JP title: ファイナルファンタジー零式
This is going to be a long one, so please bear with me.
This review is based on my first playthrough of the game – I know that new story bits unlock on your second run, fleshing out certain things. If I ever do a second playthrough and there’s enough new content to comment on, I’ll definitely do a second part of this review. Nonetheless, I figured I’d write this up while the memories are still fresh in my mind. Here are my thoughts/impressions on Final Fantasy Type-0.
As usual, backstory time first. The game begins by introducing us to the world of Oriens, where four great powers rule the land: these are Suzaku, Byakko, Genbu and Sōryū. Each nation answers to their own Crystal and follows it religiously – there is a strong belief among the people that the will of the Crystals is absolute and must be followed at all costs. At the same time -and this is a really interesting twist on the story- once someone dies in this world, the Crystals automatically rewrite the memories of everyone that knew them in life, making them forget their deceased companions. The reasoning behind this appears to be that in times of war, it makes it easier for people to fight on without their minds being burdened by sadness over those they’ve lost. This brings up the very exciting issue of “being forgotten is worse than death”, which made me appreciate this very tragic, yet fascinating aspect of the lore. One more thing to be aware of is the apocalypse known as Finis, said to destroy the entire world and Agito, the mysterious savior of legend said to possess the power to prevent Finis. If this all seems rather confusing, it’s because the game is also being awfully vague about it.
And this is more or less where FFT0 begins: the iron-fisted Cid Aulstyne, ruler of the Milites Empire from Peristylium Byakko, launches an invasion on his fellow countries with the aim of taking control of all Crystals and carving the path towards a new future under his rule.
With an introduction to the premise out of the day, let’s actually see what Type-0 has to offer. Right off the bat it becomes evident that we’re dealing with one of the most gorgeous-looking games on the PSP. The platform’s capabilities were pushed to the absolute limit, resulting in visuals that often put even the prettiest of PS2 titles to shame. This is accompanied by a very solid art direction, mixing the down-to-earth architecture of military nations with the magic-imbued, fantastic locales of the Peristyliums. As you would expect, there is a catch – namely, the framerate. In certain areas and busier combat situations, the framerate of Type-0 takes an absolute nose-dive, almost making me worry that my PSP might explode at any second. Thankfully the framerate issue never becomes a hindrance to the actual gameplay, as the game managed to run more or less smoothly when it mattered the most.
As far as the soundtrack is concerned, while I was not utterly blown away, I did encounter a number of enjoyable -dare I say, memorable- tracks among the game’s selection. The most notable is probably this one, (along with a few other tracks, especially the one playing during Bahamut’s summoning) truly bringing to the surface the sheer scale of Type-0. Probably my biggest problem is that while the game does feature really good songs, they are few in number compared to the bland tracks filling out the rest of the soundtrack, and as such, the OST ends up feeling relatively forgettable as a result.
The story itself is sort of a mixed bag. I do like me some war stories, yet Type-0’s execution felt lacking to me. For one, the game is purely episodic, throwing you back to the Suzaku Magic Academy (your base of operations) after each successful mission, and leaving you to explore and do side missions until the next mission (this is handled by spending time units to do activities, much like in Valkyrie Profile). Story cutscenes feel overly short and disjointed from the rest of the action, giving a very awkward feeling to the player sensitive to such things. Furthermore, even though you are allowed to pursue side-activities, converse with NPCs and do sidequests using your free time between missions, most of these activities exist only as dull filler – tedious MMO-esque monster hunting, fetch quests and so on. There are a number of them that I liked, such as Ace’s flashbacks to Izana or the interactions between Queen and Nine, but most of the time you’ll be talking to boring NPCs, listening to things of no real consequence or killing 12 boars for a random reward or something equally soul-crushing. The one upside about this is that the combat system is quite fun, making boar farming not as much of a torture as in other games. But it’s still boar farming.
Additionally, those wanting a proper exposition may be disappointed – the game’s abrupt and somewhat in medias res beginning merely throws you into a world where everyone knows what’s going on while the player looks around feeling somewhat confused and lost. Peristyliums here, L’cie there, Finis, Agito, Pax Codex, and so on. Of course, I was able to follow what was going on in the plot itself: it was clear who we were at war with and what happened to which country as the story progressed, but I got the feeling there was supposed to be an entire Prologue explaining terminology and depicting events shortly before Cid’s invasion that, for some reason or other, go cut out from the final product. I found the game’s world fascinating, yet at the same time, somewhat confusing as well, to the point of having to look things up on the game’s Wiki page.
