This is a Trails of Cold Steel 4 Review for PS4, with big spoilers to previous games but no significant spoilers for Cold Steel 4 itself.
Comfort can always be found in what’s familiar. We’ve all revisited our favourite old films, ordered the exact same takeaway meal, or gone back to the same holiday destination. Playing it safe may not get you onto the edge of your seat, but you won’t be slumped back in disappointment either. And when it comes to the finale of the Trails of Cold Steel saga, if you’re already this far into the series, you probably know exactly what you’re going to get.
Namely, a long time with a likeable cast that each have a different hair colour (unless they’re related), a great traditional battle system, characters appearing from nowhere to save the day, and motivational speeches… lots of motivational speeches. If there’s one thing Thors Military Academy seems to teach better than anything, it’s the ability to shout “Right!” or “Yeah!” in perfect harmony.
By now, we’ve spent hundreds of hours scaling Erebonia, experiencing the ups and downs of Class VII, building to a crossover title that makes the Avengers look short-staffed. After all this time, do we reach a satisfying conclusion? With spoilers from the previous Cold Steel games, but nothing major from Cold Steel 4, it’s time to find out.
Following Trails of Cold Steel 3’s shocking cliffhanger ending, events pick up roughly where they left off when the Great Twilight was invoked and the evil curse of Erebonia swept across the land. With Rean missing, Class VII is left at its lowest ebb, once again facing unbeatable odds against near-omnipotent enemies with carefully crafted plans.
In the early stages, it’s Juna who takes centre stage, becoming the heart and soul of both new and old Class VII in Rean’s absence. They may have conveniently lost all of their quartz and equipment (surprise) and may be rusty after Cold Steel 3’s final battle, but that’s nothing a rousing motivational speech can’t solve.
Before long, the gang is back on its feet and fighting to get their beloved friend and instructor back, on a journey packed with just about everything and everyone from each connected subseries playing a part. If Cold Steel 3’s ‘back to school’ format emulated Cold Steel 1, then Cold Steel 4 takes far more inspiration from the relatively open world vibe of Cold Steel 2.
Cold Steel, more than any other Legend of Heroes subseries, has never skimped on its cast list, and Cold Steel 4 is no exception with more crossovers than ever. The prologue instantly introduces the Liberl and Crossbell teams, and if you haven’t played everything from Trails in the Sky to the Crossbell arc it’s inevitable a few points will fly over your head. Saying that, the party chatter adds enough context to these events for you to get the gist. For those who have experienced these characters before, it’s wonderful to see them fully realised in 3D.
At times the roster gets ridiculous. There are occasions with so many characters to choose from it’s actually overwhelming. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many playable characters in a single RPG. Most segments fix a handful of members in your squad for loose story purposes, but give enough freedom to pick backup characters that you can generally keep your favourites on the battlefield.
On the rare occasions this isn’t possible, I always breathed a huge sigh of relief when the guest characters had fixed equipment and quartz. You soon end up with so many orbs and accessories that it’s a mighty headache to rearrange them. I relished any section that didn’t make me spend another ten minutes tinkering around in the menus, knowing full well I’d later forget which things were assigned to my ‘main’ party members.
The battle system is virtually identical to Cold Steel 3 except for some minor alterations to a couple of moves and orders. I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed the turn-based battle system of the Cold Steel series, and it’s nice to jump back into it here – though a few more tweaks would have been welcome. You’ll likely already know enough tricks of the trade from previous games to render the challenge a joke. I’d recommend starting on hard mode, but even then, a decent knowledge of the right tactics and combinations will be enough to breeze through most boss fights.
Alongside the main story, Cold Steel 4 packs in a plethora of content. Quests are dotted around the map, as are optional plot events and trial chests. Prizes are earned from taking photos, collecting profile notes and battle records. Cooking and fishing make a return, as does the great card game Vantage Masters. These games are now joined by the brutally difficult but addictive Pom Pom Party!, a Tetris-style puzzle battle from the Crossbell games.
Sidequests follow everything we’ve come to expect in previous titles. There’s usually a monster on a highway, a fetch quest involving three to four markers on the map, and a dialogue-heavy section that depends on picking the right options to gain additional points. Every now and then something miscellaneous crops up, like winning a card game, but few that really felt worth the time or effort. With so many characters and so much plot to get through, these usually did nothing but drag out proceedings, missing an opportunity in the process.
Towards the end of the game, a couple of quests actually provided some fantastic character moments that had me thoroughly invested in the optional segments for the first time in dozens of hours. It made me wonder why more of these side events didn’t delve into the backstories of the main characters who hadn’t had as much attention. With so much plot to get through the dull, formulaic nature of the quests only served to slow the story’s momentum, and I cared far more about a party member revisiting their hometown or reaching out to estranged family members than collecting some cooking ingredients for a random villager.
Politics has always featured heavily in Trails of Cold Steel’s plot, deepening the world and enriching each distinct setting with fantastic world building rarely matched elsewhere. However, Cold Steel’s true heart is in its characters, most of whom have interesting backgrounds and complex motivations. For that very reason, I found the whole notion of Erebonia’s curse a simplistic plot device that rather cheapened some of the antagonists. The bulk of the world doesn’t look or act any different to before, but ominous purple curse-flames pop up when the plot needs a character to act a bit evil. I don’t think the story needed it, and for the majority of the game the curse acts as more of a narrative convenience than an interesting mechanic.
