2019-Feb-23: Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light

The integer '4' in the title is not out of laziness, the actual title of the game is "The 4 Heroes of Light". It's a cheeky little gaiden for the Nintendo DS, developed by Matrix Software. Matrix has a bit of an infamous reputation when it comes to touching well-established franchises, and 4HoL seems to hold true to that reputation. I wanted to like 4HoL; I really wanted to like 4HoL. It has cute graphics, nice music, a general aesthetic I really appreciated, and had a neat gimmick for multi-classing. The game had a solid base upon which to build, but unfortunately it built in entirely the wrong direction.

Maybe I wasn't the intended target audience, and that's part of the problem. 4HoL plays like an RPG simplified to lower difficulty and barrier of entry. It's reminiscent of the simplifications that Mystic Quest made to try to make a beginner-friendly RPG. Just like in MQ, though, those simplifications ended up making for an artificially difficult and frustrating game in the later stages due to your depth of choice being stripped away. To empower these simplifications, the plot suffers; making ridiculous backflips to strip away your growing power base, to keep your options limited so as not to overwhelm you-- or so I guess. I can think of no other reason that 4HoL would do to the player what it does. Either way, it misses the mark entirely and creates an experience frustratingly, infuriatingly close to fun, but not quite there.

In its favor, I found the class system interesting. You gain access to classes via crowns, or rather just hats. Each crown is associated with a class, and you can equip one crown on each character. You can also, of course, double up and have two White Mages or whatnot. Once given a crown, a character's stats change to suit the class, and a single active and single passive ability are unlocked. These abilities are game changers and do things like halve the cost of white or black magic, increase your damage with certain attack types, make single target abilities target everyone, etc. While your arsenal of attacks and spells is limited, these abilities combo with them to give you a wide variety of combat options.

To match its quirky class system, 4HoL throws out MP in favor of "AP", or action points (I think? Come to think of it, it may not be mentioned anywhere what AP stands for). Each character has 6 AP, generates one a turn, can generate a second by defending, consumes one by doing any basic action, and most not-base actions consume 2, 3, 4, or 5 AP. As a result, the concept of attrition doesn't really exist as it does in most RPGs. As long as you can stabilize in a battle, you can farm your AP back up. It's a neat spin on resource management and removes the onus to use only basic attacks to save resources. It sounds goofy at first wash, but when the game is built around it, it can work really well!

One thing that becomes immediately apparent in your first few battles is that 4HoL simplifies in one big negative way: you cannot target any of your abilities. Support abilities will always hit the character that "needs" them most: heals will hit the character with the lowest HP percentage, AP generators will hit the character with the lowest AP. Attacks will hit a specific enemy: either in the front row or back row depending on type. Attacks seem to always move from left to right on the screen, targeting one enemy until it's dead then moving to the next.

There are no multi-target abilities to speak of for most of the game. One exception is the White Mage can turn any heal into a full party heal by using the "Healthgiver" ability the turn prior. Multi-target attacks do not happen until late-game crowns, so you have to rely on the game's auto-targeting to eliminate high priority targets. This largely happens. It's rare the game puts a dangerous enemy out of reach of your attacks, and when it happens it's usually a boss. The auto-targeting is most frustrating however when dealing with Raise. Who ends up targeted by Raise if multiple characters are dead doesn't make sense. It's not random, because it's always the same character, but I could not find any criteria to tell who it would be. Usually it'd be the person you want to Raise the least. This can be deadly when trying to recover from a bad boss attack.

As a result, the first hour is exceedingly simple. You gather your four (4) heroes while spamming basic attacks on random targets. After the first real boss, you find the first crown: the Wayfarer. The Wayfarer's only features are that they're not the base class, and they can run from battle. Seriously. You cannot run from battle unless you have a Wayfarer. So even though you get access to the class system, the only choice is to make all four heroes Wayfarers. With your party together and the first plot arc done, the expectation from someone who has played Final Fantasy V may be that now the world will open up and you'll be sent out to explore as a tight knit group. No. When you return to town, the party decides to split up. I don't mean "Let's split up to make traveling easier", I mean "Goodbye, we will probably never meet again". You're left in control of two of the four party members.

