Final Fantasy, a series never content to remain the same, finds itself re-imagined yet again in Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light. Wasting no time at all, 4 Heroes‘ story revolves around Brandt who (I renamed Chrono), upon waking up on his 14th birthday, goes to the king to begin his rite of passage into adulthood. Turns out that’s to rescue the king’s kidnapped daughter who’s held prisoner by a witch in a cave. After meeting his brooding, impatient friend Jusqua (Xeno) and the stalwart female knight Yunita (Saga), together they rescue Princess Aire (Mana) and defeat the witch, whereupon they’re greeted by a giant crystal that informs them of the important journey they must go on.
All this happens quickly and efficiently with little text or fluff, and by the end of the intro you know exactly who everyone is, the kind of fairytale world they inhabit and most importantly, how the battle system works. It’s a nice, quick introduction to the game, which mixes some of the old (towns, simple story) with the new (swift, engaging battle system) of Final Fantasy, making for something entirely welcome on the Nintendo DS.
Towns, which were missing from this year’s Final Fantasy XIII, are back and beautifully designed with lots of hidden items to find in each one. Townspeople are invaluable in this Final Fantasy, as they lay out your objectives, part of the plot, and key information including hints that will affect decisions about equipment (“The monsters around here are weak against fire!”), so it’s important to find the right country bumpkins to talk to. The populace doesn’t waste your time either, as 4 Heroes features sharp writing that’s short and to the point. It’s all very wham-bam-thank-you-fair-maiden, and thank Bahamut for that. No laborious cutscenes filled with awkward laughter here.
Once you’re done in a town it’s off to beat a boss in a dungeon, but they’re nowhere near as interesting as the towns, instead consisting of long empty hallways with the occasional branch where treasure may lie. Treasure, or a dead end! Later caves, towers and castles can get confusing as floors, stories and branches pile up on one another, and there’s no map on the DS’ top screen to help navigate. It’s never frustrating enough to get furious over, but good spatial memory’s required if you want to explore every inch to make sure hidden items don’t go undiscovered. And you’ll need a torch to light most of these dark places, an important thing to mention since a torch will take up an all-important item slot.
Equipment management plays a major role in 4 Heroes since each character can hold only 15 items, including weapons, shields, armor, accessories, recovery items and magick tomes — which allow you to cast magick, naturally. (Yes, magick with a “k!” It’s how the gentlemanly Final Fantasy games spell it.) That’s a lot of important stuff to consider, especially now that weapons and equipment, and the monsters they’re used against, have Pokemon-like elemental attributes (fire, earth, wind, water), making it prudent to carry different item types. Keeping these strengths and weaknesses in mind keeps boss and enemy encounters interesting. When the party gets killed by a powerful boss, equipping weapons and armor of a different elemental type ought to significantly sway the tide of battle. Don’t forget to possibly re-equip Crowns and Abilities, too.
Oh, when defeated, you’re docked gems that you win from battle, gems that you use for currency, to upgrade weapons and to upgrade Crowns to gain new abilities (the Bandit for example can get Plunder, which steals from all enemies in battle). Then you get sent back to your last save point without any items you may have used.
The Crowns and the Abilities that come with them are the new job system. It acts a lot like the inventory management, giving you the choice to wear one of several crowns/jobs with different abilities at a time, though you’re limited to six abilities per character. Instead of typical Magic Points, actions and spells cost Action Points or AP, which are shown on the battle screen as five little orbs of yellow light. Attacking an enemy costs one AP. Cure, Fire or Water magic costs two. Fira, Blizzara and more powerful spells cost three, and so on. To get one more AP for the next turn you select Boost which will”charge” the character in case a spell or ability that costs a lot of AP’s needed. Using AP and auto-targeting enemies takes the work out of battle, and depending on characters’ weapons and spells you can affect which monsters you target in the front or back row.
Regarding things like job selection, there’s no “right” way to play 4 Heroes either. Like Final Fantasy V and Tactics you don’t need to be a certain job to tackle a certain obstacle, though the game lays down some strict rules and restrictions, and even steers you in a certain direction time to time. “Remember: monsters around here are weak to fire!” for example. But, using that townsperson’s warning as an example, you’re given plenty of choice to focus on water-imbued weaponry, water spells, the many varied classes (including one that manipulates dead party members!) or you can have items do everything for you. You can also set up shop in a town and sell your unused items and equipment for as much money as you can.
There’s also a bare-bones multiplayer mode that allows one character to enter another player’s game to help out in a dungeon. You join the other player’s team controlling the movement and battle choices of that one character, reminiscent of the basic two-player mode in Final Fantasy VI. It’s local-only so New Jerseyans shouldn’t expect to play with friends in Kansas, and it’s not essential anyway. This is not Monster Hunter, this is a single-player experience through and through. All multiplayer does is reward you with Battle Points after completing a dungeon with a friend before sending you back to your own game. The points can be used to buy specific items afterwards, although they were never anything all that valuable for me. Perhaps if I keep playing multiplayer I’ll yield better items?
With a hearty battle system (best played solo far as I can tell) and plenty of options to toy with, the joy in 4 Heroes comes in the visuals and presentation as well, and this game oozes a sense of wonder absent in so many games. The graphics are fantastic, a very storybook/fairy tale feel that extends to the squatty characters that remind me of early PlayStation One era RPGs, and to the modest story that manages to balance tragedy and cute talking animals so well. The way the horizon curves around as characters trot across the globe is a great way to reveal new sights, and some areas and their details are truly impressive.
Though the NES-like soundtrack can get kind of repetitive in towns and dungeons, Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light successfully combines fuzzy nostalgia with fresh gameplay mechanics that ought to please fans looking for a challenging new title in the series to play on the go. This is strong, absorbing stuff, made by a team that put in a lot of heart and care into the experience. Will this Final Fantasy gaiden jump start a new sub-series? We already have Crystal Chronicles, Tactics, Compilation of VII, Fabula Nova Crystalis, and Dissidia, and whatever you think of those games this one’s pretty lovable. So, why not?