Final Fantasy has been changing a lot recently. XIII went very linear and made some changes to the combat system that fans were not happy with. If you are one of those fans, the kind of JRPG player who longs for the old NES and SNES days, then maybe Square Enix has an alternative for you with Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light. Rather than another updated port or spin-off in the fanbase-dividing Crystal Chronicles series, 4 Heroes is a completely original adventure. It’s also very, very old-school, harkening back to the early days of Final Fantasy when brutal, unforgiving gameplay was king and you didn’t play as whiny tweens with self esteem issues. Is this a good thing? Well…
It really depends on whether you like these older elements or if you think they should get out of the way. To make an analogy, I’ve been playing first-person shooters almost since before I could talk, so I still enjoy the tension of scrounging for medpacks and hording them in my inventory. As a result I love in-depth healing menus like the ones in Snake Eater and Deus Ex, and I think recharging health is a lazy cop-out and just one of the many ways Halo has cheapened the FPS genre. 4 Heroes of Light has many JRPG analogues to that, several bygone elements it retains and tries to mix with modern simplifications.
For starters, 4 Heroes drops you right into the thick of it with a simple introduction to the story and not the barest hint of a tutorial. In classic RPG fashion, your character Brandt wakes up on his birthday and heads to the castle to be officially recognized as an adult, but ends up getting a desperate request from the king to rescue his kidnapped daughter. Along the way you learn that a witch is terrorizing your village, and soon the rescued princess and a couple other burgeoning young heroes have joined in your quest to vanquish this evil. It’s a simple tried and true setup in both story and basic gameplay. This would be fine if the game eased you into the more complex mechanics it offers, like the boost attacks and crown system, but from the get-go you’re pretty much on your own.
This raw start can be a problem if you were expecting a game with difficulty on par with the recent Final Fantasies. While 4 Heroes isn’t nearly as soul-shredding sadistic as many of Atlus’s hardest of the hardcore RPGs, it does skew more toward the Persona area of difficulty. You’ll enter many a dungeon woefully outmatched and will be subsequently forced to retreat, regroup and rethink your strategy. Half of this difficulty level is just the game’s good old fashioned retro chops, but the other half has to do with some questionable design decisions.
Like the classic Final Fantasies there are lots of random encounters, but it gets to the point where it’s just annoying at first. Eventually you’ll learn that constantly battling smaller enemies is crucial to winning the game. That’s right, you guessed it—4 Heroes is old-school in that way: you need to do some genuine grinding to get through tough bosses. If you’re used to that you’ll feel right at home, but personally I left grinding behind a long time ago; the minute I stop playing a game is when it starts to feel like more work than my job.
The dungeons and boss encounters are complicated by the very limited inventory space you are allotted. You get 15 slots per character—that’s it. It seems pointless and needlessly hinders you—you can come up against a boss and die simply because a crucial item that’s stored back at the item bank would have made the fight much easier. Instead of having that battle-winning weapon or piece of gear you’ll be carrying around a lot of HP potions to recover from the constant random encounters persistently whittling down your health. This would be no problem if I could buy potions in bulk and stack large quantities of them, but each potion takes up one of your precious 15 inventory slots, spaces that are just as important for storing armor, weapons and other gear.
The combat system is a typical retro turn-based deal, with a few modern conveniences. You get a charge meter that replenishes each turn, similar to the timing bar in Chrono Trigger, but you can use attacks in creative ways to increase their power. The boost function lets other party members can buff your attacks with spells or target enemies with alignments for extra crits, and this coordination is often the only way to get out of a fight alive. It’s a good, simple system that allows for a decent level of strategy if you use it right.
On the other hand, the game doesn’t let you target specific enemies, instead auto-targeting. It works most of the time but occasionally you’ll unleash a devastating boosted combo attack on a pitiful enemy bat while a big strong baddie right next to it is where you really need to pour on the damage. I can understand that simplicity is a hallmark of old-school games, but individual enemy targeting has been around since Chrono Trigger; its omission from 4 Heroes of Light just doesn’t make sense, especially with the charge meter.
While useful for grinding, the random encounters get irritating when you’re hopelessly lost in a dungeon, and you’ll get lost often because there are no dungeon maps. You can’t even construct them yourself like in Atlus’s much harder Etrian Odyssey series. This isn’t a huge issue in the earlier, simpler dungeons it but can get frustrating later on, particularly because the dungeons are pretty homogenous and have little in the way of unique remarkable design or landmarks. While 4 Heroes has some brilliant character art and gorgeous storybook-style overworld locations, the dungeons are disappointingly bland.
Thankfully the crown system makes up for many of the game’s shortcomings and is where the real strategy lies. Similar to the job system in a couple of the older Final Fantasies, it lets you swap a character’s class at will and upgrade each individual class by adding gems to the respective crowns. Specific gear and weapons match specific crowns and even unlock new abilities when you have a character kitted out with a full matching ensemble. This lets you customize each character for a given situation, and when the game splits your party up several times in the first half of the story, it means that you’re never without a class you need because it’s a simple change of clothes away.You can outfit your entire team with a winning selection of classes and gear, constructing a “best case” party setup that can handle most average battles with the ability to tweak and update for specific circumstances and difficult boss fights. This aspect of the game can get very addictive as you hunt for the best items and crowns and spend hours meticulously arranging it all into a winning combination. I really like the idea of the crown system but personally I prefer to do my strategizing during combat. It’s a deep well-built system to be sure, but I just don’t like constantly micromanaging and re-arranging gear before a dungeon or even between battles. It’s one of the reasons I prefer Mass Effect 2’s streamlined, upgrade-oriented inventory as opposed to the loot-heavy one in Mass Effect 1.
I’m pretty torn by 4 Heroes of Light. On one hand I can tell that this is a deep, quality RPG that harkens back to the NES classics of old, that it has an addictive crown and gear system and that it dispenses with much of the melodrama and superfluous sappy story that plagues most modern Final Fantasies. That said, it also retains a lot of archaic JRPG elements that I’ve hated for years—grinding, trial and error, unforgiving turn-based gameplay that rewards luck more than strategy—things that have traditionally made the genre feel more like a chore than an escape.
If you’re looking for a retro JRPG that’s light on story and heavy on gameplay look no further than 4 Heroes of Light, but be aware that you’re getting the full old-school experience, vestiges included.