a review of Four Warriors Of Light: Final Fantasy Side Story 『光の４戦士〜ファイナルファンタジー外伝』hikari no yon senshi: final fantasy gaiden (japanese title)
a videogame developed by matrix
and published by square-enix
for the nintendo DS
text by tim rogers
We didn’t think we were going to play this game. And then, there it was. We like it. It has a real nice soul.
Lately, people have been figuratively climbing over one another to proclaim that they possess the deeper love of hardcore dungeon-crawling role-playing game-things. You might or might not have seen, lately, every other hipster with a PlayStation 3 figuratively gushing the blood of love when it comes to Demon’s Souls, which is as hardcore and delightfully snippy a game as games have ever been. Demon’s Souls is a great game, and we’d love to call it one of our favorite games of all-time, if that wouldn’t immediately make us look like everyone else. Back when we did our “Manifesto” feature (linked in the sidebar, you know), it got linked on Metafilter, and some guy wrote some huge post calling out every element of our psychology as a hallmark of being a hipster. (That’s something hipsters do for fun, you know: detail why other people are bigger hipsters, and why that’s worse than being the medium-sized hipster that they are themselves.) One of the things this guy said was that the people of Action Button Dot Net — this website right here — would, if at all possible, refrain from obvious choices, and if they made obvious choices, they would try as hard as they could to maintain a “we liked them before they were popular” attitude. Well, heck that guy: we liked Demon’s Souls way back when it was still called King’s Field; we liked Etrian Odyssey way back when it was still called Wizardry; we liked Shiren The Wanderer back when it was still called Nethack.
And guess what? We kinda like Four Warriors of Light right now.
Light Warriors (that’s what we’re going to call it, yes) is much like Seventh Dragon, which Sega published earlier this year, in that it’s about a couple of adventurers whose capabilities you decide based on your whims, taking on and carrying out various little missions which usually involve going into a dark place, killing the ugly monster, getting the shiny money, and running out screaming. Only Light Warriors is better. It’s slicker, it’s sweeter, and it’s simpler, without being, you know, cloying, in the least.
We didn’t really like Seventh Dragon — too much of a slog, and not really fun because, you know, numbers by themselves aren’t really fun. Seventh Dragon was like, you’d go into a dungeon, get into a fight, choose “attack” a couple of times, and suddenly the monster would be walloping you. You heal, win, get into another fight, get walloped a bit, heal, win, level up, get into another fight, get walloped, win miraculously, and then discover that you didn’t have enough whatever to heal again. This is when you run out screaming, use your money to buy better stuff, et cetera. It wasn’t just a grind — no, a “grind” is when you level up your guys and buy better stuff outside the context of the actual in-game missions. Seventh Dragon was a slog — where you have to grind inside the context of the missions. Huge difference.
Light Warriors is neither a grind nor a slog. It’s a nice little game. While not quite the girl you’d take home to mom, it’s definitely the non-gay male friend who you would take to Sunday dinner, who would help say grace and then thank your mom very sincerely for the corn bread.
It’s like this: you’ve got these four characters. There’s a young boy, his young hetero boy-friend, a tough girl soldier, and a selfish girl princess. The young boy comes of age — that probably means he turns sixteen — and thus becomes a person who, uhh, the king is permitted to control completely. The king tells him to go to a witch’s castle to rescue the absconded-with princess. On the way, you meet the tougher boy. In the castle, you meet the tough girl. Then, before the boss fight, you meet the princess. You kill the witch. A crystal appears. It begins talking, prompting one of the characters to note, “The crystal is talking!” The crystal says that you four are warriors meant to return light to the darkening land. There you have it! You go back to the king and tell him you’re going on a journey. By this point, we’ve learned most everything we can about the battle system.
Usually, in role-playing games, the battle system is either 51% of the game’s appeal, or 49%, with the other 49% or 51% being the story and presentation. In Light Warriors it’s more like 60%. The other 40% is the graphics and the music. We can’t say much about the story. You go on a journey in a lovingly presented world, taking on various jobs and essentially doing good. It’s a little adventure in your pocket.
The battle system is 60% of the game’s appeal, and if it weren’t any good, we wouldn’t be giving the game a positive rating. The battle system is wonderful.
