Random Encounters is a blog series celebrating the achievements and unique aspects of Japanese Role-Playing Games with a look at their development history, play experience and cultural impact. Blogs may be updated in the future as my feelings on the game change or to correct factual inaccuracies that escaped my attention.
Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light is an interesting place for this blog series to start. It makes sense for a topic as it is the most recent JRPG I have completed, but it is a fairly obscure game that has been overshadowed by its much more successful successor Bravely Default and a game that I still have some mixed feelings about in terms of execution. Nevertheless, its experiments with some core mechanical assumptions of the genre and that of Final Fantasy series in particular are worth highlighting. Enough waffling, let's dive in!
Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light (henceforth called 4 Heroes) was a role-playing game developed by Matrix Software and published by Square Enix in October 29, 2009 for the Nintendo DS. Matrix Software is a Tokyo based studio best known for the Alundra series (a dreamdiving action RPG series, will definitely do a blog for it later) and its collaborations with Square, Enix (and later the merged company) and Chunsoft. 4 Heroes was marketed as a deliberate throwback to the older Final Fantasy games with its key distinguishing points being its picture book aesthetic (that ageless Windwaker look), streamlined Job system (using Crowns) and a wireless co-op multiplayer mode allowing up to 4 players to play together.
Key figures on the development team were the director Takashi Tokita (lead designer on Final Fantasy IV, director on Parasite Eve and Chrono Trigger), the producer Tomoya Asano (who would go on to be a Producer for the future Bravely series), and concept artist Akihiko Yoshida (best known for art on Matsuno games and now known for Nier: Automata). Game scenario was written by Asano and Tokita in collaboration with Izuki Kogyoku who had worked on the very unique Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon for the Wii. Music for the game was composed by Noashi Mizuta best known for work on Final Fantasy XI at the time and now Final Fantasy XIV. Much of the development team carried over from doing Final Fantasy III (2006) and Final Fantasy IV (2007) remakes for the Nintendo DS.
The game came out in Japan as 光の4戦士 -ファイナルファンタジー外伝 (Hikari no Yon Senshi: Fainaru Fantajī Gaiden). The "Gaiden" tagline establises that it as a spin-off to the main Final Fantasy series. This would be the second time this tagline was used after 1991's 聖剣伝説 ～ファイナルファンタジー外伝～ (Seiken Densetsu ~Fainaru Fantajī Gaiden~) which we know as Final Fantasy Adventure (first game in the Mana series). There was some speculation that due to the number '4' on its website that this game would be the next numbered game in the SaGa series, but this was corrected by the game's full announcement.
4 Heroes' claim to be a throwback to NES/SNES era JRPGs is not an empty one as its core gameplay loop is very much the same: go to a new location, talk to NPCs to push forward the plot, go to a dungeon area, fight the Boss, get a reward and repeat. However, it is in the details that 4 Heroes makes some of its boldest design decisions.
The player moves their party around an on-screen map using the D-Pad or Stylus. On the Overworld, party members will be shown following the lead character (there is a cute detail in that the rate at which they follow varies, I think it might be tied to what Equipment they are wearing or their Agility values). Every X number of steps the player will have a random encounter with a group of enemies corresponding to that region of the Overworld. Later in the game, the player acquires a Ship to cross oceans and a Dragon to fly over everything to improve their travel of the Overworld. The Overworld goes through a Day/Night cycle as well as localized weather effects. It should be noted that Towns/Dungeons have a 3D presence on the map. Players can spot the floating magic city of Spelvia early on by seeing its shadow across the moon at Night which is a lovely little detail.
For Towns and Dungeons, players can talk to NPCs, buy/sell/store Items/Magic/Gear, rest up at an Inn, or in some locations play Mini-Games. In Towns, the party splits up and the leader can speak with individual members of the party (there are some variant responses depending on who the leader is). There are also narrow crevices in towns which can be accessed once the party acquires the Animal Staff. These secret areas contain either information or later Items/Magic/Gear which lets the player sequence break a little. Dungeons are similar to Town areas other than the fact like the Overworld the party follows the leader again and there are random encounters every X number of steps taken. Some Dungeons have puzzles that gate progression and others are dark requiring the use of a Torch item to find their way through.
