Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light is an intentionally retro throwback to the old 8-bit Final Fantasy days, before the Active Battle System (first seen in FF4), pre-rendered cinematics (FF7) or pretty much anything else that has come to define the venerable series these days. There isn’t even a chocobo or moogle to be found, although crystals do show up.
4HoL uses an Action Point battle system that takes some getting used to. Every turn each one of your heroes generates one AP (to a maximum of five). Every action except “boost” requires at least one AP (boosting actually gives you one more AP while reducing damage taken that turn by half), and any AP you don’t use is carried over to the next turn — or to the next battle. That last part is key, as AP you carry between battles is also used to cast healing spells while not in combat. As you might expect, this has the effect of making items much more important, as there is no AP cost to use them on the map (they cost 1AP in battle just like a regular attack).
Of course, items take up space in your characters’ personal inventories; unlike most RPGs, there is no universal “bag of holding” in which all of your loot is stashed. Every item except crowns (more on them later) and key items occupies a single slot in a character’s fifteen-space inventory; multiples of the same item do not stack (although they do in your 99-slot “storage space”, which is only accessible via certain shops found in most towns). In addition to your items, you must also make room for equipment, weapons, and spell books. A well-armed magic-user will probably have precious little space to carry anything else… and any class can use magic if you want it to.
The class/job system in 4HoL is done via almost thirty hats called “crowns” that you earn a few at a time as you defeat bosses (or doing exceptionally well at the two mini-games you eventually find). You can swap crowns at any time, and crowns are accessible to all characters even if your party is split up at the time — which is how you will spend the first half of the game. In addition to an inherent ability (such as White Mages needing one less AP to cast white magic), each class has its own special ability, which must be assigned one of six action slots along with any spells you want to cast. Crowns can also be upgraded up to three times (per character…) in order to gain additional abilities; upgrading is done by attaching specific gems, which are gained by defeating monsters.
What you do not gain from defeating monsters is gold. Monsters only give you XP, items, and gems. Other than the occasional treasure chest, your only means of income is selling items, equipment or gems. Gems can be valuable when cashed in, especially the rarer ones, but since you need them for upgrading your crowns (and one town has a shop that can use gems to upgrade equipment as well) you have to weigh your options carefully. Bear in mind that if your party dies you will lose half of one type of gem (randomly selected, I believe) unless one of your characters is the beginning class of Freelancer (no crown).
All of this inventory and ability management makes the game tedious at times, but you quickly get used to it; using the button shortcuts instead of the stylus is usually more efficient, but both methods are fairly reliable. What you may not get used to unless you have experience with 8-bit RPGs is the nearly complete lack of hand-holding. If you forget — or simply don’t know — where you need to go next, your only recourse is to ask everyone you can find and see if one of them hints at a course of action. It’s not always obvious, but there’s usually something mentioned that you should investigate. Later on you gain the ability to speak to animals and can use that to get a more direct hint from the fox companion of the ubiquitous adventurer who serves as your only save points. That’s right, you can’t save whenever and wherever you want — there isn’t even a quicksave feature; it’s mostly restricted to just towns and right before bosses, although mercifully if you really need to you can always put the DS into sleep mode.
4HoL is hard, but not impossible. Your success will generally come from careful management of your crowns, as the right job(s) can make a world of difference. I’m almost convinced that certain bosses are actually unbeatable unless you have specific classes, which can be frustrating. Certain classes are more powerful and/or useful than others, although it’s not always the ones you might suspect. Be wary of over-leveling as well, as the game scales accordingly and you can quickly find yourself outclassed if you grind too much without having the skills and/or equipment to back it up. After completing the second half of the game you gain access to several randomly-generated dungeons that can yield the remaining crowns (you only earn twenty of them naturally, plus the two earned from mini-games) that can be thought of as post-game content, and there is a multiplayer local wireless aspect that I did not explore that will probably add some additional value for those able to utilize it. Points that you earn in the single-player mini-games can also be spent at the wireless store to buy special items — which I did not discover until after I beat the game.
While the retro style of 4 Heroes of Light has its charm, it is not for everybody. Even die-hard RPG fans might find the throwback uncomfortable. Overall I enjoyed the game, although I can’t recommend it as highly as I did the Final Fantasy III remake a few years back; that game’s limitations were inherent to its decades-old design (and even then they still managed to add a quicksave feature), while the limitations in 4HoL are all intentional. It’s still a solid RPG experience if you’re up for it.
Pros: “old-school” Final Fantasy adventure without all of the cinematic trappings of the current editions
Cons: A lot of those “retro” touches were abandoned for a reason