Today marks the English release of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 4 for the PlayStation 4. The game closes the story of hero Rean Schwarzer, the troubled student-turned-professor who aims to save a land torn apart by war and evil magics. To win against impossible odds, Rean must call upon the deep friendships he's fostered with fellow alumni from the Thors Military Academy. He also borrows the strength of the students he mentors at the Thors Military Academy's branch campus. Ancient monsters are unleashed, the world teeters on all-out war, and shadowy organizations seethe just below the surface, orchestrating events to their liking.
More than a few RPG fans who are curious about the Trails of Cold Steel series ask, "Is it OK to jump right with Trails of Cold Steel 4?"
No. Absolutely not. Don't do it.
It's a free world, so nothing is obviously stopping you from downloading Trails of Cold Steel 4 onto your PlayStation. An alligator won't manifest from your television and snap your hand off, though that would admittedly be kind of cool. The problem with starting your Trails journey at the fourth entry is that all four games link up to supply an overarching story. Playing Trails of Cold Steel 4 before the first game is like picking up The Return of the King before The Fellowship of the Ring. If you're the kind of person who gets a big kick out of getting into fantasy sagas that are in media res, sure, go for it. Otherwise, start your Cold Steel journey at page one with the original game.
It's easy to see why people might think it's OK to submerge themselves in Trails of Cold Steel by starting at the end and going backwards. For most JRPG series, the numbers on the boxes just mark the order of the games' release. The Final Fantasy games share bits of lore, but Final Fantasy 6 is a different game from Final Fantasy 7, which is different from Final Fantasy 10. The same applies for Dragon Quest. Even the early games that form trilogies (i.e. Dragon Quest 1 through 3's "Loto Saga" and 4 through 6's "Zenithian Saga") are only loosely linked. You might miss out on minor references and story points, but you can generally pick up any Dragon Quest game and be assured you're playing a self-contained quest.
The Trails games aren't self-contained. Characters and story threads transfer from one game to the next. Villains introduced in the second game show up as friends in the third game. Loose ends that dangle in the first game get tied up in the fourth. There are text-based story summaries available in-game, but the detailed write-ups can be difficult to absorb without context.
If you're hesitant to start Trails of Cold Steel at the beginning because you don't want to play an "older" game, don't be. People understandably want to jump into an RPG series with the latest, greatest game because said game usually has cutting-edge graphics and a modernized battle system of some kind. However, Trails of Cold Steel generally retains the same audio-visual levels across all four games—provided you start with the remastered version of Trails of Cold Steel for the PlayStation 4, and not the original PlayStation 3 release. The battle system also functions very similarly between the games, albeit with new bells and whistles added here and there, like Trails of Cold Steel 3's "Battle Orders." Oh, Ebon Crest. How many times have you saved my butt?
In other words, you can start with the first Trails of Cold Steel without worrying you're going "backwards." This isn't a case where each game leapfrogs over each other and goes wild with changing up mechanics, visuals, and sound.
The Trails of Cold Steel series is best described as an interactive saga. No, the four games within aren't self-contained, but the over-arching story it weaves is its very own fantasy epic. Said epic isn't perfect: It can be extremely wordy, its fan service goes off the rails sometimes, and the character roster frankly has too many cooks. But it also has a great battle system woven through an engaging story about political deceit, the fragile bonds of friendship, and the ever-present problem of big-ass monsters that need to be put to the sword. Trails of Cold Steel comes with my recommendation. Just start at the start, please.