The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 4 Review — To The Glorious Future
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 4 has a lot riding on its shoulders. It's the culmination of the past eight games in the Trails series, tasked with exploring lingering mysteries and bringing everything to a satisfying close while still telling the story of New Class VII and the Erebonian Empire.
It's a tall order, and Trails of Cold Steel 4 reaches for the stars to make it work — and it pays off. Though it falters just a bit at times, Cold Steel 4 is an unforgettable experience and one of the best games in the series.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 4 Review: To The Glorious Future
Political realism and intrigue has always been one of the Trails series’ most compelling factors.
War and RPGs go together hand-in-hand, but rarely has war felt as personal as Trails of Cold Steel 4 makes it.
Cold Steel 4 picks up two weeks after everyone almost literally went to hell at the end of Cold Steel 3, opening with an ominous prologue. The Erebonian government declared war on the Republic of Calvard in retaliation for their assassination attempt against the Erebonian emperor.
Thors Branch Campus students and faculty have been scattered to the winds, and Class VII, minus some important members, wakes up in the Hexen Clan’s village. Without getting too far into spoilers, Rean Schwarzer is missing, and Class VII with Randy Orlando in tow set out to uncover the truth behind what went down at the end of Cold Steel 3.
The journey starts with Juna and co. revisiting the same places in nearly the same order as they did in the previous game. But there’s a key difference this time: the shadow of war hangs over even the far corners of the empire
Political realism and intrigue has always been one of the Trails series’ most compelling factors. Cold Steel 4 is absolutely loaded with it, more than almost all of its predecessors.
The imperial government wasted no time preparing for war, and you see the effects of its conscription and requisition everywhere, in buildings taken over for military purposes and even in the shops.
With the military siphoning supplies and stymieing commerce, prices for non-weapon goods have increased in all the shops — except the national chain that allied itself with the government.
Even those who would oppose the war find themselves eager for revenge against Calvard. The Great Twilight unleashed at the end of the previous game amplifies the fear, anxiety, and pain in people’s hearts, making them easy targets for the government’s populist rabble-rousing and propaganda.
It’s in the turmoil leading to war that you clearly see for the first time in the subseries why Class VII exists: to stand against a tyrannical, fascist government when all other options failed.
Cold Steel 4 is thick with layers, and in a lot of ways, it cements the Cold Steel series as The Wheel of Time of RPG fantasy.
Opposing tyrants isn’t new territory for RPGs. But seeing it unfold both on the backs of every citizen you meet and against the backdrop of Class VII realizing its purpose makes it more involved and effective than ever — even if it did take four games to see it happen.
It’s only half the story, though, and just one of many such payoffs.
Class VII’s initial goal is finding and freeing their missing members, including Rean, but Rean’s story is tied inextricably with the supernatural side of Erebonia’s history and every game before it.
So it's probably stating the obvious, but Cold Steel 4 is thick with layers, and in a lot of ways, it cements the Cold Steel series as The Wheel of Time of RPG fantasy. Suffice to say, it’s fertile ground for some hefty worldbuilding and helps Rean come into his own as one of the more interesting and dynamic RPG protagonists.
In the process, Cold Steel 4 answers so many questions lingering from earlier games while raising just as many, if not more, questions as it answers.
It’s also loaded with spectacular set pieces and boss fights from the first part of Act I up through the very end.
Granted, these have a good deal of the series’ usual anime guff, from pre-battle speeches to in-the-nick-of-time arrivals from other characters. But it’s to Cold Steel 4’s credit that it even executes the cheese well.
Thankfully, doom, gloom, and foreshadowing aren’t the only order of the day. Cold Steel 4 has its fair share of quiet and lighter moments, though a few of them are the usual, completely tasteless chest-centric ones that JRPGs need to just… stop doing.
Assault isn’t a joke, and it really shouldn’t be that hard to understand. For what it’s worth, there’s just one scene that crosses the boundary, and it’s at the very beginning. But even one is too much.
After the opening act, the pacing takes a bit of a hit. It’s not all bad though.
Act 1 and the Fragments segment after it really could be Trails of Cold Steel 3 Jr. and maybe should have been a separate game. After its big opening sequence, Act 2 resets the stage, as it were.
You’re traveling around western Erebonia via airship and gathering intel about key events and people while completing quests as the tension ramps up again.
It’s not a deal-breaker by any means. The transition from gradually increasing tension to sweeping, dramatic closing act and then back to square one is just a bit jarring, partly because those set pieces make it so easy to get swept up in what’s going on in Act 1.
However, it’s handled better than other “part two” Trails games. Quests are always relevant to the situation and provide a handy means of earning money to outfit your ever-expanding crew. Events still move at a fair clip too, and nothing outstays its welcome.
The wider premise of “find missing person X” isn’t the most compelling at first. However, even this pays off. It’s a smart way to introduce important threads and flesh out other characters’ stories — including other Thors students from both campuses — that would otherwise be overshadowed.
True, not everyone gets the development they deserve, though that’s not surprising with a cast this size. The (horned) lion’s share of character development goes to New Class VII.
The plot layering is expertly handled to where you can still understand and enjoy the major events even if Cold Steel 3 was your first game.
