; there’s joy in seeing certain characters from Trails in the Sky and the Crossbell sagas appear in 3D for the first time, many sporting updated outfits showing off their growth in the years since their stories ended. For longtime Cold Steel characters, multiple costumes and hairstyles can be unlocked through the course of the game as well as via DLC, creating a fun way to customize many characters. Seeing Instructor Sara running around in a towel with blue hair is a fun way to break up the long expanses of the game, and this time, most characters revert to their original costumes for the most important cutscenes.
The game’s soundtrack is equally sublime, with both new and returning tunes and sound effects from the full Cold Steel series. The voice acting is also excellent, though a handful of lines here and there seem quieter than the rest. The game’s emotional storytelling wouldn’t have nearly as heavy an impact without such an impressive arrangement of music. Players will find themselves moved to tears, guffawing in glee, and cheering during moments of delight, with music setting an important tone for all of these major story beats. Long after the game is done, the diverse body of melodies will no doubt stay with many, as fond memories of seeing an airship rise from the clouds for the first time, of intimate one-on-one encounters that bloom into love, and of moments when the truth behind longstanding plots are revealed are inextricably bound with the music that accompanies them
For those who’ve stuck with Class VII through thick and thin over three games, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV is the crowning achievement to an exceptionally well-written story with plenty of tears and laughter mixed together into a timeless package. Continued iteration of an already excellent combat system and improved pacing past the first act come together to create a unique experience that I will no doubt continue to treasure for a long time. Though it took a while to get here, the journey was absolutely worth it.
Disclosure: This review is based on a free copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Nimble and interesting combat
Amazing music and voice acting
Strong emotional ending to a long-running story
Trails in the Sky characters look great in 3D
Rean offers many head pats
First story section is slow
Some plot lines remain dangling