Typically, developers leave behind designs of olde for good reason. Advancement in any capacity, not just video games, demands that we take what works, discard the rest, and maybe add something new here and there to see if we can further improve our formula, method, or tactics. However, when it comes to entertainment and art, human beings are curiously sentimental creatures who sometimes yearn for the past–good or bad.
Recently, several developers have tried to capture lightning in a bottle as they have ventured into game design, graphics, and music of years past. Like failed scientists ankle deep in dysmorphic clones of a past lover, these game designers have undoubtedly experienced guilt and shame as a result of their rejected creations.
However, the very publishers that started it all have somehow mixed up a concoction that combines the old and new surprisingly well. Despite constant pratfalls as of late, Square-Enix has succeeded in creating a pleasantly nostalgic game that will remind those of us softened by recent game design why "old school" is synonymous with "hardcore."
I get knocked down, but I get up again...
You will die. A lot. And never before has that been such a wonderful thing to experience. This game isn't for the feint of heart or the impatient FPS nut. So, the key question is: does the game punish players for the right reasons, or will players be cracking their DSs in half over cheap tactics and a lack of appropriate save points? The occasional critical blow will hit fans by surprise once or twice in the beginning, but most of the bosses and random encounters require legitimate precautions and strategy. Pacing can be an issue since parts of the game can be easily traversed using the Auto Mode feature, while others will have players scratching their heads over the proper tactics to employ.
Grinding for equipment and upgrades may seem like a viable solution to difficult baddies and bosses, but rest assured that no grinding is necessary... at least until the end of the game, sadly. Proper use of the game's job class system, allocation of items as a result of limited item capacity, and equipment will ensure victory.
However, executing all of the aforementioned tactics isn't enough. Players are forced to conserve action points in battle, making use of proper timing. The way battle works is that each character gets five action point slots and receives an action point at the end of each turn. Basic or weaker actions cost only one point, while boost costs none and allows the heroes to regain extra points for waiting. More powerful abilities can cost two to five points depending on their strength, which is appropriately balanced for the most part.
The greatest point of concern, however, amongst most prospective buyers is the automatic targeting. True, the game assigns the player's character to targets using AI, but this is rarely an issue. Characters target the back row with ranged weapons and spells, and always clump up on one target when possible. Curative spells and items are always used on the weakest character, which is probably the biggest sigh of relief. Though, when trying to employ deeper strategy, or when multiple characters need action points (ether) or esuna, the game won't always do what the player thinks is best. The worst part about this folly is that these are the times when the battles are most important. Sure, proper targeting against a random encounter is important, but the most intense boss battles may require deep strategy, which the game's AI will sometimes (rarely) tussle over with the player. All things considered, if this is a point of concern, you needn't worry, despite what any other fancy gaming media outlets may say.
However, there is one dangerous flaw in the game design that players should be aware of, and that's the poor illustration of buffs and debuffs. Some status effects, such as paralysis, are clearly displayed over friend or foe; though other effects, such as decreased or increased defense, are never shown, forcing players to memorize which ally is or isn't under the effects of said effect. Although the game displays the termination of these effects with text at the end of a turn, the words go by so quickly, and are so tiny, that it's easy for a player to miss an update. This is crucial in a boss battle, because remembering whether the giant, jet-black monstrosity wielding four blades still has hindered attack power may mean the difference between loading a save or rightfully conserving some action points.
Undeniably, the game's crowning achievement is its novel take on many fans' beloved job class system. Our heroes don several hats, featuring classes and abilities that will leave veterans intrigued and impressed. In order to unlock abilities for each class, players must insert various gems into crowns, unleashing progressively more powerful abilities to fit into each characters' six ability slots. Gems, by the way, are obtained through combat instead of gil. Unfortunately, each crown only has four abilities, but this limitation won't leave players wanting.
Speaking of limitations, remember how every single medical herb you could stock in your inventory was precious almost twenty-five years ago? This game makes use of that old mechanic. As mentioned earlier, the game uses limited item capacity as a critical strategic consideration. Initially, items will be one of the heroes' most valuable resources. This makes the 15 item slots per character extremely important, since four of those slots are taken up by equipment. Now, before anyone goes scoffing their faces off, hear me out: this isn't a bad thing. Limited item capacity, while scorned by much of the gaming community, encourages strategic thought and careful planning. The downside to this is that after spilling much blood and sweat defeating baddie after baddie in a dungeon, players may find that they brought the wrong shield or accessory for a gimmicky boss battle. Then again, if players are going into a volcano without a fire shield, or decide to equip that newly powerful fire axe, I don't have any sympathy for them.
