The best moments in Final Fantasy Type-0 HD, a new role-playing game that is just as clunky as its title suggests, come not from the main path but from the things you can do during the breaks.
This might not sound too strange to anyone accustomed to RPGs like Baldur's Gate or Fallout, where going off and finding optional sidequests is practically the whole damn point, but for more linear Japanese-style role-playing games, it's an anomaly.
Here's an example. The party—a group of talented fighter cadets called Class Zero—is hanging out in an enemy city for Plot Reasons, and before the next mission begins, their bosses give them a chance to wander around and talk to NPCs. Since they're in an enemy city, most of these NPCs are imperial troopers—the same ones they've been killing for the past few hours. It's a little disconcerting, especially when one of them says this:
Welp. I mean, yeah, this is kind of trite—hey look, bad guys have feelings too!—but these interactions add great flavor to a story that is otherwise chaotic and disorienting. Type-0's world is full of NPCs with gloomy things to say, from snarky moogles to treacherous politicians, and in their own little ways, they're more interesting than the main plot ever is. Exploration is encouraged and rewarded with memorable moments.
Final Fantasy Type-0 is not a great game. It's too rough, too messy, too bad at coherent story-telling to live up to the standards set by Final Fantasys of old. But it's a very good game, with satisfying, challenging combat, a lovely soundtrack, and a healthy dose of that Final Fantasy vibe we haven't seen in a console game for quite some time now. I liked Type-0 way more than I probably should have, and I expect that I'll be replaying it for a while to come, even if it does have a few too many things to say about Peristyliums and l'Cies.
I'm not kidding. Hope you like proper nouns. When you pop in Type-0, one of the first things you'll see is a cut-scene with the following chunk of narration:
And so the Milites Empire, home to the White Peristylium, invaded the neighboring Dominion of Rubrum. As soon as the declaration of war was made, the Militesi main fleet swarmed into all corners of Rubrum.
Again, this is one of the first things you see. It goes on:
At the same time, a separate fleet was charged with a sneak attack on the Vermillion Peristylium. A l'Cie accompanied this task force. Using a l'Cie to invade a sovereign state was a direct violation of the Pax Codex, a treaty created by all four Crystal-States of Orience. The besieged peristyilum attempted to repel Milites's magitek armors…
...you know what, you get the idea. Final Fantasy Type-0 isn't afraid to be incomprehensible, spitting out proper nouns like it's trying out for Worst Tolkien Impersonation at the bookstore. But unlike, say, the old spinoff Final Fantasy Tactics—which is similar to this game in a lot of ways—Type-0 doesn't have strong enough heroes and villains to convince you that this is a world worth investing in. It's gritty, sure, but it doesn't have a whole lot of heart.
In case you didn't quite get your head around all those terms, here's the plot: a nasty military commander named Cid is invading all of the world's nations, including the one where the heroes live, and it's the player's job to thwart him. As Class Zero—an eclectic squad of 14 military prodigies—you have to go off on a series of varied and increasingly difficult missions ranging from simple (go capture this base) to decidedly complex (go shoot down some dragons then fight monsters on a frozen cloud). The story starts off convoluted and never lets up, bringing in a whole assortment of chocobos, crystals, and of course, l'Cie, those unfortunately-titled superheroes you may remember from the world of Final Fantasy XIII.
Final Fantasy Type-0's storytelling is so disjointed, it took me hours before I had a grasp on what was actually going on. From the get-go, I was overwhelmed with names and places to memorize as if I was taking a pop quiz right there alongside the rest of the cadets, and characters jumped in and out of the story with seemingly no regard for whether I actually knew or cared who they were. Type-0's most surprising moments—like, say, the assassination of a major figure—failed to make any sort of emotional impact because they didn't offer enough setup or backstory to make the events feel like they mattered. Imagine if Ned Stark had died in the first five minutes of episode one.
Of course, shows like Game of Thrones can't offer the type of gratification that can come from one of Type-0's many battles, which accomplish something remarkable: they make even random encounters feel fun. It's way easier to slog through all those proper nouns when every new mission is just a blast to play—and rest assured the combat has way better pacing than the narrative.
But still, Final Fantasy Type-0 just assumes we'll care about what's happening because it's happening. Most of the big-picture military events are depicted through cut-scenes and voiceover narration, delivered with a stiff drone that makes what should be fascinating exposition seem like an AP history lecture. It's reminiscent of the second disc of Xenogears, where suddenly all of the world's major events are told rather than shown.. except at that point in Xenogears, I actually knew and cared who everyone was.
When the story isn't giving lectures about military operations, it's zipping through vague cut-scenes that feel incomplete, like large slices of dialogue were left on the cutting room floor. Major narrative arcs are introduced and discarded at random, and even after 22+ hours I still couldn't tell you who some of the characters were, let alone why they did the things they did. Like Final Fantasy XIII, Type-0 comes with a large encyclopedia in which you can reference events and characters you've seen before. (Thankfully, unlike in FFXIII, Type-0's reference guide won't spoil events before they happen.) But encyclopedia-reading isn't exactly an engaging form of storytelling, and although there are fascinating themes in Type-0, the narrative was just too clunky to resonate with me.
