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Given the proliferation of real-time RPGs or blending of genres ala Mass Effect 2, it’s interesting to look back and recall that there was a time when real-time RPGs were a blip on the horizon as turn-based combat and random encounters dominated the RPG palette. Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light underscores just how far we’ve come; now 4 Heroes of Light is the odd one next to the real-time big boys.  By its own admission 4 Heroes of Light is a classic old school RPG with the technology we’re used to, and while this is certainly the case the inherent niche appeal of the game may have a lot of people wondering what the big deal is.

The moment this review used the words “old school RPG” I’m sure many of you prophetic seers deduced almost the exact story of 4 Heroes of Light, especially if you happened to grow up in the 8 and 16 bit eras.  Our hero Brandt is a typical 14-year old boy entrusted by his king, to rescue Princess Carino, who has been captured by a witch.  As he is joined by his friend Jusqua, rookie soldier Yunita, and Carino’s younger sister Aire, all isn’t as simple as it seems.  When their rescue mission goes horribly awry, the four must embark on a world-spanning quest to save the world, perhaps becoming heroes of light along the way.

4 Heroes of Light has its sights set very firmly on being an homage to the JRPG genre that brought Square-Enix (then Squaresoft) to stardom so it’s difficult to accuse it of having a threadbare story.  This sense of awareness means that 4 Heroes of Light presents itself well, evoking a different, simpler era in videogame storytelling and narrative.  Don’t think this means that 4 Heroes of Light doesn’t modernize when necessary.  Dialogue is appropriately light years ahead of the typical standard of RPGs for the old days.  The game isn’t afraid to embrace its almost quaint clichés for the sake of doing what it wants to do, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

What doesn’t work is the massive padding in the early hours of the game.  4 Heroes of Light seems to have trouble getting its footing and deciding to actually kick off the story.  There’s a tiring amount of exposition to wade through and 4 Heroes of Light also falls into that RPG pitfall where party members contrive flimsy excuses to leave the team only to triumphantly return less than an hour later.  Granted, this is something a lot of JRPGs characteristically suffer from but I doubt this evokes nostalgia so much as irritation and boredom.

Gameplay is so old school that it makes the Nintendo 64 look like advanced 3D technology.  You have your titular party of four heroes and you venture across the great overworld resting and restocking at towns, fighting monsters, swapping out weapons for newer models, and leveling up.  As a love letter to JRPG fans it gets the job done and has its audience in mind.  Once the game gets off the ground the progression is generally smooth and the experience is simple but reasonably fun, which is probably the idea.

In traditional JRPG fashion you’ll be spending the vast majority of your time in combat, which is turn-based. Don’t let this deter you, however. The game makes some significant updates on this old school method.  The biggest issue is that you can’t select the target you’re attacking, buffing, or even healing.  This probably sounds awful on paper but it lends a curious degree of strategy to 4 Heroes of Light.  You attack a specific “row” of enemies and your character picks an enemy in the row to attack but actions aren’t completely randomized.  Attacks on a given row will generally focus on a specific target and healing spells seem to automatically target characters with the lowest health.  It does get annoying when you can’t prioritize your own healing or buffing strategies but it makes fights much more unique and cuts down on excessive micromanagement in an interesting way.

The battle system also cuts down on a lot of JRPG clutter with the use of Action Points, which are used for every action in the game including attacking and casting spells.  It seems like the developers reasonably figured that a game with inevitable grinding like 4 Heroes of Light might as well have a streamlined battle system.  You’ll be doing your share of grinding as well because difficulty is punishing at times, and this is where the subjectivity of 4 Heroes of Light comes into play.  I always get alienated by games where I have to consciously hope that the big boss doesn’t decide to use his ultimate attack on my weakened team, but I have friends who enjoy JRPG mechanics.  It’s genre-driven and odds are by now you’ll know if you want to invest in this.

4 Heroes of Light takes a cue from the job system in other Final Fantasy games with its so-dubbed Crown System.  Crowns are special equipped items that let you take on the aspect of whatever mask you happen to be wearing and subsequently you change your class accordingly.  A mask that gives you the aspect of a spellcaster, for example, makes magic cheaper to use and increases your damage potential with magic abilities.  Crowns can be upgraded up to three times for further beneficial effects and the different types of crowns with various effects are balanced enough that there’s no cookie-cutter crown scheme for your team.  It’s a diverse system and a pragmatic take on traditional job systems that lets you both specialize but change strategies as needed.

