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Friday, July 23, 2021

Review: The Legend Of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV – Impenetrable To Newcomers, But A Gripping Finale

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Much like Koei’s Atelier series, Nihon Falcom’s Legend of Heroes games are some of the best RPGs that you’ve never played. Engrossing storytelling is one of the cornerstones of the RPG genre, and no other series exemplifies this as well as the Legend of Heroes. The story began with Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes way back in 1992, and has since been building an all-encompassing fantasy epic that most franchises could only dream of. The latest arc in this universe began in 2015 with the first Trails of Cold Steel, and now the tale of Class VII is receiving its conclusion with Trails of Cold Steel IV. It’s a fitting and satisfying final chapter, though one which feels a little over-indulgent in some respects.

The story picks up about two weeks after the enormous cliffhanger ending of Trails of Cold Steel III, and to be fair, it takes quite a bit of time before it reaches that same level of momentum. There are a few hours here of basically just raw setup, where painstaking effort is put in to ensure the audience is aware of where all the major players are and what their goals will be for the epic adventure to come. It all proves to be worth it over the dozens of hours to follow, but make no mistake, this is a long-winded narrative — perhaps a little too much. Considering all the plot threads left to tie up, it’s easy to see why the developers wanted to take their time to draw out the ending of the arc, but there’s a lingering feeling that some of the subplots could’ve been trimmed a bit to tell an overall tighter narrative.

This is perhaps the most incredible and most damning aspect of Trails of Cold Steel IV: there is only one audience the game is made for. To be a part of that refined group, you must at bare minimum have played through the preceding three Trails of Cold Steel games. To get the most out of it, you need to also have played the five releases preceding that — two of which have yet to receive an official English localization. Altogether, that’s probably anywhere from three-to-seven hundred hours of material to sift through, just to get you primed for this entry. The fact that it all weaves together and builds a coherent narrative makes this easily one of the greatest examples of interconnected worldbuilding you can find in the entire game industry, but the cost of that is that each new entry becomes less approachable to new audiences.

Player and enemy turns are listed on a timeline on the side that dictates turn order, and every action has some effect on the timeline. Most Arts, for example, take some extra time to execute once they’ve been chosen, meaning you have to take the delay into account when choosing that character’s turn. Positioning is also extremely important, as certain attacks will damage anything within a certain zone on the battlefield. It may very well be that a character you need to attack a certain enemy is too far away to land the attack on that enemy that turn, or a group of characters you haven’t properly spread out all get damaged by a wide area of effect attack.

Suffice to say, there is a lot going on in any given battle, and there’s an abundance of information the player needs to take into account when deciding the actions for every character’s turn. It can all feel a little overwhelming at first, but the tutorials do a decent job of explaining the basics to you and the average enemy encounter gives you plenty of room for trial and error as you come to grips with everything.

When you’re not busy battling, there are plenty of additional side activities for you to participate in, too. There’s a card game called Vantage Masters, for example, that introduces a whole Hearthstone-esque side game with its own progression. Then there’s Pom! Pom! Party!, which acts as a Puyo Puyo knockoff that can be massively entertaining in its own right. Modes like these obviously never supplant the main experience and can be mostly ignored if you aren’t interested, but just the fact that well thought out little side games like this simply exist in addition to the huge scope of the main storyline is enormously impressive.

All this is matched by a comprehensive soundtrack that mixes together plenty of high energy rock with some slower pieces for the quieter moments. Trails of Cold Steel IV doesn’t have the kind of presence that demonstrates the power of the Switch, but it’s tough to be disappointed by the presentational package on offer here.

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Review: The Legend Of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV - Impenetrable To Newcomers, But A Gripping Finale
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