“We’ve got your back Rean!” cried Juna, Kurt, Altina, Musse, Ash, Alisa, Elliot, Laura, Machias, Emma, Jusis, Fie, Gaius, Sara, Crow, Towa, Celine, Elise, Alfin and Duvalie. The evil members of Ouroboros stood before Rean. “Maybe this battle will stir something within me. I’ve been looking forward to this moment for years”, McBurn declared. His body literally bursting to flame. “Wait!” Rean interjected, “Was it you behind ‘that’ event from years ago?” Campanella chuckled and disappeared into magic dust. Kreuger and Shirley nodded as Mariabell teleported them to safety.
5 more cutscenes passed by. Revelations were revealed. Twists in the tail finally told and the battle begins.
I originally played The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 3 as my first entry into the series without playing 1 or 2 (check out that review over here) Despite being incredibly long and packed full of characters, I found it to be an enjoyable JRPG. Regardless of a lack of knowledge it eases you into the menagerie of characters with the introduction of the New Class 7 slowly re-introducing the Old as it went along. There is a definite ‘new chapter’ feeling to 3 but that isn’t the case with Trails 4. When you start Trails of Cold Steel 4 you will definitely need to have finished Trails of Cold Steel 3 first. Without spoiling too much, Trails 4 starts off with the world in a dire state and the title character Rean is being held captive for the entire 1st Act. It’s up to a few choice members of the New Class 7 and a cacophony of other side characters to rescue him but expect a huge amount of exposition whether you need it or not.
Trails of Cold Steel 4 is a continuation of 3 in more than the story. It is an incredibly vast JRPG and just like 3 you can expect it to last well over 80hrs and then some. Everything isn’t story dialogue though and you’ll be playing a large assortment of extra activities. Collecting extra data from cooking, fishing, analysis of monsters, photos of areas, documents, collectibles, side quests, romance options, a puzzle game, a card game, blackjack, poker and even more. The main gameplay loop consists of a scavenger hunt, a fetch quest and then a big monster to kill. This does become formulaic after a few hours and you’ll know when to heal up, buy items and when to push on. After each quest requirement is complete there will be a fairly simple dungeon to navigate, a few mid-bosses, a final boss and then a mecha battle. It’s enjoyable but some of the dungeons feel needlessly stretched and you’ll find yourself clearing the first version of them and simply running through the next.
Calling Trails of Cold Steel 4’s story a grand epic is a massive understatement. The sheer volume of content here is mind boggling. Lord of the Rings feels like a short novel next to Trails of Cold Steel 4. Despite only having 3 Acts, 2 side acts and a finale, each of these sections is broken up into roughly 3 chapters each and feels like they could have been a separate game. There are 39 characters you’ll have knowledge of before the finale, each has a surprisingly deep amount of lore pulled from the past titles and padded out with more detail. 39 isn’t enough characters for Trails of Cold Steel 4, you’ll be regularly bumping into minor characters from Trails of Cold Steel 1, 2 and 3 right up to the end credits. Somehow despite following every anime trope in the book there was still some originality to be had in Trails of Cold Steel 4 and I did find myself picking favourites and trying to avoid interacting with others. Trails of Cold Steel 4 feels like it was originally a 51 episode anime series crammed into JRPG form but then padded out to 90 extra episodes to allow every character more screen time.
Thankfully the combat difficulty can be set at the start of Trails of Cold Steel 4 from Very Easy up to Nightmare and there is the option for Japanese or English voice acting. The difficulty effects the balance of combat in a strange way resulting in more dangerous status effects rather than a ramping in stats. The general pacing of everything is the biggest drawback to Trails of Cold Steel 4. It suffers from the same problem Trails of Cold Steel 3 had, If you play the game at its regular speed it’s a little too slow and if you tap the touchpad you can play at High-Speed. For the most part it is the easiest way to enjoy the game but this High-Speed is too fast when travelling with a vehicle or horse and in some cutscenes looks ridiculous. There isn’t any middle ground and it results in a feeling of going too fast at times and too slow at others. Trails of Cold Steel 4 is clearly designed to be played through at least twice to experience everyone’s special bond with the main character Rean. You can skip every cutscene or just to the next and the New Game + mode does give a plethora of options to take into your next run.
There isn’t really much of a tutorial to Trails of Cold Steel 4. Rather than trying to dump a huge amount of complexity on you from the start you’re given a fixed party of characters and slowly introduced again to the bonkers battle system from Trails 3 (Thankfully unlike Trails 3 there’s no overlap with the story and events kick off the first Act) There are a few new status effects and now you’ll be finding the occasional enemy can use Orders and Link Attacks against you but for the most part it’s the same system. Due to the levels of your characters you can expect to be trading in millions of damage before the end. The number of enemies in combat is impressive and you’ll find one boss almost becomes Dynasty Warriors levels of madness, dealing with ‘groups’ rather than one offs. It’s the same enjoyable system that can be switched to auto if you need a break. Weaker enemies will now run away from you and when you’re in combat the arena you fight in will reflect where you hit them. This means a few times you’ll spot a chest or collectible in the background as the camera pans around to show off the attacks again. It’s just a shame the novelty wore off after the 200th battle.