A key thing about 4 Heroes' economy is there are two currencies at work: Gold and Gems. Gold works like it does in most RPGs, however, if your party gets wiped you don't lose any Gold. Gems are the far more important resource in the game. There are 8 different kinds of gems which Enemies drop and they can be 1) sold to gain Gold which lets you buy things, 2) used to upgrade Crowns to gain new Abilities, or 3) used to upgrade certain types of Gear to improve stats. Each kind of Gem is worth a different amount and so tougher enemy groups may give sets that are more valuable than weaker ones. If the party gets wiped, you will lose half (rounded down) of one type of Gem This last point is critical as it can either make party wipes toothless or devastating: losing 10 Rubies is not that big a deal (worth 500G) but losing 10 Amethysts (worth 20000G) sets you back a long ways. From my playthrough, it seemed the best thing to do with Gems was not hoard them and use them immediately for the next thing I wanted so that if I wiped (and I did often) it would not be too awful.
Most of a player's time in 4 Heroes will be spent either in Battle or in their Inventory. Battles are instanced, turn-based affairs much like NES/SNES JRPGs of old but with a key twist being use of AP. Each party member can have up to 5 AP which can be expended on Abilities that they have set for themselves before the Battle. Three Abilities will always be available: Attack (a regular weapon attack), Boost (defending and gaining 1 AP) and Item (using an Item from your Inventory) will always be there. Other Abilities either come from your Crown (class abilities essentially) or from Spellbooks (they have to set in your Abilities to use them in Battle) in your Inventory. Over the course of the game, you will get more party members and more Ability options and so this simple system can lead to a lot of different combinations. AP values carry over from Battle to Battle, so there is an incentive to end Battles with high AP.
As I mentioned previously, targeting is automated so there is a sub-game of getting your party members into the right conditions to use their Abilities on the desired target. Due to turn order being based off Agility (it's there even though they have hidden the stat), it is difficult to predict the order in which actions will happen. This makes healing, buffing and item use particularly difficult at times in Battle where your party members will consistently mess up due to factors outside the player's control. Later in the game, you get accessories that let you control the order of when a party member will execute their actions but by then its too late and you are well frustrated. Enemies on the other hand seem to work independently of this AP system with Bosses taking double or even triple turns to perform their Abilities. Enemies can also be brutal by focusing down a single target and having your party on the back foot for the rest of the battle. I've read that their behavior is governed by an Enmity/Aggro system but outside of the Abilities of the Paladin and Ninja Crowns, it was never clear how the player could control their attention. YOU ALSO CAN'T ESCAPE FROM BATTLES unless you have a member with a Wayfarer Crown with that exact Ability.
Inventory plays a big part in 4 Heroes as each party member is restricted to 15 Inventory Slots with each Item taking up 1 Slot. This means that for a full party, the player has only 60 Inventory Slots available. There is a Storage Box that can be accessed in Towns which contains 99 Slots, but even so the restriction of what Items the player brings is a key factor in how long they can crawl through a dungeon and what types of characters they can make. 4 of these Slots will usually be occupied with Gear, so you are now down to 11 Slots and since Spellbooks take up Slots that is even fewer available for miscellaneous Items. For most of the game this restriction won't affect you too much and it's there to encourage players to go back to Town after grinding and sell off/use up old stuff rather than hoard it. There are also two Crowns that focus on Item Use (Salve-Maker and Alchemist) and so it makes sense why this limitation is there. Just prepare to spend a lot of time trading items between party members.
Last, but not least, let's talk about Crowns. Crowns are this game's take on the Job System from Final Fantasy III and Final Fantasy V. By wearing a Crown, a party member's stats and weapon proficiency are modified and they get access to a new set of Abilities. In a departure from its predecessors, 4 Heroes does not restrict Gear or Spells based on what Crown they wear leading to many different build combinations. There are 28 Crowns in the game (including Freelancer which means no Crown), most of which are unlocked over the course of the story but some of which are acquired through other means (at endgame).
