With The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV, a true epic finally comes (mostly) to a close. Spanning four games, each one clocking in at some 80 hours, simply playing through all Trails of Cold Steel is a mammoth undertaking (before you even factor in other Legend of Heroes games like Trails in the Sky, which are their own stories but help form part of the lore that Cold Steel builds upon). But as I’ve said before, it’s a massive set of games that earns every minute of its running time, with every little detail helping to paint a rich, nuanced picture of a complex state at a turning point in its history.
Trails of Cold Steel IV continues right where Cold Steel III left off (spoiler warning!): the best efforts of Rean Schwarzer and the rest of both the old and new Class VIIs to try prevent the outbreak of a full-blown war have failed. Rean accidentally set in motion the “Great Twilight”, a cataclysmic event foretold in prophecy, before getting captured by the leaders of the Erebonian Empire and sealed away. The empire has declared war on the neighbouring Calvard Republic after months of tension, and is going all out with conscription notices, resource requisition, and rousing public support. There’s a whole lot of shit about to hit a whole lot of fans, in other words.
Meanwhile, most of Class VII managed to evacuate to the hidden Eryn Village, home of the Hexen witch clan (from which Class VII’s Emma Millstein hails). From the relative safety of a quiet village hidden deep in a huge forest and protected by magic from outside interference, they can start looking for their old instructor and figuring out how to rescue him—and then try to figure out what their place is in a wartorn empire, with the literal end of the world bearing down on them.
That’s a very brief summary out of necessity, but it’s one that doesn’t really do Trails of Cold Steel IV justice. Superficially, it hits a lot of familiar JRPG notes: there’s an ambitious, warmongering empire, an evil curse, the threat of world destruction, gods to kill, and plenty of larger than life characters with names like McBurn, the Almighty Conflagration. But this is where that long-haul approach to storytelling works wonders; with hundreds of hours of careful, detailed world-building and groundwork being laid across the previous games, the events of Cold Steel IV feel entirely plausible, even at their most seemingly eccentric on paper. The stakes are higher than ever because of the investment into making the continent of Zemuria feel real, and into giving every character, right down to the most minor NPCs, an authentic sense of depth and humanity.
In the case of the central cast, these are characters that, if you’ve played the previous games first (which is highly recommended), you’ve spent hundreds of hours with by the time Cold Steel IV starts rolling. With sharp writing and rich characterisation, those hundreds of hours are enough to make a group of fictitious characters feel like family, and Cold Steel IV isn’t just a chance to see them again, but to watch their continued growth as people. Even with personalities firmly established since the first game, the members of Class VII continue to face new challenges, to grow in response to those challenges, and to continue to surprise.
And of course, all this build-up, all this scene setting, all this detailed character work builds up to a dramatic conclusion—one that’s all the more impactful, shocking, and meaningful for the investment made in the lead-up to it. I obviously don’t want to go into any sort of detail, but it’s exactly the payoff that a series like Trails of Cold Steel needs and deserves: a grand finale full of surprising twists and emotions laid bare, a sense of finality, and the slightest hint of some unresolved threads to leave the mystery smoldering (and a keep a door open to a new arc of the overarching Legend of Heroes story).
It’s also the culmination of some thought-provoking themes that the series has been exploring since its beginning. Trails of Cold Steel is, at heart, a story about war: what drives it, and the all-consuming effect it has on everyone it touches, from the soldiers on the front lines to the civilians in small towns far removed from the action. This is a series that’s looked at what imperialist expansion means for those subjugated by it, at how well-meaning ideology can be warped into nefarious ends, at how “good” and “evil” can be so subjective.
Trails of Cold Steel IV looks, in particular, at propaganda. It’s the story of an “evil” empire told mostly from within it, with much attention given to how the empire’s leaders garner public support for their actions. Rousing speeches about national unity, military parades, a lot of “light in the darkness” talk about how war is inevitable but necessary to protect the safe future of the world, and that the Empire’s might will ensure the war is as short-lived as possible—these are the tools the Empire’s rulers use to build the public support it needs to proceed with its plan. In reality, such things are never black and white, and Trails of Cold Steel regularly contrasts the Empire’s propaganda with the far more complex reality of the situation.
That public support is needed, in part, because the Empire needs resources to maintain its war effort. It needs to be able to requisition supplies and conscript soldiers, and to have its people willingly comply with laws to that effect, even to their own personal detriment—the war effort needs regular, everyday citizens to feel like they’re part of something greater, and that their sacrifices are for the good of all. Just because the fighting is taking place far away, on the other side of a border, doesn’t mean that people at home aren’t affected by it.
Trails of Cold Steel IV pays particular attention to the impact of that propaganda on the regular folk most affected by it. As with previous games, a large portion of the story involves travelling to different corners of the empire and working closely with the locals—not for class trips, this time, but as part of Class VII’s efforts to gather intel and try to find out where Rean is being held captive. Working closely with people from different walks of life means getting to know their struggles, which is something that Trails of Cold Steel has always used brilliantly to establish its world and explore its ideas; Cold Steel IV is no exception, as you witness families torn apart by conscription even as they cheer on the very cause of their pain.
Combat and other systems in Trails of Cold Steel IV remain largely unchanged from the games before it, but that’s not a bad thing. Battles leverage the familiarity of a classic turn-based setup, but with lots of little wrinkles to add complexity and strategic depth, with an emphasis on manipulating the turn order to your advantage. There are some minor tweaks this time around, in the form of unlockable powered-up Orders for some characters and balance adjustments to some of the sub-systems, but it mostly keeps Cold Steel III‘s system intact.
It’s got the same detailed RPG systems built around upgradeable stat-boosting and ability-inferring quartz, the same assortment of sub-systems like fishing, cooking, and relationship building, the same variety of minigames like poker and the Vantage Master card game. Trails of Cold Steel IV isn’t a sequel so much as a continuation of Cold Steel III, and that’s reflected in systems that mostly mirror the previous game. But they’re systems that worked well and continue to do so here—don’t try fix what isn’t broken, and all that.
Where Trails of Cold Steel IV does stand out from its predecessors is in the playable cast. Between the core roster of Class VII and a wide range of support characters that show up at various points in the story, Cold Steel IV has almost 40 different playable characters, each of whom bring their own little quirks into play. A handful of these haven’t been playable before at all, or haven’t been since the pre-Cold Steel era of The Legend of Heroes, and even the returning cast come sporting some new abilities to keep things fresh.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV is the dramatic conclusion to a grand epic that’s been almost a decade in the making. It’s another chance to spend time with a bunch of characters that have become like family across three prior games, and the culmination of a nuanced exploration of the many faces of war. Most of all, it’s the sort of payoff that only hundreds of hours of meticulous, thoughtful worldbuilding can lead up to.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV is developed by Nihon Falcom and published by NIS America. It’s available now for PlayStation 4 (reviewed), and coming to Nintendo Switch and PC in 2021.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.