Review – The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV (Switch)
When I told a friend of mine I was going to review The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV, he called me a madman. No, it wasn’t because the game is bad or anything like that; on the contrary, this is a pretty good JRPG that takes the genre into a bold new direction in terms of complexity.
The thing is, the whole Trails saga is one bloated interconnected story, with tons of games to play through in order to fully understand what’s going on. This is the kind of franchise that makes the whole MCU look like a children’s book in terms of complexity. Starting off with Trails of Cold Steel IV, which a lot of Switch players will do due to the sheer lack of fully localized Trails games for the Switch in the West, is like trying to play Yakuza by starting out with the fifth game in the franchise, or watching Game of Thrones from the third season onwards.
Thankfully, in between knowing about Trails of Cold Steel IV‘s Switch release and the actual arrival of its release code, I dived into its complex lore like a college student studying for a text. When the game finally arrived, I first took some time in its lore menu, which is basically an “In Case You Missed It” library of info which explained every single game in the Cold Steel subseries with shocking amounts of detail, chapter by chapter. NIS America and Falcom knew they had to provide as much info as possible for Switch players in order for them to understand what the freaking hell was going on before starting a new game, and honestly, I do think they did a good job. With the literal hundreds of hours of exposition out of the way, I was ready to start Trails of Cold Steel IV.
Trails of Cold Steel IV takes place a mere two weeks after the previous game’s ultra cliffhanger of an ending. This is, for all intents and purposes, the Endgame to Trails of Cold Steel III‘s Infinity War. They need to be treated as one single, 200 hour long experience. Especially since the fourth game in the franchise doesn’t waste its time trying to tell you what had happened prior, unless you spend some time in the aforementioned lore menu. The final battle from the previous game resulted in the unleashing of a cataclysm that threatens the existence of the world as we know it. Nations are preparing to declare war against each other, everybody feels defeated, and to make matters worse, the franchise’s actual protagonist, Rean Schwarzer, is missing.
After a brief Final Fantasy VII-esque prologue section which stars the protagonist from other Trails subseries (just to add an extra layer of confusion for the uninitiated), the game will truly begin. The player controls the former students instructed by Schwarzer, who are dead set on looking for their missing instructor. They’ll also join forces with their older peers in order to avoid the war and put an end on the game’s many, many villains’ schemes. Throughout this mammoth-sized story, you’ll be able to add over a whopping FIFTY characters onto your squad. Each one of them are fully voiced and have such detailed lore that it makes Tolkien’s penchant for overexplaining things look tame in comparison.
Trails of Cold Steel IV might be a traditional turn-based JRPG, but the combat isn’t its main focus. This franchise as a whole is lauded for how deep its storytelling can get at times. It’s hours and hours of complex and well-written dialogue, with even the most useless of NPCs featuring at least a few lines of dialogue each. Everything feeling properly localized and devoid of that occasional cringe factor that plagues some JRPG translations. I also need to mention that, unlike lots of anime and some JRPGs, Trails of Cold Steel IV‘s story-heavy sections do not feel like annoying exposition dumps. Characters talk naturally to each other, moving the plot forward in believable ways.
This is all backed by a ton – and I do mean a TON – of voice acting. Some of it is pretty good, some of it is abysmal, and the vast majority of it feels… decent. At first, I thought I was ready to be overwhelmed by cheesy, OG Resident Evil levels of bad voice acting, as the first few characters that show up in the game’s initial cutscenes are poorly voiced. The main characters in the prologue section didn’t help change my mind either. Thankfully, the moment the game transitioned to its actual protagonists, things got a lot better. The soundtrack, in true Falcom fashion, was also pretty good, although not as good as some other games made by the company.
Now, despite being a “story first, gameplay second” kind of the game, this doesn’t mean that Trails of Cold Steel IV‘s combat sections are bad. On the contrary, I do love this turn-based system, but I do need to clarify that it is very complex, just like its story.
