'Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light'

"Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light" is a must-own for the DS RPG fan

I'm never one for level grinding in RPGs, but despite my aversion and the difficulty spikes I'm very much enjoying "Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light" on DS because the old school elements included have been modernized and work well today. The focus is the gameplay, with a solid story to back it up.

"The 4 Heroes of Light" harkens back to the times of yesteryear when you had to stay on your toes, never knowing what could be around the next corner ready to eat your face. You only see story-based monsters on the screen as purple spirit things. Surprisingly, I didn't many problems with random battles in this game, mostly because they happen fast. The quick-pace is due being able to dish out commands without long animations or any of the cinematic battle treatment the series' console games have received. It falls closer to the SNES iterations, performing the actions you choose without taking the time to have the camera zoom in as a spell's cast, or wait as the camera pans across the battle field.

The battle system is worked out so that players needs only to choose their commands and the game will decide which enemy or ally it will be most effective on. In practice this inability to choose your target works fine and makes you think more strategically not only about what your enemy may do but also about who your party members will target. For example, when casting the CURE spell the party member with the lowest HP will be healed. There was another point in the game when I had to steal a specific item from an enemy as part of a quest, and though I was worried my character would steal from a different enemy, he only stole from the hellhounds, which is what I needed him to do.

There are also front- and back-row attacks. Swords, knives, staves, books, harps, etc. will attack enemies in the front row, while a ranged weapon like a throwing star or a bow and arrow will always aim for the back row. Black magic is always cast against the back row, as it too is a ranged weapon. For battles you don't want to deal with, there is also an auto-battle option, which helps during level grinding or random encounters.

The battle A.I. is logical, but the game does not baby you. Enemies are often strong, and if you have not prepared properly you will be killed. Making the game yet more challenging is the fact that each character can only hold up to 15 items and can only use items within his or her own bag. This means you'll have to plan your items carefully when leaving town, especially because magic tomes that allow the holder to cast spells fill up an item spot. Therefore a black mage will have most of their item spots full of tomes besides a weapon, armor, accessory, and shield (all equipped items are also stored in the same bag). A mistake here, however, is that even if rewarded with items after battle, if your characters' bags are full you cannot choose to drop an item and pick up the new one.

But the crown system makes things easier. This is essentially a head accessory-based job system, as switching available crowns alters the character's base stats and gives them access to job-specific abilities like steal, healthgiver, and more, changing their outfit accordingly. Crowns are unlocked as your characters complete quests and a large crystal appears to speak to the characters. The nearly 30 crowns in the game can all be upgraded multiple times, as can armor and weapons, by installing gems. Crowns will gain a new, more powerful job ability for the character who upgraded it and weapons/armor will see raises in stats. Gems are awarded after battle or can be searched for during battle by the Merchant class' Finder ability. Some are rarer than others, and acquiring a lot of the less common gems is the key to upgrading. This makes being defeated in battle all the more feared, for even though you won't lose your game progress (which is a great feature) you may lose some hard earned gems you were saving up for an awesome upgrade.

Because of the difficulty and depth, I felt that the game was actually meant for adults despite the cutesy watercolor art style; I couldn't imagine a child being successful in the game, even though there is no Game Over screen. When your party is defeated you simply lose gems you've collected and return to the last save point, marked by an adventurer who's dressed as a red mage with a dog who conveniently hangs out in the cave or town your character happens to be exploring. There is no World Map saving and no quicksave ability, but save points are often enough that it's not a big deal.

The musical score is very well-done, like a modern arrangement of a chip tune. It feels fresh and exciting, and not like a rehash of an old "Final Fantasy" soundtrack. The story isn't bad, either. It may not have the emotional gravity of the numeric "Final Fantasy" titles but it's a solid tale that never feels laughable or lame once you get past some of the SNES logic involved in the beginning.

You start the game on Brandt's 14th birthday -- the coming of age within this fantasy world. His mother suggests he pays his respects to the King of Horne now that he's a man, which results in the king sending Brandt, a 14-year-old boy I remind you, to save the kidnapped Princess Aire from the Wicked Witch -- despite the fact that fully-trained knights never returned. To travel through monster-ridden caves and face her, he provides you with only a low-level sword. If this is how he runs his army it's no wonder they all fell to the witch! You'll meet the rest of the main characters along the way -- the mature-but-kind-of-a-jerk Jusqua, female knight Yunita, and the bitch-and-a-half Princess Aire, each with their own realistic if not childishly stubborn personalities. When you return to Horne after defeating the witch, your party finds all of its inhabitants turned to stone. The heroes split up, setting out on multiple journeys to find a cure and restore their hometown.

I loved the unpredictability of the story, which has you exploring different areas with different characters during the same time frame, with allies coming and going from your party as they see fit. There's a bit of "Final Fantasy IV" or "VI" here in that way, as you never know how long anyone, including main characters, will stay in your party.

Though I was puzzled by the fact that I never saw any trace of summons or chocobos in the large amount of the game I played, that didn't take away from my experience. With main and non-main character party members joining and leaving the group, party members becoming gimped by story-driven curses, and addictive mini-games like running your own store, there's always something interesting happening in "The 4 Heroes of Light," making the game feel more like a world of unexpected events than just moving from town to town, defeating a boss, and moving on.

Wireless multiplayer is also available in case you want to team up with three or less of your friends for side quests. In this mode you'll gain extra Battle Points, redeemable at the wireless shops in town for rare weapons, items, armor, and accessories.

Though I enjoyed "Final Fantasy XIII," compared to its linearity, weak story, and inability to control more than one character, "The 4 Warriors of Light" is a breath of fresh air in what has recently become a downhill series. If "XIII" had had the feel of this game," it would have done extremely well, and in many ways The 4 Warriors of Light" surpasses "Final Fantasy XIII." Its art style, while not as amazingly realistic, is unique, its battle system is fresh but lets the player remain in full control, the item system is challenging and the game's events are interesting, as they often mix things up. This is a must-own for the DS RPG fan.

Available at Amazon.com:

The Saboteur

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Video Games: 'Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light'

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