Trails of Cold Steel 4 Review — End(game) of Saga
A fantastic conclusion to the Trails of Cold Steel series, a highlight in the ever-impressive The Legend of Heroes franchise, and a must-play for JRPG fans.
Trails of Cold Steel 4
Review copy provided by the publisher
If you’re already familiar with the Trails of Cold Steel games, I imagine you’ll find reading this review largely optional. You don’t need me to tell you that this game is excellent; you probably already suspect as much. Finishing Trails of Cold Steel 3 and witnessing the mother of all cliffhangers likely has you ready to tackle this one as soon as possible. All this game needs to do is keep the quality consistent from the first three games, and you have an exceptional JRPG. But let me reassure you: Trails of Cold Steel 4 is excellent, delivering on all the promise of the story that’s been built up thus far. That should be enough reassurance for you, and no spoiler warnings are necessary here as I won’t be going into anything specific.
But if you’re not in the know? Well then! Let me tell you why the Legend of Heroes series (of which Trails of Cold Steel is the latest arc) is worth experiencing. Trails of Cold Steel 4 highlights more than ever that there is nothing else quite like this series in all of gaming, let alone the JRPG genre.
Trails of Cold Steel is a series of turn-based JRPGs featuring an extremely customisable battle system. You’re given a wide range of characters, each with their own unique abilities (Crafts), and have leave to arrange your party compositions as needed. The full suite of customisation comes from the Orbment system: a selection of gem slots that you can plug quartz into for each character. These quartz have a wide range of effects, whether providing passive stat boosts, status ailment procs, or granting the user magical Arts abilities. In addition, your Orbments can utilise Master Quartz, which levels up with use. These grant a selection of elemental spells, stat boosts, and other effects. Each character can, in addition to their native abilities, have two Master Quartz (one main and one sub) and a handful of these quartz to round out their builds.
“Trails of Cold Steel 4 highlights more than ever that there is nothing else quite like this series in all of gaming, let alone the JRPG genre.”
Without going into all the possible combinations and builds, you can make some seriously diverse party compositions. Do you want to make a super fast character that spams Crafts? Sure. Heavy mage character? Easy. Dedicated support utility character? No problem. Turn a physical character into a mage? Doable! The absolute plethora of options is immense, and while this does mean that some strategies end up being stronger than others, you’re not overly punished for experimenting and figuring things out. I favoured giving a character maximum evasion to become nigh untouchable while wrecking enemies with super-powered counter attacks. Fellow DualShockers writer Scott conceived a way to have endless turns of high damage spells as long as enough items were on hand (which I lovingly dubbed the Infinite Emma Engine).
Once you’ve got your builds, you’ll be taking your characters through a wide variety of open areas, towns, and dungeons in relatively standard JRPG fare. The game is divided into a calendar structure akin to a very condensed Persona 5-esque system, where time will pass and the plot progresses with it. Time progression will see new side quests and events pop up as the extended cast moves about the world, all working towards coming out of the impending plot struggles intact. There’s also a smattering of mini-games to break things up, including the fully functioning card game Vantage Masters. Still, while the gameplay can offer a variety of content and entertaining combat encounters, that’s not really the focus of Trails of Cold Steel. No, this is a story-driven game through and through. And what a story it is!
The Trails of Cold Steel games are primarily the tale of Class VII: two generations worth of characters attending a military academy within the militaristic Erebonian Empire. Over the course of the four games, these characters have grown from humble beginnings into a unified force. Led by protagonist Rean Schwarzer, every member of both new and old Class VII is a well-realised character with their own history, skills, personality, and aptitude. They’ve all overcome hardships, experienced growth through character arcs, and have only strengthened the unified Class VII group through their inclusion.
More than any gameplay aspect, these characters are the foundation on which Trails of Cold Steel is built. The series is immensely narrative-driven, with the core cast of characters front and center to this. It’d be impossible to go into all the depth and nuance of just this group alone in the span of this review; I’d need too much time and word count to do it justice.
“It’s a testament to the sheer strength of Nihon Falcom’s writing team that the cast of characters has remained fascinating and well-realised for the whole series.”
What I can do is say that I have been with some of these characters for four games now. Their trials and tribulations, their devastating losses and immense triumphs… it’s been a pleasure to experience this alongside them. Whatever tropes or anime trappings they might have leaned on, each of them has become a character that I treasure. Given that familiarity breeds contempt, it’s a testament to the sheer strength of Nihon Falcom’s writing team that the cast of characters has remained fascinating and well-realised for the whole series. Seriously, I can’t stress this enough: I adore the cast of Class VII.
But they’re not the only ones, because one class of a military academy does not make a world. So what if that same level of development, growth, and consistent character writing was applied to the other classes at that academy as well? How about the teachers? The support staff? Every single resident of the adjacent town the academy is built on? Trails of Cold Steel’s run has taken the time to develop each and every one of those characters, from the most minor NPC to the major antagonist. When time passes in the game’s story, the character dialogue will reflect that, and it’s possible to follow the arcs of literally hundreds of bit characters without finding anything too uncharacteristic. Even in the most ridiculous or hilarious moments, it’s still borne of many instances of consistent writing leading to it, and the whole thing feels natural.
With that in mind, imagine the quality of the world that’s been developed over the four Trails of Cold Steel games. The Erebonian Empire feels like a real place, with a political, social, and economic structure that you can absolutely follow along with. That kind of intimacy forms an attachment, and it’s at the heart of what carried me through these games. Trails of Cold Steel 4 is effectively the culmination of this series, and I was constantly pushing forward and devouring every detail I could to see just how it was all going to end up. Given that each of these games can have a runtime of 100 hours if you do everything and talk to everyone, that’s some serious investment.
