|Platforms||PS4 (Fall 2020, reviewed)
Nintendo Switch, PC (2021)
For 25 years now, I have been following every major JRPG franchise. While Final Fantasy might have the most installments, the Trails subseries of Legend of Heroes takes the cake for the longest running series of narratively consecutive games. Trails of Cold Steel IV is the ninth game set in the continent of Zemuria, following the Trails in the Sky trilogy, Trails from Zero, and Trails to Azure. Even though Trails of Cold Steel IV has the subtitle End of Saga in Japan, I suspect we are just getting started. But this is the last game with the Trails of Cold Steel moniker, so hopefully we get some closure, right? Let’s see.
First, a note: there are undoubtedly spoilers in this section (the review proper is spoiler-free). I’m using my best judgment to keep these as vague as possible, but you’ve been warned (I kept it vague but did clearly mark one significant [SPOILER]). Another important point: due to limited access to Bonding Events, and the fact that I did not finish all side quests, I can’t guarantee I’ve covered everything (these games are huge). Since this is largely the same game as the last three, and you can check that content in my other Trails of Cold Steel reviews, I will use this space to focus on concerns unique to Cold Steel IV.
Violence: For the most part, Trails of Cold Steel IV is as generically violent as its predecessors; there is no gore and most boss fights feel “staged” as if no one is actually trying to kill anyone else. There are some character deaths, including an underhanded and unexpected killing. However, the biggest new concern in Cold Steel IV is how many characters attempt suicide. These range from misguided attempts at self-sacrifice, to aiming a gun at one’s own head out of a desire to escape the current situation. There are also frequent discussions between characters about a desire to die. Suicide is a serious pressing issue, but excessive use of the motif cheapens scenes that should have felt dramatic and forceful, in turn doing a disservice to both the story and the difficult topic.
Sexuality: Nothing has really changed here from previous entries, but Bonding Events have gotten even more philosophically problematic. Cold Steel IV makes the ability to get a final bonding scene with the female character of your choice idiot-proof, and gives Rean no fewer than eleven options, including his former instructor, three of his current students, and his adopted sister. I have already complained about the Bonding Event system in the past, and now it is worse. Let me just say this [SPOILER]: there is a reason that this game’s ending culminates through a proper love story of two other characters. Please, Nihon Falcom, take us back to the good old days of Trails in the Sky.
Language: Language is about the same as Trails of Cold Steel III, thanks to the same particular characters. The word sh– is frustratingly overused, along with old favorites h–l, d–n, b-t-h, and a-s. As far as I saw, there are no f-bombs.
Spirituality: The game further explores the monotheistic society centered around a (female) god Aidios, but Cold Steel IV is even more willing to throw technology, witchcraft, pious religion, and otherworldly phenomena all in a blender and say that it all works as one unit. There are interesting spiritual points to be made, but it is difficult to extract them from the gobbledygook.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV receives a T (Teen) rating from the ESRB.
(You are safe from spoilers now; at least, beyond the Prologue and the beginning of Act I.)
What Do I Need to Play Before Trails of Cold Steel IV?
At minimum, I don’t see any point in playing this without starting back at Trails of Cold Steel. However, even if you enjoyed Trails of Cold Steel III despite all of the unfamiliar returning characters from Sky and Zero / Azure, Trails of Cold Steel IV is even more dependent on those characters, introducing far more of them. (At one point, there is a scene with probably sixty people in the room, with only maybe 1/3 to 1/2 of them originating in the Cold Steel subseries.)
So, I am tempted to tell players to start all the way back at Trails in the Sky. It doesn’t hurt that Trails in the Sky SC and Trails From Zero are still the best two in the series, either. However, I’ve enjoyed playing through each Cold Steel game again for a Platinum run (and will do the same for Cold Steel IV), so I could see people playing through the Cold Steel series, going back to the Sky and Zero / Azure titles, and then replaying the Cold Steel games. I mean, we’ve all got time for that, with a pandemic and all, right?
What’s Different in Trails of Cold Steel IV?
Surprisingly little, this time. The graphics look identical to Trails of Cold Steel III: perfectly fine, but nowhere near the full potential of the PS4. There are some minor changes to combat—Break is not as powerful, and players are allotted more Brave Points (BP) than before. I am quite grateful that combat is changed only minimally; Nihon Falcom has been adding layers and layers with every installment, and the system is quite excellent, but at critical mass. Between Arts, Crafts, S-Crafts, Brave Orders, Link Attacks, and other things I’m forgetting, the game does not need more bells and whistles on the combat screen, and I am grateful that the developers wisely agreed.
So, overall the gameplay is near-identical to Trails of Cold Steel III, but with one large exception: story. The narrative style plays out much more like Trails of Cold Steel II, and I mean that somewhat as a negative.The entire first Act of Trails of Cold Steel IV is an overlong McGuffin of a fetch quest, completely halting the momentum built by the ending of Trails of Cold Steel III and leaving me the most bored I have ever been while playing a Trails game. Fortunately, the minute Act 1 ends, Trails of Cold Steel IV pumps the gas and never lets go. Your patience will be rewarded.
Did Fans Get the Conclusion They Deserve?
Given that Hajimari no Kiseki just released in Japan, it’s hard to call this a conclusion. However, I was happy with it. Everything after Act I (there are 3 Acts, and several smaller parts: prologue, intermissions, finale) was richly rewarding. Long-hanging threads in the Cold Steel series were wrapped up and explained, and even some tenuous connections to Trails in the Sky and Trails to Azure were solidified. With a story this long and a cast this big, I am sure there are plot holes that have gone unnoticed, but that means they are benign enough to be forgivable.
I will say that the ending did a good job paving the way for future installments, while bringing enough nostalgia and whimsy to make this middle-aged man get the sniffles. Much of the payoff was a long time coming, making it all the sweeter to finally get there. Immediately after finishing, I was ready to hit New Game+. If that’s not a recommendation, then what is?
Review copy generously provided by NIS America.
The Bottom Line
Despite the slow start, Trails of Cold Steel IV delivers a conclusion worthy of the series' 16-year legacy.