Continuing right where the previous game left off, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV aims to draw the ambitious, lengthy Trails of Cold Steel story to a close. While the Trails series found its niche in the JRPG landscape with its long and interconnected story arcs, Cold Steel is by far the biggest yet. After three games of build-up, does Trails of Cold Steel IV finally give this four-game saga a proper conclusion?
While the time skip between Cold Steel II and III served as a bit of a narrative reset, Trails of Cold Steel IV picks up right where the previous game left off. The stakes are higher, the tension has been ramped up, and a lot more characters enter the fray. While Cold Steel III brings back some familiar faces from arcs prior, Cold Steel IV’s returning (and overall) cast list is frankly staggering by comparison.
As a result, there isn’t much attempt made to catch new players up to speed. Even compared to III, this game is overflowing with references to and characters from past games from minute one. While Cold Steel III starts with a cold open to introduce its new cast before settling into its story, Cold Steel IV opens with a truckload of spoilers for nearly every game in the franchise thus far. I think this series is overall best experienced sequentially, but I especially cannot recommend playing Trails of Cold Steel IV before playing Cold Steel III at the absolute bare minimum, because very little will make any sense.
While Cold Steel III parallels Cold Steel I, Cold Steel IV is structured in a similar way to Cold Steel II. This game takes place over a condensed in-game length of time, becoming a lot more open as you can more readily revisit areas without being locked out right after. There’s a greater sense of narrative urgency due to looming heavy conflict in the story, and the stakes have gone significantly up as Cold Steel IV seeks to finally resolve the four-game arc…well, kind of. Alas, this game is pretty messy with its narrative.
Despite being the climactic entry of the arc, it still drags its feet with its pace of progress. One of the problems with making Cold Steel into a continuous four-game epic is that anything unresolved from the prior three games ends up needing to be dealt with in some way here. Falcom tried to resolve so many threads in this one game, and it led to the longest title of the four in overall runtime.
I wouldn’t mind the slow pace if the payoff were worth it, but Trails of Cold Steel IV has many fundamental narrative problems. While I generally liked Rean’s role in Cold Steel III as a protagonist who had grown into a new role, this game dials him back quite a bit for me. Heck, this game actually has a significant portion of this game without him in your party, and I honestly found that portion more enjoyable.
Many of this game’s resolutions to established plot threads felt unsatisfying. Several final confrontations with villains lacked much emotional punch, and the number of these sequences hurts the game’s pacing. Worse yet, the story still doesn’t feel like as much of a resolution as it should be. Falcom included several not-subtle scenes of foreshadowing for future games before this game even reaches its ending. It puts a significant damper on any sense of stakes when they’re already talking about the games to come, and lessens any satisfaction that may come from resolving this game’s own plot.
Cold Steel III also introduces a particular plot thread near its ending that drives much of the story of Cold Steel IV, and I can only describe it as an immensely stupid concept. Many characters act in weirdly frustrating ways throughout, with somewhat vaguely established reasons why they’re put into positions that others aren’t. Characters are often placed at odds with one another just for the sake of it, and allegiances change constantly. This game’s writing has a rather poor sense of commitment to any real consequences of many characters’ actions. There’s also some bizarre tonal dissonance at parts. For example, the game has an awkward relaxation diversion placed right before one of the most climactic parts of the game, halting any mounting tension of the story in its tracks.
I enjoyed Cold Steel IV far more for its components outside the main story, as its main plot is often a poorly-paced dud with plenty of questionable writing decisions that left me more ambivalent than fulfilled by the end.
Too Many Cooks
While Cold Steel III focused most heavily on a core cast of six main party members with periodic guests, in Cold Steel IV it’s rare for you to have fewer than eight available party members at a time after a certain point. The total number of party members (both permanent and temporary) you have access to in this game gets borderline ridiculous. Almost all of them have some importance to at least a handful of scenes, increasing the scope of the game substantially.
Now, Trails has some of my favorite characters in all of fiction, so there were some faces I was delighted to just be able to spend some time with again. However, scenes with returning cast members sometimes hinge a bit too much on whether you enjoyed prior games. As many of them already had their own arcs resolved, they often resort to simple “this is like that time we…” types of lines that don’t contribute much value. There are plenty of “Hey remember what we did in Trails in the Sky/Zero?” lines that go from being neat callbacks to just being vapid, nostalgia-driven fanservice. Not only does this elongate the game’s already bloated script, but it further alienates newcomers who likely have no idea about most of the references. Like some other issues, this isn’t unique to Cold Steel IV, but this game is one of the more frequent offenders of the series.
Despite my narrative issues with Cold Steel IV, I overall enjoyed its gameplay the most of the four. Combat has the same mechanics as Cold Steel III’s by and large, with most changes coming from tweaks to the existing system rather than new features. Cold Steel III felt messy due to the sheer amount of overpowered mechanics that disrupted any semblance of game balance. While some games are fun to break like this, Cold Steel III was exceedingly simple and not especially engaging in its brokenness. Anything lower than Nightmare difficulty felt overly easy to blow past, and Nightmare was a mess. Boss encounters on that difficulty having brutal desperation phases led to annoying situations that forced me to tiptoe around the system awkwardly instead of directly engaging with the game.
