Getting an adventure off the ground is hard work. There's the recruitment of stalwart companions, much roaming of the world, unsightly explosions of evil, and that magical moment when it all kicks into high gear and you ride off to a shining victory. Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light labors a bit while getting all the pieces into place but finally manages to bring home a solid, satisfying jaunt through yet another land of swords and sorcery. There's plenty of character customization, an endless stream of townspeople to learn from and trade with, and a number of nasty monsters to challenge you.
It all begins with a sleepy village, a kidnapped princess, and a curse. When a witch spirits away Aire, the only daughter of the regent of the kingdom of Horne, it's not enough for him to send troops to investigate. Because he's the impatient sort, he also sends Brandt, a local youth who fortuitously came of age at just the right moment to get drafted, and Jusqua, who's not exactly keen about his new mission. They soon join forces with the loyal Yunita, a palace knight with an overwrought sense of duty, and manage to save Aire, who is ungrateful and miffed about the whole thing. They defeat the witch and return to town only to find that everyone in Horne has been turned to stone. Some sort of curse has been activated, and they'll need to set out on a journey to make things right again.
This kicks off a whole mess of events that fragments your party as members head out into the world, repeatedly abandon each other for no apparent reason, have numerous visions of a talking crystal, and meet helpful allies who stay for a time (and then leave suddenly with all the items you gave them). They eventually regroup, discover that they've somehow cured their respective character flaws while leaving each other to rot in isolated lands and then join forces to smite darkness. It's a common convention in role-playing games to have these separate threads that tie your merry band of adventurers together, but here, it feels particularly contrived because your party splits up multiple times and you have to grind through a good deal of initial content solo. Leveling comes slowly, especially in those early hours, and you're likely to have to backtrack through dungeons a few times as you find your footing. But once your party finally comes together and things begin in earnest, the game starts to show off its true appeal.
You meet all manner of monsters as you traverse the world and trudge through its dungeons, and combat here is a twist on the turn-based system where you cannot select the target of your actions. You can choose to attack, and weapons attack the front or rear rows of opponents based on type (bows hit the back line, swords the front, and so on), but you cannot choose which individual monster to slay. It's the same if you're using a healing item or a beneficial spell--you can't choose who gets healed first, who gets buffed first, or who has a status ailment removed first. Attacks generally focus the same target in a given row (so you'll still efficiently take down foes), and healing spells top off whoever has the lowest percentage of health, but this broad stroke sort of approach means you want to play conservatively and heal often against tougher challenges. There isn't a set order of actions that allows you to predict when a particular attack will occur or when a spell will be cast. On the one hand, it keeps things exciting, but on the other, it means that your people can get wiped out before that awesome group cure gets cast.
Each action--whether it's a magic spell, weapon attack, or special ability--costs action points to use. You accrue one action point naturally per turn, or you can select the boost option and the character will defend and accrue two. Each character can store up to five action points at a time, and your more potent spells and attacks cost more action points to use. Combat is mastered when you manage the flow of incoming action points to your needs and are careful not to overextend yourself and spend all your points. It's a constantly renewable resource, but because you want more than one action point to perform most useful actions, you'll have to make the time to boost regularly while keeping your party safe. The action points you have carry over when you leave battle, and you can heal and cure status ailments outside of fights if you have the points saved. Managing action points intelligently means that if you're careful, you can wander the wilds as long as you like to pick off assailants without having to constantly visit towns to rest and recuperate--a great feature. This is especially true because enemies don't drop currency--only items and gems--and you need both goodies and cash. Items can be used or sold, and gems are good money but also an important resource. They allow you to upgrade weapons and armor at a special shop, and they let you upgrade your wonderful crowns.
Crowns are pieces of headwear in a wide variety of designs that enable characters to change their classes, and they become available as you progress through the story, defeat certain bosses, and perform certain actions. When you put on the bandit mask, you can not only steal from enemies but your strength and health also increase. If you decide to become a white mage, all white magic becomes cheaper to use while your spirit stat goes up to increase the power of your healing. These effects are immediate and built into each crown, and you can change crowns any time you're not in battle by opening up the menu. It's an instant character-class swap, and each individual class has a specific advantage that makes it useful--whether you need to collect more items and gems or you'd like to bring a particular sort of attack to bear against a strong foe. Each crown can be upgraded via gems to offer even more powerful advantages in the form of new abilities, such as the ability to halve elemental damage or protect your white mage from enemy attacks. There are three upgrades available for each crown, with the final upgrade costing you a hefty number of gems, but the edge you gain is worth the investment. While there are certain abilities and crown distributions that provide optimal balance for certain encounters, the game is good about leaving the particulars up to you. As vital and cool as crowns are, however, they're matched in importance by your gear choices.
