Before I get started with anything, this review will have some Legend of Heroes (obviously) spoilers here and there but it’s been a month since the release of Cold Steel IV so I think it’s fair game.
This is the point of no return so if you don’t want spoilers, go finish the game then come back!
The Legend of Heroes is a storied franchise that helped shape modern JRPGs to what it is today. Most of us started our journey with the Liberl Arc back in the early 2010s but I understand that a majority of younger gamers started out with the Erebonia Arc that started with Trails of Cold Steel on the Playstation Vita.
I initially bought my Playstation Vita just to play Persona 4: Golden so imagine my surprise when I found out that I could finally play a new Kiseki game after so many years. Cold Steel introduced us to the loveable misfits of Class VII and while they are different from the Liberl and the Crossbell protagonists and their parties, their collective identity as unwilling players in a grand scheme dating to thousands of years made them stand out and become as iconic as their predecessors.
Trails of Cold Steel IV is the conclusion to the first half of the Kiseki saga that started in Trails in the Sky and ran all the way to Trails of Cold Steel. That’s about nine games worth of world-building, and the pay-off is huge.
One of the best things that hooked me to Trails of Cold Steel is the idea that I could carry over some semblance of progress from one game to the other.
For example, I romanced Instructor Sara (or tried to) back in Trails of Cold Steel, and when I started Trails of Cold Steel II with a Cold Steel clear data, some elements of the story changed. During a crucial cutscene in the introduction of Cold Steel II, Rean called out to Sara and recalled some of their moments from the previous game.
Imagine how mind-blown I was at a time where my only comparison for JRPG/Dating Sims were Persona 4 and Conception II (don’t even get me started on Conception haha) and how each romance or even growth in the relationship was isolated in that specific game or playthrough.
Unfortunately, that feature was not carried over to Trails of Cold Steel III because of the change in platforms. Cold Steel I and II were developed for the Vita while Cold Steel III was developed for the PlayStation 4 so the whole data transfer thing wouldn’t work.
While the carry-over of story elements was no longer a game feature post-Cold Steel II, it still felt as though she was the same Instructor Sara that I romanced in Cold Steel and I felt that all throughout my trudge from Cold Steel III to IV – and that seriously meant a lot to me and the 500 hours I spent with Sara and Class VII.
The point is that The Legend of Heroes’ world-building is second-to-none in terms of JRPGs. And that simple consistency in character development across 4 different games, is what convinced me that the Legend of Heroes will only get better with time.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV is the end of the Erebonia Saga and the halfway point of the Legend of Heroes story as a whole.
Cold Steel I had us meet the original Class VII and culminated in the awakening of Valimar the Ashen Knight after the ragtag group explored their old schoolhouse-cum-dungeon and inadvertently cleared the trials that qualified Rean to participate in an ancient ritual spanning thousands of cycles – of course, they have no idea of that at this point.
Cold Steel II details the actions of Class VII during the Erebonian Civil war and this is where the stakes became much heavier for Rean and his friends. Close allies passed away, allegiances changed and the reality of war dawned upon Class VII. What’s more surprising however is the realization that everything is not as it seems and that Rean Schwarzer is somehow the son of the Blood and Iron Chancellor who we all presumed to be dead.
Cold Steel II is where Rean started to feel the pressure of being an Awakener and the burden his bloodline carries. In order to appease the Erebonian Government and partly due to his own nature of being unable to refuse to help, Rean agreed to help act as an agent of the military and played key roles in the occupation of Crossbell as well as in the Northern War where he managed to save countless lives as the Ashen Chevalier.
Cold Steel III sees Rean as older, wiser, and now as an instructor to the next generation of Class VII. The game dealt with Rean’s struggles with controlling his latent power, balancing his identity as a “hero” and as a mentor to his students as well as realizing his destiny as the Ashen Chevalier.
The game ends with one of the original members of Class VII Millium Orion dying to save Rean and Rean himself being captured by his own father. The game ended with such a cliffhanger that I was thankful I only really finished the game when I received my review copy of Trails of Cold Steel IV from NISA.
Cold Steel IV is the culmination of everything that has been set up or foreshadowed ever since Trails in the Sky and with the war on the horizon and Rean’s curse and status as the sacrifice as a major catalyst for events to come, it would require a miracle to come out of all this unscathed, more so victorious – and that’s exactly what happened.
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it many more times – The Legend of Heroes’ world-building is second-to-none. Things that have been vaguely referenced in the older games and even out-of-nowhere the occasional foreshadowing had a huge pay-off in Cold Steel IV.