I opted for Nightmare difficulty in Cold Steel IV, hoping to see if it addressed my issues with III. Thankfully, I find it a welcome improvement. Characters’ powerful S-Craft abilities (their flashy interrupt/super skills) feel somewhat toned down in this game. While still extremely potent, they don’t feel as much like a “win-now” button as they did in Cold Steel I, II, and the lower difficulties of III. Bosses still have their desperation modes, but few of them pack the ridiculous stat increases and frequent HP regeneration that made them feel so ridiculous in Cold Steel III. Although Cold Steel IV is still very much abusable and is easier than III, I felt like I could see this game at eye level much more often and enjoyed it more as a result.
Cold Steel IV’s gameplay does falter somewhat the longer the game goes on. While I still enjoy parts of late-game, dungeons start to drag on without offering more interesting mechanics. One particular dungeon had a potentially interesting puzzle, only to have character voice lines constantly pop up to hold my hand every step of the way without letting me solve it myself.
To an extent, the sheer volume of guest characters also starts to hurt the feeling of earned progress. You’re given many temporary party members who come pre-equipped and pre-leveled for the current area. I felt this limited my sense of party customization at times, and it’s hard to feel like the level-ups of short-term party members matter. I prefer when RPGs provide the sense of feeling my characters get stronger as they level up while the narrative presents their growth.
As an immediate follow-up game, Trails of Cold Steel IV is very similar to III in terms of side content to spend time on. Series staples like fishing and recipe collecting make their return, as does Cold Steel III’s Vantage Master card game. Making its return from Trails to Azure is my beloved Pom Pom Party, a block-clearing puzzle minigame reminiscent of games like Puyo Puyo or Columns.
Like the other Cold Steel titles, there are “bonding events” where you can have Rean hang out and bond with his comrades in between dungeons and story sequences. In my Cold Steel III review, I mentioned that I wasn’t a big fan of these due to their limited ability to meaningfully contribute to the story or develop characters. That said, the bonding events in Cold Steel IV are easily my favorites of the series. Maybe it’s because this is the last game of the quartet, but I felt more weight to these scenes, even those of characters I wasn’t as big of a fan of throughout the arc. While I don’t like how they’re used to facilitate romantic development (especially those of questionable age gaps), I think Cold Steel IV is the best realization of this concept. They’re a lot more compelling and emotional than I honestly came to expect.
Given that it’s running presumably the same version of the engine as the game before it, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV looks visually very similar. There are a handful of visually interesting new dungeons, and most of the updated character designs for those returning from several games ago are quite nice.
Like with the PlayStation 5 version of Cold Steel III, this version is a marginal upgrade to my experience playing the PS4 version on a PS5. There are slightly better load times/performance here and there, but the biggest perk is still the amount of cosmetic and item DLC it comes with. Cold Steel IV has more settings with darker environments, so the darker and less saturated colors that appear on the PS5 version compared to the PS4 version are more noticeable, and I still don’t like the changes to combat numbers and indicators that make them harder to read. Still, these are far from dealbreakers, and this is as good a version to play on as any.
The soundtrack is standard Falcom goodness. While much of this soundtrack is recycled from the previous game (and occasionally before), there are still plenty of new tunes. Cold Steel IV’s soundtrack is personally my least favorite of the four, but there are still a lot of great tunes. Even when Falcom isn’t at their peak form, they still put out better work than a lot of sound teams, which speaks to their caliber of music.
The voice cast for this game is outright massive. Despite my many faults with the narrative, voicework isn’t something I have any major issue with in either English or Japanese (beyond how many scenes are only partially voiced). I particularly appreciate the amount of voice actor continuity, as several characters who haven’t been seen since games released nearly a decade prior still featured their original voice actors. While there are inevitably a few recasts for varying reasons, I was pleasantly surprised by how many characters still have their original voice, even characters who originally didn’t have many voiced lines to begin with.
If the main continuous story is the primary reason you want to play The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV, then I’m afraid it doesn’t live up to its own hype. I get the sense Falcom bit off more than they could chew with this arc, dragging far too many plot threads into this already big game and not finishing many of them in a fulfilling way. Much of the story’s tension is manufactured by one incredibly frustrating plot device that did substantially more harm than good to the narrative.
Despite this, I enjoyed this game a surprising amount for everything else it has to offer. Plenty of great scenes and character moments can be found outside of the main story. A lot of the bonding events and optional events in this game are genuinely, surprisingly good. While not my favorite game in the entire Trails series in terms of systems, it is still the Cold Steel title I most enjoyed in terms of gameplay sections. Several combat aspects were tweaked enough from III for me to feel like I was genuinely engaging with its systems. This game is noticeably imperfect and unlikely to be enjoyed by someone who isn’t already a fan of the series, but there’s enough to enjoy if you’re willing to spend the time to do so. The lows are among the lowest in the series, but the highs are high enough to salvage a decently enjoyable JRPG for me.
THE LEGEND OF HEROES: TRAILS OF COLD STEEL IV IS RECOMMENDED
If you’d like to check out the previous game in the series, here’s our review for The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III. If you are looking for another JRPG, you should check out our review of Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk DX.
Thanks to Reef Entertainment for providing a PlayStation 5 review code for The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV.
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Been playing games since my papa gave me an NES controller in the early 90’s. I enjoy games of almost all genres, but especially role-playing, action, and puzzle-platform games. Enjoyer of many niche things ranging from speedrunning to obscure music from all over the world.