Maybe Class Zero will disagree. Hey, Cinque, what do you think of Type-0's story?
Oh. OK then.
Sadly, Cinque suffers from the same major flaw as the rest of her classmates: these people just aren't very interesting. Of your 14 cadets, only two are given any room for growth, while the others are relegated to caricature territory. There's the heroic one, the brainy one, the lazy one… we've seen them all before. Though there are in-game classes and extra scenes that offer fun little interactions between all these characters—again, the optional stuff in Type-0 is the best—the game makes very little effort to convince you that they're real people with real motivations. Most of them don't even have proper names.
Actually, I spent most of Type-0 identifying characters by the weapons they use in combat. King, right, that's the guy with the guns. Seven is the one with the badass chain whip. And Jack, yeah, he's that overpowered katana-wielder who runs like Roy Hibbert.
Fighting is where Final Fantasy Type-0 stands out, and that's really one of the main reasons this game is worth playing. Combat in Final Fantasy Type-0 is a blast, a chaotic mess of dodging and slashing that feels as thrilling and satisfying as any good action game thanks to a rhythm-based "sight" system that lets you do extra damage and oftentimes kill enemies outright if you can strike them at the right time. Different opponents have different rhythms; one Flan monster might become vulnerable every time it lunges forward, while a hulking robot takes extra damage if you catch him while he's lifting an arm.
This sort of battling never gets old. Thanks to some smart design choices—the little acrobatic flourishes, the music cues, the slight flash that appears alongside every properly timed kill—the moment-to-moment of combat is exciting in a way that most RPGs have never been able to master. Check it out:
Pulling off counter-attacks like that is really, really fun, especially as the challenges get more difficult and the missions get more grueling. That cast of 14 might not be ideal for storytelling, but it sure is great for fighting. Thanks to their varying weapon styles, each character has a genuinely unique feel, and although some party members are more useful than others, almost all of them are fun to guide around the battlefield, especially as you level up their abilities and magic.
For example, Trey, the archer character, not only can charge up his bow and release charges of varying strengths—reminiscent of the archer class from Final Fantasy Tactics—but also has a sniping ability that lets you turn the game into a makeshift FPS while you mow down enemies from afar. Ace, whose weapon is a deck of cards, can draw from a stack of random abilities to restore himself or mow down enemies, depending on his luck. Setzer would approve.
The missions are paced really well, too—enemies are challenging, yet go down fast enough that fighting them rarely feels like a chore.
While out on a mission, you'll typically use three party members at once, with the rest hanging in the "reserves" section to be called up whenever one of the main three run out of health. But when someone hits zero HP and dies, they're gone. Kaput. No more using them for the rest of that mission, with a few rare exceptions.
This sort of permanence adds real stakes in a way that makes Type-0 feel tenser and darker than your average Final Fantasy game, where the phoenix downs flow like water. In Type-0, it's possible to lose most of your party and find yourself totally screwed when you get to a tough boss or challenging set of encounters, especially when you're on a harder difficulty setting. You can abort mid-mission and live on to fight another day, keeping all the experience you've gained, but you'll have to go through the whole mission again from the beginning on your next shot.
There are some brutal difficulty spikes, too, and if you don't take time to do sidequests and gain levels from mission to mission, you'll probably get stuck on some of the later boss battles. Unless you are like me and wimp out around chapter 7, switching the difficulty to easy so you can finish the game without grinding. (There's also a new-game-plus mode that lets you keep your levels so you can go do harder sidequests and see extra cut-scenes that aren't in the main game.)
After each mission, you're taken to the academy, where your class can chill, talk to other students, and go explore the world map. Yes, there's a world map. It's a little empty—and kind of a pain to navigate because parts of it always seem to be covered in fog—but it's there, in all of its old-school glory. The player who doesn't spend a large chunk of time scavenging the globe for optional towns and caverns is the player who's missing out on half of the game.
I should note, it's not a particularly pretty world map. Final Fantasy Type-0's world is rewarding, no doubt, and there's a whole host of places to see, from lava caverns to hidden airships, but this generally looks like a PSP game from 2011, mostly because it is a PSP game from 2011. No amount of makeup could hide Type-0's old warts, and although the developers did a great job making this HD version (the first version released outside of Japan) feel like a console game, it's not fooling anyone.
Ugly textures I can live with, though—it's the camera that serves as Type-0 HD's worst technological offense. "Disorienting" is not strong enough a word. Trying to control Type-0's camera is like trying to read a book while riding a rollercoaster, and as you roam through the cities and battlefields of Orience, you'll have to grit your teeth and deal with the nausea of a camera that just won't get out of your way.
That's Type-0. This is a game that has no problem being impenetrable, barraging you with proper nouns and saddling you with a camera that's always in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is a game that drowns you with exposition and buries its best writing in random NPC dialogue. It's frustrating in a lot of ways. But once you've really gotten the hang of the combat, once you've learned how to bounce around the battlefield and drive your whip into an enemy just as that red marker appears on his chest, it's not hard to forgive Type-0 for its many flaws. Just don't forget to talk to everyone.