Every action in battle requires the use of action points (AP), with each character able to have a maximum AP total of five. One point is replenished at the beginning of each turn, so actions like basic attacks that only cost one point can be used indefinitely. However, more powerful actions can require up to five points, so players will often choose to skip a turn to build up their AP. Though this system somewhat handily does away with magic points, some of the tougher boss battles require precise AP management and proper crown choice to survive past more than a few turns. Overall, the AP system is a different approach to RPG battling that works well. It's simple on the surface, but it deep enough so that players are forced to make logical decisions about how they spend their AP.
In and out of battle, 4 Heroes' visual style resembles that of a picture book. Characters are modeled in the super-deformed style that the Nintendo DS has become known for, but they and the environments are bright and colorful. Equipping different weapons, armor, and crowns will change each character's appearance, making you feel special after finding a powerful new item to wear. Towns are pretty and worth taking a look around, though dungeons are basic and just a means to an end. 4 Heroes's music doesn't dethrone the soundtracks of previous Final Fantasy titles, but it's still excellent, catchy, and just as whimsical as the game's visuals.
Unfortunately, not every aspect of 4 Heroes was implemented perfectly. Though players choose the actions of their characters in battle, they cannot choose their targets. I never found this all that bothersome, and it does streamline random battles, but it wasn't ideal in every situation. Inventory management also takes some getting used to, with a 15 item maximum including weapons and armor imposed on each character.
The two aspects of 4 Heroes that annoyed me the most were its lack of direction and difficulty. Talking to townspeople is the primary method of finding out what to do next, but your future destination isn't always properly defined. A few times I found myself wandering across the tundra or inside dungeons without knowing if I was in the right place. In addition, there is a steep ramp-up in difficulty towards the game's end, seemingly making certain crowns and equipment required choices rather than allowing for varied party customization through to the end.
Thankfully, these frustrations were minor in my experience and don't stop 4 Heroes from becoming a successful retro-style RPG. It's not going to blow anyone's mind, but 4 Heroes is a straightforward game with cute visuals that should give fans a few dozen solid hours of random-battling, townspeople-saving, and ugly elemental boss-destroying gameplay. Plus, it's just damn cute.
Bottom Line: Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light should be considered Final Fantasy III.V (that's 3.5). It won't rise to any RPG lover's #1 game of all time, but what it lacks in depth it makes up for with charm and a battle system that smells fresh despite coming straight from the 1980s.
Recommendation: If you've been dying for a classic Final Fantasy title that's closer in mechanics to Final Fantasy IV than Final Fantasy XIII, you'll enjoy 4 Heroes of Light. If you despise retro RPG conventions, 4 Heroes is not for you unless you really want to morph into a chicken.
Game: Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light
Developer: Matrix Software
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: October 5th, 2010 (NA), October 8th, 2010 (EU)
Platform: Nintendo DS
Available from: Amazon
Tom Goldman has been trying to change his dog back into a white mage all day. It's not working.