It’s disappointing Old Class VII gets left by the wayside a bit, following after their role at the end of the previous game. But as a trade-off, both here and throughout the game, New Class VII gets some of the best development (including voice work) in the whole Trails series.
Act 3 picks up the pace again in a dizzying zigzag around the empire as the story builds up and pulls all the different cast members together for a grand finale. (Except it doesn’t. Load your game after the credits to get the true final sequence and ending).
Because Cold Steel 4 is essentially the culmination of everything that happened in the past eight games, the Erebonian crew gets plenty of help along the way from the stars of the Trails in the Sky games and the yet-to-be-officially-localized Zero/Azure games.
As a result, there are several plot points, characters, and references tied to those games and keep Cold Steel 4 from being as newcomer-friendly as Cold Steel 3.
The plot layering is expertly handled to where you can still understand and enjoy the major events even if Cold Steel 3 was your first game. In fact, some of the best character and plot development builds on what Cold Steel 3 did.
But it does create more moments where you might be left scratching your head, where you know you’re missing something that the in-game summary notes don’t cover. It also means some of the bigger fanservice-y moments are reserved for long-time fans.
The plot and character developments are the biggest new things Cold Steel 4 brings to the table. Yet even though combat and other gameplay elements are recognizable from Cold Steel 3, nearly everything is improved even more than Cold Steel 3 improved on Cold Steel 2.
There are plenty of scenarios — including the many fantastic boss fights — where you still need your wits about you.
Cold Steel 4 tones the Break system down to reasonable levels and makes some welcome alterations to the Order system. Enemy Break meters are beefier this time, so you can’t spam Juna’s Order to stunlock as often. AT-delay-reducing Orders aren’t as powerful this time either.
You have to pull out all the other stops instead, especially on Hard, making for a more robust and enjoyable combat system. It’s even better thanks to a tweak with the Master Quartz system that lets you equip the same secondary Master Quartz to any character.
You can feasibly break the game with this if you’re so inclined. But there are plenty of scenarios — including the many fantastic boss fights — where you still need your wits about you.
Speaking of boss fights, Cold Steel 4 adds new parameters to some of them that shake up your strategies. You’ll need to finish in a set number of turns or complete some other objective to obtain the bonus AP needed to S-rank that chapter, and it’s not always as easy as it sounds.
Thankfully, the difficulty is still adjustable as always, so if you just want to breeze through and enjoy the story, you can.
Divine Knight/Panzer Soldat battles are the best they’ve been in the Cold Steel series with a snappier pace and more options open from the start.
Dungeons are mercifully shorter in Cold Steel 4, for the most part. Neverending slogs like Cold Steel 3’s Dark Dragon Nest are the exception instead of the rule.
Vantage Masters returns, with more opponents and cards and a higher level of strategy required. Certain locations have casinos where you can blow your cash on card games, and you even get to visit the happiest place on earth a few times, Mishelam Wonderland.
Then there’s the deliciously addictive Pom Party, the Trails version of Puyo Puyo, with the added bonus of increasing bond levels with certain opponents if you win.
Cold Steel 4 also brings back Trial Chests, minus the puns that accompanied them in Cold Steel 2. Overcoming these specific combat scenarios strengthens Orders for one of the characters that takes part, so they’re more of a necessity than a sideshow.
Basically, this game is huge. You’re in it for the long haul, but the reward is undeniably worth your while.
Lost Arts and the powerful mini-bosses that guard them also return if you want an extra challenge with a honkin’ big reward waiting for you.
It wouldn’t be Trails of Cold Steel without bonding events. These don’t show up until later in the game, but they’re more important than ever. The bonding events delve deeper into their sub-stories and even tie up some of their threads left dangling from earlier games. Just keep some tissues handy, though that goes for parts of the main story too.
Cold Steel 4 adds more optional sub-events in certain places that expand the story even more and more Active Voice events in the field with banter between party members and commentary on the surroundings. It’s a small set of touches, but it makes the world feel even more lived in than usual.
Finally, there's the usual set of in-game novels to find and read, including "Three and Nine," a direct tie-in with follow-up game Hajimari no Kiseki's Miserable Sinners.
Basically, this game is huge. You’re in it for the long haul, but the reward is undeniably worth your while.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 4 Review — The Bottom Line
- A grand story and fantastic conclusion to the Cold Steel series
- Strong character development for most of the cast
- Deftly handles countless tie-ins with previous games
- Best battle system and boss fights of the Cold Steel games
- Absolutely massive with so much to do
- Excellent soundtrack and voice work
- Pacing dips just a bit after Act 1
- Some character development gets let out
I knew Trails of Cold Steel 4 was supposed to tie up the series' loose ends, though it surprised me not just how many loose ends it ties up but how well it balances almost everything. It's a game that could easily buckle under its own weight and never does.
The pacing and Old Class VII development aren't that bad. It's just that I can't call Cold Steel 4 a must play when it depends so much on playing at least Cold Steel 3 first. That's not really a criticism. It's just how these games work.
If you've played that — which I strongly recommend for anyone who enjoys RPGs — and have even the slightest interest in what comes next, then yes, it's absolutely a must-play.
[Note: NISA provided the copy of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 4 used for this review.]