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.
The JRPG homage theme comes across nicely and the game follows through on its promise to modernize with attractive environments
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The JRPG mechanics are streamlined and fine tuned, although there are some archaic gameplay aspects that should have been nixed
Some combat noises are a bit on the grainy side but in general everything is fine
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
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