I've been calling myself a "lapsed Final Fantasy fan" for quite some time now. This opinion has started many a flame war on the internet, and quite frankly, I've never understood why. It's hard to defend the sharp nose-dive in quality that the series has taken in recent years. Tetsuya Nomura and Motomu Toriyama have steered what was once supposed to be a series about grand, sweeping adventures into an edgy, grimdark pit occupied by pretty teenagers wearing lots of buckles and zippers.
Numerous spin-offs, only a small percentage of which are decent, have saturated the brand name. The core series has somehow gotten less robust and interesting than it once was, with XIII being a series of ornate hallways, XIV being an MMO that, while decent, apes a lot from better, less costly games, and XV looking to be a cribbing of both Monster Hunter and the worst elements of Western AAA games... not to mention possessing the most obnoxious cast to date. While this is just my opinion, I do find it a bit baffling that anybody would adamantly defend the choices Nomura and Toriyama have made, polluting a series that once gave us excellent titles like IV, VI, VII, IX, X and some of the early spin-offs. Different strokes, I guess.
And, looking at Final Fantasy Type-0 HD (it was originally a Japan-only PSP title back in 2011,) I really expected more of the same. Long, complicated, fake words that do nothing other than make the story a convoluted garble of boring lore. Characters that look ripped from the cover of Tiger Beat, decked out with zippers that do nothing and lead to nowhere. Boring, generic gameplay that simply allows the player to go from point A to B, and nothing more. Imagine my surprise, then, that Type-0 is not only the best entry in the Final Fantasy series to hit a home console since the PS2 days, but simultaneously one of the most engaging RPGs and exciting action games I've played on a current-gen console. It has problems, yes. Undoubtedly. But it's a step in the right direction.
But the plot could fool you into thinking otherwise, initially. There's a school called Akademia (snort) that trains elite soldiers to train in the front lines of a raging war between four nations. All of these students have different abilities, strengths, weaknesses, so on, so forth. One military, in particular, is trying to wage war on all of the nations, and take everything under their iron fist, and it's up to Akademia and their growing list of allies to team up and overthrow the threat. But, despite looking pretty decent on the surface, the intent behind Akademia and its enigmatic head might not be all that they seem. Or... something.
Yes, as people who have played this game so far might notice, that is a very, very pared-down version of the narrative. Honestly, Type-0, despite gradually growing into an engaging, interesting game, still suffers from problems hallmark to Final Fantasy games made in the last ten years. That is to say, the narrative is jam-packed with moronically-spelled words, all crammed together at once, in hopes of building a deep, intricate world with lots to learn about.
In actuality, though, it only results in a story that's interesting until people try to actually explain what's happening using made-up lingo. Yes, there are things to help understand it somewhat, but I've always felt that's a bad narrative decision. Your story should make sense and not be packed to the brim with whimsical buzzwords to begin with, which should then stimulate me to learn more, not the other way around. It's not as egregious as the worst parts of XIII, which is apparently part of the same canon, but it can get pretty obnoxious. At least, though, the surface level, bare bones narrative makes enough sense to follow and be engaged by, and again, it does pick up once things get rolling.
Each of the fourteen characters play in a distinctly different way, meaning that players can experiment with both main campaign missions and side quests until they find the party that works for them. Do you want to focus on long-range attacks and buffs, or maybe heavy melee attacks and attack spells? There are dozens of possible combinations, so players are bound to find something they like with all of the choice. There's not really a definitive "best" type of trio to have, and it ultimately boils down to how you want to play. Personally, I always find that to be the most rewarding type of game, and I commend the devs for breaking from the traditional "this is how you do X thing exactly" rut that Final Fantasy games often find themselves stuck in. It's pretty neat stuff.
There's also a ton of different stuff to do on top of the solid base of fast-paced action. This makes for the most Final Fantasy-y Final Fantasy in a while, surprisingly enough. Players can explore Akademia, getting to know the student body, upgrading their characters and attending different classes to strengthen their party en masse. They can take up side-quests to get items, level up, and just find new stuff. They can explore the world map, gradually unlocking more as the campaign continues, and gett lost in optional side-dungeons or cities. There's a ton to here, really, and that's quite the surprise for me. Most action-oriented spin-offs of this series have been linear, not matching up the open-world epic quest feeling of the main games. Now, though, Type-0 ironically feels a lot more like what the franchise is supposed to be than the core games, and that's something worth celebrating, I feel.
