The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV Review
This review will mention spoilers from The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III
Despite how much I enjoyed The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III, longtime readers probably noticed that the game was absent from last year's RPG of the Year results, and those that bothered to listen to the deliberations probably know why. If you haven't, you should - as always, when we decide which games are the site's favorite RPGs of the year, simply reading the list and a few summaries don't do any of the games, winner or not, any justice - but for brevity, Cold Steel III had a major cliffhanger. Of course, it was never going to be a standalone experience - I said as much in my review - but even more so than usual I didn't feel comfortable giving it a blanket recommendation until after The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV released, to see if the Cold Steel story as a whole could live up to its lofty expectations.
A year later, I've finished Cold Steel IV - spent 108 hours seeing the fairy tale through to its end. 108 hours, plus the countless hours that I'd poured into previous games in the series. 200 hours between CSIII and IV alone, sure, but also the 200 hours of Trails in the Sky, 150+ hours of Zero no Kiseki/Ao no Kiseki, and 100+ from the first two Trails of Cold Steels. I've invested nearly 800 hours into Falcom's behemoth of a story, and I'll be the first to acknowledge that my experience with the series comes with a significant amount of baggage. I've known these characters for hundreds of hours, I'm invested in the world of Zemuria and the heroes that fight to protect it. Although the title lacks the moniker in the west, when Cold Steel IV came out in Japan, it featured the subtitle "The End of Saga". While the game is nowhere near the conclusion of the series as a whole, it exists as the culmination of not just Cold Steel, but the "Phantasmal Blaze Plan" - a concept that has been part of the series' story since Trails in the Sky - the 3rd, in 2007.
This is important for a number of reasons - it's at least part of the reason that I left Cold Steel IV feeling so disappointed, but on a wider level, it means that it's incredibly hard to justify that anyone should play this game without having experienced the rest of the series at large. In my Cold Steel III review I concluded that while you could conceivably play it having only played Cold Steel I and II, I wouldn't recommend it. With Cold Steel IV though, all bets are off - it's almost impossible to recommend to players that haven't played through Crossbell and Trails in the Sky. Even if that suggestion still goes unheeded, the very next game in the franchise, Hajimari no Kiseki, fully abandons any pretense of only requiring knowledge from Trails of Cold Steel. A line will need to be drawn somewhere, and I'll be the first to say that it probably should be drawn here. It's not about gatekeeping - as a game, Cold Steel IV does not hesitate to drop in characters and plotlines that won't make sense if you haven't played the rest of the series.
The fact that Cold Steel IV is the culmination of everything that has come before it, but it's that same legacy that holds it back. Talking about and deliberating the worth and merit of such complex and long-form narratives that can't truly be evaluated in a vacuum is nothing new for RPG Site - it's not even new for Trails in particular. The issue, where it pertains to Cold Steel IV, is both one of scope, as well as accessibility. Trails in the Sky the 3rd was, of course, only the 3rd game in the Trails series when we were already deliberating over listing it during our RPG of the Year 2017 deliberations. Cold Steel IV is now the 9th game in the franchise, which means that the barrier to entry is exponentially higher than even Trails in the Sky the 3rd. Worse than that, not every entry in the series leading up to Cold Steel IV has even been officially localized; both halves of the Crossbell duology, potentially the most beloved arc in the series by longtime fans, are still officially stuck in Japan. There is a fantastic fan translation for Zero no Kiseki/Trails from Zero, which is compatible with the PC version of the game that can easily be purchased internationally, but the same can't be said for the other half of the Crossbell arc - Trails to Azure.
All of this begs the question - who, exactly, is a Trails of Cold Steel IV review even for? It seems obvious that anyone that had already invested all of the time and money to play the games leading up to it are already Trails superfans. Even those that have only played Cold Steel I through III, have still invested hundreds of hours, enough to know if they'll want to play Cold Steel IV, no matter what. If you're still deep on the Trails hype train, what are you looking for in the next entry in the series? Exciting new gameplay? A better presentation; immersive visuals, and a killer soundtrack? While all of that is important in its own right, I think I can speak for every Trails fan when I say that the main reason that anyone would play the franchise is for the story, characters, and overall worldbuilding. Everything else, even if well regarded, is a secondary consideration. If you're reading this review, looking for a reason to get into the franchise, I'll tell you right now that you've come to the wrong place if my writing hadn't already made the point clear. Trails of Cold Steel IV's story - its pacing, it's plot devices, and everything else - has left me with one important realization.
Trails of Cold Steel was a mistake.
That's undoubtedly a volatile statement, and may come across as surprising considering just a year ago I gave Cold Steel III a 9/10. Upon reflection, however, almost none of Cold Steel IV's problems are new - they've been with the series since as far back as Ao no Kiseki, but they've only become more obvious - louder and more egregious - and have worsened as the series has gone on. Perhaps the largest issue stems from cast size - Trails in the Sky and Crossbell's main parties were smaller, more personal teams. Falcom's penchant to have every party member or on-screen cast member contribute to almost every scene wasn't as much of an issue back then simply because the total cast of characters was smaller. Even when everyone would get onto the screen at once, at the most it felt that these parties might match the base size of Cold Steel's class VII.
