Version tested: DS
Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light has practically nothing to do with Final Fantasy. Certainly not modern Final Fantasy, in any case. This is nothing new for Square-Enix – you don't have to peer far back into the mists of time to find similar examples – and it's also no bad thing. For many, Final Fantasy has become emblematic of a genre still struggling to find its place in the modern world. Putting the name to a game that's not what you'd expect from it might help to redress that image.
Heroes of Light reacts to its ever-more uncomfortably anachronistic genre by unashamedly retreating into the past, simplifying itself as much as it can and coating itself in sweet nostalgia, with old-fashioned music and calmingly beautiful artistic direction.
Developed by Matrix Software – the same developer that handled the DS remakes of Final Fantasies 3 and 4 – it's devoid of full-motion cut-scenes and self-involved storytelling, level-up menus and ability trees. It stars four childlike but likeable main characters – the usual plucky adolescent, his older, more capable friend, a princess and her protector – who come together and break apart as the story dictates, joined now and then by various short-term companions from fairies and kittens to desert ninjas.
Equipment and abilities are simplified by an inventory system that gives each character 15 spaces for all their books, weapons, armour and recovery items – give any character a staff, a few spell books and a fetching top-hat and they can be a mage. Playing dress-up with different weapons and armour is entertaining in itself – it has nothing like the range of Dragon Quest IX's customisation, but the characters' appearance changes depending on what they have equipped.
15 spaces isn't a terribly large amount, of course, particularly when you only have one or two party members, as you do for almost the first half of the game after the four characters head off in different directions. But managing all of your items and abilities in one unified space cuts down on a lot of the menu-faffing that bloats RPG play-times, and curbs the player's kleptomaniac tendencies. You won't be carrying around that useless but cool-looking but, yeah, useless wind spear for hours before chucking it.
Crowns, the game's substitute for a job system, add a further level of visual and practical customisation. You get two or three new crowns after every significant portion of the story, and as well as making the characters look dashing, they give them targeted ability boosts – a top hat gives extra magic attack power, a fez lets you negotiate better with merchants – along with battle commands like Steal or Berserk. Crowns, as well as weapons, can be upgraded with jewels that you win from defeating monsters in random battles, but it's not a complicated process.
The battle system is appreciably streamlined too, giving you direction of your party whilst relieving you of the burden of control. You select actions for your party – a simple attack, spell, item or special ability – and the game chooses your target for you, automatically picking the weakest monster or appropriate team-mate (most of the time). There's not much room for complicated battle plans, but the system is clever enough to know that you'll probably want to aim your water spell at the fire demon while your scrapper goes for his minions.
A neat side-effect of this self-consciously old-fashioned design is that it's perfect for a portable platform, just engaging enough to make you forget about the fat coughing man opposite you on the Tube without being so complicated as to demand your full intellectual resources to decipher an ability menu. Frequent save points – charmingly dressed up as a maroon-suited traveller with a pet fox – and lenient death penalties keep the game accessible in 10-minute bursts right through to the end.
Heroes of Light's artistic direction is, like its battle system, appealingly simplified. Its toned-down cartoonish look is more laid back than Dragon Quest IX and Zelda: Spirit Tracks, but it doesn't have the energy and spark of either of those two games. The game's towns are beautiful, as is the overworld map with its copses of trees and lovely day-night cycle, but the dungeons are uniformly-designed corridors intended to force as many random battles upon you as possible while you search for the next chest or stairway.
The world never quite comes to life. Townspeople are generic, both in terms of appearance and their simplistic dialogue. The four main characters have personality, but nobody around them does. The plot is towns and dungeons stitched together by perfunctory narration, though it does have some lovely moments, joyful reunions and mysterious animal transformations among them. The pace picks up in the game's second half, when the four characters are finally united and you can put your energies into party balancing without fearing that one of them is about to be snatched away from you.
The downsides of Heroes of Light's old-fashioned approach are the directionless periods that intermittently spoil the flow of the game. The story, in being so genially unobtrusive, occasionally forgets to give you any direction at all, leaving you wandering the map or going over and over a dungeon looking for an item or prompt that you might have missed, assaulted continuously by random battles far below your capabilities. It's territory familiar to anyone who ever played a JRPG in their childhood, but it's still a pointless frustration, and one that erodes your goodwill towards Heroes of Light at an unexpected rate.
But despite that, and despite the time you'll inevitably have to waste level-grinding when you hit a roadblock, you want to like Heroes of Light because it's so unaffected. Its back-to-basics approach strips away much of the pointless frippery of the modern JRPG without stripping out the satisfaction of playing them. The DS isn't short of absorbing RPGs, but 4 Heroes of Light is a worthwhile addition, particularly for anyone with fond memories of simpler, happier times for Japanese role-playing.
7 / 10