This begins an incredibly frustrating trend in 4HoL: forced party breakups with the most inane of plot justifications imaginable. The game has a pathological objection to letting you travel in a full four-member party. Every time you meet up and re-form as four, one or two of your members will decide to leave the next time you stay at an inn (which is, conveniently, also required to progress the plot). Most of these splits are caused directly by the white-haired male hero, whom I conveniently named Dingus for my playthrough-- he really is a dingus. Most of these splits border on mind-numbing in their justification: one member feeling the rest of the party is slowing him down, one member having a fight with another in the middle of a monster-infested dungeon and leaving her there, one party member ending up consumed with guilt over a mistake and choosing to leave the party-- except by "leave the party" I mean "leave the most vulnerable member of the party alone in a strange hostile city". It's really asinine.

As a second result of this revolving door of cast members refusing to stay in the party, your crown choices are extremely limited. For about half the game, the POV shifts between fragments of your four hero party as they move about in duos and singles. When you're stuck with a solo hero, it has to be Wayfarer. You have to be able to run if you get overwhelmed, or you die. In duos, one member has to be a White Mage and the other has to be some form of heavy damage dealer. There's just no other option. For most of the game you'll be real familiar with White Mage, Black Mage, and Wayfarer, even as you get more and more crowns. There's simply no opportunities to try the other crowns out; it's too dangerous. Also, since you keep splitting up, you end up forced to play the same parts of the power curve multiple times. Just when you get somewhere with a White/Black Mage duo, the scene shifts to the other half of the group, who is 10 levels weaker, and must also go White/Black Mage and retread the same progression path, if not also the same literal path.

Speaking of crown choices: conspicuous by its absence is any kind of tank or heavy physical damage crown for this entire revolving door half of the game. The closest you get are the Rogue and the Ranger, but neither have the pure HP and defense you'd want for a segment like this. I'd have been happy with a White Mage/Knight duo, but instead went Black Mage and just hoped to nuke everything before it could hurt me-- a plan that usually worked.

When I finally got my four person party together, the game got enjoyable for a bit. I felt a decent challenge without feeling unfairly hamstrung by my tiny party, had the chance to finally try a bunch of new crowns, and felt I had options in combat. Ultimately I fell toward the team of White Mage, Black Mage, Fighter, and Merchant. The Fighter is more a Final Fantasy I or V Monk (though Monk in 4HoL is something else entirely), and the Merchant existed to find gems. Gems are the currency you use to upgrade crowns with new abilities, and also armor with higher stats. Another diversion from typical FF mantras: your armor choices in 4HoL are largely equally powerful and the decision is how much you want to balance physical and magical defense, and what stat buff you want. Your actual armor power is decided by upgrade tiers, which cost gems. I actually found this really neat.

Around the same time you form up as four, you begin getting access to the gems you need to max out your crown upgrades. These final tiers unlock powerful abilities that define how your class behaves in end-game. Most of them are broken if you unlock them immediately upon getting your first diamonds; especially broken is the Black Mage ability Magic Might. Magic Might is one of the very few all-target abilities, already making it extremely powerful, but what makes it ridiculous is its damage. To this point I was dealing maybe 200-300 damage an attack, to a single target. Magic Might starts by doing 2000 to every target. It does fall off a bit as you meet foes with higher resistances, but it never really becomes "balanced". The only thing it does is become inferior to the ultimate Black Magic "Desolator" (Meteor) for single target attacks.

