An Incredible End to an Incredible Journey
I have really been looking forward to playing The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV. So much so, in fact, that I insisted on playing through CSII and CSIII beforehand just to make sure that as much of the game’s story as possible was fresh in my mind. It was a lot of prep work, sure, but I assumed that it would be worth it. And, wouldn’t you know it, it absolutely was.
From the very beginning, there was something about the way that Trails of Cold Steel (and, really, all Trails games) was able to consistently deliver both an engaging and extremely high-quality narrative while never missing a beat with its gameplay elements. It’s a series that invests in its players as much as players invest in it, and the fact that it’s been able to deliver such consistently good material for so long is nothing short of amazing. And, while part of me wishes that this series could go on forever, I’m happy knowing that Trails of Cold Steel 4 ends things on the best possible terms that it could, knowing just how much its playerbase would appreciate it.
Seeking an Instructor for the End of the World
Unlike with previous entries in the series, Trails of Cold Steel IV wastes no time with getting to the heart of the matter. The story begins with new Class VII waking up two whole weeks after the events of CSIII‘s conclusion, with things only looking worse now than they did half a month ago. The Great Twilight, now in full swing, has swept across the entirety of Erebonia, corrupting all that it touches. Citizens all around the country have started behaving aggressively—with many becoming hyper-fixated on the impending war with Calvard—the flow of the spirit veins has been almost entirely disrupted, and, to top it all off, Rean is still missing. Things are bad. Really bad. Fortunately, catastrophic occurrences have never stopped either generation of Class VII before, and the Great Twilight appears to be no exception. So, with a little magical assistance from the witches of Eryn Villages, and a lot of confidence in themselves, Class VIII enacts a plan to save their beloved leader and instructor, and, after that, the world.
It’s no secret by now that CSIII and CSIV are set up to deliver their narratives in the styles of CSI and CSII, respectively, albeit with some kind of ironic twist. Rean went from a student of Class VIII to its instructor in I and III. But how do you spin a story about Rean rescuing all of his classmates, the first half of CSII‘s story, into something new? Easy, you reverse it! Despite being the protagonist of the series, Rean is entirely absent from the first portion of this game, with the role of protagonist(s) being passed along to the original new Class VII—Juna, Kurt, and Altina. Admittedly, this was a decision that I didn’t totally jive with at first. However, thanks to this game’s wonderful ability to weave a captivating narrative, it didn’t take me long to warm up to how things had become.
Although I didn’t realize at first, it eventually occurred to me that the beginning part of CSIV was the first time that new Class VII was ever allowed to journey out into the world without having their hands held. While having Rean play an extremely active role as Class VII’s Instructor in CSIII made sense for a variety of reasons related to both the narrative and gameplay mechanics of the series, it also stifled new Class VII’s ability to grow in the same, organic way that old Class VII did.
Because they always had their instructor at their beck and call, the fact that the members of Class VII were students (i.e. literal children) was much more apparent in CSIII than it was in the first two games. By temporarily removing Rean from the picture, however, CSIV finally gives players a chance to see the members of new Class VII—particularly Juna—develop identities of their own. As fond as I am of new Class VII, there were certain times when they felt less like protagonists meant to stand alongside Rean, and more like accessories to Rean’s specific story. By exclusively giving Juna & co. ample time in the limelight this time around, CSIV does wonders for the group’s character development.
I loved seeing new Class VII getting the chance to stand on their own two (er, 10?) feet, but don’t take that to mean that I was any less enthusiastic about getting the Ashen Chevalier back into my party. Unfortunately, there’s not too much that I can talk about here, as the game becomes a veritable landmine of spoilers around the time you get Rean back, but I can say that CSIV did an excellent job with handing the narrative reins back to Rean in a way that felt natural. Sure, I had a blast seeing the Branch Campus hatchlings grow, but it just wouldn’t be a Trails of Cold Steel game without its protagonist standing front-and-center at the end of things. Despite being noticeably different from one another in terms of approach, both the non-traditional and traditional parts of the game’s narrative were wonderfully crafted, and I really couldn’t hope to ask for much more than what I was given.
(Even More) Trails in the Sky
The way in which Trails of Cold Steel IV‘s story plays out isn’t the only thing that should remind you of CSII—there are ample similarities regarding the way that they both play, too. Just as CSIII mimicked CSI‘s emphasis on structure, so, too, does CSIV mimick CSII‘s emphasis on freedom. Through circumstances that I won’t be getting into for obvious reasons, Rean & co. once again find themselves in possession of an airship. And, while said ship is nowhere near the size of the Courageous, its many functions should feel very familiars to long-time fans. Alongside providing players with ample resources—such as a shop and an orbal factory—Class VII’s shiny new ship gives players something that’s only been given to them in one other CS game. That’s right, I’m talking about the ability to travel! And, this time around, it’s more streamlined than ever!
If you’ve played CSII (which I’m assuming you have if you’re reading this), then you probably know how this is going to go. Contrary to CSIII, which once again put players on an incredibly strict and linear schedule, CSIV allows players a much greater deal of control over their adventure this time around. But what exactly does this mean? Well, for one, it means that you don’t have to freak out about missing things quite as much. While certain things—most notably quests and profile entries—still adhere to a fairly strict time limit, other things—such as treasure chests and enemies—aren’t a one-and-done deal most of the time, which a good thing considering that you literally can’t open certain Trial Chests when you first encounter them. It also means that, in many cases, you’ll be able to explore at your own leisure. Although the entire map doesn’t open up for players at once, CSIV is generous about offering players places to explore, meaning that it becomes somewhat easier to play the game how you’d like.