Visually everything in Trails of Cold Steel 4 runs a little smoother than Trails of Cold Steel 3. The menus for equipment, Orbal setup, mecha setup and swapping out characters is all the same. You’ll still be keeping track of HP, EP, CP and BP through combat. The inclusion of Trial Chests that take specific characters to fight a boss to boost your characters Order abilities is an interesting challenge. It’s also a godsend that once you’ve found them you can return to re-attempt the trial at any time from the superb quick travel menu. The loading between each quick travel is impressively nippy and you’ll be relying on the menu a lot to navigate everything from the world to the final dungeon with speed. Trails of Cold Steel 4 also has optional Master Quartz battles where you’ll fight impossibly difficult monsters to unlock a master quartz (akin to FF7’s Master Materia) These summon an incredibly flashy and powerful effect once per combat. Summoning mechs into battle works as a similar attack, costing large amounts of EP for a flashy amount of damage. The combat is visually amazing and the monster designs are delightfully bonkers. The battle music is really enjoyable which is good as you’ll be in combat a lot and once you settle into a routing clearing an area becomes a little grindy.
Although the previous story ended on a cliff hanger, Trails of Cold Steel 4 ties up every single loose end and then some. It goes out of its way to finish off every single lingering doubt from 1, 2 and 3. There are far too many Metal Gear Solid levels of cutscenes and you’ll find yourself holding circle occasionally to skip dialogue that feels redundant just so you can play. What feels like accumulated hours of dialogue saying, “Here’s how the world is doing, don’t forget these are the bad guys” It just goes on and on for far too long at times. The amount of voiced dialogue is simply staggering but you really do need to pace yourself for the long journey this game takes you on. There are certain scenes referred to, then simply re-shown in flashbacks over and over. It feels like you’ll see some events 40 times before the end of the game and although it does have some good, “wow” moments, the pacing is a lot less punchy than it could be. Rather than great story beat of Rufus being an arse there will be an amazing scene and then 5+ cutscenes of every character reacting and processing what happened. The original scene now so padded out, it has none of the shock value left.
The bad habit of panning boob upwards on characters sadly returns to Trails of Cold Steel 4. There are the occasional eyerolling cringeworthy moment but given how ridiculously long the game is, these are thankfully few and far between. You can still customise your characters appearance with unlockable outfits (yes you can fight in cat ears and a towel) but the default costumes are well designed. What was surprising was not simply the inclusion of romance options but how they panned out. For the most part in my playthrough, I tried to do all the side quests I could for every character and what I found most surprising was how Rean wasn’t a typical harem anime protagonist. He wasn’t simply waving away women but actively looking for friendship. It seems a misstep that he can’t have a romantic night with any of the men (as there are times it implies he wouldn’t mind that) but it’s refreshing that he doesn’t simply jump into bed with anyone that fancies him. He actively deters his students from romance and there are a few characters whose relationship with him makes sense to progress romantically. It plays out in a surprisingly well written way and a lot of the characters dialogue is impressively charming. Even if it does require two playthroughs to see the difference between the characters.
I won’t spoil it but the “normal ending” for Trails of Cold Steel 4 is hot garbage and I was livid, ready to write the game off until I got through the credits and the game very clearly explained there is now a “special quest” to change the ending. This then unlocks the “True Ending” and although I can understand why it occurs in this order (largely due to the practicalities of the levelling and combat system) I can’t even begin to understand the logic of including the original ending. The True Ending is incredibly satisfying and the credits that follow are absolutely great but even this is tainted by the ‘false ending’. This isn’t a subtle Nier-like multiple ending experience, you’re very clearly signposted and it’s a simple new quest (which is a challenging boss) and a warp back to repeat the final boss fight. The ending is worth playing through Trails of Cold Steel 3 & Trails of Cold Steel 4 but you’ll need to be prepared for the gut punch before you see the whole picture.
Trails of Cold Steel 4 is a very long JRPG that does have a hell of a lot of heart and I think fans of the series will be incredibly happy with how it finishes. The post credits tease for a new story is a great example in how to continue a world without detracting from the events that have already occurred. The problem is that Trails of Cold Steel 4 is a hard recommend without caveats. You have to have played and finished Trails of Cold Steel 3 before starting. It’s also a huge time sink so you’ll need plans to play nothing anything else for a few months. It’s a little formulaic, unbalanced and cringe at points but when it hits the anime beats right it hits them hard. There are moments in Trails of Cold Steel 4 that are just simply cool. Pure anime moments that result in, “oh hell yes!” The music is great, the voice work is fantastic and there are some visually brilliant moments to be had. Trails of Cold Steel 4 feels like a great anime that suffers from being chock full of filler to stretch out the last end of its material.
6/10 – For lovers of the trail, with cold steely determination to see the end
Code provided by EU Partner Relations – NIS America Inc. Check out NIS Europe here
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