Review by WishingTikal

"Hard is the new fun?"

Known as Final Fantasy Gaiden in Japan and FF: 4 Heroes of Light here as elsewhere, this new spin-off entry (this is NOT a remake of the original!) is harsh and unforgiving. Don't be misled by the cute cartoon graphics; the game hits like a truck. And it hits hard. This is one of the most difficult RPGs I've played in a while, so despite its look, it's definitely not a beginner's RPG. Final Fantasy Gaiden will be enjoyed most by fans of the old-school, traditional formula (a la Dragon Quest) and those who like a challenge in them RPGs. If you get frustrated easily, this game is not for you. If you have a strategic mind and enough patience, however, FF Gaiden will provide a lengthy quest and turn to be a lot of fun down the road. It just takes a lot to get there.

In the same fashion as the original Final Fantasy, FF Gaiden doesn't hold much of a story. You start off in a small peasant village where everyone gets turned to stone, after which the princess disappears, and then you are left alone to save the world, with little to no indication as to what to do. Soon enough, three other kids, including the princess, will join your party, but not for long, as you will find yourself alone again. This is one of the most frustrating aspects of the game as you start. The game is called 4 Heroes of Light, but for the first half of the game, you are on your own. Not until the second half of the game do you finally get a full, permanent party. One minute you are completely alone, the next you will have a party member, just to be alone again the next minute. The party is split to different locations at the very beginning, and the game constantly switches from one character to the other, so you spend the first part of the game following the different party members as they travel separately across the land. Occasionally they will team up in pairs of two, but mostly you will be playing solo.

This makes the game incredibly hard, coupled with many other things that also make the game very difficult. You don't have much HP at first (near the end of the game I only had a bit over 150 HP) and the enemies hit very hard, so going through whole dungeons alone is nerve-racking. Add to this you can't run from battles, can't target enemies, and can only save the game every now and then. The battle system also doesn't work with MP, but with AP (Action Points) rather. For the whole game, you only have 5 AP, and it never increases. All the actions you take on the battlefield use a certain number of AP (most spells take 2 or 3), so you are very limited in what you can do within each turn. Refilling AP wastes a turn, plus using items and healing also consumes 1 or 2 AP. With the full party, the game uses the AP system very efficiently, but with only one or two characters, you really need to think about how to save up your AP. Leveling-up also does nothing, as the enemies will level-up along with you, so FF Gaiden is really all about being strategic. Since you can only store 15 items on one character at a time, you also really need to think about what to bring, and what to leave behind. When the game switches over to another party member, your items don't carry over, so learning how to manage your stuff becomes really important.

Just like FF3, there is a job/class system that can be used in FF Gaiden under the name of "crowns". As you progress through the game, you will obtain different crowns (for a total of 25) that your characters can wear to change appearance and skills. One will let you flee fights, one will let you steal items, increase various stats, or let you use white or black magic at lower costs (just to name a few). You can upgrade the crowns to obtain more skills, by collecting gems that are randomly dropped by enemies. Needless to say, the crown system is very nice and must be made use of to overcome the game. As mentioned previously, strategy is very important in this game, so choosing the right crowns to upgrade and equipping the right ones will really take you a long way. I think I have never needed to start boss battles over and re-think my whole strategy so often in an RPG before. They really redefined the word hard with this game, yet it feels all the more satisfying when you finally come up with the right strategy. At times I wanted to throw the game away because it was too tough, then the minute after I was having a blast preparing my party for challenging battles to come.

So although the game is extremely difficult, it's not "impossibly hard". This is just the kind of RPG where you really need to try different possibilities, prepare efficiently, be ready to die and try again, and be patient. This pretty much sums up the old-school RPG genre (without the grinding -- no need here), so people who enjoy that will know what to expect. This is no game for newcomers; you will hate it. I personally enjoyed it very much, even though the first part was beyond frustrating, once you get the four party members at your disposal, the difficulty level becomes a lot more fair, and that's when it starts being fun instead of enraging. You still can't let your guard down however, as the game remains thoroughly unforgiving. I must admit it was nice to finally beat challenging bosses for once, but the game also pissed me off at times. If you find challenge to be fun, then you will be served with this one.

As in other traditional FF games, you have one big world map with various locations, but the traveling is reduced to minimum (love it or hate it). I wish I could have walked a bit more on the map, but since the game switches from one character to the other, you often don't need to walk from town to town. You just get there. Then by the end of the game, you get a faster method of traveling, so no need for walking. Not like there are many places to go to anyway, since although the map looks big, there are actually not that many locations. Towns come in fair numbers, but dungeons are a bit lacking in quantity. In the second part of the game, you will be forced to revisit past villages and dungeons, so half of the game is pretty much recycled. Once you've hit the half-way point, you've seen all there is to see. I also wish the dungeons were a bit more interesting visually, but they fit the old-school style. You will get a top-down view of narrow passageways leading to treasure chests and to a boss in the end. Classic stuff. Puzzles are not very numerous, and the dungeons are pretty dull and similar from one another, but it seems to work in this case, since that's what the game is going for. Turn-based battles are random and handled like usual, with the AP system explained above.

Contradicting the harsh gameplay, FF Gaiden's visual style is very charming and cute. It doesn't look much from screenshots, but in movement, the game looks very pretty. The dungeons look bland unfortunately, but the villages and towns really shine. Wind blowing in the grass, leaves falling around, water flowing in rivers, clouds passing over and overshadowing the ground... Wow. I was definitely impressed with, not exactly the graphics themselves, but the art style and visual appeal is superb. The town designs are some of the best and most creative I have seen in a handheld game. I know some people hate the game's look, but I personally love it, although I'm not quite sure it really fits the game's mood. It makes it look easy, when it's all the contrary. Actually, the style is very close to Zelda: Wind Waker's cel-shading, and FF Gaiden is pretty much what the DS versions of Zelda should have looked like. The towns have a more open view, instead of being top-down, which makes the game look very 3D, even though it's technically not. As for the music, I haven't much to say as I felt the same tune was playing in all dungeons and nothing really stood out. Some of the villages had nice, moody melodies playing in the background, but that's about it.

Final Fantasy 4 Heroes of Light is not what it seems at first; it's a very tough, challenging RPG that proves to be fun given you have enough patience to get past the first half. There are shortcomings, and maybe it shouldn't be a FF game, but it's not a bad game at all. It has a charm of its own, with what makes past Final Fantasy games great. Everything that is frustrating about the game is also what makes it interesting. You will either love it or hate it, but most likely old-school RPG fans will get the most fun out of it. It's a different kind of fun, but sometimes hard is fun. Despite the graphics, it's a pretty dark, atmospheric game, and the art style is beautiful. Hopefully it will find its public.

Presentation: 7/10
Perhaps should not be titled "Final Fantasy", but it has the style and elements of a good spin-off game. Do not play for story.

Gameplay: 7.5/10
This game is difficult. Maybe a bit too hard for its own good, but once you get past the first half, it gets fun. Challenging, classic RPG style. Crown system adds a lot of depth and strategy to the game.

Graphics: 8/10
The style is particular and distinctive. It does not make for top-notch graphics on the DS (everything looks a bit jaggy and the dungeons are blah), but the art style is very pretty and the town designs are gorgeous. Attention to details is incredible.

Music: 6/10
Repetitive and fades in the background, but the towns have nice moody tunes.

Replay Value: 6/10
The quest is long enough (20-30 hours), but areas are recycled. There are no side quests per se, but a large optional end dungeon and more crowns to find once the game is over.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 12/03/10, Updated 12/09/10

Game Release: Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light (US, 10/05/10)

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