There is no mercy to be found for newcomers to the story of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV. I warned with Trails of Cold Steel III that the story was expanding beyond the events of this sub-series, as characters and lore from other Trails games, many of which aren’t available outside of Japan, were working their way in. It’s now gone so far that Trails of Cold Steel IV shouldn’t be considered the fourth game in the Cold Steel series, but the ninth game in the Trails series.
To be blunt, anyone who has not fully absorbed the hundreds of hours of JRPG action required to be caught up on this story shouldn’t bother playing this at all.
Let’s just say you’re one of the few who have made your way through every Trails game, or more likely that you’ve played the Trails in the Sky trilogy and maybe read some plot summaries of the Crossbell arc, which is only available in Japanese. However you did it, you somehow managed to experience this ten-year saga of Nihon Falcom storytelling, and now, like an anime series that’s hundreds of episodes long or a wrestling rivalry decades in the making, you’re ready to experience this grand finale full of payoff for your long, long journey.
Except Trails of Cold Steel IV isn’t a finale because a direct sequel just came out in Japan a few months ago. It isn’t exactly grand, either. It’s whatever the opposite of grand is, really.
Trails of Cold Steel III ended with a wild cliffhanger, and while Cold Steel IV does address that shocking ending, it takes its sweet time getting to it.
The prologue of the game and the hours that follow are a mundane slog full of bloated game system tutorials and slow, trepidatious story developments that don’t do much to entice or excite. Eventually, the game picks up, and the first Act is actually a pretty fun time. You’ve got a concise, core cast of characters making their way through some fun moments, and I honestly would have loved for the entire game to maintain this smaller, tight and focused scope. Unfortunately, once Act 2 and the rest of the game kicks in, Trails of Cold Steel IV is more like a kid with a crate full of action figures pouring them all onto the floor at once, and spending so much time setting them all up nice and pretty that, once they’re there, they doesn’t actually know what to do with them.
There are so many characters in this game, it would be impressive if the stuff that they said and did were well-coordinated or, hell, well-written. The whole Cold Steel crew is here, a bunch of Crossbell characters are here, your Trails in the Sky cast is hanging around, and there’s even a helping of brand new characters.
So many story scenes feature so many characters, and they always need to get their own words in edgewise during pivotal moments. Dramatic cutscenes that should be full of tension end up being a bloated joke as every character in the crew drops a one-liner reaction. For all the effort it takes to get caught up with the series in order to even play this game, you would want to see a thoughtful and well-crafted narrative that rewards your patience and ties up all of these character arcs. Instead, shallow writing, obvious deus ex machina moments, and bloated character interactions make this a mess that hardly feels worthy of the ten-year build up.
The true way to experience and enjoy The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV, if you must, is to just turn your silly little brain off and let your eyes glaze over during every cutscene and dive into the much more exciting part of the game: the gameplay.
Combat in the Cold Steel series has always been a delight, and while each game tacks on more systems and mechanics, they always end up adding an engaging new layer to gameplay that helps beef up the replayability. Cold Steel IV also does a great job of forcing you out of your comfort zone by regularly tasking you with controlling a different party of characters, or even temporarily assigning you specific parties for certain sections of the game.
Near the middle of this gargantuan RPG, the world opens up and you’re able to explore multiple locales, tackle optional bosses and dive deep into upgrading and customizing your massive crew of playable characters. This is where the heart of the game is, in my opinion, and the best part about it is that you don’t need to play ten years of RPGs in order to enjoy it.