While it’s far from even resembling a centerpiece for this game, I’d also like to take a second to talk about the selection of mini-games available within Cold Steel IV. Trails of Cold Steel has never been a stranger to the concept of adding in fun little side-activities, but CSIV takes it to a whole new level. Not only does the staple fishing mini-game make its return (playing as it did in CSIII), but the oh-so-lovely Vantage Masters is back as well, boasting a more robust selection of cards and much more challenging opponents (much to my delight).
The fun doesn’t stop there, either! CSIV includes all-new mini-games as well, such as the 1-v-1 puzzle game Pom! Pom! Party! and even lets players channel their inner Crow (or Ash, take your pick) by letting them gamble in poker and blackjack. Things are, of course, just as optional this time around as they’ve always been (not counting that one VM game in CSIII), so there’s no need to worry about being forced into doing a bunch of extra stuff that you don’t want to. However, as a mini-game enthusiast, I found myself quite pleased by all that this game had to offer—and the rewards weren’t bad, either!
Everyone is Here!
Based on the many parallels between CSII and CSIV so far, I bet you’re expecting me to start out by telling you that Overdrives are back. But they aren’t. In fact, Trails of Cold Steel IV, unlike its predecessors, doesn’t immediately integrate any kind of new battle mechanic at all—with the re-inclusion of Lost Arts and the ability to summon Divine Knights/Soldats being the closest thing to “new.” All-in-all, subtle changes are the name of the game this time around. On the surface level, CSIV‘s combat mechanics are nearly identical to CSIII‘s, but it doesn’t take long to realize that not everything functions in the same way that it once did.
Brave Orders are undoubtedly the most affected by the Cold Steel IV changes. Rather than remaining at a consistent level of effectiveness, most Brave Orders can now be leveled up by finding and completing Trial Chests which means that players will have to put in a little bit more effort to get the most out of their favorite Orders. Additionally, certain Brave Orders (like Iron Will and Sledgehammer) are more expensive around. Fortunately, CSIV compensates for this fact by boosting the maximum BP value to 7 which absolutely makes a huge (and positive) difference in battle. It’s also worth noting that Higher Elements—Time, Space, and Mirage—are consistently present within this game. Once again this isn’t a completely new mechanic, but consistently having to pay attention to seven elements rather than four makes things a little more interesting.
Rean’s all-important Spirit Unification has also been tweaked, but not exactly in favor of the player. Rather than actually using the same ol’ Spirit Unification that he’s been using for the past two (technically three, I guess) games, Rean gains a new ability that I’m not going to name. For the most part, this new ability works exactly as Spirit Unification did; you slap down 100 CP in order to gain a bunch of insanely powerful buffs for three turns. But there’s a drawback this time around, however, and it’s pretty significant.
Remember when Rean went berserk at the end of CSIII? Well, that’s in this game, too—and it’s not just relegated to the story anymore. Rean no longer reverts to normal after his three turns are up, but instead gets inflicted with berserk—a Rean-specific status ailment that greatly increases his attack while making him uncontrollable, and has a 30% chance of disappearing at the end of each of his turns. Fortunately, I was being quite literal when I called it a status ailment, as you can remove it as easily as tossing a Curia Balm his way, but the fact that Rean’s most powerful technique now comes with a drawback that technically has the capacity to make him unusable for the rest of the battle means you can’t use it willy-nilly any more (which I’m sure most of us were guilty of doing).
Last, but not least, let’s address the sub-header for this section of the review. I know that the whole “everyone is here” joke is a bit old at this point, but it describes Trails of Cold Steel IV‘s approach incredibly well. CSIV tries really, really hard to include as many playable characters as it can, absolutely destroying records set by previous Trails games for the most amount of playable characters. You’ve got Trails of Cold Steel characters both new and old, you’ve got Trails in the Sky characters, and you’ve even got characters from the Crossbell duology—Trails of Zero, and Trails of Azure—that never released in the West (but I’m choosing to remain hopeful about getting the remake). Basically, if there’s a character in a Trails game that you liked using, chances are pretty good that you’ll be able to use him in Trails of Cold Steel IV. As linear as this game is, the decision to do this is honestly kind of strange. But, in true Nihon Falcom fashion, they managed to pull it off in the most graceful of fashions.
To a Glimmering Tomorrow
Nihon Falcom’s Trails of Cold Steel proudly stands amongst the few which can truly be considered to be at the pinnacle of the modern-day, story-driven JRPG, and it was truly wonderful seeing the culmination of the series’ work within The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV. Although it’s sad saying goodbye to the members of Class VII—both new and old—I can at least smile knowing that their (presumably) final moments in the spotlight were just as amazing to play through as their first. Trails of Cold Steel IV is absolutely worth the time of anyone even remotely interested in it, and I recommend picking it up as soon as possible—just make sure that you’ve played I – III, first!
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed); Publisher: NIS America; Developer: Nihon Falcom; Players: 1; Released: October 27, 2020; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.