Thank you NIS America for sending us this game to review!
The Legend of Heroes: Trails series is one of the most unique in all of video games. How many other games (much less Japanese-style RPGs) can you think of that has not only nine entries, but also contiguous games - where each one is a direct sequel to the last, continuing on where the other left off, with crossover characters between each one? Oh - and did I mention that this series is really only about sixty percent complete?
Ever since 2004's The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky (we in the West got it quite a bit later), this series has had a continuous story to tell, starting from Estelle and Joshua's exploits in Liberl, through Lloyd and the SSS's adventures in Crossbell (Trails from Zero and Trails to Azure, the Crossbell duology, are not yet officially localized), and Rean's journey through Erebonia in the Trails of Cold Steel series to the present day, leading up to the culmination in this title, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV. Being the latest of nine games, it brings to a close many of the loose story threads that have tied the series together - and ended on an incredible note.
WARNING: It's at this early point in the review that I have to say that from here on, while I did my best to avoid spoilers, doing so entirely is impossible. Trails of Cold Steel I-III, and Sky/Crossbell are assumed and understood information, so I may be forced to spoil those games. DO NOT start with this game; instead read my other reviews if you can. I would recommend starting this series off with Trails in the Sky if you can enjoy old-style gameplay; if not, don't start any later than Trails of Cold Steel (the first one). Whatever you do, play them in order. Each of the three arcs, Sky, Crossbell, and Cold Steel, are somewhat self contained, but there is important continuity between them, and this title, Trails of Cold Steel IV, brings together the characters from all of them.
AGAIN WARNING: FROM HERE ON, THERE MAY BE SPOILERS FOR ALL 8 PREVIOUS GAMES. (That said, I do try my best to avoid them.)
Now that we got that out of the way, let's take a look at what is arguably the longest Legend of Heroes game yet - and that's saying something. This title took me a bit over two hundred and sixteen hours to complete; do understand that I am a bit of a completionist, and if there is a stray bit of dialogue to be found in any far corner of the world, I'm going to go find it. I got all fish caught, all quests completed, all romance options complete (I had to pick romance or the character notebooks, and I chose the former because I wanted to take complete appropriateness notes), and so on. So, while some players could likely beat this game in perhaps half of the time it took me, it's still huge - one of the longest single player games I've ever played. And considering that this series is full of epically-long games, there's quite the investment here. You are rewarded with not only interesting gameplay, but one of the most well-built worlds and cast of characters in all of video games.
The closest analogy I saw someone use was comparing this to series to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In Sky, you have the story of the Liberl characters; we could compare that to Iron Man. (It's not a perfect analogy, but it did start it all.) Then, you have Crossbell; let's assign them Thor. Then, we have Rean's story in Trails of Cold Steel; let's assign him to Captain America. Then, Cold Steel III & IV are the games where they all finally come together - think Avengers. While this isn't the perfect analogy, I do think it works well to show you the depth and scale of the story on offer here.
Cold Steel IV starts about two weeks after the grand events at the ending of Cold Steel III. Rean finds himself locked up and not in his right mind, with the rest of Class VII trying to figure out what to do next. The Great Twilight, which is a spiritual curse that infects people's souls, has taken over all of Erebonia, and the world is inching closer and closer to war. Juna takes the lead in much of this part of the game, rallying Class VII (old and new) to bring Rean back and getting everyone else together, too. They then work to stop the Twilight and bring the world back from the edge of destruction. Without spoiling too much, it's a great story with lots of twists and turns. We finally get to see Class VII emerge out of everyone else's shadow, and make a true difference, without the clutch of being rescued all of the time.
We also find that hiding from the Imperial forces plays a large role in containing the player, but in exchange, you eventually get to fly on an airship; it's not unlike CS II, where you have various regions to explore to complete your main objectives. There are a ton of optional quests here, and each time a major quest is completed that causes time to pass, most NPCs update what they say to reflect current events. On top of this, there are several series of in-game books that helps flesh out the lore, or even foreshadows future events that may take place in the coming games. One of the Trails series' strongest suits has been its writing, and Trails of Cold Steel IV is absolutely no exception. Random NPCs you helped out in earlier games make appearances large and small, and even characters dating as far back as Sky or the Crossbell duology make an appearance, and in some cases even complete subplots that span all of those games. And yes - that means Anton is back once again.
