Hikari no 4 Senshi (Four Warriors of Light): Final Fantasy Gaiden
Nintendo DS
JP Import Reviewed: 11/08/09

Hikari no 4 Senshi: Final Fantasy Gaiden was released in 2009, but popping in the cartridge and is somewhat of a trip to 1990, as the game takes a bumpy trip back to the ways of the NES days. It feels more like one of the early Final Fantasy games than anything to come out recently, updating the look and interface using the capable DS hardware, but preserving some of the things that made those NES games both challenging and a bit awkward. Prepare for another divisive Square Enix game!

Hikari no 4 Senshi‘s story is simplistic, and sometimes appears to only be a vehicle to shuttle the player from one location to the next — more of a mode of transportation than a narrative. When functioning so, it actually accomplishes that purpose very well. The four main characters are Brand, a young village lad; Jusqua, his sort-of rival; Aire, the town’s spoiled and inconsiderate princess; and Unita, her bodyguard. The king of their humble village pleads with Brand to rescue Aire, who is being held by the Witch in the North. After being defeated, the witch places a curse on the village that turns everyone to stone. Rather than have the party bebop around together trying to lift the curse, the story fractures the party early, providing a few branching tales on how they eventually reunite. This delays the prospect of micromanaging and crafting the perfect four-man team, but does make the story a lot more entertaining than the bore it could have been. A few of the character decisions are unbelievable (at least tell someone if you’re leaving!), but the locations in the world relate to each other fairly well, rather than being isolated and dull. The plot also contains some subtle references to — and variations on — the original Final Fantasy.

Screen Shot
Upgrading the Black Mage Crown with jewels. Weapons and armor can be upgraded with jewels too.

The story does have one quirk: it can sometimes appear vague about where the player needs to go next, and why. Actually, to the experienced RPG player, there is no point where the game leaves anything in question: everything that is needed to get through the story is present, just in an out-of-the-way place. Rather than dispensing useless information, NPCs are actually an important source of hints in the game. Remember the old time “Talk to Everyone” rule here. The story sequences might give a clue as to where to go, but no information as to how, and the player is left to find that out from the people around town. This will frustrate importers who can’t read much Japanese, or players who don’t often bother talking to NPCs.

The most attractive part of Hikari no 4 Senshi hits early: the graphics are lovingly colored and styled. Its atmosphere is very enchanting, right from the beginning where the wheat fields ripple in the wind, to the well-designed towns of Elba and Urupesu. The only complaint is that dungeons feel rather blocky by contrast, almost entirely composed of 90-degree turns and paths, making the dungeons look and feel merely palette swapped, even if they aren’t. Still, the style of the game is going to be one of its hallmarks for years to come.

Screen Shot
Watera is powerful, but not as powerful as Meteor.

Similarly complimenting the graphics is the soundtrack, a bright and upbeat score with lots of catchy tunes. Unfortunately, it falls into a similar rut as the graphics where dungeons are concerned: dungeon themes are annoyingly repetitive. There are maybe two dungeon songs that are used interchangeably for what felt like every dungeon in the game. More variety seems like a no-brainer, rather than constantly recycling. Who makes design decisions like that? “Man, this track is so good, I’m going to use it everywhere! Every cave, in every tower, inside a friggin’ whale. It’s so good.” It isn’t.

Final Fantasy Gaiden‘s battle system has an interesting upgrade to the MP system. In its place is AP, which max out at five. Every skill and attack costs 1-5 AP, and characters only gain one per round. Defending lets characters save up AP for powerful attacks, which means the player has to constantly make choices about whether to spend or save, preventing spamming skills and giving battles a welcome dose of strategy. From there, everything is mostly turn-based skills, attacks, and items. Just one aspect creates problems in the battles: auto-targeting.

If the visual style is what the game will be remembered fondly for, then the game’s auto-targeting battle system will be the polar opposite: the aspect that is debated, criticized, flamed, hated, and ultimately the cause of much figurative controller-throwing. It rains on one of the most ingrained turn-based battle traditions: after selecting an attack, spell, or skill, the game simply proceeds. There is no step where the player chooses a target, nor any option to do so. Skills are targeted and executed according to a few rules, none of which are spelled out very clearly. Icons in the corner of each skill button give a hint: magical and ranged attacks target foes in the back first, for example. Other rules that may not actually be rules: healing skills will frequently jump ahead in the queue, and ally-targeted spells will select according to the greatest need — “greatest need” for HP values fluctuating somewhere between the lowest number and lowest per cent, and for other things like Esuna and Shell, who knows what the criteria are exactly? The system is not random; it follows consistent algorithms. It’s just a mystery what exactly those algorithms are. Basically, this is a control freak’s nightmare.

