Reviewers and fans alike have been quick to note that Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light isn't much of a Final Fantasy game. That's not to say it isn't good–just that its pedigree feels a bit tacked on when one considers how little the game draws from the series' roots.
Instead, 4 Heroes discussion typically revolves around the old-school inspiration Square-Enix claims drove the game's design. The game features a few retro throwbacks like needing a torch to explore a dark dungeon, but most are superficial and feel just as arbitrary as labeling this a Final Fantasy game.
When you tune out the PR speak and really dive into the storybook world of 4 Heroes, you'll find it to be a much more progressive RPG adventure than most others on even high-definition consoles.
You're six levels below the earth. The boss can't be much farther now, but you're not sure how to advance. These dungeon enemies are a lot tougher than those roaming the surface. This quest wouldn't be so difficult if you could actually use your mages. Your healer could mend the party's wounds in an instant, and your wizard could burn those monsters to dust in a single blow, but you haven't given the order. You're worried the team won't last against the boss if your magic-users run out of MP. "Maybe I should have taken a party of warriors instead," you wonder with a sigh.
I don't know about you, but I've played too many RPGs, most of them from older generations, that render half my party useless by encouraging me to play conservatively. Oddly enough, the supposedly retro-inspired 4 Heroes doesn't suffer from this problem.
4 Heroes eschews the traditional use of magic points or, in this case, ability points. Rather than fueling magic and techniques from a pool that grows as you level but only refills when you rest or use a special item, ability points costantly max out at five and recover naturally each turn. Furthermore, every action in battle save physical attacks requires the use of at least one ability point. This turns the traditional RPG experience on its head by making each battle, as opposed to each dungeon, a game of resource management.
Since characters recover ability points each turn, mages are free to constantly heal and burn without consequence. Tougher enemies may require stronger spells, however, off-setting your balance of ability points. Battles begin to resembe tug-o-war. Do you constantly apply moderate force, or do you put all of your strength into individual bursts of energy?
You survived to reach the boss' lair, but you had to put your mages to work. Now they're spent and can only contribute weak physical attacks. To make matters worse, you steal a glance at the boss to find it's a magic-user, more succeptible to brawn than brain. You should have taken a party of warriors after all, but it's too late now. Resigned to your fate, you rush into a battle you know will end in your defeat.
Gearing-up for a big boss fight only to find it has a unique weakness you didn't prepare for is a major frustration. Do you fight anyway and hope for the best, or do you make the long trek back to the surface so you can try again later? If you're playing 4 Heroes, you simply switch your class right there and trade a few pieces of equipment.
4 Heroes' classes, referred to in the game as "crowns," allow players to switch professions outside of battle at no cost to your party. You don't have to worry about stat distributions based on which crown a character is wearing when he levels up, and you don't have to relegate each character to use a specific crown for the majority of the game as crowns don't level up like traditional Final Fantasy classes.
Instead, you upgrade a character's crowns at your leisure using gems won from battle. Gems come in eight varieties, each with their own rarity and value. Crowns begin with a static ability, such as increasing the power of a particular weapon type or reducing the ability points needed to cast certain spells, as well as an active ability you can use in battle. Each time you upgrade a crown, you unlock a new ability.
Again, 4 Heroes takes an interesting approach to traditional RPGs by making gems a dynamic currency able to do more than just updgrade crowns. Players are torn between using gems to improve the stats of weapons and armor or selling them for hard cash (something not earned from monsters) as well. Just as in battle, you must constantly strive to find balance when deciding how to best use your gems, and use them you should. 4 Heroes has no game overs, but if your party falls in battle, you lose half of one of your precious gem collections. That's four uses for a single resource.
The boss made quick work of your team, but you returned with a party of powerful warriors and exacted your revenge in two short turns. Your reward for the victory? A gorgeous cutscene. The once-lifeless corpse of the boss suddenly transforms into a massive dragon before exploding out of the dungeon. Your hero latched onto the beast's tail at the last minute and is now soaring through the beautifully-rendered sky. The dragon is headed for the kingdom you swore to protect from the foul creature. In a final act of desperation, the hero scales the dragon's back before leaping into the air. He unsheathes his sword and drives the blade into the monster in slow-motion.
Later, the hero is alone with the princess. "Thank you for your bravery," she says. "Your strength is like a shining god."
The hero turns away, tossing his cape for dramatic effect. "I am weak!" he proclaims. "I am nothing without the bonds of friendship that fill my soul."
A game shouldn't force the player to ask, "Why can't I be the one doing the cool stuff on screen?" or, "What the hell are these guys talking about?" 4 Heroes manages to avoid this trend plaguing many modern RPGs by telling a simple yet touching story. It does more than throw you out into the world before asking you to save it, though.
Some RPGs strand the player on a desert island, expecting him to survive and find his way to civilization. 4 Heroes leaves you to play in a big sandbox. The former fills you with frustration and dread. "Where do I go?" you ask. "What do I do?" The latter fills you with excitement and a sense of adventure. "I want to go there!" you exclaim. "I know what I want to do." 4 Heroes' ability points system easily encourages this sort of exploration. You don't have to fear venturing too far because you have an infinitely-renewable source of healing power.
Some people complain that 4 Heroes' story separates the party too often in the first half of the adventure, but they're missing the point. The game would be undeserving of its name if the titular heroes teamed up the entire time. Instead, the constant separation makes the inevitable reunion incredibly satisfying. Each party member has experimented with different crowns, met different people, and explored different lands by the time they meet, and the result is a deep admiration for each and every party member, both plot and mechanics-wise, that I can't recall experiencing in any recent RPG.
The only thing "old school" about 4 Heroes is the way people insist on labeling anything that looks or sounds dated as "old school." Games like Mega Man 9 and New Super Mario Bros. Wii look old, but they're more progressive than they appear in screenshots and videos. Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light is no exception.