Speaking of evil, the cast of villains has now grown as large as the heroes. Many of them get shortchanged, as there is simply not enough time to split between them. I have always enjoyed the Ouroboros Enforcers, whose powers and style have invariably commanded a screen presence and sense of urgency in the past. Here, some have a tendency to come across like pantomime villains and I found Osborne’s Ironbloods far more interesting this time around. Unlike many enforcers (though admittedly not all of them), the backstories are explored enough to give them believable motivations, with direct links to the cast that raise both tension and emotion when the encounters ensue.
Cedric, whose journey from a pathetic prince to a Divine Knight Awakener desperate for power at any cost feels authentic, and inspires a genuine desire to beat him down on the occasions we meet him. Likewise, Rufus Albarea gets far too little screentime given his natural charisma and close connection to Class VII.
There are still emotional scenes aplenty, but are inconsistent in their effect. Cold Steel 3 took a big step at its conclusion by raising the stakes with the demise of a few major characters, including a massive fan-favourite in Olivier/Olivert. As heartbreaking as this was, it was the perfect way to set up the end of the saga, properly igniting the embers of a war where characters are no longer nicely safe.
I won’t venture into any specific spoilers, but I’ll say I was a bit disappointed that Cold Steel 4 largely reverted to type. Cold Steel is great at building the drama to an exciting climax, only to let it dissipate within seconds after the boss fight is over, with no lasting consequences. At times it almost borders on parody, with sworn enemies having the exemplary manners of butlers playing tiddlywinks.
This is far from new, but with Cold Steel 4 being the final chapter in a deadly conflict raging across the continent, I perhaps naively expected a few more shocks. As the story was reaching its crescendo, I only felt the stakes getting lower rather than higher. Above all, it’s this that leads me to a conclusion that Cold Steel 4 isn’t quite on a par with its predecessor.
Now, I completely get that Cold Steel wants to be a friendly experience which fully embraces its cheesiness, and that’s fine. I’m not saying it needs to be Game of Thrones, or that main characters should be beaten to death with a golf club within a few hours of starting out, but a story about war probably shouldn’t feel this…fun. It’s too predictable and with such a bloated cast list, the more established personalities can be relegated into the background with little to do. I think more characters being killed off throughout the saga would have solved these problems, even if they were secondary ones.
After calling for a higher fatality rate, it’s perhaps ironic that one of my favourite aspects of Cold Steel 4 was Crow, who previously returned from the dead and regained his memories in the final segment of the previous title. As another awakener, Crow is on far more equal footing with Rean and isn’t afraid to show it. Their bond is one blurring the lines of friendship, rivalry and even brotherhood. It makes a refreshing change to the hero worship Rean receives from just about every other cast member, especially those who weren’t as taken with him beforehand where it would appear absence has certainly made the heart fonder.
I also had a huge soft spot for Crimson Roselia, the 800-year old sagely, powerful sorceress… with the appearance and temperament of a child, regularly scolded by her own granddaughter for things like not eating her vegetables.
Though Falcom’s habit to stick to their conventional plot beats can flatten the mood, their music never lets us down. Cold Steel 4 is no exception, containing a soundtrack that features some of the best of the series. Its nostalgic throwbacks to previous tunes are presented in many new arrangements that pack a bit more oomph.
The main battle theme starts with a few seconds of piano melancholy before picking up into a typically awesome rock number. This captures the mood of Class VII perfectly as their downbeat starting situation is soon shaken into a trademark resolve to take action. The boss and Divine Knight encounters also hold some epic tracks that always pump up the sense of exhilaration and excitement for battle. There’s something about characters yelling the names of their powerful attacks as the boss music blares that never gets old.
That’s just as well, because Trails of Cold Steel 4 is probably the longest title in the Legend of Heroes series so far. I sunk well over a hundred hours into this one, and whilst I completed the vast majority of optional quests I ended up actually using the fast forward button for several non-essential scenes. I’ve never been tempted to do this before, which tells me Cold Steel 4 is too long. For all its great substance, there is plenty of fat around the edges that could and should have been trimmed away. By now, we surely don’t need to backtrack around the same towns as the last game talking to everyone to gather basic information. Certain chapters add nothing meaningful whatsoever, involving dungeons and boss fights so surplus to requirement that even the characters themselves give off the impression they know they are fighting for the sake of it.
Other scenes drag on, containing dozens of characters standing around to agree with each other. The voice acting is basically random, where there may be one line voiced, followed by ten that aren’t and then a few in a row. This was strange to witness, but truthfully wasn’t crucial to my enjoyment and the sheer volume of lines is a large mitigating factor. I don’t envy the translators, meaning the odd formatting or spelling blip is also forgiven in my book.
Cold Steel 4 is an ambitious undertaking, occasionally creaking under the weight of the enormous content it has sought to include, but manages to pull it off. Every aspect of the gameplay is polished up to provide an experience that will please you more often than not, and even when it missed the mark I still managed a wry smile at Cold Steel’s eagerness to serve up repeat portions of its familiar tropes.
Ultimately, the many good times offered by Cold Steel 4 make the forgettable ones well worth it. After spending a few hours with these characters virtually every day for a real-life month, the end of the journey left an instant void. There are more Trails games on the horizon, but Class VII with their boundless optimism, corny speeches and tight camaraderie will forever hold a special place in my heart. I already miss the characters, and hope Falcom will heed the call to keep exploring the vast world they’ve constructed so we can see them all again.
Trails of Cold Steel 4 is available here.