Whether it will be loved or hated by individual players is entirely subjective, but to look at it objectively, Hikari no 4 Senshi’s battle system works both better and worse than one would expect. There are absolutely moments where the ability to target would make a world of difference in a difficult battle. For example, on the offensive, it would sometimes help dispatch enemies faster; on the defensive, being able to select which character to use a Phoenix Down on is crucial to survival. Dying simply because the targeting system didn’t work out is frustrating. On the other hand, it’s amazing how often the ability to target doesn’t make too much of a difference. The elimination of selecting a target and letting the AI select it on good faith trims the fat on a turn-based battle system in a way most games wouldn’t dare to. It makes battle speedier, eliminates several button presses or stylus taps, and makes strategy play intuitive, rather than by-the-numbers. And believe it or not, an intuitive style of play where predictability is limited actually can be a lot of fun. It comes down to how well the band of warriors is managed: poorly-managed teams will fall victim to the pitfalls of the targeting system, while well-managed teams will not often be put in a situation where targeting makes a big difference.

Screen Shot
Brand wearing the Beastmaster crown, ready to impale somebody.

As the story progresses, characters encounter crystals, who dispense pep talks and more satisfyingly, Crowns. Crowns are Hikari no 4 Senshi‘s take on the Job System. Every character can wear only one Crown, and each Crown has four skills available: one initial, and three that must be unlocked by adding jewels to the Crown. With one late-game exception, no Crown can use the skills of another, so every skill must be taken with the advantages and disadvantages of that particular Crown. Every Crown affects a character’s status in some way, and has an innate beneficial ability: for example, White mages have less Strength and more Spirit, and get a -1AP bonus when casting White Magic. The typical array of jobs shows up, but joining Thief, Bard, and Black Mage are jobs that haven’t been seen in a long while, like Taoist, and entirely new additions like Playboy, Seamstress, and Hero. While some classes are more powerful than others, every class is viable for solo action. The large amount of Crowns, coupled with the limited skill, inventory and equipment systems, allow for a great deal of customization.

How does a system with such a limitation improve customization? Since a character can only have six spells and abilities equipped for battle at once, and only 15 items, spells and pieces of equipment in inventory, that means that individual mages in particular have pared-down functionality. But any spell can be equipped on any Crown. Four characters could wear the same Crown, and each one could be set up to play a completely different role. A Knight could be an offensive powerhouse, or could be made more Paladinlike and given two or three White Magic spells. It forces the player to get creative regarding skills, spells, and Crowns, and means that each Crown has a more flexible use. Party building and managing is a huge part of the game, and is the largest part of success or failure.

Because the battle system is unpredictable, the gameplay rewards preparation with victory. Ending each battle on a high note, with as much HP and AP as possible, is an important part of dungeon play, because AP is unlimited while items are not. Coming into dungeons and boss battles with the right equipment and spells makes a phenomenal difference. The problem is that players have no way of knowing what will be good elemental defenses against a boss until after facing it and often perishing to it. Dying at the boss and backtracking to town to change equipment is a common practice. It hearkens back to the NES trial-and-error moments, but players from this generation are likely to be less than amused. On the upside, the dungeons are easy to traverse, and easy to backtrack through, so leaving and coming into dungeons feels like a more attractive option to a struggling player, and less like a frustrating, half-hour slog.

Screen Shot
Unita as a Poet, apparently about to equip a really terrible piece of equipment.

After the main story’s many small dungeons and large bosses are finished with, there are some extras available to tackle. In particular, seven extra Crowns are available through mini-games, shops, and bonus randomly generated dungeons. The extra dungeons have escalatingly difficult bosses at the end, and several pieces of ultimate equipment to acquire. Also sprinkled throughout the game are optional sidequests. None of them are crucial, most only hinted at, but they can affect how difficult upcoming bosses can be, and whether party members are acquired early or later. They are small touches, with fleeting value, but do add some replayability in how one approaches a scenario next time.

Hikari no 4 Senshi is a tough call. The game has some obvious quirks and problems that will be huge turn-offs to some players, particularly the auto-targeting and limited inventory. It takes a few risks in that regard. If the idea of not being able to have full control over characters in battle is frustrating, then stay far, far away from Hikari no 4 Senshi. On the other hand, the game is lighthearted, fast-paced, and boasts a management and customization system with plenty of possibilities for players, providing an intuitive and fun battle experience and a hint of warm, fuzzy nostalgia to top it off. Players who don’t mind a little awkwardness will enjoy this humble Final Fantasy side story.

-Janelle Hindman

Score Breakdown
Out of 10
See our Review Criteria
Gameplay Average
Story Average
Graphics Very Good
Sound/Music Good
Replay Value Good
The Verdict: Good