If everyone in the Bracer's Guild or in the Special Support Section had something to say, then it made more sense that they would bounce off of each other. It genuinely contributed to presenting the world as this big, exciting place. As Cold Steel's cast grew and grew, however, suddenly scenes began to bog down where well more than a dozen characters would have to get their words in edgewise, deflating and dragging out scenes that would otherwise have any sort of tension to them. This comes to an extreme head with Cold Steel IV - as not only do you have the bloated Cold Steel III cast to contend with, but an increasing number of characters from the rest of the series, as well as a typical array of newcomers.
This is the key culprit for cutscene pacing, but what helps make its issues so obvious is how much I actually enjoyed Cold Steel IV's first act. Without delving into spoilers, almost the entirety of Act 1 does manage to deal with a smaller cast of characters - it isn't until its conclusion where the cast begins to balloon back to Cold Steel III levels, and even then it still pales in comparison to the roster size later in the game. By far the worst of the cutscene issue exhibits itself at Act 2's conclusion, where a scene that is supposed to maintain a certain level of tension ends up losing it entirely, due to what can only be described as entirely too many cooks in the kitchen.
The other half of the pacing issue comes in the form of redundancy, which may well be the broader issue under which the previous complaint falls under. Act 1 features a brisk pace, it never feels like the game was spinning its wheels, per se. Act 2 then has players traveling all over Erebonia, even when they didn't really need to - especially when you already visit many of these locations in Act 1. It feels like padding, pure and simple, exacerbated by hitting at the same time as the cast begins to balloon in size again. I'm fairly confident in saying that at least half of Act 2 could have been condensed at no impact to the story as a whole. If anything, it would have benefited from it! Even worse, the game gives a reason for why you aren't exploring some of the areas that you never gain access to in Act 1, yet the writers didn't use a similar excuse to reduce redundancy in the second Act.
At the best of times, poor cutscene pacing can seriously hamper an otherwise solid story - but it's worth noting that Cold Steel IV's writing is sloppy at best, and any genuinely good story and character moments are few and far between. Where they do happen, they rely almost entirely on nostalgia - callbacks to previous arcs, following through on story threads potentially over a decade long, and more. This is probably the main reason why I feel the need to state that you shouldn't play Cold Steel IV without experiencing the rest of the story first, but I'll also fully acknowledge that it feels like a band-aid solution for a problem inherent with Cold Steel IV's narrative as a whole. On paper, the idea of working to prevent Erebonia's ancient curse from causing a World War is solid enough - but the framing of it all shows that the writing team, quite frankly, had no idea what they were doing.
While I could draw out several more paragraphs about the problem with Cold Steel IV's story, in reality, it all singles down to one concept - the curse. Nearly everything wrong with Cold Steel IV's actual story, and not its cutscene pacing, cast size, or delivery, can be traced back to here. The curse is a concept which at any given time can do essentially anything or nothing at all -- it can push a character towards conflict or allow literally any interaction that the writers so desire. It can possess a horse, it can be built into a Panzer Soldat, it can be conjured forth by music (and healed by it), and god knows what else more. It's the reason that characters that had been foreshadowed as doing one thing in the plot for over a decade turn around and do nothing, ending their character arc on little more than a wet fart. The dubious nature of the curse is why seemingly good characters can and will do bad things without any prior build-up - and vice-versa. It's a deus ex machina in every meaning of the word, and of the worst possible kind. Maybe I could see a way that the curse could have worked within the franchise's story as a whole, but as it is presented in Cold Steel IV, it's not just impossible to take seriously - it actively undermines the gravity of events from the series' past. Interwoven with the pacing issues, and some legendarily awful plot delivery, by the time I was in Cold Steel IV's second half, I had more or less turned off my brain entirely.
I can't really talk in more depth about the title's horrific plot delivery without divulging into spoilers, so you'll have to take my word for it that even some of the title's interesting character and plot development are hampered on that front - so I guess I'll talk about the other major issue with the game as of the writing of this review. The translation.
It pains me to say this, especially after NISA's valiant effort on Trails of Cold Steel III, but the current state of Cold Steel IV's translation is a mess. Some of the issues I ran into included, but were by no means limited to, the following: Text overflows, misspellings, missing punctuation, incorrect line breaks (whether at the beginning or end of a textbox), incredibly stilted dialog, outright translation errors (such as Sieg from Trails in the Sky referred to as "Zeke"), and much, much more. I reached out to NISA, and they told me that a patch was planned, but they offered no timeline for it - I don't know if it will be ready for launch, and even if it was, I can only judge the game that I've been given and the experience that I've had. I want to stress that I don't necessarily blame NISA for this all - although there are plenty of issues with the game's translation, it's still at least clear that they didn't just phone it in. Rather, they (or maybe even Falcom) probably didn't have enough time for another editing pass. Speaking from personal experience - I wouldn't be surprised if their workflow had been adversely impacted by COVID-19, and although I wish the game had instead been delayed (much like Cold Steel III had!), I am also cognizant that there may well have been other factors that impacted that decision. It sucks, and I'm sure that the translation will eventually be up to par with Cold Steel III... but it wasn't when I played the game, and there's no telling when it will.
