A fitting end to an emotional saga
- Developer: Nihon Falcom
- Publisher: NIS America
- Release date: 27th October 2020
- Genre: JRPG
- Platforms: PS4, Nintendo Switch (2021), Windows PC (2021)
- Reviewed on: PS4 Pro
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
It can’t be overstated how important The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV is, not just for this series, but for Falcom as a company.
The fourth game in the Cold Steel series not only ends that particular saga but also brings to a close the storylines of eight games in the “Trails of” series. Falcom simply had to get this one right and, story-wise at least, they most certainly did.
If, like me, you have followed the innocent and oh so very young Rean Schwarzer from his first steps off the train station at Leeves, and his first awkward meeting with Alisa; becoming an innocent young new pupil at Thors Military academy, trying to find his place, purpose and role in the world, but ending up the reluctant, eager to please national hero turned monster, then rejoice – this is the game you have been aching to play and will last in the memory long after the final credits have rolled.
It is possible to start the whole Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel series with Cold Steel IV, as there is a comprehensive encyclopedia of the events leading up to this game. The prologue chapter also does a really good job of recapping the events and ending of Cold Steel III, while introducing the players to the gameplay mechanics.
Despite this, there are countless times that conversations reference events, persons, or story arcs from previous games that would be lost on players jumping into the story right here at the very end. You simply have to play the previous three games in order to understand the significance of what’s going on in Cold Steel IV. Even then, as someone who has spent over 350 hours playing the three previous games, I am still at times lost on who is who, what faction is doing what, and who is siding with whom. The story is complicated even for the initiated!
The premise of this story is that the end of the world is nigh, the country is being brainwashed (literally) by the great twilight to go into all-out war with the neighbouring countries, and members of the new class VII have to gather all their allies to stop it.
Breaking it down
The game is split into two distinct parts. The first half involves gathering allies, whilst the latter half sees the ensemble attempting to put an end to all the madness. If players put the game into easy mode, use the turbo speed and auto-battle systems, and do nothing more than go from one story objective to the next, the game can be completed in around 45 hours. Completing side quests that build on the characters story arcs and give a more wholesome knowledge of the characters involved will clock in at around double that. Completionists can still look and find more items, which are this time helpfully located on the maps with a blue star, and fill the game out to over 120 hours worth of content. How you want to play the game is up to you.
With a roster of 40 playable characters, each with their own specific combat moves and story to tell, there is a lot of detail about each individual, and indeed even the NPCs, to unlock and learn about. Despite that vast number of characters, it is remarkable that the writers of the game managed to do so in such a way that it never felt contrived or forced. Occasionally some characters’ missions felt like nothing more than content to pad the experience out and didn’t add anything to the overall progression of the story, and it was on those occasions that the progress of the game felt like it ground to a halt. The reward for sticking it out, however, was a deeper, interesting and more complete understanding of the characters personas and reasons behind their actions.
The incredible combat.
I have to be honest, but at times I was completely confused as to what was going on and why, but the thing that made me keep pushing through, not just here, but in the previous games, too, was the superb combat mechanics.
On paper, if I listed out every nuance the combat gameplay had to offer, it would look over-complicated and confusing, but during gameplay it feels natural, organic, tactical, and very deep. The only slight disappointment of Trails of Cold Steel IV is that there are hardly any new mechanics to learn from the previous game. Great for new players, but not so for the experienced. The only new quirks for experienced players are that battle orders now have an upgrading system that can be used on the battle points, and the fact that the new Class VII team can, at the expense of EP, use their own Panzer Soldat during battle. If the above is lost on you, then fear not, this is how combat works.
A team of 4, enter into a turn-based combat system against one or multiple enemies. A graph appears at the left of the screen to show the order of which each player in the battle will take their turn.
Your team members have a variety of ways to attack. Basic attacks with their weapons, magical arts that consume EP, or craft attacks specific to each character that use CP.
