Square Enix tries to recapture the origins of the Final Fantasy franchise in a portable adventure that is both charming and infuriatingly archaic.
Followers of the JRPG genre align themselves into two fairly distinct camps. One recognises and embraces the need for evolution, giving recognition for the fresh but often flawed gameplay mechanics in recent titles such as Final Fantasy XIII and Resonance of Fate. The other condemns these failed ideas as the reason for the genre’s recent decline, resisting the trends of linear exploration and emphasis on graphical presentation. They frequently call for a return to the ‘good old days’, where turn based combat was king and random enemy encounters were the norm.
Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light is a game built almost solely for the latter. Everything about it reeks of an adventure that could have been published in the 80s or 90s. Take the plotline for instance; the game surrounds a boy named Brandt, who is summoned by the king to rescue a kidnapped princess. The four other heroes include a spoilt girl from the royal family, a loyal soldier of the kingdom and a reluctant, brooding chap. They’re all purposefully stereotypical and pigeonholed into a journey that is predictable at every turn.
Weapons, magic and additional items can all be found and bought in the local villages. Combat is strictly turn based; party members exert varying number of action points (that act like magic of MP) for every physical attack or spell. Akin to some of the older Final Fantasy iterations, party members can obtain ‘crowns’ that change their job class as the game progresses.
Sound familiar? It should. For better and worse, Square Enix has chosen to make this portable experience incredibly traditional. Older players will welcome some of this familiarity in a similar manner to fans of Pokémon or The Legend of Zelda; retreading a well worn path can feel reassuring and comforting in The 4 Heroes of Light. Unfortunately, many of the gripes I have with the JRPG genre have been brought forward as well. In comparison with modern video game standards, it’s very hard to forgive some of the aging design choices.
The first is random encounters. One of the advancements that I’ve come to cherish in the RPG genre is the ability to pick and choose my battles. It allows players to grind only when they feel that it’s necessary and conversely push onward when they just want to progress the story. The Persona series and Final Fantasy XII/ XIII are shining examples of this.
In my opinion, returning to a random encounter system in Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light is counter intuitive. It’s irritating to become bogged down in an area with a particularly high encounter rate, increasingly hammering the attack button just to get back to dungeon exploring. Those who argue that grinding is ‘a necessary evil’ are wrong – more often than not, it’s just a cheap way of extending the overall length of the game.
The inventory system is also rather baffling. With only 15 slots per character (which include obligatory spell tomes and equipment) I found myself depositing items in the village storage hut with alarming regularity. In the more lengthy and intricate dungeons I found myself having to discard some of the weapons and health tonics that I was picking up; a wasteful and annoying consequence of the system.
Variance between dungeons is excellent, but the aesthetics within them are monotonous and dull. The repetition of textures means that it’s also easy to lose your sense of direction; the absence of a touch screen map (such as the one in the excellent The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks) is sorely missed.
The 4 Heroes of Light redeems itself with a fantastic presentation throughout. The 3D engine is very impressive, utilising a picture book aesthetic that has rarely been used elsewhere. Combining a water colour palette and cel-shaded line art, the characters really pop out from the screen and help bring some life to the adventure. The way that party members change their appearance when you swap their equipment is another neat touch. The towns are expansive and occasionally take up multiple levels, filled with interesting houses and townspeople. It all adds to the grandeur of a global adventure, something lost in many linear JRPGs.
I’ll be honest – I didn’t play this game to completion. Maybe that deducts some of the credibility of this review, but I would argue that I still experienced a thorough representation of the game. If you’re a fan of old-school RPGs, I can recommend this as a solid portable adventure for the Nintendo DS. For anyone that champions the recent advancements in the genre, you’re best looking elsewhere.