The Legend of Heroes: Trails Of Cold Steel 4 review – end of the story
The most epic story in Japanese role-playing history finally comes to an end but can it attract new fans as well as satisfy old ones?
We have an enormous amount of admiration for Japanese developer Falcom. Not just because they make very good games but because they do so purely on their own term and, it often seems, purely for their own amusement. Falcom aren’t chasing trends or trying to make money at any cost but instead specialise in old school Japanese role-playing games that revel in their use of familiar tropes and clichés and yet somehow always manage to find a way to create a subtly new spin on them.
It’s only been seven years since the first Trails Of Cold Steel was released and yet here we are with four games and a bare minimum of 200 hours of story and gameplay. Many games like to portray themselves as epic but the sheer volume of content for Trials Of Cold Steel is daunting to say the least – especially given this is actually a sub-series of a sub-series, with other Trails games and their characters also being referenced in this long-awaited finale.
The Cold Steel games started out on the PlayStation 3 and PS Vita and here you can read our reviews of the more recent PlayStation 4 versions of the Trails Of Cold Steel, Trails Of Cold Steel 2, and Trails Of Cold Steel 3. The fourth and final game starts just two weeks after the events of the third game, which is not surprising as originally this was supposed to be just a trilogy – until things got even more epic than was originally planned.
The world of Trials Of Cold Steel features both magic and giant robots but despite what that sounds like it’s surprisingly grounded in terms of its politics and the motivations of its characters. The backstory to the games involves a sort of magical industrial revolution, which quickly took the world from a standard medieval style society to one with giant airships. That not only brought with it cool robots but a working class revolt, which ultimately led to a full blown civil war.
The focus of the storytelling has been a military academy class which, unlike any other, mixes both highborn and commoners. This results in all the anime clichés you can think of and yet has still managed to produce a number of characters with genuine depth and poignancy, that have changed greatly over the course of the story.
As you can imagine, we’re trying not to spoil anything here but while overall this is a satisfying ending to the saga it does suffer from all the same problems as the previous titles, especially the languid pacing. You might have thought, given the cliffhanger ending of the last game and how much there is still to get through, that that wouldn’t be a problem this time around, but it really is.
Cut scenes always manage to go on for just that bit too long and nobody ever seems to be in a hurry to do anything. The biggest problem with Cold Steel 4 though is when it starts revisiting locations during its second act and turns into just a bog standard Japanese role-player, complete with banal side quests and endless dungeons.
At this point it does at least become less linear, allowing you to level grind if you want and power up your team, but the expected sense of urgency and impending finality is not evident until surprisingly late in the game.
Unsurprisingly, the combat is largely the same as previous entries, its traditional turn-based system augmented by an unusually wide range of customisation options for every character, weapon, and magic ability. Which is Cold Steel’s approach in a nutshell: it doesn’t do anything genuinely new but it does try to use existing concepts in as interesting way as possible, always adding more features and more chances to play things your way.
There are some minor changes though, notably to the break gauge, which previously made it fairly easy to stagger enemies but now requires a more co-ordinated effort from your whole team. At the same time Brave Orders, which apply buffs to your whole party at once, are generally less powerful and feel less like an instant win button.
The end result of this tinkering is that battles are not only harder but also generally longer, as you have to consider each move more carefully, almost like an XCOM game. In theory we’re absolutely fine with that but it does have the unfortunate effect of making a game that is already far too protracted seem almost unmanageably bloated.
There have been pacing issues since the very beginning of the series but at this point they’ve been magnified so much you can see it affect the quality of the text translation, which features noticeably more errors than usual. The huge cast of characters has become so unwieldly that several important plot points are almost impossible to follow unless you take time out to read a wiki and remind yourself who any of these people are.
Especially when the cameos from previous Trials games start appearing it all feels strangely reminiscent of Avengers: Endgame, except from an alternate universe where not only is everyone an anime character, instead of a superhero, but the sheer weight of plot and references becomes too much for all but the most dedicated fan to parse.
Trails Of Cold Steel 4 is far from a perfect ending to the series but despite its very obvious flaws the conclusion, once you finally get to it, is still hugely satisfying and held together by the fact that, after all these hundreds of hours, the lead characters now feel like old friends. And while the journey to get there is more long-winded than it needed to be the end result is one of the most ambitious and rewarding Japanese role-playing stories of all time.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 4 review summary
In Short: A finale that only exacerbates the faults of the series up till now but the sheer audacity of the storytelling, and the goodwill built up over so many years, pushes it over the finishing line.
Pros: Complex battle and customisation options allow for highly nuanced and enjoyable combat. One of the most fully realised game worlds in role-playing history, with very endearing characters.
Cons: Terrible pacing, even by the standards of the series, with too large a cast of characters and sloppier translation than usual. Too long and with no major new features.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Nintendo Switch, and PC
Publisher: NIS America
Release Date: 27th October 2020 (2021 for non-PS4)
Age Rating: 12
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