It took me five years to get from Trails of Cold Steel II to the end of Trails of Cold Steel III, but for IV a mere five months feels rather tidy. Yes, this review is going up later than I wanted since I finished the game back in November, but blame it on Christmas and a massive influx of toys at year-end. People seem to mostly come to my blog for toy reviews and Danzig, so the straight video game reviews get pushed aside sometimes. Don’t let that fool you into thinking I’m not passionate about my other pastimes, and in particular I am quite passionate about the JRPG genre of gaming and the Trails of Cold Steel franchise might be the best of the modern era.
Which might be unfortunate since this is it. I finally reached the end after 400+ hours of gaming! I’ve seen the end and what it means for Rean Schwarzer, the hero of the series, and his many, many, companions. And I do mean many as this game is quite literally the culmination of three games worth of content. Trails of Cold Steel III saw Rean at the head of a new Class VII which meant new characters in the form of Juna, Kurt, Altina, Ash, and Musse. Trails of Cold Steel IV basically unites the Class VII of that game with the Class VII of the first two games giving you a pretty sizable pool of characters to utilize. And unlike the last game, almost all of the characters are available to you at any point. There’s often a character or two necessary to be included during each mission or chapter of the game, but that still means 3 or 4 other slots are open to the player. And it’s not just two Class VII’s that are available, but numerous other characters as well! In short, if you like party variety, then this game will more than satisfy in that area.
The last game ended with a pretty substantial cliffhanger. Rean witnessed the death of Millium which drove him into a rage unleashing his latent ogre power which he sometimes taps into, but never gives in to, if that makes sense. This affected the divine knight Valimar that he pilots, a sort of mecha type unit, and made him easy prey for Giliath Osborne, the Iron Blood Chancellor who orchestrated the assassination of the emperor and seized control of the nation of Erebonia. The game literally ended with Osborne grasping Valimar by the throat via his own divine knight and taunting him. When this game begins, there’s only a brief time-skip in place. There’s no time jump of a cold open this time, though you do play as the Crossbell group for the introduction in place of the cold open, and when you get control of Class VII it’s one without Rean. He’s been captured and the first chunk of the game is devoted to rescuing him. This is really the first time the player has not had control of Rean and it’s actually quite nice. You’ll mostly control the new members of Class VII: Juna, Altina, and Kurt. Instructor Randy accompanies them and he’s basically the Rean replacement as he’s a bit overpowered compared with the kids. Members of old Class VII are available at times, but the game doesn’t open up until Rean is returned to where he belongs.
And I don’t consider it a spoiler to say you will eventually rescue Rean. From there, it becomes a story about preventing the end of the world so the stakes are rather high. Basically, your opponents want to bring it all down and start from scratch and only Class VII can stop them. There is an opposition party ready to face fire with fire, but the resulting war will result in many, many, casualties no matter what so it’s something all would like to avoid. Rean is also marked as the “sacrifice” to this somewhat divine plan so there’s a shadow hanging over him the whole game through. He has to deal with that and the uncertainty that comes with it. It does get very “anime” at times, but I never felt confused along the way. Maybe frustrated, but that has more to do with how the characters are portrayed than anything.
The gameplay is still largely the same. Trails of Cold Steel IV is a turn-based RPG in which turn order is determined by numerous factors. You can see the order of attack at all times, but it’s fluid and can be manipulated by both the player and the AI. An attacking party consists of four characters, but reserve characters can be swapped in on the fly during a player turn without penalty. Characters still have the use of basic attacks, magic attacks, and what the game calls crafts which consume CP instead of mana. A max of 200 CP can be accumulated and players earn it by dealing and receiving damage. At 100 CP, most characters have access to their super attack which can be triggered at any moment, but comes with a delay penalty. It will consume all CP the character has and its strength is impacted by just how much is utilized so it pays to wait until a character has accrued the full 200. These attacks can often turn the tide of battle or serve as a useful way to end one. Sometimes, they’re a desperation move that seems to work as much as it fails so it’s a viable thing to turn to when the going gets rough, but not something that can be relied upon like a crutch.