There are also items to use, and battle orders to dish out. Battle Orders use up BP (battle points) obtained from staggering enemies which allow for an extra strike that adds a BP to your gauge at the same time. The total number of BPs have now been raised to 7, which is 2 more than the previous game. A battle order could give the whole team a stat buff in various ways, for example, extra damage, receive less damage, quicker pace, etc. The more effective ones though, use up more BP points.
Finally, there are S craft attacks. These use up all the CP points in one super-massive damage (or heal) attack. They take a long time to cool down from, but when used at the right time, can sway the battle in your favour. Each S craft attack comes with a satisfying animation, complete with an over an over the top wind up before delivery. S craft attacks truly are the highlight of combat and are always a fun moment to watch during battle, even if your team is on the receiving end!
Mech battles return and again use a very similar system to normal combat. Mechs have a more basic system of attacking, as they don’t have EP points to use, so only use either basic attacks, or CP attacks, but the key difference is that players can target specific areas of the enemy, and hitting the right one either applies more damage, little or none at all.
There are a vast array of skills and magic to learn and use in various ways, and the combat is so addictive because no two battles are the same, even against basic enemies. Players are rewarded with experimenting in how to use their resources, especially as each enemy is now slightly harder to stagger than before as they not only have a health bar but a harder to wear down break gauge, too. Lowering the break gauge to zero leaves them staggered and open to heavy damage from any form of attack for a short time. Normal attacks, CP and S craft attacks are instant, but EP attacks take time to wind up, so knowing when to use them at the right time also becomes crucial.
Add to all of this, each enemy is strong or weak to different elements. Your EP attacks are all based around different elements, so having a team kitted out with an array of elements makes for an easier time in battle to take advantage of any enemy weakness you might come across.
Traversal and other stuff.
Like any Cold Steel game, the story and combat are not the only things to do to take up your time. As players move around the world there are many other sights and sounds to take in. Finding treasure, seeing the sights, completing optional boss fights and helping NPCs adds to an already deep experience, but also provides a break from the weight and seriousness of the story.
As well as the normal mini-games like fishing and vantage masters, there are a couple of new ones such as poker, or Pom Pom Party, which are genuinely fun to play, and add a much-needed injection of levity to an overbearing world.
The game rewards you for experiencing everything the world has to offer. Exploring can help you find people who can give you better cards for your Vantage Masters game, or spending time fishing can reward you with items you can’t find elsewhere.
Graphics and sound.
Falcom has never been a company to push the graphical envelope of a console, and it is the same here. There doesn’t seem to be any visual upgrades or improvements over the previous game, as the developers have been totally set on delivering the story. The world is, like your typical JRPG, quite basic. At times the environments are very blocky and simplistic, with all the graphical effort poured into the artwork, character design, and S craft attack sequences. The rest is very bland. Sword Art Alicization has shown that improvements for big open worlds to explore can be done in a JRPG, so it is disappointing that Falcom didn’t follow suit.
Where Legends of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV does excel is in the outstanding audio of their games. The voice acting is fantastic. As the game has had a full localization for a world audience, and with a vast majority of the game voiced in English, it was a genuine pleasure to listen to the performances of both new and returning characters. The effort put into each performance is exceptional. Enemies of a sinister nature ooze nastiness from their gravely or twisted voices, whereas heroes sound alive with hope. Completing the audio experience is the fact that the music and battle effects are equally impressive. The larger the attack, the more evocative the audio to go with it.
So the curtain finally falls on an epic saga that began on the PS3 seven years ago. Because the game does pad aspects out a little too much and doesn’t really add anything new to the franchise, it’s hard to say this is the best game in the series. As a standalone title, too much would be lost on new players to recommend as it’s purely only for those who know the series well.
Falcom has done a stunning job in wrapping up the Trails of Cold Steel series with a satisfying conclusion, but with enough of an opening to continue at a later date. We can only hope with expectant hearts that whatever follows is as rewarding as the Cold Steel series.