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Friday, October 30, 2020

Review: The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV (Sony PlayStation 4)


Review by Matt S. 

There's no way I can write a review of Trails of Cold Steel IV that will allow me to talk about the game's finest qualities. This is the fourth chapter of a series that you absolutely must play from the first chapter, else you're going to miss the critical context in the narrative. So to talk about this game's narrative is to talk about the three leading up to it. However, I also can't talk about those previous chapters since, if you haven't played them yet, you're probably not going to want me to talk about their narrative. Given that the narrative is the entire reason to play Trails of Cold Steel, so you can see why I'm in a little bit of a predicament in terms of writing about it.


What I can say, spoiler-free, is that Trails of Cold Steel represents the cumulation of some 200 hours of storytelling leading up to it, before layering an additional 60 or more hours over the top. I'm struggling to think of a lengthier game, and really this series should be seen as a single game rather than four distinct entries. The narrative has been dolled out to us over an extended period of time and separate releases, but it's much like how Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is often broken down into three books. They're not really separate books, but rather one long novel that has been split out of practical convenience. We just haven't got another JRPG series that does this, and it's to Cold Steel's enormous credit that it feels as engaging, meaningful, and creative in its final ten hours as it did its first. I don't know if I'll ever find the time to sit down and play these through back-to-back, but now all four are together I would like to, as a way of letting the full and complete package roll over me with the rhythm that it was originally intended to.

The sense of scale and escalation is powerful, too. Trails of Cold Steel IV starts out with a lengthy cut scene that introduces dozens (and dozens) of characters and concurrent events, before briefly putting you in control of an enormously powerful party of level 95 heroes. Then, after a climactic battle, you're dropped into command of the real characters of this particular narrative arc (who themselves start out very modestly powered before a couple of scenes get them boosted back to about where they should be at this point in the four-chapter series). It's a powerful, epic introduction that reminds you of the cliffhanger stakes of the previous chapter, and allows you to get a taste of just how world-shattering this particular last arc will be, as truly powerful beings throw everything they have at one another. It might be a lengthy game, but Trails of Cold Steel IV delivers it with a thundering, relentless rhythm right from the outset, making it quite mesmerising and incredibly difficult to put down until it's done.


With all of that being said, the game doesn't lose sight of its lighter elements, either. Trails of Cold Steel is, ultimately, about groups of people working together towards common goals and forging bonds through real trials of fire in the process. Because they go through so much together, their moments of downtime are every bit as important to their relationships and how we see them develop as characters, and these guys and girls get up to all kinds of fun together. In terms of the narrative mechanics, it helps the flow, as a 60-hour game would get very dreary if it lacked for flirty hotspring scenes and similar. It also helps build character personalities beyond their military utility, and this is one of those cases where the fan service isn't over-the-top or even particularly unbelievable. Rather, it's presented as though a group of people that circumstance brought together and forced them to rely on one another to survive are taking a moment out to play with each other. 

That's really all I can say about the narrative without getting into specifics - and again the "spoilers", such as they are, pop up from the opening seconds. If you've played a Trails of Cold Steel title before then you should know what to expect and the series finishes on the same high notes that it starts. If you haven't played a Trails of Cold Steel title yet, then don't start with this one as it won't make any sense, but do get into the series, because it is the most wonderfully epic, expansive, brave JRPG narrative that we've seen in quite some time. And, as a bonus, it plays really well, too.

Trails of Cold Steel is steadfastly turn-based. It certainly has its complexities, particularly in the way that the characters can form "links" with one another and work together to deliver devastating attacks. It's also complex thanks to the expansive range of abilities that each individual character can learn, and the fact that there are no fewer than four different resources to manage in battle - most JRPGs have HP for health and MP for magic points. Trails has two more that are each used for a different set of different abilities. So it is certainly complex, but in a way that is going to be very familiar for turn-based JRPG fans. With absolutely no time pressure placed on players to make decisions, it's also one of those rare JRPGs in the modern era that is truly strategic in approach, and with every other JRPG throwing pseudo-real time fast-paced ATB systems and dynamic movement into the combat systems to create the perception of speed and dynamic action, it's refreshing to have something so steadfastly classical in tone.


Four games in and Trails of Cold Steel inhabits a fantasy universe that is as richly realised as anything Tolkien wrote. One of the benefits of having 200-odd gameplay hours behind its commencement is that Cold Steel IV delivers a sense of culture and history (both immediate and in the past) that gives it both lore and context. The engine that the game runs on isn't a huge step up from what the original Trails of Cold Steel games did, and certainly, in a year that included the likes of Final Fantasy VII Remake, Nioh 2 and even the likes of Fairy Tail, Cold Steel looks technically basic. With that being said it's actually to the game's advantage, as it maintains a critical cohesion across the series to date, and when the art direction is so strong, and the world so expansive and atmospheric, the relatively primitive character models are easily forgiven and forgotten.

Really, the Trails of Cold Steel series is like one of those favourite fantasy books that you can read and re-read over and over again. Whether that be Lord of the Rings, Magician, Thomas Covenant, Drizzt Do'Urden's novels, Earthsea or Game of Thrones, they (and Trails of Cold Steel) all share a quality that makes them eminently relatable and comfortable. There are some excellent themes scattered through the game with regards to the impact of conflict, political and moral relativism, individual heroism and the strength of the group. Unfortunately, all the strengths of this series are tied up with its narrative, and we're at the point where it's hard to discuss the narrative without giving important moments away, so my review can't really reflect just how enthused I really am about Trails of Cold Steel. All I can say is that the fourth chapter is, if anything, even stronger than what came before and so while you should play all four in order, this is the one to look forward to the most.

It's so good I even forgive the developer for not giving Alisa the leading role like she deserved. And I really love Alisa.



- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb

The critic was provided a copy of the game for review.

Review: The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV (Sony PlayStation 4)
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