It goes like this: your characters don’t have magic points. They have Action Points, “AP”, which are shown on the battle screen as little yellow orbs of light by each character’s name. Each character has five AP. Attacking an enemy costs one AP. Maybe, to a basic class (that is, a bare-bones character not equipped with the benefit of any other class), using the “cure” spell costs two AP. The “fire” spell costs two AP, as well.
In order to charge AP, you have to choose the “charge” command on the battle menu. If you choose this, your character focuses for one round, defending him or herself against physical attacks and charging up two AP.
You can use items without expending any AP. However, each character can only carry fifteen items.
Moreover, you can’t — no, you don’t — choose your target during battle. If you choose “fight”, the character will fight the enemy that is either closest to death and/or poses the biggest threat. If you choose to use a potion, the target will always be the person who needs it the most. This can even be decided in something like real time — if you have two characters choose to heal, one of them with a potion and one of them with a cure spell, and you have one character with 55 out of 100 HP left and another character with 66 out of 100 HP left, and the boss attacks the one with 66 HP and deals 23 damage before the first heal action can be performed, the first heal action will be performed on the person who had 66 HP at the beginning of the round. The game has all the mathematics figured out for you.
This all works fantastically well. Each battle becomes a little multi-directional tug-of-war. When you win, you feel like you actually did something, both because you made the right choices, and the game smooths out the rough patches soon enough after they happen for it to not even once seem like a robot ramming its head into a wall.
Then you have the hats. Well, the game calls them “crowns”, which is stupid, because they are all definitely hats, and not crowns. We’re pretty sure that the English localization will call them crowns for the same reason that the main character in Infinite Undiscovery literally says “CUT-IT-OUT!” whenever he gets hit: because the translators of games are usually of the persuasion that games are perfect and holy things and one must not disturb their sanctity.
So yeah, the hats. You put on a black mage hat, for example, and it makes you a black mage. You can also be a red mage, or a white mage, or a warrior, or a ninja, or any one of a bunch of other classes. “Becoming” a black mage means that you get benefits with regard to black magic. Black magic spells will cost one AP less, and your magic damage will increase. Maybe later, you’ll obtain spells that only black mages can use, or swords that only warriors can use. Get a dozen or so hours into the game and you’ll have built up a really handsome selection of spells or abilities, some specific to classes, some not. The fun part is choosing which six abilities you want to set up to be usable during in battle. Aha! Shades of Pokemon abound, only without the kleptomania-like monster-gathering (disclaimer: we like the kleptomania-like monster-gathering). So there you have it: making choices, fighting dudes, pumping up, cute little palm-sized struggles. The capacity for a self-sustaining infinite-healing party in every dungeon thanks to the AP system allows the game to really shift the difficulty into the scope of the individual battle. And each individual battle is really nice.
Our frenemy Chris Kohler, over at Wired, recently wrote this thing on his blog about the game. His main motivation for writing it, probably, was similar to ours: hits. No one is talking about this game! Kohler’s reaction is similar to that of the many trolls on 2ch.net who have been bashing this game, relentlessly, around the clock, since the moment it was announced. Only the motivation for Kohler’s reaction is arguably less kleptomaniacally insane: he thinks the game is “too old school”. He thinks “talk to everyone in town” to learn where you’re going is “antiquated”, as is a restricted inventory. We wonder if maybe Kohler might have never talked to other kids in school, and we know for certain that we saw him at E3 once, back in the glory years, with a sagging-with-swag bursting-full bag in each hand, so maybe he wishes games could be more like real life, in that respect. (Disclaimer: we didn’t talk to anyone in school, either, and we collected swag at E3 as well, though only because we relied on eBay to support our sad lifestyles.) We wonder if maybe Kohler missed the memo informing him that Demon’s Souls and crushing difficulty were things games writers are supposed to like this week.
