4.5

Summary

I often struggle with starting to write a review. Do you explain the concept of the game, what it’s about, how it feels to play? For this one I’ve opted to get a few sentences under my feet before I really start. You might wonder why a JRPG that (unless we’re buds) you may have never even heard of is so important to me, well let me explain:

The Trails series is a long-running JRPG franchise developed by Nihon Falcom, a company you have also probably never heard of. The thing that makes the Trails series special in a way no other JRPG series I’ve played is it’s story – a complicated and interwoven narrative across nine games. Trails of Cold Steel IV is the 9th game in this series, billed as “End of Saga” in Japan, and is the final game in the first half of this planned story. This game is a continuation of 8 others, with very few references, hints or tips to help you catch up on what you’ve missed. There are excellent YouTube recaps and the game itself comes with a bunch of background info you can read – but you probably shouldn’t.

I started playing the first Trails of Cold Steel in late 2019. Around 350 hours later in early 2021 I completed Cold Steel IV. In that time period I’ve become a father and there’s been a global pandemic. All through 2020 in the background I was plugging away at this series, playing a few hours a week when parenting would allow.

This review is focused on Cold Steel IV and I’ll keep it spoiler free for the whole of the Cold Steel arc.

In the Cold Steel series you play as Rean Schwarzer, a new student at a world famous military academy. You’re inducted into a new experimental class made up of misfits from all walks of life, from major nobility to new money, the son of a general and a few with mysterious backgrounds that take a while to be revealed. The first game is essentially an act of incredible world and tension building, introducing you to the country of Erebonia where the game is set and carefully placing dominoes ready to knock over in future games.

I can’t say much about where we find Rean in Cold Steel IV without heavily spoiling the endings of the first three games, so I’m not going to. But suffice to say that Rean and his pals are up against it, with insurmountable odds opposing them and and many of their friends missing or dead. 

Cold Steel III ends with a bang, but like every Trails game I’ve played Cold Steel IV opens with a whimper. I have found the opening of II-IV to be a little too slow, and too preoccupied with smaller stories when you really just want to know what’s happening in the main story. However, if you didn’t marathon the entire series back to back this chapter of the game would be perfect to set you up and get you back into the groove. 

The Trails of Cold Steel games have a fairly simple structure, not unlike a Persona game. The chapter will open with some story, then you’ll get a free day off to hang out with people and do bonding activities or side quests. Then you’ll ship out somewhere to investigate something, end up in a dungeon and fight a boss. The secret weapon Trails has though is it’s worldbuilding and the history you have with the characters on your team, in the world and that you fight against.

Yes you might be going through a linear dungeon with a few puzzles, but when you get to the end you might fight a boss who was a former ally. Or an almost mythical character you’ve fought multiple times but never been able to defeat or maybe even a family member of one of the characters. The emotional weight on what in many JRPGs might be a dragon that’s slightly bigger than the ones you’ve fought in the dungeon, or a haunted treasure chest is unmatched in the genre from my personal experience.

Let’s talk about the world for a sec. So the Cold Steel series are set in a country called Erebonia, which has been portrayed almost as the villain for the previous games. To begin with your party are essentially child soldiers, training at a military school and going out in the world for field experience before they graduate. But everywhere they go they make connections, they meet people and you explore a world that feels real. You go to a city that’s recently been conquered and subjugated by the empire and you can really feel the tension from it.

This incredibly well realised and deep world is bigger than ever before in Cold Steel IV. With more places to visit, new people and stories in places you’ve previously visited and more links to the previous two arcs in the series than ever before. I’d wager I only saw half of what was on offer in this game and I played for over 80 hours.

I could talk for hours about the worlds in these games, and I have done so on the podcast a few times, but what about how they play?

The game plays a lot like a Persona or Final Fantasy title – there’s towns and cities to explore, meet people and get quests and there are zones with roaming monsters in the overworld you can either fight or avoid. Another trademark of Falcom games is that you’ll only get all the quests and activities by speaking to everyone. And this isn’t the drag it might sound like, as every NPC has something interesting to say whether it be adding context to a previous big story moment, pointing you towards something interesting or just a small and more personal story to tell.

Once you’re out of the town and on the road you can enter combat with monsters, enemy humans and other such things. The battle system has evolved and balanced over time throughout the series, but is essentially a turn-based system however instead of the fights being a line of your characters VS a line of enemies there’s a 3D battlefield and your characters can move around it. Characters have crafts which are sort of like special physical attacks, arts which are magic spells and also move around to get in range or out of range. There’s also Battle Orders, which cost battle points but can be used on any turn and don’t take up a turn.

This combat system might be starting to sound complex, I know. But it’s been built and iterated on for 9 games, perfecting it like sharpening a samurai sword. I think it’s the best traditional JRPG battle system I’ve ever played. There are so many options and ways to play and they all come together to create something really fun to play as well.

So I’ve talked around the story and discussed the gameplay a little, but I think you’re probably all wondering by this point – was it worth it? Was the ending a pay off for the 350 hours of JRPG I played leading up to it? Did the end justify spending over a year of my life playing it?

Heck yeah it did.

There were moments I stood up and cheered. There were times I stayed up into the wee hours, fighting sleep to finish a section of story I just couldn’t put down. There were character moments that got me truly emotional, beyond almost anything else in gaming. There have been moments like this across the series, but Cold Steel IV is the culmination in the best way possible.

I can’t wait to see where the Trails series goes next and Nihon Falcom has me hooked for life now. I couldn’t give a stronger recommendation than the one I give for this series. It might not be the best story in gaming, but it’s very very good and I think the worldbuilding in these titles is absolutely the best in gaming, even for games based on existing properties.

So if you’re still reading this, go out and get Trails of Cold Steel and jump on at the beginning of this arc or get Trails in the Sky and jump in at the start. I honestly think you won’t regret it.

Pros

  • Incredible story that wraps up well
  • The best battle system in the series so far
  • Beyond the best world-building in video games
  • The ending brought tears to my eyes
  • The music slaps (https://youtu.be/imvMNkhQq7E)

Cons

  • Opening is a little slow
  • Getting the true ending isn’t possible without replaying around an hour of content
  • Graphics feel a little dated, though design is good

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