Posting all these video game previews makes me wish I had more money to buy games and more time to beat them all. Check the link for vids.The most important thing you need to know about Final Fantasy Gaiden: 4 Warriors of Light is that it's not really a Final Fantasy game. Yes, it says "Final Fantasy" right there on the box, but it also says "Gaiden," which means "side story." And believe me, 4 Warriors of Light plays up the side-story angle. The last game to bear the "Final Fantasy Gaiden" moniker in Japan was The Final Fantasy Adventure, and it was basically an attempt to pilfer the design of The Legend of Zelda. Well, the same is true here, except that it's not Zelda this latest side-story is trying to mimic; rather, Square Enix is trying to create another Dragon Quest IX.
It makes sense: DQIX has proven to be a raging success in Japan, with more than four million copies sold since July, while Final Fantasy still performs well... but not as well as it used to. The resulting creation is an odd work, one that doesn't seem to be sitting well with many long-time Final Fantasy fans who have imported it. 4 Warriors of Light features a lot of design decisions that many see as needlessly regressive -- things like limited inventory slots and a largely superficial plotline -- but having played a few hours of the import myself, I'm not sure that's an accurate criticism. Honestly, despite the presence of a job system and familiar items and spells, there's never been a Final Fantasy game like this. There have, however, been quite a few very similar Dragon Quest games. And that's what 4 Warriors of Light is, really: A Final Fantasy game designed to entice DQIX fans.
There's a lot here that's been borrowed from DQIX. You don't get to define your heroes' faces, but each party member's overall appearance does change according to the gear they've equipped and the job class they've selected. Each town features a Wi-Fi building that lets you team up with other players to explore collaboratively. And sure enough, here are the standard elements of a Dragon Quest game: A loose plotline, taxing dungeons, and of course limited character inventory. Each warrior can only carry 15 items with them, which includes equipped gear and spells (as spells are contained in books that take up on inventory slot apiece). There are also a number of guest characters who tag along with your team to make certain sequences less taxing.
Even battles play out a bit like DQ, with the party operating in combat according to a sort of mixed input-and-AI-controlled scheme. Players choose their warriors' actions, but the specifics of how those actions are used are left in the hands of the AI. You may choose to cast Cura, but when the time comes for the spell to be used, your healer is the one who determines who receives the healing magic -- usually it'll be the character with the lowest HP at that moment, which actually works pretty well. Likewise with attacks and offensive spells, which doesn't always work out as you'd hope -- but again, it's not like this is an unprecedented design. Older Dragon Quest games often featured AI-controlled party members, and even in more recent chapters of the series your characters often decide which specific foes to attack when targeting enemy groups.
Still, it's pretty unconventional for Final Fantasy, which tends to favor story advancement at the expense of strategic considerations. But 4 Warriors of Light draws upon the larger tradition of RPGs, featuring mechanics drawn not only from Dragon Quest but also from PC RPGs and even offbeat works like Sting's Riviera: The Promised Land. It's a melting pot of concepts -- and while its limitations may chafe the sensibilities of those who expect a game called "Final Fantasy" to be a cakewalk, they also make it interesting.
Even more intriguing are the unique things 4 Warriors of Light does. Its take on the classic FF Job System is intriguing, as Jobs here aren't so much about rigid limitations as they are about enhancing certain aspects of your characters. Early in the game, you unlock the White and Black Mage classes -- but these classes don't work as they do in other FFs. A White Mage is still capable of equipping and using black magic, as is any class. However, only a Black Mage can use it well: A black magic spell costs fewer AP for a Black Mage than for any other class, and that mage will gain extra points to his magic stats every time he levels up.
As for AP, it's the game's substitute for magic points. Rather than using the commonplace mana pool approach to magic or even the old-school "spell points by levels" from the original Final Fantasy, 4 Warriors of Light instead calculates the cost of different skills in terms of AP, or Ability Points. Each character has a maximum of five AP apiece, and one point of AP recharges with each turn. A simple attack costs 1 AP, while casting magic spells costs 2 AP or more -- unless you're casting within a character's class specialization, in which case it costs less. It's just as cheap for a Black Mage to case Fire as it is for him to attack, and magic does a lot more damage. More powerful spells cost more AP, of course; even a Black Mage will spend 3 AP to cast a third-level spell like Firaga. Fortunately, you can build AP quickly by choosing to defend for a turn. It's a great system that encourages exploring different classes without being needlessly restrictive -- which is good, because the game tends to separate your party members quite a bit.
The specific design of 4 Warriors of Light makes it a more challenging RPG than one might expect from a Final Fantasy game, but the difficulty too feels a lot like Dragon Quest's: You need to have a specific strategy for different bosses. For instance, a boss called Sand Devil appears early in the game and is realistically unbeatable until you find the Water spell. But if you fail, you don't necessarily lose all your progress. Enemies drop gemstones instead of currency, and while you can sell gems for gil, these stones also have unique properties. Some of them can be forged into your weapons to help strengthen a favorite piece of gear, while the rare Lapis Lazuli stones will automatically be expended upon defeat to warp your party back to the most recent town you've visited, all experience and cash intact.
In other words, 4 Warriors of Light balances its challenge with clemency -- a real case of tough love. I can definitely see a few rough patches in the game, but with luck they'll be smoothed over by the time the game arrives in the U.S... whenever that may be.
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Final Fantasy Gaiden: 4 Warriors of Light Preview for the Nintendo DS from 1UP.com