And really, the fact that I can mention Anton - a silly, unimportant NPC that has appeared in every game since Trails in the Sky - and that long-time fans will instantly know who I am talking about, is part of the charm of what makes this series so special. Over the course of now nine games, everyone from the traveler from Liberl I already mentioned to the waitress in Crossbell whose father refuses to let her date to the kid and his father who thinks of work and money over his family to the market manager with regrets - the characters and their lives, whose stories weave in and out of these games, makes the world just feel real. This writing, again, is like nothing else in gaming. And the word count proves it - this is one of the longest game scripts in history - even longer than the Bible! I did note some errors here and there, though that is understandable, given the massive word count. Some of the errors included typos, and calling a location by the wrong name or spelling.
The writing, storytelling, and characters, especially considering the massive size of the cast, are incredibly well developed, and you come to love them all over the course of these many games. Trails of Cold Steel IV completes several arcs of the meta-narrative that has been going on since Sky (though by no means all of them). As a result, this game has an absolutely massive cast - well over fifty, almost all of which return from previous games - that you've come to love (or hate - I counted bad guys in that list also) over the course of this series. I know I've made this point several times by now, but the writing on this whole series, including this game, is just superb. The music is also equally great, a long time Nihon Falcom specialty. Like all of their games I've played, I always make it a point to try to get copies of the OST in some form; this one is certainly no exception. (Pro tip: the PC versions often include the music in a playable format directly in the game files.) Just ask my kids - Trails (and Ys) games' music are all on my permanently rotating playlists. The genre varies depending on the track; if you are curious, the OST is free to listen to on their.
The gameplay itself is of the turn-based RPG variety, where you and your party move around in a 3D rendered game world, going from one place to another, fighting monsters that you can see in front of you. Once you engage them in battle, it goes to a turn-based battle system where you can issue orders like 'Attack', 'Crafts', which are special attacks unique to each character that cost Craft Points (CP) to execute, 'Arts', which is the in-universe quasi-scientific magic system, or use various battle items. You choose your attacks on a menu, with each face button on the controller leading to a different action. There are also link attacks, that has a real-time element to it; if you successfully link, you have just a moment to press a button to have your linked partner perform an extra attack for you. Your position on the field also matters, as some attacks affect an area of various sizes. You can move your characters, or use crafts that might affect where they are. Things like speed affect turn order, movement rate affects how far you can move to attack, and so on. There are also crafts, arts, or even items that effect all of these things.
You fight everything from simple creatures, to humans, to various magical and even supernatural opponents. Demonic opponents are included in that repertoire; there is quite a lot of variety. There is a massive roster of characters; somewhere in the area of forty, though only four to eight can be in your party at a time, with only four usable at once. Character customization includes weapons, armor, accessories, as well as orbments, which is how available arts is determined. It's a great system with plenty of depth, and combat is fast moving and quite enjoyable. The game system is for all practical purposes identical to Trails of Cold Steel III, with slight tweaks to various characters' available skills.
With that out of the way, I suppose I should mention that the graphics are good - acceptable, even - but not amazing. They are virtually identical to what Trails of Cold Steel III offers, with no significant changes, outside of just new areas to look at, in some cases with scenic vistas. The game engine itself, though, is certainly starting to show its age. Despite this, I noticed some areas slow down a bit even on PS4 Pro (though I do play at 4k, the game renders somewhere close to 4k with no anti-aliasing). Despite that, it was never enough of a problem to be distracting, and battles, or areas you control, always look and play fine; it's just certain cutscenes with a ton of characters visible at once that can show slowdowns.
It should probably be said that deciding to get into this series is a huge investment. While this game is a fantastic midpoint of the series and conclusion to this arc, there are more games already released in Japan, and not yet localized, including two games heavily referenced in this one. Even if we decide that long, story-driven RPGs are an adventure worth having, and I agree with that, there are still six to eight other games to play before this one (even with the two unlocalized games, there are six others, and only PC has all of them available).
Is it worth it? I would say yes - but not everyone has the time for long, deep stories like this. There is a strong sense of optimism that also runs throughout these games, including the 'power of friendship' trope - it certainly doesn't bother me, but if you're not a fan, perhaps these games aren't for you.
Where this game really stumbles is in areas of moral concern, though only a tiny bit more than in previous titles in the series. Of course, if you listened to my spoiler warnings, you've already played the entire series before reading this, so I probably don't need to tell you what to expect. Nevertheless, there is quite a bit to cover.