The haters on 2ch.net, on the other hand, are mostly opposed to the game’s being on DS and having cute-like graphics. These are the same people who organized a massive spam-in around the time Dragon Quest IX was released. They had a thread running about 29,000 posts long containing various tips for writing a review that Amazon.co.jp wouldn’t delete on sight. They had this constantly updated list of “Things to complain about to make your negative review appear legitimate”, which contained such maybe-weird items as “The menu sound is ugly” (it most certainly is not (we know ugly menu sounds when we hear them)). Trolls on 2ch.net have succeeded in terrorizing the Japanese games industry into a bizarre corner: they pushed Amazon to not allow people to write “previews” because it was basically amounting to bad press. Also, it’s now a bannable offense, on Amazon.co.jp, to complain about the prices of DVDs, because too many readers wrote reviews voicing the opinion that $92 is a little too much money to spend on one twenty-two-minute episode of a thirty-year-old anime, even if it is in high definition.
Anyway, they’re spamming Light Warriors, too, and it really doesn’t deserve it. The spam mainly consists of people saying that the game is an insipidly minor work, not deserving of the title of Final Fantasy.
Surely, Square-Enix is really milking the Final Fantasy brand name with unprecedented vigor, these days. How many brand names have they made around Final Fantasy, now? They’ve got Final Fantasy, the main series games. Then there’s Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, which is games based in the Final Fantasy VII world. Final Fantasy X is kind of its own brand, what with its direct sequel and all. Kingdom Hearts counts as a brand. Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, and its new sub-sub-brand Crystal Bearers. There’s Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XIV, which belong to the Vana Diel sub-brand. Then we have Ivalice Alliance, which contains Final Fantasy Tactics — which is also its own stand-alone brand, with the Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and A2 games — and the Final Fantasy XII-based games. Actually, wait, they said that Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is its own series, now. Oh! Don’t forget those kiddy Chocobo games for the DS. And now we have Final Fantasy Side Story. Is that all of them? How many is that? Eleven? Oh, wait, we almost forgot Dissidia, the Final Fantasy fighting game (of sorts), and Fabula Nova Crystalis, which is the ugly trademarked name they’re giving to the whole Final Fantasy XIII “series”. Thirteen brands, then. Wow.
In the case of games like Dissidia or Crisis Core, we are quite comfortable calling bullstuff. Light Warriors, however, inspires us to be genteel-like. We play Light Warriors, and we say, okay. We say, alright. This is nice. It’s a game of humble intentions. It’s giving you neat little bite-sized adventures full of snappy little logical challenges. It’s got cute graphics and wonderful music. It’s got a nice little atmosphere. This is Square-Enix going, hey, you guys have a good idea for a game. Try developing it! Then the developers develop the game, and Square-Enix goes, hey, we can help it sell by putting the Final Fantasy name on it! And then the jerkoffs on 2ch go, “They only put the ‘Final Fantasy’ name on there to sell copies!” Duh! Maybe if they would have sold the game for 2,000 yen nobody would have complained.
The same 2ch freaks rebelled with much frothing psychosis at every stage in the marketing of Dragon Quest IX. When it was announced as an action game for the DS, they revolted: if it’s not a menu-based RPG, and if it’s not for a home-based system, please take the number out of the title and then give it a little suffix. Square-Enix’s response was to immediately cower in fear of its fans and remove the action elements. They should have stuck to their guns. Monster Hunter Portable was just about to get popular, for example. Well, the fans were still pissed: the game still had a number in its title, despite its being on the lowly Nintendo DS. When the game was released and the haters played it anyway, they found its story campaign too short. Instead of the 150 hours they wanted, they got 25 hours with the option to upgrade to thousands of hours of joyful, sprinting kleptomania if they decided to get over themselves and make some friends to play with. They found the little “optional” missions senseless and idiotic. You go into a Dungeon that looks like, well, it was plotted by a computer who had just seen graph paper inserted into its printer for the first time, and you get a Thing and then you Get Out.
Light Warriors builds an entire game out of Dragon Quest IX‘s mission mode, and it’s so sweetly sincere about being about nothing that you really can’t muster the energy to hate it unless you a complete and hopeless dork.
People should play this game. Kids who like Kingdom Hearts should play this game, and then wish that the action in Kingdom Hearts was at least more like this. See, Kingdom Hearts players don’t want the heroes of Kingdom Hearts to die, because that wouldn’t be a happy event. That’s weird. At the same time, however, it’s not. Why do characters in games come right back to life immediately after they die? Maybe players in Kingdom Hearts are expecting different things of the medium of games.
