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.
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