A lot of the impact from this game started out in a random book found in Trails in the Sky or in a sub-quest in Trails to Zero – you get my point. So if you ask me if the Liberl and the Crossbell arcs are essential games to understanding Cold Steel IV, then yes. Appreciating Cold Steel IV on the other hand can be met by someone who has played only the Cold Steel games.
However, Cold Steel IV is the gaming equivalent of Avengers Endgame. Everything that has ever happened in the Legend of Heroes was made for this one special moment and it would heighten your appreciation of the game so much more if you have an idea or better yet, have played the older games.
You have no idea what it meant to be when I started the game not as Class VII but as Estelle, Joshua, and Renne from Trails in the Sky and as Lloyd, Elie, and KeA Bannings from Trails of Zero – seeing these old beloved protagonists helped set the tone of “this is it, this is the ending I deserve” and that’s exactly how I felt throughout the game.
The game starts a few weeks after Cold Steel III and Juna, Kurt and Altina wake up to find that Rean has indeed been captured by his father, Millium has died and everyone in Class VII is all understandably depressed and weary.
Juna, being the awesome self-starter that she is, rallies Class VII and they renew their bonds as they resolve to save Rean and stop the imminent war from consuming the continent.
The pay-off is huge and old characters from older games joined in on Class VII’s quest to save Rean and the world. It was beautiful seeing everyone from Liberl to Crossbell and Erebonia working together like one big extended family and in the center of it all is Prince Olivert who is pretty much the Legend of Heroes’ equivalent of Nick Fury – in short, this wouldn’t have happened without him.
At the end of my 160 hours, 30 minutes, and 22 seconds FIRST playthrough, can I confidently say that this was all worth it? Was more than 16 years of storytelling and world-building worth it? Well…yes. I can say with absolute certainty that Cold Steel IV is the best way to end the first half of Legend of Heroes and it was a wonderful ride through and through.
What’s gotten me intrigued, however, is that despite this being the end of the first half, it still managed to get me excited for the second-half of Legend of Heroes and I find that amazing in that the game managed to give me some closure and at the same time it’s made me want for more.
I’m actually preparing to start my platinum trophy run for Trails of Cold Steel III and I will eventually go for Trails of Cold Steel IV’s platinum trophy as well. Call me a Kiseki nut but these games just make you want to play them again and again.
Speaking of playing….
Gameplay and Graphics
The game plays similarly to turn-based JRPGs so if you’ve played an older Final Fantasy game or even the more recent Persona 5, Trails of Cold Steel IV should be very familiar to you. The game mechanics may seem a bit different compared to more traditional RPGs but the system works similarly to the weakness-system in Persona 5 with some minor nuances.
The only thing I dislike about Cold Steel IV (and Cold Steel in general) is how bonkers Rean is in that game-wise, he is definitely the strongest character in that he can insta-clear mobs if you set up his quartz and equipment right – making most fights laughable or an inconvenience at best.
As someone who focuses more on the story and the character relationships though, I didn’t really mind, but as a reviewer this is something that definitely needs to be addressed moving forward. Don’t make your protagonist so broken that he can one-hit kill the final boss. And I say that because that’s exactly what I did in my playthrough.
You can outright break the game with the right Quartz (which are basically materia-like stones that give you skills and stats). It’s possible to create a perma-dodge menace in Fie and Kurt, or a 300% damage armor break Juna or even a spell nuker in Musse. But even so, they’re not as bad as Rean Schwarzer’s one-hit-kill build, and that’s troubling in itself.
On the other hand, the game is separated into an overworld represented by a map (which you can traverse vis-a-vis fast travel via an airship) with towns and battles. There are a multitude of side-quests to be done here, and a variety of mini-games to play. Included are card games, fishing, and even a Tetris-like mini-game from the Crossbell games. There are literally a hundred different things to do at any given time. And if my 160 hours playthrough isn’t enough proof, then I don’t know what is.
All in all, the tried and tested gameplay is a safe decision on Nihon Falcom’s side, but it could have been better. With the limitations of the current game engine though, it is understandable that they worked with what they had. But that said, I am expecting so much more from the upcoming Calvard Arc. I’m not expecting Square Enix-tier graphics but at least a move to the modern age. I’m hoping they make the character models and movement better and less janky.
This simple approach may have worked out well in the older games since they were sprite-based, but 3D requires nuance and a certain fluidity in movement and facial expressions. Otherwise it’s tough to convey specific emotions and the like.
The graphics are fine from an overall visual standpoint, but technically speaking, it could really use some work. With Unlimited Graphic Design Service available, there are more opportunities to bring new ideas. It’s time for Nihon Falcom to step up their game so they can finally drop the dumb “graphics bad, story good” stigma that’s plagued them for years now, more so with Cold Steel I and II.