The playable characters themselves, all fourteen (!) of them, blended together in my mind. While they all have their own quirks and personality traits, there are simply too many of them, and not enough screen time to cover everything. During your first playthrough, you will not find out much about the members of Class Zero and those around them, aside from the little you can read about in their personal files (Kurasame in particular had a very interesting backstory, which disappointingly was only briefly mentioned by a random NPC in an optional side-activity, and never actually shown as a flashback or anything…). Were you to ask me about them, there’d be several characters that I simply could not describe at all – for me, there wasn’t a single character who really stood out as particularly memorable. I’m told the extra scenes unlocking only on a second playthrough focus more on their personal stories, so I’m not going to be too harsh on this aspect of the game (yet), however, the fact remains that my first playthrough of FFT0 did little to make me care about any of the characters involved in its story.
As such, the more tragic scenes had equally little emotional impact on me, since the people involved in them felt almost like strangers to me, as opposed to characters you’d normally grow to love over the course of a longer journey in most other JRPGs. Most good RPGs have the player invested in the world and its characters – instead, Type-0 throws you into the middle of things without much character development and expects you to care when some of them bite the dust.
There is a positive side to having so many playable characters, though, and this becomes clear during gameplay. Each and every member of Class Zero uses a different weapon, be it swords, bows, whips, handguns and a bunch of other things. As such, their attacks and special abilities differ greatly, making their individual play styles very fun to explore. Due to this, the battle system for the most part was fun and surprisingly addictive.
One particularly interesting aspect of combat is the Kill Sight system. To put it simply, at a certain given time, a large crosshair will appear on the enemy you’re currently locked onto. This crosshair only stays for a second or two, but if you attack the enemy during that brief moment, you’ll deal considerably more damage than usual, often killing the enemy instantly. Kill Sights occur at a fixed moment depending on the enemy’s attack pattern, so in order to take down foes more effectively, you have to memorize how they move and time your attacks just right in order to hit them during that 1-2 second interval.
For the first half of the game this is all very cool, especially when it comes to bosses that can often only be realistically damaged using this method. It keeps you on your toes as a player and forces you to learn the boss’ attack patterns. Furthermore, the game’s difficulty is also noticeably higher than in other FF titles, with enemies that can easily knock your party members down in a matter of seconds. I liked that, even if certain sudden deaths made me curse from time to time. But I am not one to shy away from a challenge, so all in all I can’t really fault a game for trying to be a bit harder than its peers. However… and I’ll be blunt here: it becomes an absolute chore later on. Tougher enemies later on in the game will have multiple HP bars, requiring several consecutive Break Sight attacks to be able to take them down. And this isn’t especially challenging, either, just time consuming. Soon enough you’ll find yourself using the same old strategy over and over again: keep dodging/circling around the enemy until Break Sight appears, then launch a quick poking attack for the critical hit. Rinse and repeat until either one of you are dead. This exact thing happened to me, for example, in Chapter 6.
It must be noted, however -and this was somewhat of an annoyance-, that certain characters are far better at landing Kill Sight criticals compared to others. To give an example, Queen’s quick stabs are very easy to control, while Ace’s projectiles take a second to reach the enemy, which often ends up being too late. In short, this results in some characters being noticeably easier to play as compared to others.
Another part of combat that started out promising but ended up being a chore is the Special Order system, abbreviated as S.O. These are quick challenges given to you during a mission: take down an enemy with a Kill Sight; take down an enemy using only magic; don’t take any damage for x minutes, etc. Completing it will net you rewards, while failing them results in the death of the party member you’re currently controlling. For the more daring, this is a good way to test one’s skills; for me, however, the whole system ended up being more of a chore than anything. During my first few chapters I was diligently doing them, but after a while, I started completely ignoring these for the simple reason that I simply could not be bothered. To give an example: one S.O. orders you to survive for 2 minutes without dying, which is easy enough – except I’ve already killed every enemy in the room ages ago and I’m only waiting for the timer to finish (as leaving the current area cancels the S.O.). Another one asks you to perform a Kill Sight takedown, despite the fact that my AI companions were madly attacking everything in their way, not letting me wait for the Kill Sight to appear. So at one point I went “screw this” and decided not to waste my time with completing every single S.O. that’s thrown at me. I can definitely see its appeal, though, and for those that want it, they can make a mission a lot more intense, since the cost of failure is death.
