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• Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light

developed by Matrix/published by Square-Enix/2010.10.05
1 player/1 Save Slot/Flash-ROM/Nintendo DS

Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light is a side-story that takes its inspiration from the earlier 8-bit and 16-bit installments; a time when games were genuinely challenging and couldn’t rely on flashy graphics to hold a player’s attention.  Players can customize their characters with a variety of skills using the Crown System, which functions like the job system from Final Fantasy 3, though it has some interesting modifications.  One of my favorite artists in the video game world, Akihiko Yoshida, famous for his work on games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story, lends his unique style to the look of the characters and settings.  His simplistic, painterly art style adds tremendously to the game’s charm, which is further strengthened by its moody chiptune soundtrack.

Story

Taking a page directly out of early Final Fantasy lore, mystical crystals bestow holy powers on a group of four heroes of light.  They set out into the wider world to make right the many wrongs afflicting the towns and villages they visit.  The game delights in splitting up the four main characters into separate plot threads for the first half of the game.  You’ll usually have only one or two characters at once, which makes the battles much more difficult than in the 2nd half.  Often locals will join your party for a brief episode, and while they can’t be customized, they’re help is always appreciated.  The twisting turning tale is entertaining, but may present some problems if you end up exploring areas out of order, so pay close attention to the hints from townspeople.  The latter half of the game is completely non-linear, allowing you to freely pick and choose your next destination.

Crowns & Gems

Unlike the job systems in other games, this one is rather simple. Rather than fighting endless battles to upgrade job skills, you can master a job as soon as it becomes available if you have enough gems.  Eight different types of gems can be collected from fallen foes, which can then be spent in a variety of ways.  Each crown can be upgraded three times (unlocking a new skill each time), but how you spend the gems is a bit of a balancing act.

You don’t earn money from fights, so you can opt to sell gems for cash to buy necessary equipment.  Additionally, you can upgrade individual pieces of equipment up to nine times by slotting gems into them.  Thankfully, if you’re low on gems there is actually a crown which has the ability to find them randomly during any fight!

And should money become a problem, the game features a unique mini-game that allows you to become a shopkeeper and sell excess items.  In most RPGs you sell items at half their going rate, but here you can actually charge more for items to turn a profit.  Over the course of about 30 seconds shoppers will peruse your wares and buy stuff.  Granted, they won’t buy excessively overpriced items unless they’re the current fad, but it’s a fun way to score some extra cash.

Skills & Action Points

Unlike other Final Fantasy games, this one doesn’t utilize magic points (typically spent when casting spells).  Instead, your characters have 5 Action Points (AP) which can be used to perform one of six specialty skills in addition to the basics (attacking or using an item).  Each round your character automatically accrues 1 AP, which you can save up by “boosting”.  More complex skills, such as casting a spell, can take anywhere from 1~5 AP depending on its strength.  Any character can cast spells if they have a spellbook, but they’ll expend less AP if they wear a magician’s crown.  Likewise some crowns bestow bonuses for wielding a specific type of weapon.  Although it seems simple, it gives the game a satisfying level of strategy, particularly during the grueling boss battles.

Furthermore, you can’t pick what enemy you’ll attack or what ally you’ll heal in battle.  This sounds like a nightmare, but in practice the battles move a lot faster as a result.  Characters with short-range weapons will automatically attack monsters in the front row, while those with long-range weapons will target the back row.  Each character can hold15 things, including their weapon, shield, armor, and accessory.  That means you’ll have to be choosy about what spells a magician will have at their disposal.  While excess items can be kept in storage (accessible in each town), the limited inventory can be slightly annoying at first, when you are adventuring solo.

Difficulty

Juggling what crowns to master, where to spend precious gems, the new Action Point system, and dealing with limited inventory space all add to the game’s difficulty.  Further increasing the challenge are elemental buffs which can make or break you at the many bosses.  Often the key to victory is having the right type of elemental shield or weapons and spells, so expect to get wiped out often.  Thankfully, bosses are always preceded by the option to save your game, allowing you to easily regroup when necessary.  There will be times when you’ll have to make your way back to town just to tailor your party to beat a boss, which can be a bit of a pain, but this is a small price to pay, as you’ll only rarely have to level grind.  In the 2nd half of the game, you can eliminate groups of enemies and even bosses almost too easily if you have the right skills.

Near the end of the game you’ll get access to 4 secret towers, where you can win special crowns on the top floor.  Each floor is randomly generated, and about every 10 floors you’ll face seemingly invincible bosses.  Thankfully you can leave the towers every 10 floors (and return there after resting), but the extreme difficulty seems more than a little off-balanced.

Conclusion

Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light is a delightful little game that is true to its roots.  It’s like they took my fondest memories of the old, classic RPGs and wove them into one neat package.  The lovely art direction and simplistic soundtrack are sublime, perfectly matching the overall retro theme.  No other RPG looks and sounds quite like this one, but don’t expect the cinematic story scenes or voice-acting seen in the Final Fantasy 4 remake.  The job system isn’t quite as flexible as that seen in Final Fantasy 5, but it works, and the battle system is perfectly tailored to the DS touch screen.  Personally I think this “side story” is head and shoulders above the recent numbered entries in the ongoing Final Fantasy series.

Quick Run Down

PROs:

  • Excellent art direction & music
  • Entertaining scenarios
  • Unique job/skill/battle systems
  • Shop-counter mini-game is fun
  • 30+ hours of content

CONs:

  • Steep difficulty in first half
  • No cinematic story scenes
  • Lack of inventory space can be annoying
  • Forces the player to revisit many areas twice
  • Limited view makes exploring dungeons tedious

One sentence review: A challenging retro-flavored adventure that puts a new spin on the old job and battle systems.

One word review: Retro!

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