Cold Steel IV is the Avengers Endgame of RPGs…and it is also my Game of the Year for 2020. This is a fantastic game made purely for hardcore fans. Every single character you care about from The Legend of Heroes is here, and they all have important roles to play. Even smaller NPCs have interesting stories to tell, which makes exploring Erebonia a never-ending joyride. Every single loose end you could think of also gets tied surprisingly neatly by taking its time in this very, very, very long adventure. Every single pixel of this game is worth experiencing. Except for Ouroboros. They still suck.
The Legend of Heroes series has been a part of my life in a similar way to how people grow up alongside the actors of the Harry Potter movies or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ever since Trails in the Sky and Cold Steel 1, I’ve pretty much been playing these games non-stop until now. I mention this because I am now left with a strange emptiness inside from seeing this insane saga come to a close with Trails of Cold Steel IV. It’s a game that achieved a similar feat to Avengers Endgame in that Falcom has managed to consistently release high-quality games, all of which connect to one another in significant ways. These connections have now all come together in this grand finale, where an enormous world-ending threat requires the power of all the characters from every game to team up against it. I will not spoil anything, but if you’re already a fan of The Legend of Heroes and you simply want to check if this game is worth the kick in the nuts that was the last game’s cliffhanger, then I can tell you now that it absolutely is. It is more than worthy of being called an emotional and (relatively) satisfying ending to the truly epic adventures of Class VII and Thors Military Academy.
This game is PACKED to the teeth with content. My full playthrough for this review clocked in at about 92 hours, which doesn’t include all of the side quests and exploration I skipped over to be able to finish the whole thing fast enough. I really regret doing that, because that’s usually the best part about all of the Legend of Heroes games. You have always been sent to travel around different parts of Erebonia, help solve people’s problems, and uncover more of the main story toward the end, and then rinse and repeat until the credits roll. That tried and true routine is no different in Cold Steel IV, but I have no qualms with it, since there is a staggering amount of interesting characters to talk to and fun things to do everywhere you go.
And of course, the same Orbment-based combat system is here too. This also extend to the graphics and music, since this game stands as more of an immediate continuation of Cold Steel III than any sequel that would aim to revamp the whole experience. That’s essentially what Cold Steel III was anyway. There are a couple of new moves here and there, but nothing that you won’t already be used to.
In other words, nothing has changed other than the sheer enormity of characters to play as. As mentioned before, every Legend of Heroes character under the sun will be available to play with at some point. Some characters will be only be playable during special story events, but more than a few will stick around for the entire game. The cast can get so large in fact that you sometimes explore dungeons with multiple teams that you can switch to on the fly, similar to some parts in Cold Steel III. Since the Orbment system is so good at letting you customize your character into having whatever build you want, you are more than welcome to pick whoever your favorite characters are and customize them to your hearts content. You can even unlock new clothing, items and hair colors for them as you develop your relationship with them. This is only the tip of the iceberg as the fun doesn’t truly start until you strike conversation with everyone and get to know them better than you know yourself. It is actual insanity that Cold Steel IV has managed to achieve the impossible and do what I thought was a long forgotten dream: it made me care about the story.
The Great One
I’ve always gone on record to say that I’ve never truly cared or had any love for the main story line of Cold Steel or The Legend of Heroes in general. Most of time, it seemed a bit too dense to understand without playing all the other games, or it simply wasn’t interesting enough for me to care. Filled with many clichés, unnecessary info dumps, poorly executed plot twists and predictable outcomes, it always paled in comparison to all the side content that fleshed out the characters in a way that put the main story to shame. However, with Cold Steel IV (and after putting the work of playing every single game in the franchise), that is no longer the case.
The story, aside from a few blemishes here and there, is nothing short of fantastic. It never runs out of twists and turns to throw at you, for better or for worse, but they still keep every character as consistent and likable as ever. After the massive cliffhanger from Cold Steel III, the game kicks off in the most depressing way imaginable with seemingly all hope lost. However, as you play and accrue more party members, things start to look up and the world slowly opens up to you, to the point where eventually every location ever will be available to explore. This exploration is important, since it includes a lot of hidden quests that the game doesn’t force you to complete or even allude to at all, but can be pretty important for the story. Some hidden things can be small dialogue scenes, but you can also find full-on quests where you run through dungeons and beat bosses to see a mini-story arc unfold. You would be doing yourself a disservice to skip any of it, like I did for most of the game.