Either way, in Kingdom Hearts, or in Dynasty Warriors, all you do is press a button and watch a guy dance and sway under the furious moonlight, just swinging a spear like he’s completely off his balls, everything in the immediate vicinity dying spectacularly. You feel entertained, though do you feel like you’re doing something? Our definition of “crunch” in a videogame is “you feel like you’re doing something“. We believe games seldom contain greater entertainment than that which comes from feeling like you are making a contribution of some type (even violent) in the world of the game. If you’re going to massage the player’s shoulders and tell him he’s a big strong man while he plays, why not at least whisper to him some reasons that you think he’s a big strong man?
In Light Warriors, even when you’re not dying, you can feel symptoms of a struggle. You nearly die, and it feels like it was (nearly) your fault. You triumph, and you feel like it was your doing. That’s not to say you don’t die. Sometimes, you do. Usually, you don’t. Sometimes, you get closer than you’ve gotten in a long while. See, the enemies level up with you. Slacking off will not be tolerated. Many of the detractors cite this as a primary example of the game’s not-goodness. We say, whatever. The haters are probably the type of people who think that all it takes to get good at playing speed metal guitar solos is to spend thousands of hours beating off to the sound of a metronome. They must think that strength gains in bodybuilding are supposed to come all by themselves, that just showing up in the gym is more than enough. That ain’t it, jack: you have to actually make the conscious effort to speed up the metronome, to add more weight and suffer through harder reps. For too long, games less well-written than even Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest have let players get by with only the trait of persistence. Light Warriors asks you to keep thinking. It’s a darling for that. It’s just frictive enough, without being vindictive. Each little mini-quest is a tasty little puzzle-like experience. It’s a hell of a thing for a medium-length train commute. Open your DS, and do something in a little playground world. Beats the stuff out of sudoku.
We can’t close out this review without mentioning the graphics in more detail: they’re absolutely fantastic. They’re fantastic, even if you own a Giant HDTV, you won’t feel guilty gaming on a lowly Nintendo DS. The game not only looks good “on the DS”, it looks exactly like the game designers wanted it to look. Character designer and lead artist Akihiko “Final Fantasy Tactics” Yoshida is, clearly, the man. Once you see fields of wheat shimmering in the wind, once you see the way the horizon curves in the town maps, your breath — it will be taken away, doing us all a favor (winking smiley face).
The very final paragraph of this review, however, is for the music: we nearly wept. Nobuo Uematsu may be dead (that’s game-industry lingo for “freelance”) to Square-Enix now, though his fetishizers do such exceedingly enthralling work that he is certainly not missed. Riffing on various tracks from the original Final Fantasy (hey, that’s just what the game does, scenario-wise) and slowly building outward to genuinely encompass the whole of classic game compositions, the soundtrack is a marvelous tapestry of old-school-like RPG music blended with just the right helping of chiptune fetish. Listen to samples here. Every track in the game makes us want to keep our headphones plugged in. This isn’t “game music”, people — this is “music”. It almost makes us want a DSi, because of the increased sound quality. Maybe we’ll just buy the original soundtrack. Lord, how long has it been since we bought a game’s original soundtrack? Oh. That would be Seiken Densetsu IV (Dawn of Mana), in 2006. That, uh. Wasn’t too long ago. Hell of a soundtrack, though. Actually, maybe it’s better than Light Warriors‘ soundtrack. Actually, no, it’s a close call. Dawn of Mana‘s Kenji Ito and Light Warriors‘ Naoshi Mizuta (who has apparently scored Megaman games in the past — interesting) should start an art-electro collective. We are not even kidding. Okay, we are listening to the Dawn of Mana soundtrack over here, now. Wow, it’s good. Did any of you guys ever play that game? It should be like $5, now. Give it a shot. It’s Gears of Hello Kitty; it’s Godhand’s Mysterious Dungeon. (Somebody use those descriptions in a review.) It’s big and flawed and stupid and brilliant. You’ve got nothing to lose. Light Warriors will probably be $5 someday, too. And it’ll probably still be as much fun then as it is now. With the way the Japanese games industry is — tucking tail between legs and sprinting away at the first symptom of fan backlash — it’s safe to say that its charming little manners lessons won’t be learned, that, like Godhand before it, its neat, fist-sized ideas will be left on the shelf of life for a long time to come.