The 4 Heroes of Light plays out linearly, offering little exploration. Initially, some wandering can be done but the world is so small that once the heroes gain access to a convenient mode of transportation, the marble-sized microcosm doesn't offer much in the way of sidequests or hidden treats. Without giving too much away, I just want to say that the sidequests lack substance and character, which is in some way old school, but that design might have been better left on the cutting room floor. For those who enjoy procrastinating from saving the world, this will be a major disappointment.
Crystals, dragons, chaos–oh my!
Without a doubt, the gameplay rests on a conventional base with some strong new elements that mesh well with the old. However, this is not the case for the story. The 4 Heroes of Light uses allusions to old plots as a wink and nudge to seasoned console-RPG gamers, but also seriously uses traditional storytelling that we have seen time and time again. For some reason, four adolescents on the brink of adulthood have been chosen by the crystal of light to save the world from darkness. Our heroes' story begins in Horne, their home, where the king's daughter has been kidnapped by the witch in the north. Supposedly, this is due to a pact that the king made with her, and now the time has come to collect her dues. Saving the princess results in a curse being cast on Horne, which is where the tale begins.
The first half of the game emphasizes the rocky relationship between the four heroes, setting up a touching reunion. Unfortunately, the reunion comes but it falls short of being touching. Although refreshingly unconventional at first, the four vibrant characters quickly change to similar shades of gray as the writers fall asleep at the wheel. While the gameplay maintains consistently high quality up until the very end of the game, the second half of the game suffers incredibly in terms of story. As if slamming on the brakes, players quickly realize that the game has resorted to fetch quests and hollow, uninspired character development that is forced when it's even there. Morals and life lessons are shoved down the player's throat, putting emphasis on two-dimensional side characters and taking the spotlight completely off of the four heroes initially propped up as our focal point, but they become just that: props.
Inking? What's that?
Perhaps one of the most immediate draws of The 4 Heroes of Light is the art style. While polygonal graphics still don't look good on the DS, the art style compensates nicely. The characters look fantastic in customizable outfits and the towns are replete with detail and ornamentation. Occasionally, the art style produces some indiscernible fixtures in NPC homes, which leave the player guessing, "Is that an iron, a bread box, or a tea kettle?" Sure, these are minor complaints, but one major point of concern that we have seen far too often on handhelds is the painfully boring layout of dungeons.
Why, oh, why do we have to put up with monochrome caves, castles, and beanstalks? Okay, I apologize, the castles sometimes have very tiny, narrow torches kind of flickering on the wall. Really, though, I don't understand why graphical designers opt for this lack of detail. Players spend much of their time running through corridors of the same hallways, so why not make the atmosphere a little more engaging? Not only is this aesthetically inappropriate, but it confuses players when they get lost within the walls of a tasteless interior designer/homemaker.
Not Uematsu, but...
Okay, there's no Uematsu or Sugiyama, so this can't possibly be that traditional, but if players can get past a name, they'll realize that not only does this game sound old school with its tingles and strings, it sounds good. Honestly, the music is forgettable and won't stick with anyone after closing the DS, but that doesn't mean it's bad. In a word, the music is "appropriate."
What, no stylus?!
No gimmicky stylus controls rear their ugly head this time, except for one small mini-game. While the stylus can be used throughout the adventure, most players will likely opt for the traditional click-clacking of buttons. In typical Square Enix fashion, the controls are solid with few complaints. One area of concern players should be aware of is the Auto Mode feature. While this feature is fantastic, forgetting to take it off before a boss battle can seriously hamper even the most diligent of gamers. With only a split second to react, the player must hit the button to turn off Auto Mode immediately when the battle starts, or suffer the consequences of three auto attacks and a cure the first round of a rigorous rumble with Mr. McBadguy.
A successful venture into my childhood
This review is laden with applause and dejection. Most of the good is from innovation and hitting the right old chords perfectly, while most of the complaints lie in lazy design or a reliance on duly discarded design choices from more than two decades ago. The numbers RPGFan posts on the side reflect these grievances appropriately, but forget all that. Do you miss playing those old RPGs that haven't aged all that well? Then go out and buy this game. Not only does it give a genuine taste of what us old timers remember loving when we were kids, but it lacquers it all over with fantastic innovations in game design. And, yeah, those games were about gameplay, and not so much about story, but the rest of the package–bleeps and bloops, old art, and painfully traditional storytelling that only a nostalgic masochist could enjoy–these things are included, as well.
For those who don't have hair growing out of their ears, this is a good lesson in history; and it's fun, too. However, for those who've acquired an allergy to old design and can't get past the idea that some of these designs are intentionally left in, despite being aged and discarded- well, this game's not for you and that's okay. The industry has largely moved past these game design decisions and clichéd storytelling for good reason.
Admittedly, Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light is not the same as the classics from two decades ago, but nothing ever will be. This is as close as we're getting for now, so take advantage of this opportunity.