(NOTE: Spoilers are unavoidable in this section.)
Since this is the game that concludes Rean's story, it's also the game where he finally picks his girlfriend for the last time - as an adult. So, in the final romance scene, if he picks someone his age, the game can send mixed messages on whether he slept with his chosen girl or not. One even mentions that they just turned 18, heavily implying sexual availability. She and several others, if chosen, do stay the night. When asked at another time if he did so, he denies it, so it's unclear. If he chooses one of his students as his romance partner, he makes it clear that they can't date until graduation - with one notable exception. This student kisses her instructor, and they promise to keep it a secret. While I was a little disappointed romance with students is possible at all, at least he waits in most cases; the one where things go differently, she pushes him and cuts him off when he starts to say they have to wait until graduation. He can also choose his adopted sister, which is sadly consistent with other games in this series, and doesn't appear to be taboo at all in that world, as other people have been encouraging that relationship.
As mentioned before, there are mixed bathing scenes, where they all share an open air bath. Everyone wears a towel, but plenty of inevitable small talk, including comparisons and discussions about 'development' happen. Most of the guys are all gentlemen; it's the girls that are a bit more open about these things. One goes so far as to grab another's breast while talking about her. One guy does say that "I prefer my chicks fully grown. Ain't exactly gettin' a response here" when asked about mixed bathing. Some outfits have tons of cleavage, while others wear quite short skirts. There are rare underwear shots, but it's not common. A few cutscenes show swimwear, with it riding up a bit in one case. One humanoid creature has a tail when in human form but no obvious underwear with their rather unusual outfit, though everything important is still covered. Perhaps the most exposure is with an extremely well-endowed woman who is a witch; in her cutscenes you see each other's spirit bodies, where they are basically naked without any dark spots representing nipples or private areas. Very little is left to the imagination (or it's all imagination, since they are spirit bodies...). Girly magazines and even posters make their return.
There are a couple of women who strongly prefer women, and even tries to convince a romance writer, who specializes in male/male romance novels, to write something on a female/female romance. One girl keeps a 'Sexy Girl' poster in her room. Several of the other girls also make known their love for these male/male romance stories, and it's a long-running gag of the Cold Steel series.
There is fantasy violence, as expected in RPG games, along with occasional blood, in certain cutscenes in particular. There is PG-13 level language, with examples like 'd*mn', 'a*s', 'h*ll', 'b*tch', and 'sh*t', along with some approximations like 'friggin'. I wouldn't say foul language is particularly common, but it's there.
Magic and spells are still present, though most come in the form of the quasi-scientific power called orbments, that powers both modern conveniences like cars and motorcycles, as well as magical effects. There is a significant presence of witchcraft-style magic, as a prominent character and her hidden clan of witches can cast spells through magical sayings. With some spells, hexagrams are prominently displayed, while a small number of attacks also show pentagrams. Religion is still primarily the Catholic-like Septian Church, where they worship a monotheistic goddess named Aidios. The secret powers and hidden aspects of the Church plays a significant role. Spiritual forces, curses, ancient demon-like creatures and more also play a large part in the story.
Alcohol and tobacco use is present, and is even somewhat central to a specific character's arc. You see several adults enjoying alcohol in various times, including the main character, who also smokes once in tribute to another. Gambling is present and even performed by the player, in casinos where the player can take part in Blackjack and Poker in exchange for credits if you win.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV is one of the longest games I've played in recent memory, and also an amazing capstone to the Erebonia saga that we've gotten to enjoy so far. While often my favorite Trails game tends to be the last one I played, this one is definitely near the top of the list. (I have such great memories for several of these games, in particular with Sky 3rd, that it might be too soon for me to pick a new favorite.) The way it ties up so many loose ends, while opening up the series for the next installments, is just fantastic. This series has one of the best and most engaging stories, characters, and world building in all of video games. If you are already a Trails fan, you don't need me to tell you to get this game - you've probably already played it by now, unless you're waiting for release on your preferred platform. If you were wondering if it's worth continuing with this game for long-time fans, absolutely yes. If this game makes you curious about the series, and the many appropriateness issues don't push you off (which is completely understandable; there are many) then please don't start with this game. If you were concerned before jumping in at the beginning if this arc ends on a high note, then don't be - it absolutely does. Appropriateness issues aside, this gets my strongest recommendation. Just don't, for all that is good in this world, start with this game.