“Trails of Cold Steel 4 is effectively the culmination of this series, and I was constantly pushing forward and devouring every detail I could to see just how it was all going to end up.”
But wait! Let’s pull the camera back even further. I said at the beginning that Trails of Cold Steel is simply the latest arc in the Legend of Heroes franchise. This makes Cold Steel 4 not just the culmination of four games, but of NINE. The true staggering accomplishment of this franchise is that now, in the concluding hours of Erebonia’s story arc, it’s also incorporating all the characters and plot threads from those previous arcs. There’s a reason that the Japanese release has the subtitle “End of Saga” because this is a literal saga all coming together for a massive conclusion.
The three Trails in the Sky games that cover the Liberl arc? Trails of Zero and Azure, the duology that makes up the Crossbell arc? These are all involved in this larger narrative, and so many of the characters from those tales make an appearance in this one. Some have been weaving in and out of the story already, while some are just now meeting for the first time. But even for games that I haven’t yet played (or games which aren’t officially available in English, even), the writing and characterisation are strong enough to carry the weight of those moments and meetings.
What this means is that there are 39 playable characters that will come in and out of your party. This includes highlights like Estelle from Trails in the Sky or Lloyd from Trails of Zero/Azure, and the cast spans the full gamut of the series. There’s a dozen or so more that can provide in-battle support. As many as double that total become allies and support staff as the story progresses. And everyone — literally every single one of them — remains consistent over all nine games. The attention to detail is utterly staggering. Even minor NPCs from quests in the first Sky game might see little nods. One recurring pair of “joke” characters that have been in all nine games even end up playing a fairly major role in developing one of the playable characters towards the end of a game. This is a writing tapestry of the highest order, and I simply cannot praise it enough.
That’s the true strength of the Trails of Cold Steel series. They are very strong JRPGs mechanically, but their heart is in their narrative and characters. Within the first ten hours of the first game, I was beginning to grow increasingly invested in this ragtag Class VII. By the end of that game and the subsequent cliffhanger, I was committed to seeing it through to the end of Cold Steel 2. Returning to the cast for Trails of Cold Steel 3 was an absolute delight, and I practically cheered each time a major character returned. Having that game culminate in another major cliffhanger and ending on a low point for our heroes made the wait for game four utterly agonising.
“I don’t have the words to fully stress just how well the story came together.”
Yet here we are. Trails of Cold Steel 4 is behind me, and it was a goddamn ride. I don’t have the words to fully stress just how well it all came together. And it’s not all perfect; there are occasional balance issues, pacing issues, and some may grow tired of the anime tropes that get brought up. But I’ve never experienced a story that runs with the “power of friendship” angle and actually sells it because you see those bonds and strengths develop into something tangible over the run time. And even during all of this, it never fails to find a way for these characters to shine through. Whether in their darkest hours or moments of light-hearted banter and teasing, this is possibly the most well-realised cast I’ve ever encountered.
There’s no game series out there like The Legend of Heroes, period. There are strong JRPGs and strong franchises, but none with the sheer weight of history and character that this literal saga accomplishes. Not even the likes of my beloved Yakuza series has that level of consistency throughout, no matter how much I might gush about Kiryu’s storyline. Hell, it even pulls the climactic moments of Avengers Endgame off in its own way, and the original Japanese release was before the film!
Since this review has been dominated by talking about the writing and gameplay, I’ll conclude on some quick points about the presentation. The series has never featured high graphical fidelity, with most Trails games having that “PSP/PS Vita port” look to them. They’re kind of blocky and not exactly pushing graphical boundaries, yet the art design still does the job. Characters stand out, animations are satisfying (and at times ridiculously over the top), and it suffices to make it a pleasant enough game from moment to moment.
“Trails of Cold Steel 4 is an exceptional JRPG, [and] a satisfying conclusion to a long but rewarding arc.”
By contrast, the music is phenomenal. Enough said. Falcom is well known for having awesome soundtracks in their games, and Trails of Cold Steel 4 is no exception. Whether it’s stirring piano and violin melodies, heavy guitar riffs, or massive sweeping orchestras, the music is always fitting and rarely dull. The voice acting on the English dub is also high quality, and while not every character lands as well as they could, the vast majority do some standout work. Even voice performances that weren’t perfect in the first game have really come into their own in subsequent entries. Shoutouts in particular have to go to Sean Chiplock as Rean, who gives one hell of a performance throughout the entire series. He breathes life into that character as much as the writing does, and it’s commendable for sure.
If you like JRPGs and haven’t given these games a shot, do so. If you like character-driven narratives and ensembles with tons of depth, seek them out. Whether you choose to start at the beginning with Trails in the Sky or jump in at the first Trails of Cold Steel, you’re in for an absolute treat. The conclusion of this game was almost pitch perfect, and I openly admit to tearing up during points.
There’s nothing else like it out there, and you owe it to yourself to try it. Trails of Cold Steel 4 is an exceptional JRPG, a satisfying conclusion to a long but rewarding arc, and yet still has enough threads to let this world and characters continue. Which it does, as there’s already another game out in Japan continuing the franchise. Until that gets localised, there is not a single other game I will look forward to more than it. This is likely to be my Game of the Year, even if it doesn’t score as high as Hades. What more is there to say?
Well done, Nihon Falcom. It’s truly been a pleasure to follow the tale of Class VII. Now please localise the rest of the series. Please.