I acknowledge that most reviewers describe certain games as a “living, breathing world,” to the point that those words no longer hold the same weight and meaning that they once did. However, I can’t find any other way to describe the world of Zemuria in Cold Steel IV. It truly is, in every sense of the word, a genuinely well-realized continent with an astounding amount of detail, consistency and love for the characters within it. This extends from the biggest characters to the smallest NPCs you could easily avoid.
The Imperial Encyclopedia
Before I even begin with my criticisms, I want to make it absolutely clear that I LOVE this game; probably more than any other Cold Steel game. However, there have always been aspects to this series that have always rubbed me the wrong way. Issues that have prevailed since the very beginning of the series that are still an issue in this grand finale.
Despite all of the love I have given this game, I don’t think I would have appreciated it anywhere near as much had I not gone through the trouble of either playing or reading about all the games prior to this one. It wouldn’t bother me if they were all short 10-hour experiences, but they’re not. All of them are lengthy 40-80 hour RPGs that are also bursting at the seams with information you’ll need to remember, or at least vaguely recall, for Cold Steel IV. Some vital information doesn’t even show itself until you beat some of these games a second time. For anyone that’s new to the series, it’s an incredibly demanding, and almost unfair thing to ask of them, especially when some of the most important games in the story have never been officially translated into English. Not even the recap that Cold Steel IV provides is enough to get you up to speed with everything, so it’s difficult to recommend this game to anyone that isn’t a full-on fanatic of the series. Otherwise, you’ll be lost and confused for the whole thing.
If you know everything, this game is magnificent. If you’re new and have a lot of time in your hands, buy Trails in the Sky on Steam instead and work your way up from there.
Bad Guys Are Bad
Another thing that has always bothered me about Cold Steel is definitely the villains, particularly Ouroboros. There are other enemies like the jaegers, the Stalritter, and the Ironbloods who prove themselves to be far more interesting as you play, especially when the fights get a lot more personal for the heroes. Ouroboros however are pretty much just as annoying as they have always been. Even the characters within the game poke fun at how they always seem to appear for the sole purpose of just smirking at them, being overly vague about what their intentions are, and then teleporting away with nothing accomplished. Not to mention how it never fails to irritate when you defeat them in a boss battle, but then get up and move on with their plans like the fight never happened. It was annoying in Cold Steel 1, 2, and 3, and it is still annoying when trying to reach the finish line of this saga. It really makes me wonder why the writers are so committed to this awful routine when they themselves acknowledge how bad it is. I can only hope that this acknowledgment is a sign of change, but I doubt it.
One final thing I wanted to point out was the difficulty. I went with “very easy” for the sake of beating the game faster, but it doesn’t feel easy at all. It’s only until a few boss fights toward the end (the final boss in particular) where it feels like the game is truly easy. But throughout the whole game, you will come across a ton of tough foes that will require you to actually pay attention. I can’t even imagine how tough any other difficulty level might be if “very easy” can leave you with dead characters if you don’t take it seriously. It’s not a big issue by any means, but I just thought I should mention that for anyone that cares about it.
End of Saga
In conclusion, even with its glaring flaws, I still love The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV more than any other game in the Cold Steel series. It made me happy, angry, sad, nostalgic, awkward, depressed, hopeful for the future, full of laughter and thought-provoking quotes that I took many screenshots from. Everyone and everything from the series comes together beautifully, chock full of content that you will definitely miss in your first run. Personally, I am more than down to play through it again, mostly to explore and discover as many things as possible. The best way to play this title is the same for all the others: just live it. Don’t try to speedrun it or find the optimal tryhard way to win. Just take it all in at your own pace and really smell the virtual roses of Erebonia as it takes you away for a ride.
And what a ride it was…