By the time 2009 rolled around, the Final Fantasy franchise was more than just a popular RPG series; it was a worldwide phenomenon. The PS1 era games brought a renewed interest to the series in the west, and with the success of its next-gen PS2 entries, it was clear that Final Fantasy was here to stay. As such, there were numerous mainline entries, and even more spinoffs, some of which are considered the best in the franchise and among the best games ever made. One such spinoff was the DS exclusive Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light, which was a throwback to the series’ earliest days, for better and worse.
While the more recent entries such as X and XII were generally well-received, there was an argument to be made that they had strayed from the solid, simple classics of the earlier titles, particularly when it came to their storytelling. On the one hand, the fact that each new game took place in its own universe and operated with its own rule set (apart from XII, which took place in Ivalice, the setting of other RPG hits like Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story) was very impressive, with unique lore and backstories making each entry feel fresh. On the other, the stories could sometimes be hard to follow; simply reading a plot summary of something like Final Fantasy VII sees a lot of proper nouns, weird names, and bizarre twists that can be tough to follow if you haven’t played the game.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I myself love a good, long, complicated JRPG, but there are also times where I yearn for a simple, straightforward fantasy yarn. Enter 4 Heroes of Light. Developed by Matrix Software, a company responsible for the enormous amount of remakes and remasters of older Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest titles, 4 Heroes of Light is a throwback in every sense of the word. The concept of the 4 Heroes is a direct riff on the very first and third entries in the series, where the player could choose 4 different characters with their own classes to embark on an epic journey with. The plot line is simple, almost bare-bones, with very light scripting and character development and a central conflict as straightforward as they come, involving 4 chosen heroes stopping the evil forces of Chaos. There’s some light time travel thrown in for good measure and an open-ended second half reminiscent of the fifth and sixth entries of the series.
Interestingly enough, though, the game actually takes quite a while to get these heroes together, taking an approach that smacks of Dragon Quest IV, where you play through different scenarios with different party members before eventually assembling properly later on. Unfortunately, the story just does not have the required chops to remain interesting and justify this unorthodox approach. The game is still enjoyable, but it takes a while to come in to its own. When it does though, it presents players with a unique spin on the classic job system the third and fifth entries pioneered.
The way Jobs work in 4 Heroes of Light is undeniably its strongest feature. Known as Crowns, each Job gives characters a predetermined set of abilities. Each one can be powered up 4 times, giving new abilities each time. For instance, the Elementalist’s first two levels allow you to amplify the power of other character’s elemental attacks, and the higher levels can drastically reduce incoming elemental damage for the party, making it an indispensable member of any team (more on this in a bit). Rather than using a grind heavy method of gaining AP from battles, you instead gain Jewels from fighting, and each crown has sockets for different Jewels. You can apply any Jewel to any crown at any time, too, meaning if you have a fully leveled up White Mage, but want to also invest in the Bandit crown, you can do so without switching. It’s a wonderful, streamlined progression system that cuts down on grinding significantly, and it allows for flexible, on-the-fly party building.
The other new, interesting wrinkle is the game’s Action Points system. Rather than using a predetermined number of MP for a given move, every action instead uses Action Points. Each character can bank up to five AP at a time, and you can get more by defending during a given turn. This is actually a rather brilliant system in my eyes. Not only does it make defending a vital part of your strategy, but it means that, if you play smart, you won’t have to go back to towns to rest up all that often. After all, if you save up enough AP, you should be able to heal your party whenever needed. This system would later on be developed further in the Bravely Default series, as well as Octopath Traveler to great effect, but it’s a unique spin on classic turn based battling in 4 Heroes of Light.
The game does have some problems when it comes to its balancing, though. As I mentioned above, the Elementalist is an essential party member, because this game’s second half pulls no punches when it comes to difficulty. Not only do enemies scale with your party like in Final Fantasy VIII, meaning strategy—and strategy alone—will win the day, but the game is unafraid to let bosses absolutely wipe the floor for the unprepared. Generally speaking, each boss represents a different element, but heading into battle with the right gear (for instance, a flame shield against a flame based boss) and an Elementalist can totally break that challenge. This reliance on elemental weaknesses and gear means that other Crowns, adorable though they are, are often relegated to the sidelines in favor of more practical Jobs.
So while the pacing is kind of all over the place, and the difficulty balancing can be frustrating, 4 Heroes of Light still succeeded at delivering a simplified, back to basics Final Fantasy adventure, with its own ideas and spin on classic gameplay conventions making it feel fresh, if a tad frustrating. Even though the story is vastly simplified compared to what fans were used to, its fighting and job system, as well as its downright adorable storybook aesthetic, make it a worthwhile spinoff in this beloved franchise. It also worked as the prototype for the Bravely Default series, which is basically a riff on Final Fantasy V in each entry. It may not have set the world on fire, and it might have some problems, but 4 Heroes of Light is still a solid handheld entry and worth a look for fans who yearn for the earlier, simpler days of Final Fantasy.