Returning this time is also the Link System. When in battle, characters link-up with another and their corresponding link level affects how they’ll respond. When a character lands a critical hit, a follow-up action can be made by the linked character. This accumulates Battle Points which can be spent on better follow-up attacks or used to issue Brave Orders. Brave Orders are unique to each character and most apply a buff of some kind to the party. Some can do things like revive fallen members or augment casting time. The amount of points each one consumes fluctuates from character to character and the party can now hold a maximum of 7 Brave Points instead of 5. Having a high link level also unlocks passive abilities like cover or an auto-restore function that will trigger at random. Link Points are earned by simply participating in a combat party together so there is some benefit to mixing things up at times, but also sticking with a more consistent approach will level up those specific links faster.
What’s new this time around are the trial chests. These are actually returned from the second game, only now they unlock or upgrade Brave Orders. These chests are hidden throughout the game and each one requires a specific battle party to participate. If you come upon one and don’t have the proper characters in your party at the time, it’s no issue as the location is saved and you can teleport to most of them at any time from your base. These chests can sometimes force you into pairing off characters you may normally would not and they’re a fun little diversion. They’re not as rewarding as the trial chests from the second game, but I was still happy to have them back. Equipment, character progression, and the ARCUS system all return from the past games. Basically, this is a very familiar setup and if you didn’t like any of the previous games then you won’t like this one. On the other hand, if those systems entertained you there then you’ll be plenty entertained here.
Also returning are the mech battles. The divine knights play a big role in the plot of the game so naturally there are more divine knight battles this time around. This is welcomed as I always appreciated the change of pace brought on by these encounters and felt they were underutilized in the previous games. Unlike standard combat, only some characters have access to the game’s mechs, but the ones that don’t can function in a support role. These battles tend to be the most challenging encounters in the game as there’s a cat and mouse element at play. Each enemy has three spots it can be attacked, but only one is considered a weak point. Finding it is basically random, though there is some logic at play when just looking at the enemy. If they’re pretty wide open, you can probably go for the head, for example. They’ll change stances on you though so the weak spot is constantly changing. Plus, many enemies can dish out a lot of damage and it becomes a game of resource management. They may be open for an attack, but your character may need to defend or heal and it pays to be more cautious in these encounters than brash.
The systems are still the strength of the game and so is the story, but like the third game, it has almost no respect for your time. Because the cast is so bloated at this point, many scenes just drag on because everyone present has to offer their opinion on what’s going on. It’s often not profound or even interesting to hear from many of the characters and I found myself wanting this game to move faster more often than not. The characters are also unfailingly kind for those basically participating in a war of epic consequences. There are moments when an enemy could be dispatched, but they just let them get away. The game also loves to deus ex machina everything, often with some character arriving out of nowhere to save the day. It becomes so routine that it ceases to be surprising. Instead, it’s an exercise of “Who haven’t I run into from the past games yet that could show up now?” The game also is terrified of actually killing anyone off, so don’t expect to ever actually say goodbye, and for a story with such high stakes there really are few casualties. Many allies from the past games are now enemies due to their allegiance to the chancellor. They go along with it out of a sense of duty and the game seems to place far too much importance on that and has more respect for it than it should. Those characters are bringing about the end of the world and we’re supposed to feel bad for them because they’re conflicted in some way? Not to be too dramatic, but that’s like sympathising with a Nazi officer who feels bad about exterminating Jews. You have a choice, you have agency, but Rean and company just forgive and forget and that bothered me.
Like most modern RPGs, this game does feature a romance option. Rean, once again, can build social links with basically every other playable character and some non-playable character. As his bond with these characters intensifies, they (and Rean) gain permanent stat boosts so they’re all worthwhile. The women though come with the added benefit of being a romance option for Rean. And unlike the third game which only opened things up to 3 of the women, this game lets Rean pursue almost every female he comes across. Of the characters that can participate in the regular battle party (there are also many guest characters you’ll get to control. Again, this cast is huge!), only three of the women are locked off and one of them is a lesbian. This means you’re free to pursue whoever you had Rean pursue in the first two games, but it also means you can go after any of the women from the third game. This includes Rean’s students, which is pretty damn yucky. A teacher should not engage in a romantic relationship with a student, especially minors, but this game will let you do that if you want to. It tries to be respectful of the situation with Rean saying something like “When you’re of age, then we can be intimate,” type of thing, but that almost makes it worse. Rean can also go after his former teacher, Sara, which is also a little messy, but at least they’re both adults and removed from the teacher-student relationship by a couple of years, I think. And finally, Rean can also romance his sister. Now, before you really get worked up, his sister Elise is not a blood relative. Rean was adopted, but they were still raised as brother and sister and Rean literally can’t remember life before his adoption so emotionally they seem as linked as any biological brother and sister. Worse, the game also feels like it’s steering the player towards that outcome and I just couldn’t get onboard. Does that make me a prude? I don’t know, but I didn’t like it. There are also still characters that hit on underage girls all of the time and the only gay representation is from horny lesbians. Yoe mean with this massive roster of playable characters there isn’t one homosexual man? I just feel for the gay players out there looking for at least some representation, and some positive ones at that.