Besides your traditional simple attack, you can perform Crafts (instant magic attacks that deplete your CP meter), Arts (EP meter-depleting magic attacks that require a turn to charge), orders (passive buffs that can be activated at any time, as long as you have enough points in your BP meter), and S-Links (ultimate moves that completely deplete your CP meter). As you can see, there are tons of meters you need to pay attention to at all times. I’m not going to lie, it felt completely confusing at first. Thankfully, there’s a way to properly remember each meter with ease. Think of CP as a special stamina bar that is replenished in small dosages each turn, EP being your traditional mana, and BP being a special meter which increases when you perform team-based combos or exploit an enemy’s weakness.
Besides this, you’ll need to constantly upgrade your character’s equipment, just like your traditional JRPG. You’ll also collect and spend special kinds of gems to upgrade what’s basically a special kind of cellphone. This houses orbs that can be equipped onto your party members in order to further increase their stats, as well as teach them new special abilities. You’re still with me?
This sounds like a complete mess to a newcomer, but unlike the storytelling, Trails of Cold Steel IV does spend a lot of time teaching you about each and one of these combat mechanics in a shockingly organic way. It doesn’t dump all of the available techniques at once and tells you to figure stuff out. It gradually unlocks a few new features during the prologue sections until you finally get a hold of what each move and option can do, and how you can link these abilities with other team members in order to create some completely crazy combos. The combat is easily this game’s main highlight… besides the storytelling, that is.
This is basically the game’s main gameplay loop: go to a new area, be greeted to a ton of storytelling, meet new characters, get access to new team members, explore a small dungeon, reach a boss, and move on. At its core, it is a very traditional JRPG, just expanded to a ludicrous degree of complexity. I truly respect Falcom’s design choices in here, but even when taking the lore-based barrier of entry out of the equation, I do have a few issues with this game.
The first main issue lies on how slow-paced this game is. I’m not talking about the plot progression, but the speed in which each cutscene is presented, as well as the overall character movement and some other overworld features. When your game features a “Fast Button” to speed its gameplay up, you know there’s something wrong with it.
My other issues are most certainly consequences of the Switch’s hardware. Despite not being, by any means, a hardware-demanding game even by PS3 standards (it runs on the ultra-dated Phyre Engine, the same one used in the Ys games), Trails of Cold Steel IV is prone to occasional but very annoying performance issues. The game never manages to go beyond 30fps, often dropping a bit whenever things get a bit hectic onscreen. The loading times are also noticeably long, probably a consequence of having to unzip hours upon hours of uncompressed audio on what’s otherwise a fairly small game, clocking at around 10GB. Given its slow pace, as well as the number of times new cutscenes are loaded one after the other, the long loading times got on my nerves pretty quickly.
Your enjoyment of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV will directly depend on whether or not you’ve played the previous games in this gigantic franchise. If so, then you’ll actually understand what’s going on and will have a great time with this stupidly detailed story. If not, you’ll either going to love it for its excellent combat system or feel completely clueless as to what’s happening. This is a bold game made specifically to appease to fans of its predecessors. I can’t help but give Falcom kudos for making such a newcomer-unfriendly yet absolutely captivating JRPG with the single largest roster of characters I have ever seen in my life.
Trails of Cold Steel IV does not push the Switch’s hardware to its limits at all, despite featuring a strong art style. It’s also prone to a few performance issues.
The turn-based combat system featured in here is complex to the point of being intimidating at first, but the game does a fantastic job at teaching you about its mechanics in a very natural way. The combat is easily this game’s highlight… if you don’t care about the story, that is.
There is a shocking amount of voice acting, most of it being decent, some of it excellent, and some of it abysmal. The soundtrack is also pretty good, especially during battle sections, although not as good as other games made by Falcom.
Your enjoyment will most depend on how much you know and understand about this massive storyline which rivals Game of Thrones in terms of complexity and amount of characters. The storytelling is its main focus, while the combat, which is excellent, is a distant second. Its long loading times also got on my nerves.
Final Verdict: 7.5
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV is available now on PS4, PC, and Switch.
Reviewed on Switch.
A copy of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV was provided by the publisher.