The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV is the latest entry in the series and seeks to bring together plot threads left dangling from previous mainline entries and spin-offs. Trails of Cold Steel IV begins where Trails of Cold Steel III ends, throwing together a cast of ensemble characters that those familiar with the franchise will immediately recognize. With a story that comments on the threat of militarization and the reckoning of an imperial force, Trails of Cold Steel IV seeks to provide a meaningful narrative experience. However, as with any series with more than a handful of number titles, it remains mostly inaccessible to those looking to immediately jump in.
I have never played any The Legend of Heroes game in any capacity. I always had something of an interest in the series, and Trails of Cold Steel IV is my introduction to everything and anything I know now. Loading it up and navigating to the Backstory menu immediately let me know what I was in for, and I have never felt so overwhelmed while learning about a series in all of my time playing JRPGs. This feature functions similarly to ones found in other longstanding franchises, like Yakuza, but with Trails of Cold Steel IV, there is information and then there is information sequestered away in exposition.
Character portraits pop up with brief descriptions of who these people are and how they’re occasionally interlinked with other faces you’re supposed to remember, something I had a hard time doing. I feel like that is mostly due to the character designs in The Legend of Heroes series not standing out enough for me to commit a name to a face. Or maybe it has to do with me not really knowing much of anything of these characters outside of what I experienced in Trails of Cold Steel IV?
That statement in itself seems a little obvious. Starting off on the fourth entry of an expansive series that lapses over several entries with very complex worldbuilding and lore isn’t the greatest idea. However, there should be some greater means of accessibility when it comes to new players to introduce them to these concepts with ease. Trails of Cold Steel IV starts with a fair bit of exposition, opening up in a sleepy little town with citizens circling around a radio delivering news of an event that has recently transpired, only to learn that a draft has begun and a war is underway. However, there appears to be something more sinister lurking in the shadows of what is working to tear countries and their peoples apart. This is the beginning of a plot thread and themes that continue throughout as Trails of Cold Steel IV seeks to illustrate the horrors of war and re-militarization, and how this affects not only the cast of characters but the citizens of the individual factions.
However, even with the levels of exposition you are provided in the early hours of the game, it doesn’t feel enough for a newcomer to the series. There are instances where players are expected to know about specific events in greater detail than the synopsis provided to fully grasp the gravity of the looming war, conflict, and the eventual resolution. While the themes are broad enough to create a semi-effective commentary, I felt like my experience would have been greatly enriched if I had played the previous entries and had that experience and familiarity. Maybe also make a mention here about how the Backstory section failed to offer that insight? I needed that experience. I needed those hours upon hours of gameplay from previous iterations I did not experience to grasp the relevance.
What the narrative did offer me was something equally complex and convoluted at times, and it was full of tropes and fanservice that made me uncomfortable at moments. Serious moments were offset with time spent at a hot spring where a character is groped for laughs, which completely destroyed my desire to continue, despite knowing I would have to suffer through more of this. While other games have somehow managed to walk the tightrope act of having fanservice that still manages to remain tasteful, Trails of Cold Steel IV doesn’t achieve that. This turned me off to moments in the game that were otherwise “breathers” in the story. Thankfully, there are segments in the game that offer glimmers of a much more interesting and stronger narrative.
Spoiler alert: There is a scene in particular where the party eventually reunites with a character by the name of Ash Carbine. Confronted by Kurt, Randy, and Juna, he confesses how he was overcome by hatred and was compelled to commit regicide in an emotional moment that is paired with great voice acting. This is where Trails of Cold Steel IV shines, and I imagine moments like this are amplified tenfold for those familiar with the series. Even with my limited knowledge, instances like this felt believable and real when paired with the delivery of well written dialogue and top-notch voice acting in both English and Japanese.
However, I was less than impressed with the conclusion. I want to chalk up my feelings to my lack of knowledge, but even with that in mind, Trails of Cold Steel IV had long overstayed its welcome. The payoff left me feeling unsatisfied and hoping for more meaningful conclusion to a narrative that was so invested in providing commentary on remilitarization and imperialism. However, I only earned the Normal Ending of Trails of Cold Steel IV, and I more than likely won’t be revisiting the game to get the True Ending. If that ending somehow adds to the experience of Cold Steel IV in any positive way, I won’t know.
