JRPGs are famous for their in-depth, often obtuse stories and lore. On the surface, the games tend to follow a simple hero’s journey template, but often the lore and mythology developed to service that simple story adds that depth and obfuscation. Trails of Cold Steel IV certainly follows that template, but complicating matters more is the fact that this fourth instalment directly continues the story from the prior three games.
To mitigate this issue, to an extent, this Switch port includes a handy what came before section in the start menu. For newcomers to the series playing this game first, this helps you get up to speed or at least orient yourself in the game. It can be quite dense and detailed, like reading a summary of the first two books in the Lord of the Rings trilogy before reading Return of the King. It will suffice, but you will miss out on many details and nuance. Working to a (long since missed) deadline, I dove straight in after a cursory glance at this section. Certainly, a mistake.
The game drops straight into the middle of a war between two nations a war set up in the previous games. The characters you are introduced to all presume that you know who they are and the relationships that the previous couple of hundred hours has spent setting up. What I did manage to decipher did intrigue me and did strike me as generally standard for a JRPG. You have the political intrigue of men and women seeking dominion and power over all engaging in complex conspiracies to bring countries and kingdoms to war and thereby hoping to pick up the pieces and rule of the ruins as the ultimate ruler. There often is something more than a mere powerplay afoot, there is a MacGuffin or ancient being or belief at the centre of all these conspiracies – something that is supposed to give the villains more depth than a simple moustache twirling evil. This game does hint at that, but again my cursory glance at the what came before section has done me a disservice.
But despite that what I did experience was intriguing enough to keep me interested and ensure that I pushed through. The story is epic in scale and takes you from character to character to across this giant world allowing you to experience every side of this tale of worldwide war. Servicing this story is a beautifully designed world. A typical JRPG world, reminiscent of the design of Final Fantasy 8 in that it is a melding of magic and high technology, soldiers control these giant mechs whereas your characters have the usual array of magic spells and elemental attacks to defend themselves. The world is certainly not a decrepit or rundown Steampunk inspired world, but a bright and hopeful vision of these characters universe that just so happens to be experiencing a dark period of war.
Graphically the game is showing its age, it was originally released on the PS4 in September 2018. It certainly is attractive, but it certainly is not what one would call cutting edge. The 3D models are distinct and the environments are beautifully crafted. The art style and direction reminds me of Dragon Quest XI, a pretty world that draws you in but isn’t too taxing on the system hardware.
An important part of any JRPG is the combat system. Thankfully, Trails of Cold Steel IV is a traditionalist in that it sticks to a turn-based combat system. But it is not a simple system. First off your party can consist of more than the traditional four characters, right off the bat you will be controlling a party of six active members with one support character. These characters follow the general character classes of ranged attackers, tanks, healers and magic users. In combat, you can follow the simple rule of attack as much as possible and then use healing items or magic to ensure that you are the last man standing. However, the system contains a number of nuances that make combat far more interesting than simply choosing an option in a menu.
You can link two characters in combat so that if one attacks and manages to do the correct type of damage you can get another character to combine a second attack for more damage. You will have to be quick as you have a couple of seconds to mash the button that the game prompts you to engage that attack. A second nuance is the use of elemental attacks and magic. Most of your party has the ability to use these attacks but you are limited in their use until you rest so if you make the same mistake as me and just use them in the first few battles you can find yourself in a boss battle without one of your most powerful tools.
Combat is tactical and nuanced and requires that you pay attention in order to fully utilise it to its fullest. Investing that time in understanding everything and how it links together will be rewarding but getting there is a challenge.
Trails of Cold Steel IV is a dense, complex conclusion to an epic story. For true JRPG fans, it is probably advisable to play through all the games in sequence. For casual fans just looking for a JRPG to play until the next FF or DQ, the what came before section should be good enough – just don’t expect to follow everything or understand the full story.
You can purchase this game for £53.99 on the Nintendo eshop by clicking here.
Enjoy the review? want to read more of our reviews? then click right here to be whisked away to the realm of our opinions.