Meanwhile White Mage gains access to Miracle: a 5 AP ability that heals everyone to full and removes all conditions. The ultimate White Magic, Lux, is probably the single most broken spell in a Final Fantasy game. It bestows the 4HoL versions of regen, protect, shell, haste, brave, and faith to everyone for 4 AP. Once you get Lux, you will cast it first turn every major battle. These four abilities make White Mage and Black Mage almost mandatory for any end game party. At least the other two slots are largely open, though you'd probably want to bias them toward a physical attacker and a support character.

Once you're kitted with "the big four" the game becomes a joke. Major bosses fall in one turn, those that don't can't do damage through Lux's shields and regen. This state persists until the final dungeon, where the game seems to realize maybe they gave you a little too much power and pulls a pretty dirty move: taking away your crowns and forcing you to re-fight late game bosses as four base heroes in order to earn them back. I banged my head on here a bit before finally remembering one of the bosses uses exclusively fire attacks; some anti-fire armor later and I at least had enough crowns back to get my wombo-combo back together. Somewhere around here I swapped out my two non-obligatory roles for Hero and Dancer. Hero sports a high physical attack and HP, and the ability to hit all foes with a slash. Dancer gives other characters AP. When he was firing on all cylinders, I could Desolator, Magic Might, or Miracle every single turn. Broken!

I found a pretty ironclad pattern for combat here. Hero uses Bladeblitz to hit all foes. Any that survive get hit with a normal spell from the Black Mage. Anything that needed more could also get nuked with Magic Might and the Dancer restore the AP next fight. I didn't ever need to do anything else except on bosses. In a way that made combat boring, but it was satisfying to just trounce things after 15 hours of forced party splits, running as Wayfarer, and barely scraping by rubbish boss mechanics that abused the game's auto-targeting system. That lasted, that is, until the final boss, which was just a BS wall of similar construction than Final Fantasy III's Cloud of Darkness.

The final boss just spams AoEs, every turn. These AoEs are tuned to do juuuust enough damage to kill a character not at full, so once one goes down, it's down for good. Said boss can also inflict confuse, which can mess with your turn ordering just enough to let attrition win out. I would have won in my first attempt if not for an unlucky confuse blocking a much-needed heal on my mages. After that, I spent several attempts just getting nuked before I could get set up with Lux and AP generation. Once I did, however, I was able to take him down with the same old pattern of Bladeblitz and Desolator over and over again. Yawn.

All in all, the game wasn't terrible. Just I feel like certain core decisions were made in error and drove every part of the game to be a little less than it could have been. The pervasive limit on party size for an entire half the game limits your choices, which were already limited. The inability to designate targets can ruin your plans in certain situations, even if the game is really good at avoiding those situations. The limited command palette and limited abilities per class with no cross-classing means you'll often be spamming the same abilities over and over in combat, and every role in the game has one crown that does it best and everything else is just situational or useless. All of this really stems from their decision to try to keep things "simple". In the end it made it kind of a frustrating mess.

A lot of these problems could be tackled by just leveling up a bit more past content expectations then running a team you want anyway, but even that doesn't work because 4HoL implements level scaling. The scaling is pretty mean too; enemies seem to more or less keep up in lockstep with you, so the only thing that sets you apart from the curve is your armor, which you pay to upgrade. So in a way leveling is a trap, as I found when I hit level 60 via experience boosting equipment. Apparently the recommended level to finish the game is 45.

Another game for the "I'm glad I played it, I guess" pile. I had some fun with it, but I'm quite happy moving on now that it's done. There's four bonus dungeons: 100 floor ancient-cave style random towers. They're more frustration though. I finished the easiest one, using save states and turbo. It's just 100 floors of blindly bumbling about for the stairs while increasingly dangerous enemies harass you every few steps. The reward at the top of each tower is a new crown and the ability to raise your equipment upgrade cap, but you've already beaten the game so who cares?

Now... 4HoL is kind of a spiritual predecessor to Bravely Default. I'm quite excited to play that now that I've experienced the aesthetics of 4HoL.