I mostly enjoyed moments spent in combat. While the system itself was hard to get used to compared to other modern JRPGs, it was like sitting down with something from the early 2000s in a way that made me feel oddly nostalgic. Trails of Cold Steel IV utilizes a turn based combat system that relies on using attacks that can perform AoEs in straight lines or specific zones that you can move around the field to your liking. It’s fun and becomes far more complex beyond its introduction.
Spells and some statuses in Trails of Cold Steel IV are used through a system called Orbment, which requires adding and managing quartz through a sphere based system. It isn’t anything like what you might be thinking, especially if you’re familiar with the sphere grid from Final Fantasy X. Instead you can mix and match quartz in their respective lines to add evasion or defense to the selected character. It took a bit for it to gel, but I ended up enjoying it quite a bit. It provides depth, and I was pleased to learn that I could enhance and upgrade my quartz to create better or more interesting builds.
It did take time, however, before I finally got the gist of things. Trails Cold Steel IV is beset with menus and systems that never really receive a proper explanation–even with the game’s tutorials. As I mentioned before, you’re thrown into the scenario of Trails of Cold Steel IV in the middle of something that I should probably know or already understand. The game makes this very clear in almost every way and when I opened my menu for the first time, I had no idea of what I should look at first or what stats should be prioritized. That isn’t to say I wasn’t able to figure things out, but I mostly learned by doing.
Tactics and movement are equally as important as passives and spells. You can link characters together to use Link Abilities through the Tactics menu. By assigning characters a partner, this opens up another set of skills you can use in combat, which adds another layer of complexity. Thankfully, tutorials can be accessed at any time through the main menu, so even when I would forget something, I could quickly go back.
And that is part of what reminded me JRPG from earlier eras. It wasn’t just the movement of the characters, that would at times feel sluggish, it was the overall presentation. The menu sounds reminded me of earlier iterations of the Tales series (even though these two franchises cannot be compared beyond that), and the user interface harkened back to those mid-2000s games I loved. The same can be said for the music, which sounds great and has the same kind of appeal.
Quality of life features include a High-Speed Mode that players can toggle on and off to increase the speed of combat and field exploration. I personally love features like this, purely for the ease of access when it comes to grinding. This mode even works outside of combat and helps speed up the process of talking to NPCs to buy items or strengthen quartz. An Auto Battle function is available in Trails of Cold Steel IV as well, which I took advantage of. For the most part, the feature functions fairly well, and I never had instances where my party would wipe in standard combat encounters. Additionally, the difficulty of the game can be changed at any time, with the exception of the Nightmare difficulty. If certain boss fights or dungeons are too difficult, or if you’d rather just get on with the story, you can adjust the difficulty through the system menu.
Mechanically, the game functions fine. However there are some issues with the localization in that you will find the occasionally misspelled word, a lack of punctuation, and other instances of what feels like a rushed translation. Thankfully, NIS of America has released a statement that a patch to rectify these errors is on the way. Unfortunately, there is no option to scale text in Trails of Cold Steel IV, but the user interface is mostly legible even when sitting in front of your television at a fair distance.
In regards to the voice acting, the English and Japanese cast do a stellar job. It’s honestly rare that I play with English voice acting when going through a JRPG, but I genuinely enjoyed the performances in Trails of Cold Steel IV so much that I ended up sticking with the English voice acting. You can swap between the two options at any time, so you don’t have to settle for one or the other.
Unfortunately, I cannot recommend this game to anyone who has had no exposure to the franchise, because it isn’t a great point of entry at all. Even the best moments are few and far between. While the combat system is engaging at first, it loses its shine somewhere around the forty hour mark. I saw so much of what I wanted to like about the game dangled before me, only to stumble through the final acts feeling lukewarm about the entire experience. I wasn’t sure what to expect, because I was never entirely sure what the game expected from me. In the end, it simply is what it is, and that is a game for only its returning audience. This game is for die-hards of the series who will no doubt enjoy the return to the familiar setting with its complex characters and deeply interconnected story.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV is immediately available on the PlayStation 4 in Japan, North America, and Europe. It will appear on the system in Australia on November 3, 2020. The Nintendo Switch and PC versions will launch in 2021.