"It's bold, unafraid to try new things, and has tons of fun stuff to do."
When I played Final Fantasy Type-0 on the PSP, I was shocked. Shocked that a game of this caliber hadn't received more attention — though I admit that may have more to do with the PSP's waning fortunes when it debuted — and even more shocked that Square Enix had opted not to take it outside of Japan (probably related to that first problem). Most of all, though, I was shocked because to my mind, it's a far better game than the much more prominent Final Fantasy XIII, the title with which it shares a common mythology, if not a title. Here is an adventure with a fascinating story that combined one part Final Fantasy Tactics and XII's wartime themes with another part Final Fantasy XIII's l'Cie and Focuses. It has a tactical, interesting combat system that rewards careful observation and actively discourages button mashing among each of its massive cast of fourteen playable characters, with engaging tactical battles to retake territory (many of which are optional) that take place on a good old-fashioned world map. In my estimation, it was the Final Fantasy many fans had been begging for for years, and it was locked to a dying system in a single region. Thanks to Type-0 HD, though, that's no longer the case.
The tale opens in the midst of the Milites Empire's invasion of the Dominion of Rubrum, home to the Vermillion Peristylium, an academy of magic. It also plays host to the Vermillion Bird Crystal, one of four in the world divided between the major nations. The Empire's l'Cie, vanguards of the Crystals' will, also appear to be participating in the skirmish, despite normally operating separately from the national governments. You are immediately smacked in the face with blood, screaming, and killing: war isn't pretty, and the game goes to great lengths to impress that upon you. You take command of the elite Class Zero, a group of magical cadets who manage to turn the tide of the invasion and take part in a continent-spanning campaign that, in true Final Fantasy fashion, spirals into so much more than a localized military conflict.
While it has its fair share of goofy faces and silly moments, the overarching plot is a serious affair that touches on some interesting themes and manages to create a distinct sense of place and atmosphere. The l'Cie are presented as godlike beings far removed from normal humans, and the encounters you have with them are some of the game's most important; you are shown often and early that these are beings who can level cities and make short work of your elite squadron of fabulously-dressed youths. While perhaps some of the individual members of Class Zero don't receive much exposition, there are a number of interesting players and events that take place throughout the story that make this one of my favorite Final Fantasy plots in quite some time...
...in the original Japanese, that is. The English translation and text are perfectly serviceable and even quite good in places, but the game's appallingly bad voice performance in English cheapens every single facet of it. Many of the Class Zero cadets are miscast, and even those that aren't barely manage to ever rise above "slightly stilted." It seems as though none of the actors (who in many cases are experienced, quality voice actors like Yuri Lowenthal and Steve Blum) had any context whatsoever to their lines. There are attempts to adhere to Japanese vocal mannerisms that make for awkward pauses or strange segues between lines. In at least one case (the character Eight), the voicework is so stunningly bad that other people in the room with me were raising eyebrows and laughing at it. The game features a Japanese audio track, which while still a bit hammy in parts, will likely be a better alternative to the embarrassingly bad English voicework. It's a shame, though, because the game has quite a bit of voice acting, and the chatter during missions is a highlight of the experience.
That said, the real meat is in the gameplay, and in that regard, Type-0 HD doesn't disappoint. Despite being an action RPG, you'll be in for a rude awakening if you're expecting a breezy Kingdom Hearts-like experience out of this one. Type-0's core mechanics actively discourage button mashing and involve carefully watching foes and waiting for the ideal time to strike. Hitting an enemy immediately before they attack, denoted by a chime and the targeting icon turning red or yellow, causes a one hit kill (or in the case of superpowered foes, a huge amount of damage). Magic and defense abilities play a key role, with spells like Wall creating an actual wall to deflect grenades, rockets, and gunfire, and spell charge times being a crucial consideration. Enemies hit very hard in Type-0, and falling in battle usually means that character is out until the end of the mission. You're usually free to swap in another of your fourteen cadets as a replacement, but the game isn't afraid to kill you, and kill you often. Even in this, my third playthrough of the game, I had to abort some missions and come back with a different equipment and ability loadout to make it to the end with more of my party still alive.