It's also worth noting that there are light RTS elements sprinkled into the campaign when players overthrow or protect regions, and they're implemented in such a way that it feels like a natural, fun shift, as opposed to unnecessary drudgery. It's nice that this isn't another ActRaiser situation: fun core mechanics, dull progression.
There's very little about this game that I'd call dull, actually. Very little, though, not nothing, because honestly, the way that players find themselves leveling their characters is a bit of a slog, and not in line with the fun, streamlined nature of the rest of the package. In fact, I wasn't even completely aware I could upgrade anything until multiple hours into the experience. Done at save crystals, players will use points accrued through leveling up to strengthen their characters of choice, and the experience is quite the tedious one. A long list with annoying pop-ups that are slow to disappear, the process through which players upgrade their characters is monotonous and takes way longer than it should, especially with fourteen effing characters to maintain. It's a royal pain, and an unwelcome departure from a series that has introduced ingenious leveling mechanics like the Sphere Grid and the Crystarium.
My sentiments are the same for the process of upgrading spells. When players kill enemies, they explode their corpses (!) and synthesize special gems from them. These gems are used to strengthen magic, and lord, is it easily the worst part of the game. Each element of spell has a series of sub-spells that are only differentiated by confusing acronyms, and not, you know, actual names. And all of the characters have different types of acronym spells, and you have to access a separate screen to see who knows what, and, well, you're probably beginning to see the problem here. You'll end up wasting gems you earned in battle upgrading the wrong spell for the wrong character, without even knowing you're doing so. The system in place here is clunky and unnecessarily complicated, and could have done with more streamlining. It reeks of being limited by its original platform, and not being upgraded for home consoles. Four years after release, that's a bit of a letdown.
You know what else wasn't upgraded for home consoles? A lot of the visuals, because, easily, this is one of the most badly textured games on modern consoles. Some of the textures are literally ripped straight from the PSP, and look godawful when blown up on a bigger screen. The same can be said for 80-90% of the NPC models, who are disturbingly static, never doing anything beyond standing in uncomfortable poses and moving ever-so-slightly to simulate breathing. Some parts of this game are simply ugly and a brutal letdown for a series that's always prided itself on sharp visuals.
But the odd thing is, it's only some of the textures. Other textures and models and whatnot look astounding, and more in line with what I expect for my sixty-dollar purchase from a AAA publisher. Namely, places you're doing battle and the characters you're controlling look fantastic, and make me long for a version of this game that looks consistently good. It's a bit jarring when a beautifully rendered and animated model is standing next to a static one rendered with muddy textures from a handheld. Yes, the exaggerated motion blur and carefully positioned lighting makes you not notice the visual flaws at times, but it takes only a cursory look to see that this game is not what it could be in the looks department, and that's a real shame. The art direction is great and all, but sometimes, that can only go so far.
At the very least, though, the soundtrack is gorgeous. It's the signature mixture of electronic and orchestral sensibilities that has anchored the series since the early 2000's, and it works just as well here as it ever has. In particular, the remixes of classic tunes, like the main theme of the series (used for the background of Akademia) and the darker version of the Chocobo theme (used for the overworld theme) are fantastic. The battle themes are nothing to sneeze at, either, and a bit catchy as well. Oh, and that classic "victory theme" is just as good ever, and makes leveling up feel that much more satisfying.
Is Final Fantasy Type-0 HD a good game? Undoubtedly, yes. It's the best game in the franchise for way, way too long, and has hours of fun, engaging content that'll keep you busy for quite some time, on top of having a load of replay value. But on the flip side, is it all that it could be? No, not quite. The leveling system is flat-out dull, the visuals aren't up to snuff for a sixty dollar game on a home console, and the plot still has a lot of the same niggling flaws as other entries where Tetsuya Nomura and Motomu Toriyama have been at the reigns.
The end result is a game that recaptures what the series is supposed to be all about, but is still held back by some meandering issues that prevent the game from being a gung-ho, balls-out return to glory. Still, though, it's hard to deny that this is a very good game with a lot of great things going for it, and for fans jaded after a series of duds, that's more than enough reason to pick this up.