If after spending well over 100 hours with this one you still want more, there is a New Game+ option. It’s mostly to allow for the player to experience all of the various bonding events available in the game. It’s impossible to achieve the max level of bonding with every character on a single playthrough (though if you like options for the romance stuff, you can max out all of the romanceable women in one playthrough) so you won’t see the “ending” for each character. The actual game’s ending is not locked behind New Game+ which is definitely appreciated. There are two endings, a good one and a bad one, but it’s not terribly hard to get the good one. There’s basically just one optional boss that has to be defeated, and if you don’t trigger that encounter in your normal playthrough, you’ll basically be allowed to teleport to it at the conclusion of the bad ending to rectify that. It’s a little extra time spent if you go that route, but it’s not terribly cumbersome. Personally, I am all set with watching the bonding events I missed on YouTube as it’s not worth it to me to go back through the game just for that. It would just take too much time.
Visually, the game is basically the same as the previous one. They use the same engine, but several characters have received new wardrobes at least. Environments are still a bit unimpressive, but I am happy to say that this game is far more stable than part 3 was. I don’t think it crashed on me once which is a far cry from what I experienced before. There’s still slowdown and framerate hiccups here and there, but I’ll take that over complete crashes. The music remains consistent and I liked this one a bit more than the previous game. There’s a bit more variety, though some tunes do get repetitive. The voice acting is pretty good as well, though some characters sound worse than others. And I don’t mean the performance, I just mean the audio quality. One character in particular sounded like her voice was recorded in a closet. The North American version of the game was released during the COVID pandemic so I am guessing that is to blame. Still, voice actors have been recording lines over the phone for years without it sounding funny so I’m not sure what happened here. It does stand out though and I’m purposely not naming the character I’m thinking of just to see if anyone chimes in with a guess because it was that noticeable.
I’ve said a lot already about this game and I haven’t even touched on the side games. You still get to go fishing and play cards, but there’s also some gambling and a puzzle game to spend time with. In short, there’s a lot and you will easily sink more than 100 hours into this one. I think I even surpassed 120 this time. I was hoping for a shorter game compared with the third one, but I got a longer one. I guess that should have been expected as this is the big finale and it does deliver an actual ending. I mean, there’s still a tease for something more because The Legend of Heroes will seemingly never die, but I could stop here and be content. This cast of characters is set to return in one more game, Trails into Reverie (which has been out for a little while in Japan already), before it looks like we’ll be heading in a completely new direction. I suppose I’ll have to check that game out, but for now I am happy to be done with Trails of Cold Steel. And not because I didn’t enjoy it or anything, but because everything should have an ending and after over 400 hours it was time for one. Obviously, this game is for those who played the prior games. Enough was done with Trails of Cold Steel III that making that a jumping-on point is possible, but those who played all four will get the most of out of this (and some would argue you should play Trails in the Sky too, but I did not). Trying to just jump into this one is not really advisable so this game does possess a significant barrier for entry. I don’t regret one hour I spent with this series though. It’s quite entertaining and the mechanics are great. I do think the pacing could have been better and the characters could have been differentiated from one another a bit better as well, but for the most part I was really happy with the systems in place. And I would be more than happy to see them return. Maybe with a new wrinkle, or better yet, a game that really relied on the mech battles, but it’s not a mechanic that has completely run out of juice. It’s become increasingly hard to find good, quality, console JRPG games that don’t play like an MMO so I am happy to play whatever comes from Falcom next in this long-running series.
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