Crowns can be upgraded by matching a set of Gems that is required at each Level. Different Crowns will require different sets of Gems, but generally Level 1 requires 2 different kinds; Level 2 requires 3 different kinds and 1 Amethyst; Level 3 requires 4 different kinds, 2 Amethyst and 1 Diamond. At each Level, it confers a new Ability for the party member that can be used in Battle. Interestingly enough, Abilities that are more powerful versions of earlier ones can be used independently of each other. For example, Black Mage gets "Magic Mojo" Ability at Level 0 and "Spell Power" Ability at Level 1 both of which make your next attack spell do more damage. The player can use "Magic Mojo" then "Spell Power" then a spell and get the benefit of both. There are also Abilities that modify other Abilities such as Salve-Maker's "Dispensary" which gives infinite uses of "Item" or Spell Fencer's "Magic Sword" which changes a member's weapon Element to one of the Spells they have set to their Abilities.
Crowns are a great deal streamlined from the Job System which I think makes them more successful. Final Fantasy III's Job System was restrictive in its use of the Capacity System (later Job Adjustment Phase) which locked you into a Job for long periods of time and Final Fantasy V's Job System focused on grinding AP to gain Abilities and then switching back to whichever Job had the best modifiers. By having progression be dependent on Gem collection and allowing instant changes between Crowns, I would argue that this is a much more robust system for the trial-and-error players can engage in to figure out what combinations work best against a certain Boss / Dungeon rather than grind and stick to their preferred solution.
4 Heroes' campaign can be said to be structured in two parts: The first part (lasting roughly 10 - 12 hours) has the party come together than split apart and travel across the world before coming together again, then a world changing event occurs leading to the second part (lasting roughly 24 - 48 hours) where the reunited party goes around the World to defeat 7 Bosses in any order before the way to the final Dungeon opens. WARNING: Mild spoilers ahead!
The first part of the game begins with the player going on what seems to be a routine RPG mission from the King to rescue a princess from the clutches of a Witch. The party is slowly gathered together over the course of the first dungeon (Witch's Mansion) and ends with a battle against said Witch. Upon defeating the Witch, the party are contacted by a Crystal and get the power of the Crowns to fight against the oncoming darkness. The party returns to their village of Horne to find that it has been cursed and from there split ways. The narrative then cuts back and forth between each party member as their (mis)adventures take them to each of the locations around the world, fight Bosses causing problems in the area and unlock more Crowns as a reward. The party eventually reunites in Spelvia where they must fight against Rolan, the Hero that previously saved the World by sealing demons of Chaos who has since grown cold to the needs of humanity. The party is successful in defeating Rolan but they let loose said demons he was holding back and the world descends into darkness as a result.
This part of the game was difficult to play through given that there is very little initially about the combat and the exploration to make it exciting. A lot of the strategy and decision making is taken care of by the automated targeting. Once Crowns get unlocked, things get a little bit more interesting as you get new powers and moves, however at the rate you earn Gems it takes a while before you get any key unlocks (this speeds up dramatically once you get the Merchant Crown). Splitting the party actually makes the game a great deal more difficult as your early game options are few and the game doesn't scale for enemies at different party sizes (there does seem to be some level scaling, but this causes issues later). As a result, you will wipe frequently losing you a lot of Gems in the process. Narrative elements are also a good deal less engaging as the main characters aren't able to play off each other. There are details though if you dig deep enough, such as if you use the Animal Staff on each character they turn into a different animal and the others in your party will comment on how the traits of the animal are reflective of each character (e.g. Yunita turning into a Rabbit and Aire commenting how they shouldn't leave her alone alluding to her feelings of abandonment). The game also doesn't hold your hand too much in terms of guidance (which is good thing later, but a bad thing now) and so you can spend hours bumbling around unable to figure out what trigger you have to pull or where you have to go to get the next part of the plot moving.
