Learning the Wrong Lessons
Perhaps related to the success of Matrix Software’s DS remakes of Final Fantasy 3 and 4, Final Fantasy: Four Heroes of Light is a stand-alone Final Fantasy game deeply ingrained in the old school tradition. Unfortunately, the developer seems to have taken all the wrong lessons from the old school. Four Heroes of Light does push for overall simplicity of design, and that does capture something of the spirit of older RPGs, but it also features an obtuse interface, inconsistent difficulty, and direction so vague that it borders on the incomprehensible. Four Heroes of Light does do some things right — the class system is interesting, if a bit basic, and the game’s visuals are exceptional — but the game is unfriendly on a basic level and doesn’t offer the player much reward for getting past that.
The story of Four Heroes of Light is fairly simple, which is definitely an old school affectation. The tone of the game is intended to resemble a fairy tale storybook, and the witches, dragons, and legendary heroes populating the story serve to reinforce this. Our four heroes — Brandt, a young peasant boy from the town of Horne; Aire, Horne’s fussy princess; Jusqua, an intellectual with a bit of a stubborn streak; and Yunita, Aire’s guardian knight — start the game off by facing down a witch, who then curses their home town with a petrification spell. The tale focuses mostly on their attempts to de-stone Horne, and how they become heroes in the process. The story is fairly basic and doesn’t do much that any experienced gamer couldn’t see coming a mile off, but it features some decent character development and an interesting cast.
|The touch screen control in combat is about as fast and without fuss as the interface gets.|
The biggest issue with the plot isn’t actually the direction the story takes, but rather the way the player is expected to act in order to progress. In many cases, cutscenes will end ambiguously, leaving the player wondering where to go and what to do. The player is expected to hunt around for clues in the various lines of NPC dialogue, which is indeed how many older games did things, meaning that it does tie in to Four Heroes of Light’s attempt to draw a line between itself and older RPGs. But this convention has largely been left by the side of the road for a reason. Hunting down NPCs is tedious, often leads to vague or incomplete directions, and it makes the story feel choppy. Scenes end without any real resolution to the problem at hand, leaving the player wondering how these characters can be heroes if their reaction to difficult questions seems to be, “Meh, I dunno.”
Four Heroes of Light uses a rather simplified version of the Final Fantasy class system, with each of the 20+ classes having three levels. Each level translates to a single new ability, none of which can be shared amongst the different classes. This particular restriction is a bit disappointing, as it effectively locks characters in to a rather specific build, limiting character setup possibilities. It comes off as even more of a missed opportunity when looking at the classes themselves, which are extremely unusual, going far beyond the usual, “Fighter, White Mage, Black Mage, Thief” conventions. Four Heroes of Light introduces classes that make greater use of items than even Chemists, classes that excel at business management, and even one class whose abilities allow it to control dead teammates. At any rate, combat itself is a very traditional turn-based affair, which ties into the old school theme of the game. Individual moves determine the order turns take place in, with healing going first, followed by status moves, et cetera. One interesting change to the traditional setup is the use of Action Points, which take the place of MP. Each character has five AP, and regenerate one or two AP every turn, basically allowing mages to use 1 AP-cost magic the same way that physical characters use their basic attack.
The biggest issue with the combat system, however, is really more a problem with the interface. Perhaps through some misguided desire to make the game a little easier or a little faster, combat is set up so that the game automatically selects the target for everything the player does. Now, the game does attempt to mitigate the problems this causes by having certain attacks strike certain rows; magic, for example, will always hit the enemies in the back row before changing targets to the front row, while most physical attacks work the other way around. Aside from a few minor problems this causes with damage distribution and efficiency in combat, the setup more or less works, or at least can be worked around without too much trouble. This problem only gets worse, however, when the player starts getting status moves. Since the game doesn’t take direction, attempting to cast Protect on a weakening character or use an Ether to restore a specific ally’s AP simply isn’t possible; characters have a set-in-stone pattern to move use and will never deviate from it, regardless of the situation. Essentially, the combat interface throws a number of options under the bus before the game even begins, simply because the game isn’t flexible enough to allow players to pick their own targets.
The other big problem is the game’s balance, which can best be described as “wacky.” For the first half of the game, players will be limited to one or two party members as the story bounces between the split-up party. This leads to a lot of unforgiving encounters, random battles which go the wrong way because you got hit with Sleep or Paralysis at the wrong time, for example, and bosses that more or less require the player to suicide the first attempt in order to figure out what the game expects from them. Around about the middle of the game, however, the party finally forms up, and the player is tasked with searching the world for a set of legendary equipment. This is also the point at which monsters start to level alongside the player, which actually leads to an overall reduction in the game’s difficulty, thanks to some overpowered equipment and Crowns. The practical upshot of all this is that the first half of Four Heroes of Light is full of arbitrarily difficult battles, while the second half is more or less a cakewalk.
Thankfully, Four Heroes of Light is much more pleasing on an aesthetic level. The game’s visual style uses large blocks of primary and pastel color to create a very effective storybook feel, similar to a collage or vector illustration. It matches the tone of the game quite well, and although the rough polygons of the character models do occasionally show through, on the whole it’s a very effective illusion.
|The game’s visuals are deceptively complex for a handheld system.|
The game’s soundtrack, on the other hand, is a bit less inspired. An attempt to recall the style of the old chiptune soundtrack, it relies a bit too much on the beep and boop tones to make its point, but on the whole it works well enough. It doesn’t reinforce the visual style or the storybook quality quite as well as it could have done, but it does back up the game’s old school feel fairly well. On the whole, the soundtrack could perhaps have used stronger, more simple melodies to tie it back to older RPGs in a more compositional sense, rather than simply making the OST sound as though it’s coming through an old soundboard.
As Four Heroes of Light has only one save file and no timer, it’s a bit tough to say how long of a game it really is. Estimates put it at around 30 to 40 hours, but there is a bit of postgame content and a couple of randomly-generated dungeons for players to conquer, meaning things could easily run a bit longer. Given the variable and often wildly-swinging level of challenge, pinning down a definitive difficulty for Four Heroes of Light is a bit tough as well.
In the end — if you’ll forgive me a bit of a personal note — I found this game unusually difficult to review. You see, under normal circumstances, I define a “good game” as being one that succeeds at the design goals it sets out for itself. Final Fantasy: Four Heroes of Light obviously set out to be an old school game complete with all the obtuse design decisions that go along with it, and in that sense it succeeds wonderfully. But that success simply does not translate to a game which is fun, or in many cases, which even presents a sensible or reasonable challenge. Perhaps the central issue is that the game simply takes the wrong lessons from older games. Rather than taking the simplicity of design and story of old games and running with them, Four Heroes of Light centers in on the obtuse interface, frustrating lack of direction, and often cryptic event pacing. In that sense, Four Heroes of Light is one of those rare games which achieves its design goals, and yet still falls short as a piece of entertainment.
This game was played to completion and reviewed using a retail copy purchased by the reviewer.