Music and Voice Acting
The music is great and purchasing the limited edition bundle might even be worth it if not for the steel case and the album/OST by themselves. The songs are wonderful and while they aren’t on the level of Shoji Meguro’s masterful soundtrack for Persona 5/Royal, they’re not bad either.
My favorite opening theme will always be Trails of Cold Steel III’s but Cold Steel IV’s opening theme is wonderful in its own right that it conveys not a sense of dread but a sense of hope in a future made bleak by the ambitions of an empire doomed to fall.There are also some nuanced tracks that play when things get emotional, fun, or even romantic but they do their job well in that they highlight the emotions that you’re supposed to feel at that very moment.
The voice acting is amazing but that’s a given due to the talented voice cast (I think there are more than a hundred characters here, to be honest) but my favorites are Musse, Juna, Rean, Lloyd, Arianrhod, Duvalie and Kurt’s voice actors. Everyone else was okay to good at best but the characters I listed down stand heads and shoulders over their contemporaries not because they are better, but because they were able to convince me that they are the characters that they are playing.
Everyone else could have been better but at the same time they could have been worse and in my opinion, old class VII’s voice actors could have tried a little bit harder to make their output a little bit better because they were right between the line of good and outstanding and all they needed was a little push.
Cold Steel IV is obviously a Japanese game so it is up to the publisher to localize it to fit the understanding and the tastes of its intended audience without losing any of the nuances that make the original language/dub good in very subtle ways.
Unfortunately, NISA could have done better on this end as well. There was a multitude of download issues, localization issues, and even some spelling errors that I have personally encountered on my 160 hours playthrough and while it didn’t make the game unplayable, some words or even scenes may have lost their original message or even tone.
I’m optimistic, however, that NISA can learn from this especially if they were to handle the future Kiseki games post-Cold Steel.
My Problems with the Game
So here are my problems with the game that isn’t based on graphics, music or what have you. It’s the harem and the sheer scale of the playable characters in Cold Steel IV. There are too many damn people I can play as and too many women in love with Rean that it’s ridiculous.
Persona was able to handle this problem well by locking romance behind optional dialogue choices in their respective social links but Cold Steel IV does away with that and has everyone in love with Rean from the get-go.
I understand that Elfin, Laura, Alisa, and everyone else have been in love with Rean since the first time they saw him but at least give me the option to choose just one or even just a couple of them instead of the 12 woman harem that follows him around at any given time.
Another missed opportunity with the game is the whole Major Claire development. Do you know who was the canon love interest in Cold Steel I and II? It was Alisa. I complained for a while because of that back then but it was made less apparent in Cold Steel III and IV – and I appreciated that.
What I didn’t appreciate, however, is the utter lack of respect for Claire’s character. Rean didn’t seem to want to romance her (or is unable to because of the developers’ decision) but he can’t even hate her too for her actions or at least her involvement in Millium’s death.
Claire would have made sense as a canon love interest for Rean and I say that with disdain because I’m a Sara stan but that’s exactly why I think it would have made more sense for Rean to have the option to romance just ONE person and forget about everyone else because the Claire story arc would have been more interesting than seeing even Rean’s daughter figure in Altina falling in love with him.
I never thought the day would come where I would complain about a harem but enough is enough, Nihon Falcom. Not only is Rean OP but you’re also giving me marriage problems. There’s no way you can settle his relationship issues even in passing in future Legend of Heroes games so now I’m convinced that Rean will be forced to simply live with everyone who loves him like the harem idiot that he is.
On the other hand, that might be for the best as Divine Blades aren’t exactly the best husbands in that every Divine Blade in the series is widowed.
Trails of Cold Steel IV is marred by issues in localization, its limited graphical capabilities and janky gameplay but it is the perfect ending to the Trails of Cold Steel saga. The story, music and my attachment to these characters and to this world are more than enough to carry what issues this game may have.
While that may sound a bit biased, I do not intend on turning my back away from my preferences and my biases because they were earned by this franchise. At least enough for me to respect it for what it is – a pinnacle in world-building and storytelling. It can only get better from here.
Trails of Cold Steel as a saga is a solid 8/10 for me and Trails of Cold Steel IV is a 9/10 individually because it does its job well and it’s the perfect conclusion to Rean and Class VII’s story arc.
Trails of Cold Steel IV
Release date: October 27th, 2020
Platform: PS4, coming to Switch and PC in 2021
Publisher: NIS America
MSRP: $59.99 USD