The second part of the game takes place in a time shifted (dark) world and has the party going back to each of the Towns they visited, defeating the released Demons and gathering the Weapons of Light to confront Chaos. They now have access to a Dragon so the Overworld opens up greatly allowing the player to approach each area in any order of their choosing. The narrative slowly reveals how the problems that the player ran into in the first part of the game came to be and how their intervention can change the outcome. Upon defeating all 7 Demons, the path to the final Dungeon (Star Chamber) will appear and the players can go and confront Chaos for a climactic battle. As bonus content, mysterious Towers in different parts of the world can be opened in the endgame which have procedurally generated floors with rare items and bosses that the player can clear in order to earn the final Crowns. These Towers are filled with tough enemies and have great rewards in terms of EXP, Gems and Items.
This part of the game is the main reason to play 4 Heroes. Its sheer confidence in letting the player just bash their heads against the walls until they are able to make a breakthrough is incredible. The experience playing from Level 25 - 60 is great as there is a steady stream of Crown unlocks and new Gear to support it. The Weapons of Light are each pieces of Gear/Spellbooks that have distinctive traits that get the player to build around them in mind. It is a clever way of both powering up the party but also getting the player to exploit some Crown interactions. One key issue though that has persisted throughout the game and especially egregious in this higher level section was that the Gem drops were not varied enough to support Crown upgrades. Since Gems of higher value are given as reward for defeated enemies, you are effectively starved of Gems of lower value unless you grind in a specific region or have a member with a Merchant Crown at all times (which I ended up having to do). This poor distribution of Gems is one of the greatest flaws of the game as these are a resource critical to so many other systems and having the wrong kind just gates you from getting necessary upgrades to keep pace with the game. This could easily be rectified by having an in-game method of trading Gems such that even if the player was losing net worth in the trade, they would still get the combinations they wanted for the purposes of progression. This flaw caused me to spend more time in the game grinding and I believe that caused the endgame to outstay its welcome. All of that being said, Chaos was a satisfying Final Boss battle to end the game on. I was down to my last character (said Merchant who only survived by having an Ability that can spend Gold to negate Damage) and won just by a hair.
Impact & Legacy
As implied in the introduction, the impact of 4 Heroes was minimal. It sold well enough moving 115,000 units on the week of its release. Critical response was mixed to positive with it holding an average Metacritic score of 71/100. Folks praised its charm in evoking the NES/SNES era of JRPGs while point to its poor signposting, trial-and-error bosses and grinding as negatives. And then it sort of vanished ... Keep in mind, this was near the end of the DS' lifespan and there were already talks of the 3DS. In terms of Square Enix's lineup for that year, the big focus was Final Fantasy XIII which was coming out later in December 17, 2009.
The development team would go on to turn their ideas for a 4 Heroes sequel into the successor game Bravely Default: Flying Fairy which was massively successful and has gone on to become its own series. There are a number of callbacks to 4 Heroes in Bravely Default such as the Demons of Chaos appearing as optional Nemesis bosses, a large number of enemy models being uprezzed and included in the game (such as the Orc), the NPCs Adventurer and Fox Companion returning and some rearranged music tracks.
I hope this blog encourages you to check out Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light. It is a game that tries to do a lot of interesting things that belie its (pandering) nostalgic exterior. Not all of these things are successful, but this is the kind of experimentation that I believe needs to be done to create the space for better games in the genre. It is rare that someone looks at a JRPG and says, "Hey, that games' economy is fascinating!". 4 Heroes is a flawed Gem in the lineup of Nintendo DS RPGs, but that makes it a unique entry that is well worth studying.
Thank you for reading and I'll catch you next month with a new Random Encounter.
This blog was written using information from Wikipedia, Final Fantasy Wiki and a number of other blogs and articles. Images have been sourced from various places through Google Images. A more detailed bibliography will be added here at a later date.
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Swarnava Banerjee is a game designer and programmer. Views expressed in these blogs are his own.