When judged purely on its merits as an RPG 2009’s Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light is… it’s fine. It’s faux-retro in many of the ways I don’t really want a game to be, with multi-level dungeons filled with staircases leading to dead ends (or a solitary chest containing an item that’s never quite worth the effort you went through to get it) making an early and unwelcome appearance, slightly gimmicky boss fights that go on longer than they need to, and per-character item pouches designed more to make you shout “Oh c’mon, they’re literally standing right next to each other!” in exasperation than think you’ve been blessed with an extra layer of tactical possibilities.
But at least it’s pretty. No, not just pretty – stylish.
Now to claim something has style but no real substance is usually a really bad sign: Substance is more important than anything, substance is where the real content and quality lies whereas style, and to be seen to be enjoying stylish things simply for the way they look, is to be shallow and superficial – you’re easily pleased, and you don’t even care. For shame. The truth is it takes a heck of a lot of skill and effort to craft a cohesive and visually attractive world out of the digital dirt, especially on an underpowered format with a bespoke multi-screen layout and limited storage space like the DS. This is the one happy place where 4 Heroes of Light indisputably excels. It sounds “simple” in many ways – bobble-headed characters with no noses, fingers, or feet pootle around fixed-camera locations, the entire world apparently stuck to the top of a gigantic barrel (think of the scrolling in more modern Animal Crossings) in an attempt to mask the game’s short draw distance and still not entirely succeeding in hiding it. But it’s so darned effective. This is partly because as a one-off game made specifically for the DS alone it has the freedom to be nothing other than whatever works best for itself; there is no “real” 4 Heroes of Light that this is an easily ported budget-conscious downgrade from, à la Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition, nor is it a cutesy mash-up of a more grown-up “headline” selection of games the way World of Final Fantasy is either. And so you don’t miss seeing fingers or noses because the characters – as polygonal shapes, as people – were never built with that detail in mind in the first place; you may as well “miss” the colour in Psycho or play a text adventure and complain about the lack of visuals. The artfully minimalistic character portraits and the 3D models proudly shown on the status screen only confirm that these little people with their tiny not-toes are all you were ever supposed to see in the first place.
And the rest? Those fixed camera angles mean two things: One, you’re never going to overlook an important door/treasure chest/staircase because you forgot to whirl the camera around in one specific corner of the latest dungeon. Two, setting the player’s point of view in stone transforms tiny 2D flourishes – flowers, pots, impressive stands for candles to quietly flicker away on – into seamless additional decorations, as solid and believable as anything else. Hand-drawn silhouettes of mountains off in the distance look like a beautiful prop from a stage play. You’ll never see an object silently twist to face you, as if sentient fruit’s following your every move. Trees, shrubs, and grand towers don’t artificially look the same from all angles and distances, because there is only one angle and distance – the one you need. The one you’ve been given. The rolling landscape does manage to perform its basic job – hiding the pop-in that would otherwise be present with a more traditional view – well enough most of the time but a happy side effect is that it also makes large palaces and other elaborate structures appear even bigger than they really are, their front-facing structures almost looming overhead as they rise up from over the short horizon.
These technical restrictions, when handled by a team as talented as this (and with the support/trust/time to realise their artistic ambitions), mean we actually end up with more visual content, not less. When designers don’t have to spend time worrying about the texture of their, um, textures – how they darken when it rains, pick up dust on a windy mountaintop, or how differently leather armour looks in the midday sun compared to gleaming plate mail – or what four different sets of fingers should be doing in any particular cutscene their creative time and effort can be redirected elsewhere, allowing 4 Heroes of Light to do things I’d frankly forgotten games could. The entire party visibly put on different hats to use different Final Fantasy jobs. When you change their equipment their clothing actually matches the inventory icon of whatever you’ve just bought or found. Two low-level shields of no importance or value will look completely different to one another, just because they should. Dead characters follow behind living party members as adorable and individually identifiable floaty ghosts. Whole fields of crops catch an invisible breeze, ears of corn briefly swaying in unison while the stream nearby sparkles in the sun. The moon is always whatever size and colour suits the current scene best, even if that alters from one room to another. Clear edges and deliberate hand-carved cutaways in the outer brickwork of interior locations make these busy little places feel like tiny dioramas – another bit of visual language that communicates how thoroughly unconcerned this game is with trying to be a “realistic” experience – alongside the painterly textures that don’t actually resemble stone or thatch or wood but always guide your thoughts in the direction of these materials.
It really is beautiful and immersive, this little world of impeccable design.
Does any of that make it a good game? No. I can still do without the myriad of little irritations hiding behind the flimsy defence of “nostalgia” and “retro”, and games are more than their graphics. But. Games are also more than their gameplay too, and 4 Heroes of Light is an excellent reminder of the sheer magic talented teams can weave even when tied to the most mediocre of experiences.