Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of LightFinal Fantasy is one of those names in the gaming industry that people just "know". While the series has had its fair share of fans and detractors, it nevertheless is commonly used as a sort of baseline by which JRPGs in general get measured by. The DS itself has been home to many games of the series, ranging from remakes, side games and those in the Crystal Chronicles subseries. 4 Heroes of Light takes the series in a more traditional direction in the hopes of showing what made JRPGs of yesteryear so great.
The game has a charming somewhat child-like interpretation of the game world and everything in it. The protagonists are youngsters that have this clearly reflected in the chibi style polygon models like the blond princess shielded from the world or the cooler older friend with slicked back hair. What's mightily impressive here is that when you change crowns (this game's idea of a class system) their entire costume changes to match their new class.This style is extended to the various NPCs you'll come across as you travel as well (albeit minus the costume switching).
Environment design is a bit more mixed. The overworld looks pretty good, giving you a variety of locales like the desert and forest, dotting the landscape with rocks and trees as needed. The towns you step foot inside are well designed and some make interesting use of the camera to swivel around for nice perspectives. Dungeons, on the other hand, tend to suffer from a more uniform bland design in each area, resulting in passageways that look scarily like one another.
As can be expecting from a game aiming to bury itself in nostalgia the music collection has that 16 bit feel to it, as gentle melodies play out as you explore the world. That said, the score simply isn't as impressive as other DS FInal Fantasy titles and ends up being a little lost in the rest of the package.
The story, while definitely clinging to classic fantasy, isn't particularly forceful about delivery. The four characters are the only survivors of a curse that sweeps through their village and must now seek refuge and find a way to undo the curse. But while there is enough story to justify the actions you're taking I never really felt particularly involved in it. The characters, while having nice personalities, just lack the depth for any real connection to happen and so ultimately it's really hard to care.
4HOL primary "hook" is the simplified way it goes about things such as its battle system and this is one area that the game seriously stumbles. When fighting you pick a command for each living party member and then witness the actions being carried out. Most actions costs AP, of which each party member can have 5 AP max with a minimal recharge per turn. This forces some strategy as players need to judge what actions to use while making sure they don't deplete the AP pool.
Pick the right equipment for the job.
The class and ability systems of other games have been greatly simplified here too (those picturing convulted skill trees like in FFX can breathe a sigh of relief). Classes are determined by the "crown" a person is wearing. You start with one and earn more as the plot dictates, slowly opening available options as you progress. Crowns typically have a passive skill (eg white mage reduces the cost of white magic) while offering up to 3 active skills (like a white mage being able to cast a full party heal). Crowns can be individually upgraded by using gems earned from battle so you do get a lot of potential options without the whole thing being a mess.
Selecting available abilities is also restricted. You only have a select number of ability slots that must also include the basic commands like attack, so you have to carefully pick what you want access to for each battle before you're dragged into a fight. Item management is also limited, with each character only having 15 item slots (which must also account for equipped items and spell books so the number of empty slots is closer to 10). This helps to curb the kleptomaniac tendencies of players since you can't hold everything in sight and makes you think a lot about what items you need and what ones you can safely discard. Thankfully, towns do allow access to item storage where you can withdraw and deposit to a much larger storage space that all characters can access.
So far so good? Here is where it goes wrong. You don't actually get to pick the target of each of your chosen commands, instead relying entirely on the computer to pick for you. While certainly streamlined, this feels like a huge mistake to me and is one reason I can't enjoy this as much as I had hoped. While the computer follows predictable rules so a player generally knows which target it will pick when Command A is used, there are many times where you'd prefer to apply the command effect to a different target and that's something you're simply not allowed to do.
Along a similar note, the availability of classic RPG battle functions are hit and miss. The ability to charge energy and defend are rolled into one action and an item menu exists to allow players to use goods like healing potions. However, the classic escape command? It's locked as a class skill. So if you're in a fight you realize is over your head then tough luck if none of your team is wearing the right crown whose only purpose is to grant a normally standard game feature.
One of the bosses you'll have to fend off.
You'll find yourself fighting a whole lot of different enemy types like vicious plants, magic fairies and demonic beasts, all of who have their own sets of attacks and tricks. As well as dealing with direct damage some will try to inflict status ailments on you, which can be very dangerous if left unchecked. Poison saps your health for example and, unlike many other RPGs, there is no easily accessible cure all spell. So even random generic fights can provide a solid challenge as you try to pick off the enemies before they overwhelm you. Bosses naturally step things up even more, bringing in huge amounts of health and some rather devastating attacks.
However, this is another element that can potentially turn gamers off. The game starts off with a rather steep difficulty curve and it isn't adverse to just throwing in ridiculous difficulty spikes. Going from 2 hit killing everything with a healthy number of party members to travelling solo and getting owned by generic munchkins minutes apart isn't a playful exaggeration; it literally happens several times during the course of the game and it's incredibly off-putting when it comes out of nowhere and sucker punches you into restarting from the nearest checkpoint or save. At the very least the penalty of failure isn't quite so severe as other games, but it's still disheartening when foreknowledge is genuinely the only way to stop yourself from getting wiped out.
Speaking of which, those who did not take favourably to FFIV's habit of constantly switching your party members around will not like this game's approach to it, which is basically more of the same. The titular heroes are together at the beginning of the game, but then split apart shortly into the adventure and from there the game shifts back and forth between characters, with guest party members coming and going as the story requires. Eventually the four characters reunite but until then party balancing is stupidly difficult to do and several times the game just leaves you with a mere one character to trek through some rather difficult scenarios.
On the exploration side of things the game sees you travelling all over the land as you talk to NPCs trying to glean the few clues you need to progress, with even your own party members standing around in some places like towns to chat to in order to get hints on where to go next. Circumstances will see you completing a variety of tasks like defeating invading monsters or retrieving stuff. In its efforts to promote a puzzling adventure you can find tricks like having to transform into animals to reach places humans cannot or making use of environmental features to bypass otherwise impassible obstacles. It's the kind of thing you'd expect from a RPG and all the better for it.
Sadly, the game also tends to forget to give you directions quite often. The game drip feeds you some obscure nonsense and then expects you to know where to go. This can lead to a lot of aimless wandering around, getting dragged into one random battle after another, just trying to figure out your next location. Even hints given aren't always particularly useful and if by chance you happen to stop playing for a while then chances are you have to try and stumble upon the next destination purely by chance. While nobody expects hand-holding in games, going to the opposite extreme and refusing to offer any meaningful direction feels a lot worse, especially when that lost wandering results in an endless stream of battles that you can only flee from if wearing the right crown.
Overall I can't help but feel the game tries to simplify too much and hurts the gameplay as a result. Keeping things streamlined for a handheld game is one thing, but when you start taking out things that seem awfully vital then you're kinda going in the wrong direction. It's certainly different but it's hard to see anyone playing through it without feeling a fair amount of frustration and I don't think it's necessary to endure when other handheld RPGs manage just fine.