Odd. It’s a word that almost describes itself. In this world there is no shortage of things that come off as odd, whether it’s the creatures that inhabit it or the creations of mankind it’s safe to say that odd is here to stay. Really, can anyone explain to me why bread is square and bologna is round? Regardless of what kind of spin one puts on it to satisfy their curiosity, we often poke fun at things that are strange because we often lack the words to define them. They’re just “odd” and that’s all there is to it.
Still, when it comes to video games – a boundless arena where one’s imagination is pretty much allowed to roam free, completely uninhibited – one can’t play more than five minutes without encountering a few oddities. Some of these are self-created, like my indecisive feelings towards Final Fantasy IV. I’d love to know the reasons why this game feels so alien to me when I play it but the answers just escape me. I can’t understand my immunity towards a game that easily deserves the acclaim it has received over the years. Even crazier still is how I can embrace a flawed piece of work like Final Fantasy II. One would think that the game that was actually deemed strong enough to be localized the first time around would go down a lot smoother than one that was brought over in a late-era PS1 remake a decade later. Perplexing as the whole situation is in reality, I know the problem lies more with me than it does with either game.
Fortunately there are times where the exact opposite holds true, times where things are more attractive because they are odd. I’m sure anybody who is familiar with gaming could easily come with half a dozen with very little thought. That said, considering the point being discussed here there is only one title that fills the bill: Harmony of Dissonance. Why Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance? Well, like Final Fantasy above the answer is far from simple but much easier to postulate. Blunt as it may seem, map design is something Castlevania has struggled with to various degrees since Symphony of the Night, the original “Castleroid.” There was something about the layout of Dracula’s Castle in that game that was brimming with intelligence, something the eventual follow-ups couldn’t tap into. While Harmony of Dissonance did little to fight this feeling, it had its own intangible x-factor, a constant sensation that something was off. This (and its strange color palette) ultimately made the game more memorable than it would have been otherwise.
So what does all of this have to do with Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light? Well, a lot because The 4 Heroes of Light is also weird game. How weird? Weird enough to make one question the fact that “Final Fantasy” is present in the title. Does Matrix’s stab at a Final Fantasy benefit from being “odd” or does it only add to the bottomless list of products that use the moniker to attract consumer attention? That’s a good a question as any....
Sights and Sounds
As odd as it may seem, the first element of Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light that made its impression on me was the music. In being a huge fan of video game music, it may have only been natural for me to focus on this aspect of the game, but in no sense is it an automatic response when taking in video-based entertainment. That said, a few hours in I was dying to know who the lead composer was. Why? Crazy as it sounds I was curious as to who could write something so fitting yet so underwhelming. It couldn't have been Nobuo Uematsu, who even in the twilight of his career could compose circles around something this bland and serviceable. Anyway, a bit of research later I came up with the name Naoshi Mizuta, something that wasn't too surprising given how far this game is from being a legitimate part of the series numbered continuity.
So why would I start this review by critiquing Mizuta’s work, a body of work that fails to make a name for itself? Because it exemplifies how the vast majority of elements that make up The 4 Heroes of Light work but are ultimately conflicted. Agreeable as the score is to the world it represents it has the uncanny “gift” of getting into trouble here and there. One of the best illustrations is when the music shifts in battle when one of the player’s characters is in critical condition. Considering how many RPG’s have gotten by without the employment of such a technique it’s as harsh and unnecessary as it sounds. A similar event occurs in boss fights when a boss’ hit points get low. Generally that’s a bit more useful even though it still falls into the realm of superfluous. Other issues, like the games over dependence on key tracks during the second half of the game, also take their toll and, perhaps most telling of all, is how flaccid the Dragon Harp jingle is.
The above situation applies to the game’s art direction as well. While I can’t imagine saying that character designer Akihiko Yoshida’s work is bad (it did have somewhat of a unique charm to in Final Fantasy III) it certainly leaves a lot to be desired here. For the lack of a better phrase it feels second rate and at the end of day I’d have a real hard time calling anything in The 4 Heroes of Light beautiful – drawn or rendered. If anything, it looks like a mishmash ambitions (similar and otherwise) that I've seen elsewhere. However, I will admit I've always had odd relationships with games that employ a dull color palette. Breath of Fire IV on the original PlayStation is great example; it’s washed out colors clashing with the bright colors Capcom used throughout the first three games. I can’t say the darker tones make the game less attractive when it comes to my personal hierarchy (of which Breath of Fire games are my favorite) yet the possibility exists. Another game that immediately comes to mind when presented with art of The 4 Heroes of Light is 1999’s Legend of Mana. Despite the fact that the bright and bold world presented in Legend of Mana is the exact opposite of what’s presented here, both games are obviously geared towards creating a mystical fairytale feel. Unfortunately for this game, Mana’s color palette makes it much more attractive even though it too is a conflicted creation.
