Bizarrely, Final Fantasy is a franchise populated mostly by spin-offs. Mystic Quest, War of the Lions, X-2, Crisis Core, My Life as King, Ring of Fates, Crystal Bearers and Dissidia are but a handful of the additional games on top of the thirteen in the main series. Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light is yet another spin-off, but doesn't fall under the Crystal Chronicles, Legend or Tactics umbrellas that many of the others do. It's a unique spin-off - a new fantasy, with new characters, a new graphical style and a new story. That said, the game begins with one of the genre's greatest clichés: the protagonist fast asleep in bed.
Far too many JRPG heroes are asleep when we first meet them; God knows what they all get up to the night before their adventures begin. It could be that they hit the bars of their local towns, knocking back potions and doing shots of some potent alcoholic elixir before drunk-riding a chocobo home, but Brandt, the young man filling the shoes of the protagonist in Final Fantasy: 4 Heroes of Light, is far too young for such antics. After being hauled out of his peaceful slumber, Brandt is reminded that today is his fourteenth birthday, and he must go and see the King to consummate his coming of age.
The short journey to the castle offers a nice first look at the game's visuals. Brought to life with a pale colour palette and smidgen of cel-shading, Heroes of Light has a very quaint feel to it. The character models ditch the heavy anime influence of other Final Fantasy titles in favour of simple, childlike designs. Although it looks like a children's fairytale book brought to life, the aesthetic masks some incredibly challenging gameplay.
After arriving at the castle, a very distressed King explains that his daughter, Princess Aire, has gone missing, kidnapped by the infamous Witch of the North. As there doesn't seem to be any experienced soldiers around to accept the clichéd rescue mission, it falls to our boy Brandt to take on the quest. After equipping himself with a sword and stocking up on a few potions, Brandt wanders off into the big wide world (map) to find out what kind of an adventurer he'll make.
At its core, the battle system is very similar to every other turn based affair the Final Fantasy series has spawned, but there are some interesting new refinements. Firstly, MP has been given the boot in favour of AP, a resource that fills a five-slot gauge above each character's HP. A standard attack, for example, will expend one AP, whilst spells such as Fire or Cure will use two. Appropriate management of AP is crucial in taking down strong opponents, and often missing an attack in favour of 'boosting' your AP is a much better strategy.
The ATB (active time battle) gauge is ignored this time around too. Instead, players dish out all of their commands at the start of each round. Plenty of other RPGs adopt this kind of play, however. More interesting is the 'Crown System', essentially a fashion-based extension of the age old job system. Using hats acquired throughout your adventure, you can change the class of a character on the fly simply by switching the apparel on their head. With around 30 different crowns to find, completing your crown collection offers a nice little side-quest on top of the main story.
In true RPG style, the first dungeon takes the form of caves. As you're still by yourself at this point in the adventure, without medicinal spells or any money to buy more potions, you'll find yourself dying a fair amount. The goblins, imps and bats that infest the cave are awfully strong for such early enemies, and even if their HP levels aren't that high, they pack a fair punch. Perhaps the difficulty will be tweaked in the finished game, but it forces players to learn the ropes nice and early on.
It isn't long before Brandt bumps into Jusqua; the cocky, self righteous little punk who, thankfully, knows how to handle himself in battle. Good job too, because the pair soon find themselves scrapping with the game's first boss; a hulking Minotaur complete with horns and battle mace. I died several times before finally bringing the beast to his knees - an early indicator that this is the type of game that requires some grinding.
After making their way through the caves, Brandt and Jusqua meet up with Princess Aire and her guardian, Yunita. These are the four characters that form the titular 4 heroes of the light, and soon after joining forces they become entangled in a plot of far greater magnitude than they could have imagined. It's fairly typical JRPG yarn from here on out, but just the ticket for those yearning for their next fantastical fix.
Heroes of Light is an interesting addition to the Final Fantasy franchise; it's certainly one of the more unusual spin-offs. If the words 'Final' and 'Fantasy' didn't appear so prominently in the title, you might not even realise it's of the same series. Still, it looks great and throws a couple of interesting features into the usual JRPG mix. If, come October, you've finished with Dragon Quest IX and are looking for another role-playing romp to keep your handheld happy, 4 Heroes of Light could be your next best bet.
Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light is available for Nintendo DS on October 8, 2010