As for everything else that I more or less threw aside when going over my thoughts on the game itself - if Cold Steel III felt like a redo of Cold Steel I, then Cold Steel IV feels like much of the same for Cold Steel II. Meaning, much more of the map is available to you at any given time, Trial Chests make their return, and so too do Cryptids and Lost Arts. This time around, the Brave Order system from Cold Steel III has seen some balancing changes - at the start, a character's Brave Order will be weaker than they might have been in Cold Steel III, but completing certain Trial Chests with them will buff their Brave Order's effects up to 2 times. There's quite a few of these dotted all over the world, and I won't hesitate to say that I found them fun little distractions, pitting teams of characters that I might not have otherwise used together in challenges that helped familiarize me with some of the tactics that their own Brave Orders might incentivize.
On that note, one thing that Cold Steel IV handled better than I honestly expected going in, is party composition. Although cutscenes are still as much of a mess as I described them earlier in the review, Cold Steel IV *does* attempt to mitigate players from using the same exact team for their entire playthrough by every so often either forcing them to use specific party members or offering only a choice of party members to take with them during key story scenes. While not perfect, it certainly felt like - at least as far as gameplay is concerned - Cold Steel IV manages its larger cast to a much better degree than, say, Cold Steel II could muster. You can definitely break Cold Steel IV's difficulty over your knee a variety of ways, especially on the game's Normal difficulty, but I absolutely had fun doing so.
Visuals are more or less identical to Cold Steel III, unsurprisingly, but - perhaps due to necessity - larger crowds had less of an impact on the game's framerate, even in scenes where more characters than were present in some now-infamous Cold Steel III scenes appear. As a bit of an aside; it was always at least a little bit amusing whenever the game would showcase an area that had only previously been showcased in Trails of Cold Steel I and II, and instead of utilizing remade environments, the game uses the old PS3-era environments, designed for a different lighting system and all. Those are minor moments, barely worth mentioning, but they did elicit at least a bit of a laugh when they did appear.
Overall, I'd say I enjoyed more of Cold Steel IV's music than I disliked of it, but both the tone and composition quality of the soundtrack as a whole felt more than a little disjointed. I'm well aware that it has become a meme to hate on Mitsuo Singa, but what I will say is that the man should probably be barred from using certain guitar synths. Some of his songs have some genuinely decent parts to them, but his compositions undoubtedly stood out compared to the rest of the soundtrack as a whole. I know that he can do better - I loved some of his tracks in Ys VIII - but I'd be lying if I said that hearing a certain boss track of his popping up so often wasn't immensely disappointing. Otherwise, there's some great music here, as one would expect from Falcom's output.
Maybe you already scrolled down below to see my score, or maybe you clicked on the review from the sidebar having seen it there. I'd imagine, no matter who you are, that you probably thought the score was maybe a little too harsh. Indeed, there is a lot to love about parts of Cold Steel IV - but as I always like to mention in my review, it's about how the different parts of a game come together that impact my thoughts on the game as a whole. When I reviewed the Japanese release of Ys IX last year, there was never a point where it felt like I was forcing myself to play that game - nor, despite Cold Steel III's incredible length, did I feel anything like that there. There were multiple times in Cold Steel IV where I felt like I was forcing myself to play the game, just so I could see the ending, even if I wasn't having any fun. Moments where the story delivery was so painfully bad that I wanted to turn the game off then and there, and moments where I wanted nothing more than for the game to stop needlessly spinning its wheels so I could move onto the next story bit that would actually move the plot forward.
I was, if not confident, hopeful that the lingering issues that I found myself grappling with in Cold Steel I and II had been mitigated when I played through Cold Steel III. However, now that I've seen the whole story, I can only say that those issues never went away. Even if they appeared fixed for Cold Steel III, they were always there, just below the surface. At this point, if I wasn't already in too deep, I'm not sure if I would even want to continue playing the Trails series. I have very little confidence that Falcom will learn their lesson with how to pace their games, and with the scope of both the world and the series as a whole constantly growing I have no confidence that future games won't run into these self-same issues, but to an even greater degree. It's hard to come back from a fumble like this; the stage was well and truly set for Cold Steel IV to proudly bring the series to its next, and possibly final, phase. Instead, I can only hope that - somehow - Trails will manage to stick the landing with its final act, as unlikely as that now seems.
Edit (9/25/2021): Since the publication of this review, NIS America has patched the translation to a much more suitable point. While these issues will remain in the text of the review for posterity, the score has now been updated from 5/10 to 6/10 to account for these fixes.