The cast itself is quite large and offers tons of play variety. Each fights with a unique style and weapon, and rather than just being different ways to essentially battle the same way, they all play vastly differently. Jack moves very slowly in battle, wielding his katana with lightning-quick speed. While he can't get around easily and has only a single hit in his combo (at first), his insane speed and reflexes make scoring killsight strikes a breeze. Contrast that to Ace, who zips around the battlefield in flashes of magic and strikes foes near and far with card attacks, or King and his dual pistols that require a slow, movement-stopping reload every twelve shots, or Deuce, who fights indirectly by playing a flute to send her allies into a buffed-up rage at her targeted enemy. Leveling up grants AP that can be used to unlock new passive and active abilities for each character, so your options for changing things up grow exponentially as the game progresses. You'll invariably find favorites, but it's wise to consider each character when leveling, since you never know when you might end up needing them all.
The game also features a Persona-like system in which you take on requests and get to know your fellow students between missions. Talking, questing, going out into the world map, and taking on special missions are all done in the limited number of game hours between story quests, and this gives the game a lot of its replayability, since it's unlikely you'd be able to see everything in one playthrough. The events range from simple exchanges of dialogue to voiced sequences that set up major side quests, further develop the relationships between Class Zero, or occasionally, just drop a silly joke on you. If you're so inclined, you could also spend some of your time breeding chocobos, if that's your thing. There are also tons of NPCs in every town and the academy, and they all have quite a bit to say, which really goes a long way towards making the world of Orience feel like a lived-in place whose citizens are truly wracked by this ongoing war. The tactical sequences are also a highlight: retaking territory has tangible benefits to the player, since it unlocks additional towns, side quests, shops, and locations to fly to using the Peristylium's airship fleet. As you run around these battlefields, you'll command different types of troops to defend and attack cities, intercept enemy forces, and personally spearhead invasions to retake key locations. Several of these battles are optional, but it's almost always in your favor to undertake them.
If it sounds overwhelming, there's a good reason: it is. While there's a ton to see and do in Type-0, the game does a pretty poor job of pacing you. Within 30 minutes, you'll have access to an entire party of fourteen, the whole academy, chocobo-breeding, a massive and fairly open world map, the Altocrystarium for leveling magic up, and expert trials (which are insanely hard missions with correspondingly huge rewards). Very few of these systems get any sort of tutorial, and what's there is bafflingly anemic. It can be overwhelming to suddenly be expected to know each character well enough to buy their initial skills and outfit them with gear, and the game doesn't take it easy on you: even the earliest story missions can change depending on your speed and performance, and you can be wiped out entirely before you even realize it. The development team was smart to include a new, easier difficulty option, and if you're concerned that the game might be a bit much for you, I'd recommend starting there. There's also a new, harder mode that levels all missions and foes up by 30, but the default difficulty setting is honestly tough enough for first-time players that I'd advise sticking to that if you like a challenge.
Musically, this is one of the most interesting Final Fantasy scores in a while. Composed by the stalwart Takeharu Ishimoto (The World Ends with You, Crisis Core), there are a lot of great arrangements of classic series tunes, along with some great event and battle themes. The HD version features a slightly-enhanced soundtrack, and I found it to be almost an across-the-board improvement on the PSP soundtrack, and a hilariously high-quality counterpoint to the head-poundingly bad voiceover work.
The part of the game that earns it the title "HD," though, is a bit more of a mixed bag. While it's certainly not hard on the eyes, it's clear that it was once a PSP title. Heavy blur effects making turning the camera a jarring experience, several locations feature incredibly basic, untextured geometry (those world map towns, oh my), and the lip-syncing and character animations sometimes provide a reminder of the game's last-gen handheld origins. That said, the lighting is mighty pretty, with magic and attacks looking crisp and colorful. It runs at a perfectly smooth framerate, and the bloom effects are quite good, though in certain instances, like the intro mission, they go a little overboard. Overall, this isn't going to set your eyeballs ablaze technically, but there's some great art design underlying the whole thing, and it's by no means unattractive.
So what's the verdict on this incredibly anticipated new Final Fantasy? It's not a perfect game, and it has its fair share of flaws. But having completed the original twice and nearly completed this new one (which has a secret unlockable video!), I can say it's safely one of my favorite games in the series for quite some time. It's bold, unafraid to try new things, and has tons of fun stuff to do. It tells a good story, and it creates one of the most interesting worlds the series has seen in some time. It has a huge learning curve and might stymie even the most stalwart players early on, but once you climb that mountain, I promise you'll have a great time. Just turn off the English voices, because holy crap are they bad.