Have you played through Trails of Cold Steel III? If not, take our advice and don't even think about trying Trails of Cold Steel IV. Apparently, the two games were originally meant to be just one big instalment in Falcom's long running The Legend of Heroes franchise — but the sheer scope of the saga forced them apart. Put simply, you won't have a clue what's happening in Cold Steel IV if you haven't finished Cold Steel III. And that's just for starters.

Cold Steel IV is a culmination of everything that's happened over the entire Cold Steel quadrilogy. It even incorporates a bunch of characters and plot points from previous The Legend of Heroes games — some of which haven't even been officially localised outside of Japan. For complete newcomers, this is a near impenetrable release. But it's this density that makes Cold Steel so unique and engrossing. Like an anime that spans hundreds upon hundreds of episodes, Cold Steel IV rewards those who have stuck with the series.

The way in which Cold Steel IV brings everyone and everything together is, at times, masterful. We're at a point where the series boasts one of the largest casts in all of gaming, and yet Falcom is, more often than not, able to keep the overarching story in view while also ensuring that all of your favourite characters get a few seconds to shine.

That said, there are times when the gigantic cast becomes a problem. Story scenes can start to feel bloated as each and every character gets at least one line of dialogue, and preparing a party of over 20 heroes — complete with their own equipment and abilities — can be overwhelming. But thankfully, these flashes of frustration are few and far between. For most of Cold Steel IV, Falcom does an admirable job of breaking things down into more manageable chunks.

Indeed, Cold Steel IV has some of the best, most inspired moments in the whole saga. Granted, it's had three games' worth of world building and character development to use as a springboard, but that doesn't diminish the impact. As a conclusion to a tale that's hundreds of hours in the making, Cold Steel IV delivers — and that's really its greatest achievement.

But it's not all smooth sailing. Without spoiling anything specific, fans will know that Cold Steel III ends on one hell of a cliffhanger. And while Cold Steel IV picks up the story almost exactly where it left off — beyond the prologue, at least — it does take a while to get back into the swing of things. The early hours are glacial as systems and mechanics are reintroduced, and it's not until much later that the plot rediscovers its relentless momentum.

If you've come straight from Cold Steel III, the initial change in pacing can seem quite jarring, but it's not a deal breaker. In fact, there's a lot to admire about the opening act of Cold Steel IV in terms of structure. It's arguably the most like a traditional JRPG that Cold Steel has ever been, as the party adventures from town to town, dungeon to dungeon. Again, it's a slow start, but work past the pacing and there's a surprisingly pleasant journey to enjoy here.

It's with the game's second chapter that the story starts to feel a little stretched. Locations are reused and some side quests are unbelievably tedious, to the point where you can't help but wonder whether there's some serious padding at play. Fortunately, this is also where the game opens up, which helps alleviate a lot of the chapter's more annoying aspects. You're free to travel between a number of locales, all while taking on optional bosses and powering up your ever-growing party. It's addictive stuff, even if the narrative takes a backseat for a time.

As for combat, Cold Steel IV is identical to Cold Steel III on a system level — but the inner workings have been rebalanced. Simply put, Cold Steel III had some very abusable mechanics, and Falcom has clearly tried to scale them back a bit. For example, break damage has been dramatically reduced, meaning that you can't just stagger enemies into submission over and over again like you could in the previous game. Likewise, Brave Orders — which grant party-wide buffs — have been toned down.

In general, battles feel more tactical because of these alterations. Although there are still ways to exploit certain abilities, it's much harder to just steamroll your opponents with the brute force strategies that worked so well in Cold Steel III. We're left with a slower, but arguably more involved combat system as a result, which leads to some tense, dramatic, and hugely rewarding boss fights. Overall, it's a turn based system that still works incredibly well, and it's bolstered by the in-depth character and party customisation that's become a staple of the series.

Conclusion

On its own, Trails of Cold Steel IV is far from being the best game in the series, but as a conclusion to an epic story with characters that have long since won us over, it's a fitting finale. Class VII remains one of the most endearing groups in gaming, and although they demand so much of your time across four whole games, both the journey and the eventual payoff has been worth it. When packaged together with Cold Steel I, II, and III, this is easily one of the most engrossing RPG sagas of our time.