Camera / AI
Sadly, camera issues also plague an otherwise smooth and fast-paced game, resulting in more than a handful of frustrating situations. Type-0’s camera often fails to overcome the challenges of tight indoors combat and corners, resulting in beauties such as this or this. At other times, the targeting system would also start acting up, locking onto not the large mech right in front of me (about to stomp right on my character’s pretty face), but rather the insignificant foot soldier behind it in the distance. Things can therefore get somewhat hectic while locking onto things, forcing you to manually switch to the nearest/desired target all the time if the initial auto-targeting gets it wrong. On the bright side, with a few select exceptions, the party members’ AI felt mostly competent – they heal, don’t die very easily, use their abilities and so on, and I don’t recall any one moment where I would’ve died because of the AI’s incompetence.
Speaking of character deaths, for whatever reason, the only time you’re able to switch in new characters into your party mid-battle is when one of them dies. This made for some frustrating moments when I had to hit an airborne enemy with a party of three melee users… not quite sure I see the logic in this decision. The scorpion mecha boss at the end of an early chapter comes to mind, which at one point decided to simply crawl up onto the side of a building and stay there, while I was unable to hit its Break Sight without any ranged characters/long range magic in my active party at the time. Awkward.
The RTS minigame
The game also features an RTS-like territory conquering minigame that happens a couple of times during the story. Frankly speaking, on top of being extremely easy, this part of the game is not fun in any way, shape or form. It’s just… really dull and redundant. You basically run around on the world map, occasionally casting some magic to destroy enemy battalions and help in the advancement of your own troops… and that’s about it. At the end of it you’ll infiltrate the enemy city, which plays out like a regular mission. In other words, this overworld-based RTS segment felt completely pointless, and made me think it was only put in to reinforce the whole “see? this is a war story!” mentality of the plot.
I’m not sure how much of a surprise this will be, but FFT0 also features some heavy grinding. Each mission you face has a given recommended level, which you are strongly encouraged to take into account before leaving for the front lines. In fact, the in-game tutorial outright tells you to go out to the world map and farm XP. As you have 14 playable characters, and the game features bosses that can kill you in 2 or 3 quick hits, beginners will inevitable see their player characters fall. Add to this the fact that the game requires you to split up your party a few times during the story, and suddenly you’re in a situation where it’s strongly advisable to have at least 6, maybe 8 characters grinded up to acceptable levels to have some form of backup mid-mission. I frown upon grinding of any sort, so I was not entirely pleased with this part of the game, to say the least.
However, it does need to be mentioned that all this only really applies to the second half of the game: I found the first 3-4 chapters very easy to breeze through, provided you don’t completely neglect to develop your skills (and also remember to buy decent equipment for your main party). Still, the fact that you are given 14 characters to potentially maintain becomes really tiresome. What’s worse is that the game doesn’t give passive XP to characters that aren’t in the main, active battle party: in other words, you need to grind everyone individually, otherwise you’ll have 3 or 4 characters at, say, Lv25, with the rest lagging behind at Lv15.
World map / Towns
Many fans of older FF titles will surely enjoy the return of the world map. I’m one of them. My major problem with it is that it doesn’t quite have the same charm as in other titles, FF or otherwise. Although the continent is littered with several towns, almost all of them feel like copy-pasted twins of each other, using the exact same architecture and often consisting of one or maybe two straight streets with little to no room for any potential exploration (you also cannot enter any houses). As someone who enjoys discovering a great variety of different towns and cultures in RPGs, this was tremendously disheartening, since it completely robbed me of the excitement of finding a new town.
To give an example, here’s one town. Now here’s a completely different one. And yet another one. You’d think they’re the same place, but nope. Their contents aren’t anymore exciting either: there’s usually one or two shops (not even shops, actually, just a dude standing around on the street), a few people to talk with, maybe a boring side-event to partake in, but overall nothing really exciting. As a result, despite its grand scale and truly fantastic visuals, I was more often than not bored out of my mind exploring the world of Oriens.
All in all, although it boasts of seemingly astronomical production values for a handheld game, with great voice acting, jaw-dropping PSP visuals and a number of genuinely fun moments, Final Fantasy Type-0 is nonetheless held back by a myriad of problems and questionable design decisions that unfortunately all add up to a less than pleasant final product. In a word – it’s mediocre. It feels unfinished and lacking in substance, preferring quantity over quality; despite its refreshing difficulty and beautifully grim world, it ended up being a game that ultimately failed to suck me in, and one that -as much as it pains me to admit this- I simply did not have that much fun playing.