If you would have pulled me aside five years ago and told me that 1) there would be a new, original Final Fantasy game on my favorite console and 2) not a lot of people would notice, I would have laughed in your face. I mean, it’s Final Fantasy, one of the biggest gaming franchises in the world! How could it get ignored?
However, this is exactly what’s happened with Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light. It was announced loudly, but the public in general responded with a dismissive wave of the hand and cries of “Final Fantasy Mystic Quest Redux.” So what’s the deal? Does it deserve such easy dismissal, or is there something worthwhile here?
First of all, Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light has a decidedly old-school feel. For example, the music is excellent throughout, but in the background of the tracks you’ll hear tones that you’ll recognize from an 8 or 16-bit sound chip. It seems like a conscious decision to get you on the game’s side early on, and it works.
The battles are typical turn-based fare except you can’t choose who your character will attack during the battles. Your weapon will determine whether you can attack the front or back row. For example, if you have a bow and arrow, you’ll attack the back row. If you have a sword, you’ll attack the front row enemies. When one row is gone, the front row/back row distinction is gone.
I thought I was going to hate not having direct control over combat decisions, but I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would. Your characters will usually pick the right person to attack, so it’s not that horrible of a system. I haven’t had one battle where I lost because my character picked the wrong enemy.
The story is also fairly interesting, if a little bit of a stock RPG story. The four main characters start their quest by defeating an evil witch. When they return to town, everyone has been turned to stone. The characters quickly separate and head their own ways while their stories intersect at various points. It’s a fun story, if a little light.
The job system is also handled in a really cool way with your characters chancing about various crowns. Different crowns will assign different jobs that are in line with the familiar Final Fantasy jobs: White mage, black mage, thief, and so forth.
However, as much as they got things right, it’s time to get to the negatives. For one, the DS is being replaced at the right time, since its meager graphics are pretty much tapped out at this point. For example, in 4 Heroes of Light, they tried using a different style to minimize the DS’ problems. It’s a system with just a little bit of texturing and some effects that could look absolutely awesome on a better system. However, with the DS’ low-resolution screen, things end up looking more splotchy than interesting.
I would compare the graphics in this game to, say, Sarah Jessica Parker. From certain angles, she looks like the prettiest woman in the world. Then she moves ever so slightly one way or the other and you can’t stop thinking of her as a half-woman, half-horse hybrid.
That’s 4 Heroes of Light in a nutshell. Certain areas and certain angles look really neat, and they used every trick in their handbook to make the graphics look as sharp as they could. Then you’ll turn the corner and be astounded by how artless the same style looks in a different area. I feel for Matrix Software, as they really tried hard to give this game a distinct look, but the DS let them down.
The good news is that when your characters change equipment, you’ll see that change on the character during battles and in the overland screen. However, circling back to the poor capabilities of the DS, the details are very difficult to make out.
I’m also not a fan of the dungeons. I’m going to level with you: After playing Dragon Quest IX for almost 80 hours, I really can’t go back to old-school maze-style dungeons anymore, much less drab-looking ones. Most of the dungeons here are pretty same-y, and it’s difficult to tell where you are inside of them. You’ll find yourself wondering, “Am I on the 3rd floor or the 4th floor? I don’t know, because both floors look the same!” What should be a joyful romp can quickly turn into a slog.
Listen, folks: Some old-school design decisions were only made because they didn’t know any better. For example, people who wish games were just as hard as they used to be on the NES aren’t undertanding that those games were made by people who, for the most part, were just learning how to make games. After they got a little experience under their belts, they realized they were doing it wrong and eased up on the difficulty.
The same goes for things like level-grinding, maze dungeons and random battles in old-school RPGs. While these are wonderful reminders of where we’ve come from and give us +2 to our Nostalgia skill, they’ve mostly disappeared because they’re not good ideas. An excess of level grinding shows that your game isn’t as balanced as it should be. Maze-like dungeons show that you didn’t think your dungeons through well enough. Random battles were made when there was no other way to have multiple enemies running around the world without massive sprite flicker. (Remember sprite flicker? Memories.)
I want to make it perfectly clear that I’m not saying that 4 Heroes of Light is a bad game. On the contrary, it uses these nostalgic elements fairly well in way that makes you happy. I just wish there was more of a mix between the old and the new here instead of such a relentless march toward the old.