When I first had the idea to write about the Trails series here I thought I would write up all of the reviews and then put them out weekly and it would quickly be done. That was over 2 years ago. A lot has happened in those 2 years that has contributed for why it took me so long. However, I feel like taking that extra time helped me find my own voice in doing these reviews even though I ended up with a lot of writer’s block at times. I have always had respect for people who can make their passions and hobbies into their actual jobs and let this serve to show yet again that writing about games, even casually like this, can very much turn it into “work.” I do want to thank the people here who have been reading and hopefully enjoying these and I hope at least some of you will give the series a shot.
I have gone back and forth a lot about how to write about Trails of Cold Steel IV but I’ve essentially decided the best way is to just jump in and see where it takes me. Cold Steel IV is a game that has to serve multiple roles in the long running Trails series. It is the 9th game in the overall series, the 4th game in the Cold Steel/Erebonian sub series, and the 2nd game in a duology. All of that is to say that Cold Steel IV is a unique undertaking of a game that is serving as a massive cap on all that has come before it up to this point simultaneously. Despite that, I would actually call it one of the more complete individual games in the series, telling its own story thanks in part to a ridiculous run time. True to its unique position as a cap on the franchise thus far, it is brimming with some of the best the series has to offer and the worst.
Trails of Cold Steel IV released in 2018 in Japan for the Playstation 4. It then received a worldwide release in 2020 with a port to PC and Switch in 2021. The worldwide release was at a somewhat awkward time given that it was a Playstation 4 game coming out right at the release of the Playstation 5. It was also made odd because in Japan the next game in the Trails series Hajimari no Kiseki was already out in Japan by the time Cold Steel IV made it stateside. Hajimari itself is releasing this summer worldwide as Trails into Reverie and they have at least made the PC release simultaneous this time. The next 2 games in the series, Kuro no Kiseki I and II, are already out in Japan. I say all that because, from a somewhat meta perspective, it does change the experience of the game knowing that we already have 3 games after it. I called it a cap on the franchise so far and that is certainly true, but then they went and made another game serving that same role which may have actually done so more effectively. I look forward to finding out.
Cold Steel IV once again stars Rean Schwarzer, who is in dire straits after the ending of Cold Steel III with the entire continent on the brink of all out war. In fact, one of the most interesting things the game does is that it takes roughly 30 hours of playtime before you are in control of Rean again. This game has an entire Trails in the Sky serving as a prologue. The entire previous cast of the Cold Steel era is here, essentially starting with New Class VII before shifting into allowing a mix and match of a truly absurd number of party members. Luckily the game really throws resources at you and the easiest economy to manage of any Trails game. So keeping everyone fully equipped may get difficult but I’ve never had any trouble setting up whoever I’m taking for a particular section.
There is obviously a lot going on in Cold Steel IV. I personally feel like the game strains under everything it is trying to but never breaks. The prevailing discourse from Trails fans online is not that positive. I personally do not share those thoughts and twice now have come away really loving the game despite it’s faults. I don’t want to get too spoiler filled here given the nature of the game so I’m going to jump into the gameplay for now.
Now this may shock you, but Cold Steel IV plays like every previous game in the series and mostly like Cold Steel III. I’m going to make a bold claim here though. Cold Steel IV is the most balanced game in the series to date and the best feeling game in the series to play. Some smart changes, notably some nerfs to certain brave orders, buffs to arts, and refinements to the break system, have left the game feeling amazing. Trails as a franchise often finds a balance of brain dead normal battles with an occasional massive difficult spike courtesy of a boss. CSIV maintains that rough dichotomy with the added benefit of the basic battles being much better in terms of balance.
There are a lot of little quality of life changes here that add up. The game becomes more open world with a lot more free travel between areas but there is a robust fast travel system and even markers telling the player when there’s something new in those locations. A new addition is trial chests which are similar to their Cold Steel II iteration except here they serve to power up brave orders. If you don’t have the characters in your party that are needed to take on the trial you can fast travel to the chest at any point as long as you have checked it, another helpful feature. On top of that, hidden quests, a long time staple of the Trails series, aren’t that hidden anymore, as they now at least have a quest marker.
Cold Steel IV has a massive cast and an enormous playable roster. They aren’t all available for the entire game but there are a total of 39 playable characters in the game. Keeping the entire roster outfitted should be a nightmare. However in my playthroughs I have actually found it quite manageable. First of all, there’s no need to keep the entire roster kitted out to the max as you’ll only bring 7-8 members for actual gameplay sections. Mostly the game seems to provide a much more robust economy than usual and additionally gives the player a lot of free quartz to help gear everyone up. Even outside of the playable characters there will be a lot of old faces showing up as Cold Steel IV throws almost everyone they can from the franchise’s history in with many of them even getting prominent screen time. It’s actually easier to count the characters that don’t appear here.
Structurally, this game is fascinating. I’ve mentioned before that Cold Steel IV mirrors Cold Steel II in some ways and that is apparent in how it is structured. The game opens with our heroes on the back foot and no Rean for the first roughly 30 hours of the game. The game then has 2 more rather distinct acts over the course of it’s 100+ hour runtime. Cold Steel IV is almost 3 games in 1. Players will feel the act breaks. There’s even music for it.
As always, all the jrpg minigames you know and tolerate are here. Even the card game, Vantage Masters, got rebalanced.
I already said it but this game is lengthy. My playthroughs are 100 hours and How Long to Beat has the game at 64-106 which seems low for the main story honestly.
