In terms of classic, turn-based JRPGs, I used to think a major lull had come upon us in the old US of A. Well, at least good ones, that is. However, there seems to have been a resurgence lately, especially through the portable medium. With heavy hitters like Dragon Quest IX being met with worldwide critical and commercial acclaim, inspiring remakes like Pokemon Soulsilver/Heartgold reviving the obsessive child inside all of us, and soon to be (fingers crossed) classics like Golden Sun: Dark Dawn that wowed the community with a single announcement back at E3 2009, it seems a little renaissance may have graced us with its presence.
Lurking in the corner with its quirky, storybook art style, Square Enix and Matrix Software's Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light brings back the classic nature of the long standing series with a large amount of intuitive improvements that hope to keep the time-tested formula fresh. Yet with its semi-hardcore attitude, will the 4 Heroes of Light be able to capture the mainstream audience?
Much like turn-based RPGs of the last twenty years, you take control of four heroes in their mid teens, one of which has recently reached the Kingdom of Horne's right-of-passage age of fourteen. In order to prove himself, Brandt is tasked to rescue Horne's princess from the evil witch that lives over yonder. The 4 heroes converge, rather reluctantly (sound familiar?), with her defeat, yet as they return to the kingdom, a curse has been placed upon it turning everyone into stone. It's definitely a cut-and-dry story that doesn't really have any surprises, and avoids the convolution that the more recent main series installments have used as a staple for storytelling. It follows suit with the game's overarching theme, keeping with the nostalgic feel of the golden-age of RPGs that came before mini-maps and spiky-haired protagonists.
Similar to its story, FF: The 4 Heroes of Light plays like it's 1990, however, there are an ample number of essential tweaks that improve the turn-based formula, providing a more modern feel. MP has been replaced with AP, which all abilities, ranging from specific class abilities to simple attacks and item usage, draw from a pool of five AP points. While it's definitely a major change and requires a bit more planning - even when it comes to random encounters it feels rather limiting, considering the sheer amount of abilities and spells that are at your disposal. More often than not, I yearned for additional AP throughout my quest, particularly during the more strenuous bosses towards the end of the game. Also contributing to the modernization, spells, as well as equipment, are no longer limited to certain classes, though specific classes will utilize different spells, weapons, and armor more efficiently. Having your tank or black mage with a cure or raise spell will prove to very useful in dire situations.
Combat also received a slight overhaul, but at times it doesn't seem like the best of improvements. You no longer allocate where your attacks will land, as spells and physical attacks follow a set pattern depending on the enemy formation. It gets frustrating in the beginning, particularly when grinding is a necessary evil, and becomes more time consuming when you can't divide your attacks to best suit your needs. The same goes for support and healing magic, which definitely was the cause of some cheap deaths. As you become comfortable with it, however, the game does a pretty good job of assigning your attacks and support spells, and it doesn't impede the flow of battle all that much.
Though definitely not new to the Final Fantasy franchise, the job system makes a return, but in the form of "Crowns." Coming to a total of 28 and ranging from such classic classes as the Black Mage and Paladin, to revamped ones like the Bandit (thief) and Dark Fencer (dark knight), and brand new ones like the Storyteller and Merchant, each crown can be upgraded three times, with a new ability unlocked at each level on top of the passive skills that each one holds. While there may be a multitude of abilities, each one takes one skill slot of an available six that is also shared with spells. Like the AP limitation, six abilities feels relatively restricting, especially when every class can use any spell, though having only six slots does promote more strategy when entering battle. No one Crown will prove too overpowered, as each has its own advantages and disadvantages, and you'll find yourself changing quite often to tailor your party to the situation at hand. Considering there are 28 different classes, it's far superior to being pigeonholed into three or four classes that are purely overpowered than the rest.
Now, The 4 Heroes of Light does many things right, yet it's not without its problems. As I previously mentioned, having only six abilities, as well as the limited amount of AP, can get annoying further into the game simply because many of the higher echelon skills cost four or even five AP. While they're more powerful, you'll find that using the lower level skills will save on AP and provide enough of a "bang" to keep you alive. Because of the large number of spells, you'll have to feel out each dungeon and equip the necessary elements. However, with a confined inventory space of 15 slots where equipment also takes up room, it occasionally cause bouts of frustration where you'll run into a dungeon or boss and you're severely outmatched due to not having the right equipment or spells.
The biggest problem, at least for the more mainstreamed gamer, is the somewhat large amount of grinding that's necessary in order to advance through the mid-game point. You'll have to gain at least one or two extra levels on top of the ones you'll gain by progressing normally. As my love affair with grindfests has spanned the past 15 years, a minimal amount of grinding was expected, yet I wasn't completely prepared for the few hours spent just to get past some of the more powerful bosses. Besides the grinding and limited inventory, The 4 Heroes of Light's problems aren't a major hindrance to its fun-factor, especially as you become comfortable with the limitations it puts on abilities and AP.
Looking past its problems, there is definitely more fun to be found in exploring than not, specifically in terms of a technical aspect. FF: The 4 Heroes of Light sports a fantastic, unique art style that can best be compared to a storybook. Each character holds a quirky, cartoonish look that feeds into the fairytale-esque world filled with bright colors, talking animals, and quest-giving crystals. While it strays from the serious nature of the more recent Final Fantasy titles (besides Crystal Chronicles, that is), it's quite charming, particularly in combination with the wonderful music composed by Naoshi Mizuta, which you'll revel in for close to forty hours, more if you want to max out each Crown. The soundtrack really brings the world together, helping to create a vastly entertaining atmosphere that feels like the RPGs of yore during the NES and SNES heydays.
On the surface, Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light seems like another run-of-the-mill DS RPG. But you'll soon delve into the superb, storybook-style visuals, amazing soundtrack, and classic, yet intuitively improved turn-based action that will hit a soft spot with any genre enthusiast, and resonate moreso with the old-school gamer. You'll be close to 40 hours by the time all is said and done, and much, much more if you're one who needs to collect every class, as the last four Crowns are held up in 100-level dungeons. However, if you're one who needs a mini-map and just can't take the grind, you may want to avoid this as there's plenty of it throughout. But for $35, you'll be hard pressed to find another portable RPG that offers so much for such a low price.