As a statement of its intent to do something a bit different with one of the longest-running series’ in gaming, killing off one of Final Fantasy‘s most revered icons in the opening scenes is about as bold a gesture as Square Enix could make.
Shot in the back by a firing squad and bleeding out in the middle of a street isn’t the most dignified way to go, but it’s the abruptness of it that’s so jarring. This isn’t your average Final Fantasy game, the publisher seem to be saying. Strap yourself in. Kicking off the game with the death of a Chocobo is about as light-hearted as Type-0 gets; over the course of the narrative, protagonists become terminally ill and many major characters die.
War is very much the backbone of Final Fantasy Type 0: HD, and Square Enix never once lets you forget that. After a while it’s difficult not to wonder if the scriptwriters were under strict orders to be as brutal as possible. Final Fantasy has never been shy of putting its characters through the emotional wringer, of course; but Type-o sees the scriptwriters being borderline sadistic.
While the narrative often plods along towards the start of the game with a drawn-out series of cutscenes to establish the premise, things soon pick up. Type 0 belongs to a subset of games in the series that Square Enix has dubbed Fabula Nova Crystallis. It’s a clumsy moniker, first announced alongside the reveal of Final Fantasy XIII many moons ago. Essentially what it means is that while Type 0 is set very much in its own universe, it shares some of the same overarching concepts as Final Fantasy XIII: if that game bored you with its endless expositional conversations about l’Cie and crystals, then you might want to prepare yourself – Type 0 absolutely loves exposition.
Thankfully, the writing is actually not bad (though the same can’t be said about the voice acting – more on that later). Characters initially feel like stereotypes, but eventually develop into a well-rounded bunch of personalities with enough variety to ensure that everyone will have their favorites. The translation means that some of the jokes (and despite the grimness of the tale, there are moments of levity) fall flat, but overall the localization work on the script is decent.
The story, as mentioned, is focused on war: Type 0‘s world consists of four great Empires, each protected from the other by the power of its own crystal and co-existing in relative harmony and a long-standing – if uneasy – truce. Unfortunately for the Empire of Rubrum, the Militesi Empire has managed to develop a weapon which is capable of negating the protective effects of crystals and rendering people unable to use magic, and puts the new weapon into immediate use – declaring all-out war and launching an offensive on its neighbors.
That’s where you come into things, taking control of a group of academy students known as Class Zero. Class Zero may be young, and they may be students, but it’s their task to push back the Militesi offensive and try to re-establish peace in the world of Orience, while sorting out their own internal squabbles, politics and personal crises. Who said child labor was dead and buried?
Class Zero is made up of 14 members, 12 of them playable (the other two take a back seat and act more as narrators). You start off having access to just a couple, but it isn’t long before you gain access to them all. You’ll pick your favorites rather early on – I had a soft spot for Jack, who wields a katana in battle, and Seven, who wields a chain-whip not unlike the protagonists of a certain vampire-slaying franchise by Konami.
Whoever you pick, you’ll spend your time levelling them up, upgrading their abilities and swapping out their gear for new equipment. So far, so Final Fantasy. But where Type 0 differs from the main games in the series is in the gameplay itself. Taking a leaf from the book of that other PSP Final Fantasy title, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, combat in Type 0 eschews the Active Time Battle system that the mainline entries have been in love with so long and instead opts for real-time combat, with your main attacks mapped to the controller’s face buttons. You even have a dodge button.
For players who have become so used to turn-based combat in Square Enix’s series – and who never played Crisis Core on PSP – this can initially come as something of a shock. Gone is the ability to leisurely consider your next move, replaced instead by a brisk pace which demands you pay attention and act swiftly in order to prevent the untimely demise of your party. Gone too is the ability to control your whole party at once: while you can switch between your 3-strong party of characters at will, some rather competent AI takes care of your teammates as you hack, slash, shoot or punch your way through the game’s many encounters.
Another change to the series which might take some getting used to is in the actual structure of the game. Progress in Type 0 is achieved through completing relatively short missions, bookended by sojourns at the Vermillion Peristylium, the academy where Class Zero is based. Think of it as a bit like Hogwarts from the Harry Potter series – only a version of Hogwarts where Hermione carries a giant mace, Ron wields dual handguns, and Harry throws exploding playing cards at people. And with Moogles delivering your mail instead of owls.