The 4 Heroes of Light also runs into some trouble with its story and characterization. Most of the time the game is good at letting you know what your characters are thinking (something that’s achieved by having your characters split up when visiting towns much like a private action in Star Ocean) but there are times where the dialog seems to skip over or botch emotional extremes. For the sake of all that’s good and holy I expect a much more believable expression of grief after a plague has befallen Horne than “what the hell, at least we’re fine, screw it, let’s just leave.” Yet ironically, it’s this exact same “harshness” that fuels the characters personalities for the first half of the game and makes them a lot more interesting than they’d be otherwise. Brandt, Jusqua, Yunita and Aire are not exactly the most likeable people in world when the game opens and, oddly enough, the character introductions are very honest about that. I found something strangely genuine about that. What I enjoyed even more than that was how certain characters (especially Jusqua and Arie) bickered with one another. As silly as it sounds such interaction added a level of realism that most role-playing games tend to gleam over in favor of overall focus.
Unfortunately, like all good things this comes to an end. There’s a moment near the halfway point where the scenario takes on that typical, super-sappy “we've grown so much since we were last together” thing that tends to invade all role-playing games. I understand the importance of these characters putting their problems with one another behind them to focus on the task at hand but do they have to literally tell me that in a block of text? Having them tell me that they've grown – instead of showing me – only cheapens the experience and destroys the relevance of such epiphanies. Weak-kneed at this moment truly is (in all honesty it’s terrible and hard to swallow) the game does a surprisingly good job at burying it in the back of the player’s mind with some of the later revelations. Still, entertaining as some of twists end up being one will find the plot is in league with older Final Fantasies and lacks the complexity to compete with that of a full-fledged console-based title. In a certain sense I guess I’m “prettying up” what the story has to offer because in reality it doesn't ask a whole lot of the player but then I can’t real consider it a real flaw as most handheld titles tend to be shorter and self-contained.
Fight or Flight
Whereas previous sections have focused on areas where The 4 Heroes of Light falls in line with the status quo, combat presents the player with the one area where the game manages to mix things up. Combat is a turned based affair that throws out the concept of MP in exchange for a similar yet different ability point based system. Each command or spell consumes a set amount of AP with one point being refreshed at the start of each round. Also of vast importance are battle messages, snippets of information presented on the bottom screen that gives the player the most recent data on which effects (buffs) have been activated and which ones need to be recast. Another departure is the implementation of auto targeting. Physical attacks automatically target the front row of the enemy party (depending on what weapon is equipped) while spells automatically target the back.
Of all these changes the one that is most likely to strike doubt in the heart of potential players is the auto targeting. I was skeptical at first but the game handles it pretty well. I’ll admit there where times where I would have liked to have more control over what ally was resurrected or which character had their status abnormality cured but these sacrifices are ultimately necessary in making the enemy encounters in the 4 Heroes of Light as brief as possible. Why does combat need to as brief as possible? As simple and quick as combat seems at the start of the game it is quickly bogged down by commands you’ll constantly back with buffs. These “buffs” lengthen battles considerably and make combat a rather formulaic endeavor despite the vast number of choices the class system provides. There are only so many classes that can get away without self-buffing (these generally tend to be physical-oriented classes who rely on other characters and classes to do that for them) so there is no real way to depart from this style of gameplay; you’ll constantly be buffing, attacking and boosting (defending to restore AP) to fuel your offense/defense.
Another aspect affecting the game’s combat is the handoff between the first and second “worlds.” Enemies in the first world have set levels and statistics and can only be as powerful as they start out; the opposite holds true for enemies in the second world where your adversaries level up and scale with the level of the party. This means after a certain point it is senseless to try and overpower a boss solely by gaining levels. Different as this approach is, it really flies in the face of common sense, making one question why a game (and a development team) would employ such a dramatic shift in an experience system midway through a game. Why not just implement it from the beginning? Like combat itself I’ll concede it manages to work to a point, but the switch can create havoc if you finish the first part of the game at too high of level. Regardless, there are moments where both systems show their inadequacies.
