INTRO / STORY without spoilers
Every story has an ending, and this can be bittersweet for those who enjoy the journey. While there may be off-shoots and references to Trails of Cold Steel (ToCS) in future franchises, Trails of Cold Steel IV concludes a long-awaited, massive story arc going back to 2006, with The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky on the Playstation Portable. Particularly after the cliffhanger ending of Trails of Cold Steel III (see my review here), I was eager to see how this story ended!
ToCS III and IV were originally intended to be released as one big installment in the series, but the sheer scope of the entries forced them into separate releases. The problem with this is that ToCS IV, more than any other entry, is incredibly dependent on knowledge of the previous entries. The story, characters and events are developed from previous entries, and will make little sense if you haven’t played those games. So, the single-most important point I can make in this review is that you shouldn’t even consider playing this game if you haven’t played Trails of Cold Steel III at the very least. In fact, to get the most from this game, I highly recommend starting with The above mentioned PSP titles and playing the series from the very beginning.
I struggled with how to frame this review. Starting with this entry will leave the player in a general state of confusion for the entire game, as the cast of characters is enormous, and almost entirely introduced in previous entries. It would be akin to watching Star Wars: Episode IX, and expecting to understand the entire series based on that movie alone. Even having played all of the Trails in the Sky and Trails of Cold Steel games, there were times when I had to look up a character, as I had forgotten who they were. For this reason, I decided to approach this review from the standpoint of someone who is familiar with at least Trails of Cold Steel III.
As with ToCS III, you are given the option to view some lengthy narratives that summarize the story leading up to this game, and I’d recommend doing so whether or not you’ve played the first three entries. It helped to refresh my memory of the events leading up to this game, and it gives you a very small glimpse of the first three entries’ stories. The story of ToCS IV picks up right where the last entry left off, with Instructor Rean in captivity, and the story follows the members of the new Class VII as they trek across Erebonia looking for a way to find and rescue him. While several members from previous entries will join the party throughout the adventure, the game does focus on the new Class VII members, which does help to narrow the scope a bit.
The battle system is identical to the previous entry, and will feel right at home to veterans of the series. Enemies are visible on the screen, so there are no random battles here. Coming into contact with an enemy will initiate a battle sequence. If you are able to covertly strike an enemy (which is much easier with a gun-wielding character, such as Juna), you begin battle with an advantage of boosted stats and additional turns. On the other hand, if the enemy approaches you from behind, they will act before you do. This system gives the player so much more control over when and how they can battle, and I imagine most will prefer it to the random battles seen in FInal Fantasy and Dragon Quest games.
Combat itself is very traditional turn-based, with a slight twist. In addition to turn-based commands, such as attack, magic (called arts), and skills (called crafts), players may choose to move around the board in lieu of attacking. This gives you the ability to move a character out of the path of an enemy attack, or direct an attack away from your characters by moving your character who’s being targeted. You can also use this ability to move your characters into an aoe heal spell. It adds a nice three-dimensional aspect and element of strategy to battles, while still maintaining a turn-based feel.
While very similar in feel and function, Falcom seems to have nerfed some of the abusable mechanics of the third entry. Break damage has been significantly reduced in this entry, so you can’t just stagger bosses repeatedly into submission. Also, brave orders (which grant party-wide buffs and bonuses) have been significantly reduced. While some might say that this diminishes the battle experience, I would argue that it forces the player to fight more strategically, making battles more intense and rewarding.
A defining characteristic of all the Trails games is their ability to strike a balance between battle and story/character development. I felt that ToCS I and II found the perfect balance of participating in school events and training, interacting with and strengthening the relationship between Rean and his colleagues, friends, and students, engaging in dungeon-like RPG exploring, and visiting neighboring towns to assist people as needed. ToCS III struck a similar balance, though I felt the story was a bit muddled with so many character references from the previous entries.
ToCS IV goes even further along these lines, and this will be a point of contention for some players. This game is meant to close a very large quadrilogy+ in a very character-heavy series. As such, we tend to see many story segments that contain a dozen or more characters exchanging dialogue. This is great for story exposition and plot development, but there were times where I simply had a difficult time following all of the text and story. This problem is inherent in any game that tries to maintain an active cast of 50+ characters. I wonder if I would have this problem were I to do a straight playthrough of the series in order. Afterall, it’s been a year since I played ToCS III, and several years since playing the other entries.
The graphics here are on par with those of the other ToCS entries, though graphics have never been the focus of any Trails game. That said, the graphics really are beautiful in this game, and I found they helped to immerse me in the various towns, dungeons and landscapes. The battle animations were all very smooth, and I never noticed any lag or performance issues during my playthrough. I particularly enjoyed watching the S-Craft animations, as they seemed flashier than I remember from the previous entries.
Falcom soundtracks have always been amazing, and this one is no exception! Each of the Trails soundtracks has contained masterfully-composed tracks, and ToCS IV continues along those lines. One of my favorites is “Burning Throb,” which features a minor, uptempo guitar melody and fast rock beat in the set. I always appreciate that Falcom and Sound Team JDK use real instrumentalists in their soundtracks, and it really speaks to the composers that their soundtracks alone make me want to play their games. Give this a listen, and I bet you’ll want to hear more!
The voice acting is top-notch here, which is in-line with all of the Trails entries. Nothing seemed hurried or over-acted. There’s quite a bit of voice acting, and quite a lot of reading dialogue. I would have liked more voice acting, as I find it helps engage the player more.
VALUE & REPLAY
Character interaction and relationship building are a considerable element of the Trails of Cold Steel series. In these games, you develop your relationship with other characters by using “Bonding Points.” Doing so will give your character extra abilities and perks in battle when you are paired with those characters, and will influence story dialog as it progresses. As such, I feel like replays of all of these games are very much worth your time. I played Cold Steel I and II a second time in anticipation of III, and on the second play-through they didn’t feel stale or less-exciting. The story is well-written, to the point that it keeps you engaged, and I was able to make some different character development choices the second time, making the story feel a bit different. That, plus the fact that there are varying difficulty levels and new game+ gives you so many hours on these games. I am still working to complete IV, but from what I have seen, you’re looking at 60 to 100+ hours on a single play-through, so the retail price of this game is a tremendous deal!