Between missions – which are relatively linear and focused mainly on combat – you can explore the Academy grounds, speak to other characters and uncover bits of their backstory. A timer counts down the time until your next outing, and performing actions will use up a chunk of that time, in varying amounts. Having a nap might use up a couple of hours, while speaking to another character might see half a day passing by. You can also participate in a series of side-quests, dubbed Practice Missions.
You’ll certainly want to complete those Practice Missions too, because Type 0 ratchets up the difficulty in the main story very early on, and it’s easy to find yourself outlevelled and under-equipped for the challenges the game throws at you. Spend all your time lounging around between the main story missions and you’ll soon find yourself thrust into the next mission while being unable to progress. Thankfully, previously completed missions can be replayed from the menu, and any experience and items gained from replaying them (and, thankfully, failed missions) carries back over to your characters in the main game; you’ll never find yourself stuck, but you’ll occasionally find yourself needing to grind out a few more levels on your characters so that you’re better able to tackle the next chunk of the story.
Final Fantasy: Type 0 HD is highly enjoyable – when characters aren’t talking, and once you manage to turn a blind eye to the visuals. Sadly, while Square Enix has made a big thing about the lengths they’ve gone to in order to update the original PSP game for modern consoles the results are… well, inconsistent would be the polite way of putting it.
For starters, despite the HD makeover textures still resemble a late-generation PS2 game. They’re blurry, ugly, and a washed-out oversaturated appearance does nothing to help the game’s artstyle. Locations are nicely designed, and there’s plenty of imagination in the game’s world; but sadly this HD version can’t even come close to the visual standard set by the last generation of home consoles, let alone feel as though it belongs on the latest. Loading screens, meanwhile, are frequent – no doubt a hangover from the game’s origins on Sony’s first handheld. Cutscenes fade to black only to fade back in constantly, slowing down the pace. Elsewhere, Tpye 0 HD betrays its handheld roots by restricting you to using the d-pad to navigate menus, and the camera is atrocious – the slightest nudge of the right stick sees the camera angle lurching dramatically, making it difficult to find a good viewpoint of the action. A lock-on function mitigates this somewhat, but wrestling with the camera is something you’ll find yourself doing all too frequently.
Musically speaking, there are some great compositions on offer. Final Fantasy has a long history of serving up some of the most memorable sountracks in gaming. There’s nothing here to rival the likes of One Winged Angel or Battle on Big Bridge, but some of the tunes on offer will stay with you after a play session and a couple will go down as fan favorites, sure to become staples on the set list of future Distant Worlds concerts.
Sadly, the same can’t be said for the voice acting. Characters don’t so much phone in their lines as sleepwalk through them; the cast of voice actors often seem poorly matched to the characters they’re depicting, and dialogue-heavy scenes become a chore to sit through, rather than something to be enjoyed.
As a result, many of Type 0‘s most dramatic moments fall flat, as characters seem to barely react to life-changing (and indeed world-changing) events, even when the on-screen dialogue suggests huge outpourings of emotion. When one major character in the story dies, the response from the assembled actors in the scene sounds more like they’ve gone to make some toast only to discover that the bread has gone moldy, not that a beloved comrade has kicked the bucket: more understated and matter-of-fact disappointment than grief.
Despite the issues with the presentation however, Final Fantasy Type 0 HD is thoroughly enjoyable – one of the better series instalments in a long time, in fact. Just make sure to adjust your expectations of the series prior to starting your playthrough, and certainly don’t expect the series’ typically high production values. Square Enix’s flagship series is currently in a state of flux: the upcoming Final Fantasy XV promises to be the most drastic reinvention of the JRPG genre in recent memory, to the point where some are already debating where it can even be classed as a JRPG at all. Type 0 HD may be merely an updated version of a 4-year-old PSP game, but it’s nonetheless just as much a departure from what people expect from Final Fantasy as anything else you’re likely to play this year.
Rough around the edges but with plenty to like about it, Final Fantasy: Type 0 HD is a decent addition to Square Enix’s long-running franchise. Just don’t expect production values to rival the publisher’s best.