Still, perhaps the most problematic aspect of battles is the over reliance on elementals. Most role-playing fans are familiar with the concepts that make ice creatures weak towards fire spells and make machines susceptible to lightning. These general “rules” may change a little between games but the general science usually holds true. Anyway, after the switch above takes place the practice of elementals takes on a whole new importance in The 4 Heroes of Light. Before this point it’s nice to have the correct elemental shield to block a given boss’ biggest spells but it literally becomes mandatory in the second half as is attacking with the correct element to adjust for the increased boss hit point totals. What makes this such a chore is that prior to fighting a boss (unless you’ve beaten the game before) you’re not going to know what element to protect against/attack with. So this means a lot of trial and error since a) you can’t change equipment during battle b) you can only carry so much equipment to begin with and c) most enemies have physical attacks are infused with elemental aspects.
The literal abuse of elemental combat above (and the broken yet lifesaving application of the Elementalist class) also tries back into something learned in Matrix’s reworking of Final Fantasy III: if you know what’s good for you do NOT ignore the magic defense statistic. Really, you don’t want to see what happens when a character lacking in this department is tagged by a spell. Also adding to the vast list of idiosyncrasies seen in combat is the reality that attacks don’t do a static amount of damage. Damage for the same attack can vary wildly from turn to turn for no real reason - even if you hit an enemy’s weak spot.
Despite the title of this section (I only named it that so I could employ some sweet alliteration) exploring dungeons is actually another thing The 4 Heroes of Light does right. Unfortunately, as if it’s any surprise, it’s complicated by the problems above – especially the elemental problem which may have you leaving a dungeon here or there for the correct gear. Regardless, the developers took note of the limited on-hand inventory space and avoided loading the dungeons to the brim with treasure. You may have to make a decision on what to keep every once in a while (especially when combined with enemy drops) but you won’t be stressing over what and what not to keep or leaving a dungeon over and over to store items at the storage shop. The bite-sized dungeons go well with the inventory system and shows one an area where designer forethought finally coincides with the current reality.
That being said, dungeons really don’t bring the goods graphically or intellectually. Considering how The 4 Heroes of Light tries to emulate older games more than newer ones (again, it’s no accident that the game shares several similarities to Final Fantasy III) this may be another area where being hypercritical may be ill-advised. Still, there are times where the dungeon concepts wreak of desperation. In fact, one dungeon is more-or-less ripped straight out of Breath of Fire II. I know Capcom doesn't have complete jurisdiction over that specific “kind” of dungeon but it’s so close in spirit it’s not even funny.
Working Class Warfare
Given how Matrix worked on the DS remake of Final Fantasy III, it should come as no surprise that The 4 Heroes of Light employs a similar yet slightly different job system. Rest assured the classes everyone has grown up with are accounted for, but some of them are a bit redefined and repackaged to make things a bit more intriguing. However, the real change occurs in how the player expands upon their powers. Rather than relying on an age-old concept like a numerical level that’s based on accumulating a set number of experience points or performing so many actions, The 4 Heroes of Light takes a cue from Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid. Abilities (or commands) are unlocked by placing “gems” into “crowns.” Crowns are basically fancy sets of headgear that grant your characters their classes or jobs. It’s actually pretty satisfying to place your gems into these crowns but the appeal is ultimately limited by the number of gems you have on hand. Enemies have a set percentage at which they drop certain gems but there never seems to be enough to go around, something that prohibits any real, unbridled exploration of the classes available.
While there is little doubt you’ll be grinding for gems at one point or another, gems also come in handy when it comes to upgrading equipment. Upgrading the attack and defense parameters on weapons and armor is the only way to get ahead of the curve in the second half of the game proves to be essential when tackling the bonus content. Still, if I were to cry fowl about any one aspect of The 4 Heroes of Light it would be how one is expected to make money. One doesn't receive money from winning battles but by selling off their extra goods. From a straightforward point of view this is a clever approach, but from the view of your typical completionist it is an utter nightmare. For those wanting to complete the game with one of every item (there is actually a reward for this to boot) enemy drops take on a whole new level of importance.
Yea or Nay?
After all this talk you’re probably wondering what my final take on Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light is. Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is despite all the problems contained within I actually had a pretty good time and I look forward to replaying it at some point down the road. The bad news? As much as I enjoyed it I find I have to be honest and be a bit harsh while judging it. Still, while some will see the resulting six out of ten as a sign of failure nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes ratings are just that – ratings. Ratings are not always an accurate way to calculate the intangibles that occasionally work their way into the equation. Oddly enough this is one of those times.