Let’s just take it from the top. I love this game. It is is absurdly long and as someone deep in the fandom itself I can tell you that opinions are very mixed on it. I think this game exemplifies what the Cold Steel era did well and I can forgive a fair bit of mess along the way. I do think the game did not necessarily need to be this long especially considering we now will have Reverie doing a lot of the same things in terms of bringing the entire cast together. The entire Trails series could use a strong editing pass but the same can be said of most jrpgs. I meant it when I said that this game is serving as a cap to the Cold Steel era but also the first half of the series as a whole. There is some strain under that weight but remarkably it doesn’t break in my opinion. I would call this the Avengers: Endgame of the franchise except I think that title will be more fitting for the next game.
That is not to say that the game is without flaws. While I commend it on everything that it tries to accomplish it does not take a perfect road in getting there. The things that Trails does poorly are also very much here. There’s more anime bullshit than ever before to the point it reduces the role of the character who has been a main villain for over half the series. Rean’s harem is in full force here. There are so, many, characters, in this game and they don’t even stop introducing more side characters. This makes it hard to give a lot of screen time to any characters specifically though to be honest the way the story becomes about everyone and then Rean could actually be a good thing. Basically if you don’t like the series or didn’t like the Cold Steel era this game is not going to win you back.
I think Cold Steel IV does so much well in terms of quality of life improvements for the series. Impactful character moments, better bonding events, better balance overall, harder to miss quests, vastly improved fast travel etc. There really isn’t much more you could want from a Trails game in this era in terms of quality of life. On top of that it also has some of my favorite set pieces and just plain cool moments in the series. One of my main criticisms of the series is that it sometimes wastes strong political world building and motivation in favor of jrpg nonsense. That is still the case here but for some reason it doesn’t bother me nearly as much here in a way I cannot quite pinpoint. By this point Rean has really come into his own as a character and there are some really great character moments for him and indeed many other characters but they are often tied to bonding events. In actuality, some of the bonding events have my favorite writing in the series which is refreshing but also sucks because that means it is miss-able. Honestly, I try to always be somewhat balanced and level out my praise with criticism but this is one of those games that genuinely just works for me despite any problems and I’m not going to go into plot complaints.
When I first set out writing this series, Cold Steel IV was supposed to be the end of this entire first half of the franchise. That has since changed thanks to the existence of Reverie and it makes summing everything up a bit different considering there is still another game to go now. So even Cold Steel IV: End of Saga doesn’t quite finalize everything that has been happening or was promised resolution in the series. It does do enough to make it a fitting cap on the journey thus far and truly worth experiencing.
So how do I feel about the franchise at this point? I still point to the more humble beginnings of Sky as my favorite. Things have changed a lot since then obviously. I maintain that the series has kept its heart true even while making changes to the formula, some good, some bad. Multiple playthroughs of every game have really made me appreciate every single one for different things though. Trails has become my favorite series and is one I’ll never stop playing and replaying. The series certainly has its ups and downs and different players will find different things to love and hate in each entry. There is a real magic to the series however that has not been lost after all these years and from what I have heard out of Japan the next era is off to a great start.
Thank you to everyone who joined me on this ridiculous undertaking. I can’t believe this is a community that indulges me in this. I don’t know if I’ll write something for Reverie as real world time has caught up at this point and these got very hard to find the time for. I didn’t even finish CSIV again before writing this despite trying. I’d like to continue writing things for the site here but I don’t know what format that would really take at this point. At any rate I’m certainly not going anywhere.
[spoiler title =”Spoilers”]
I think I blame this game less than III for the whole curse plot because by now I had accepted it so it didn’t piss me off as much.
Okay so the ending is weird and to get the true ending you have to watch the normal ending and then select an option to go back. It’s strange as hell but Rean straight up dies in that first ending.
Rean has always been about self sacrifice but there’s some stuff in here that makes it clear how far he’s actually going. At this point Rean is literally a vessel for the curse and he truly is planning to save everything and kill himself in the process.
They really, truly just cannot let anyone be a villain anymore. [/spoiler]
[spoiler title=”Trails Needs Moms Finale”]
Zin-never said, he’s older so maybe dead
Schera-dead plus her main father figure died
Agate – everyone dead including his little sister
Renne-oh god, alive by technicality
Anelace- presumably still alive
Total- 13 dead parents
Lloyd-dead and older brother dead
Elie- both alive but separated and out of the country
Randy – dead
Wazy-unclear, certainly not connected to him if alive
Noel- dad dead, mom alive
7 or 9 dead parents
Rean – At first he was being raised by his adoptive parents but then of course his dad turns out to be the main villain but then dies anyway.
Elliot- mother is dead, dad is alive.
Jusis- he’s the bastard son of a duke and his mom is dead
Machias- dad is alive, mom never mentioned, is given the additional tragic backstory of having a cousin who he calls a sister die
Gaius- 2 alive and well parents!
Laura- dad is around and an important character, mom is never even mentioned
Alisa-mom is alive, dad is dead, then alive, then dead again
Fie- an orphan who grew up as a mercenary and then her adoptive dad died, then was brought back to life, then died again.
Emma-parents dead, raised by the village elder as her grandaughter
Crow-everybody dead including the grandfather that actually serves as his tragic backstory
Millium- is not human, has no parents
Sara- they dead
Altina- is not human, has no parents
Kurt – 2 alive parents!
Juna – 2 alive parents!
Ash – an orphan of Hamel like Joshua and then the woman who took him in also died
Musse – her parents are both dead
Duvalie – counted her for fun. Both her parents are dead or at least very long gone
Towa – both dead, raised by aunt and uncle
George – unclear but never mentioned and he’s a gnome so he may not even have any
Angelica – her dad is alive, not sure her mom is ever mentioned.
23ish dead parents at minimum
Brings us to a grand total of 43 dead parents on the lowest end if I can do math (I cannot). [/spoiler]