There are certain things that a deliberate sense of nostalgia can’t defend.  The sense of direction is painfully underweight at times in 4 Heroes of Light and suffers from the same lack of guidance that a lot of JRPGs past and present do.  I lost count of how many times I would suddenly have no immediate objective only to randomly talk to the right NPC and suddenly realize what I was supposed to be doing.  This crosses the line of what’s nostalgic as opposed to just annoying.  Given that producer Tomoya Asano has described the game as “a classic fantasy RPG using today’s technology” it’s mystifying to see random encounters.  Given that Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG had visible enemies it’s difficult to claim that random encounters are part of an old school experience for all but the most hardcore of JRPG purists.

Rather than opt for an 8-bit theme ala Half Minute Hero, 4 Heroes of Light is instead presented in a similar fashion to Matrix Software’s other 3D sprite based games including their Final Fantasy remakes and the ironically named Nostalgia.  Everything looks bright and colorful and presentation values are excellent.  You’ll be able to spend a solid 25 hours enjoying it if this is your cup of tea, and additionally you can play with friends online provided you have four party members.  While this is a great way to enjoy an often-solitary genre with friends the fact that you need four party members makes the multiplayer feature useless early on when the game is obsessively swapping party members in and out.

In the end judged by its own merits 4 Heroes of Light does a fun little experience which reasonable job updating JRPG mechanics and presentation for today’s real-time RPG world.  The insistence on staying within old school boundaries mostly gives it niche appeal, but it’s a niche that Matrix Software acknowledges and caters to nicely.  Issues like the poor narrative development early in the game, irritating JRPG features like random encounters masquerading as old school mechanics, and inevitable grinding are something you’ll have to balance against how much of a JRPG fan you are.

Rating Category
8.0 Presentation
The JRPG homage theme comes across nicely and the game follows through on its promise to modernize with attractive environments
How does our scoring system work?
7.0 Gameplay
The JRPG mechanics are streamlined and fine tuned, although there are some archaic gameplay aspects that should have been nixed
8.5 Sound
Some combat noises are a bit on the grainy side but in general everything is fine
7.5 Longevity
There's a solid 30 hours or so of content to play through here, but it's mostly the grinding and combat that JRPG purists enjoy
7.0 Overall
4 Heroes of Light is a JRPG fix. It looks alright and it plays alright and the baggage it carries is something you can either get past or despise depending on your attitude towards JRPGs

  1. Sounds like a fair review to me, I will have to take a pass on it for sure.

  2. avatar Wrong

    Decent review. However, you note that there is a lack of direction in the game, which is oh so very false. It doesn’t hold your hand through a linear progression. While it definitely is still a linear story, it gives you a bit of freedom in exploration, and actually makes you find out what to do next, much like the timeless classics that started and molded the genre.

    While I agree with your scores, you also seem to score the game without any regard to the genre. While you may not be one who enjoys JRPGs tremendously, you need to take the genre into account, especially since the game employs and improves upon the mechanics used. Grinding is a necessary evil, and it will never be completely eliminated due to the public’s desire for overpowering bosses. But when a game can cut away most of it and only require you to bust some heads an extra couple of times throughout each dungeon, how can you say that it’s archaic?

    And JESUS, your random encounters quote. How can you say that random encounters aren’t part of a classic RPG experience, just because you note TWO games that don’t have it. What about FF1-10? Lufia and Lufia II? Tales of Phantasia? Earthbound? 7th Saga? Chrono Cross took a page out of the CLASSIC JRPG book and used random encounters.

    • I score the game without regard to “the genre”? Why should I need to alter my opinion to accommodate any particular genre? All reviews are subjective personal opinions and if the fact that JRPGs are no longer my favorite irks you, then go read the review of someone who really enjoys JRPGs. I even acknowledged in the review that there are some people who might like what I didn’t like.

      So what if random encounters just happen to be part of a lot of JRPGs? The only reason random encounters existed to begin with is because it was easier to compute a single algorithm rather than use a lot of space with visible monsters. Taking that mechanic and calling it an actual aspect of gameplay is faulty logic, and what shows is that Final Fantasy has abandoned them as of 12 (11 if you want to get picky). If you’re going to argue that Super Mario RPG and Chrono Trigger somehow aren’t classic RPGs, I know a lot of people who would like to have a word with you. Condemning the few because of the many is as illogical as saying video games can’t be art because more video games are entertainment rather than art.

      By the way, Chrono Cross and Earthbound have no random encounters, and Lufia II only has them on the world map. If 7th Saga – which also doesn’t really have random encounters in the strict sense – is your idea of a classic RPG then you seriously need to re-evaluate your standards. If you’re going to write vitriol-saturated comments, get your facts straight.

  3. avatar Ferahtsu

    Final Fantasy is one of those series that you either grow out of, or live in your parents basement forever.

  4. avatar Antonio

    Completely agree, apart from I’d say WC3 instead of Diablo 2, preuly for the fact that it spawned DotA and all DotA’s clones.And just thought I’d comment, since it can be hard to tell people read when nobody comments.

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