The available armor, shields, weapons, and accessories are simple on the surface. Weapons can be imbued with elements like fire or water or inflict status abnormalities like poison and paralysis. Shields protect against certain elements and magics or simply provide physical defense. Armor is predominantly tailored to crown classes and has attributes that augment these--a ranger's armor improves strength and attack accuracy, for example. Accessories can boost particular stats, augment attacks, or totally block certain types of magic and other afflictions. Mixing and matching gear properly can mean the difference between success and failure because many bosses and monsters have a strong elemental property. When you face off against an ice dragon that attacks your whole group with its massively damaging frost breath, it becomes manageable if everyone puts on an ice shield. It becomes even more manageable with a cape that prevents water damage on your healer. If you throw in an elementalist that you've upgraded to cut elemental damage in half and fire weapons on your characters, you'll be eating dragon steak at dinnertime. Many bosses have multiple strong elemental attacks of different schools in addition to the ability to petrify, sleep, confuse and otherwise terrorize your party, so gear selection is essential to success. The different types of gear are limited, but you have the ability to upgrade weapons and armor with gems, which greatly increases their potency and worth in later encounters.
Because of the necessity to use the right gear for certain fights, tune the gear to particular crowns, and carry all of your spells as physical books, the limit on inventory space per character eats into enjoyment somewhat. There's a shop in every town that lets you store items, but having to fish out the right gear and hand it individually to characters is a pain. Plus, the menu system itself is clunky and doesn't allow you to hit the shoulder buttons to tab through characters. It's a bunch of extra button presses or stylus taps that add up when you have to switch out everyone's shields and accessories to give them items.
The world you roam has a distinct storybook style, with colorful, whimsical villages filled with travelers, merchants, and townspeople. Details about your current objectives are built into these towns, so it's worth your while (and in many cases, necessary) to go around and talk to all the residents. They'll be able to tell you what direction your next dungeon may be found in, give you hints as to upcoming boss abilities and weaknesses, suggest helpful items, or taunt you with hidden treasures. If you're stubborn and want to just set off rather than chat up every urchin in town, the world and even the dungeons are fairly compact so they're not overly onerous if you need to make multiple trips or spend time running around. And although the land map is drawn in a cute style with features leaping off the screen, it doesn't give you a good idea of the available paths from place to place. It's good at saying, "Here there be dragons," and bad at communicating, "First, go north, then west around the huge lake, then squeeze past the mountain range, then trudge through the snow, and then go all the way through the cave to find the pesky dragons." But once your party comes together, you'll be master of the skies via dragon flight anyway, and all those obstacles become but a bitter memory.
While the models for the main characters are superdeformed and pretty basic, the various crowns and their matching armor create great looks all around. It's not just about changing your ability set--when you become a scholar by donning the huge hat and the smartly tailored black robe, it's practical as well as fashion forward. The visual cues make extra impact on the change, and sound cues play a crucial part in the game as well. As night changes into day, the music flows into something more upbeat. When a character in your party becomes critically injured or dies, the music takes an urgent turn that encourages you to set things right. When fighting bosses, there's no indication of their health onscreen, but you at least know when they've been critically weakened. The battle theme becomes confident and triumphant, giving you the will to push on to the very end.
In addition to fighting on your own, you can connect wirelessly for multiplayer with up to three friends. While fighting cooperatively, you earn battle points that you can exchange for some powerful weapons and a few extra goodies. No worries if you can't put together a party with friends, though, because you can also earn battle points via single-player. If you want that really brutal axe, you can still earn it if you murder enough monsters.
It's somewhat of a shame that Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light takes a while to really find its stride because when it finally does, it has everything you want in a traditional RPG package. When the world opens up to you, your party comes together, the number of available crowns accumulates, and your group starts looking like a fantasy assortment of the Village People in spiffy outfits, there's a lot to like. Sometimes, it's worth chasing the carrot on the end of the stick.