Final Fantasy Type-0 HD review: winds of change

Game Info
Platform PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Square Enix
Developer Square Enix Product Development Division 1
Release Date Mar 17, 2015

Final Fantasy Type-0 HD is something the struggling role-playing juggernaut has needed for years now: a fresh start.

First released for the PSP in Japan in 2011, Type-0 was initially envisioned as a handheld spin-off of Final Fantasy 13. At some point, director Hajime Tabata wisely decided to distance himself from that divisive entry in the series, and Square Enix held off on bringing the game to North America on a near-dead piece of hardware.

While the HD facelift for Final Fantasy Type-0 isn't particularly impressive, the core game is worth the wait. Maybe it's due to its origins as a handheld game, but Square Enix demonstrates a willingness to take interesting chances here. Not every weird gameplay system or surprising setpiece works perfectly, but they come together to form a significantly more intriguing whole than any of the games that remain tied to Final Fantasy 13.

Final Fantasy Type-0 HD was worth the wait
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Final Fantasy Type-0 sets itself apart from its namesake almost immediately with a grim opening cutscene. A History Channel-esque documentary voice-over sets the scene while grainy CG war footage plays: The Militesi Empire has broken a peace treaty and invaded the three other nations of the world of Orience. Each nation is built around a powerful crystal that gives its soldiers the ability to use magic, but the Empire has developed a new technology called the "Crystal Jammer" that prevents its opponents from casting spells.

The protagonists at the heart of this war are a group of powerful schoolchildren known as Class Zero. In the first on-the-ground scene of the Militesi invasion, one of the cadets working with Class Zero dies slowly and painfully. So does his adorable chocobo mount, a death which sets the tone for a dark war story where horrible shit is going to happen.

And so it does. While Final Fantasy Type-0 has a few light-hearted skits here and there, the general direction of the story is ever downward. Just when I thought things couldn't get worse for our heroes, someone contracted a life-threatening illness or the group was backstabbed or framed for a huge crime.

These examples are all in the game's first half, if you can believe that.

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This constant barrage of bummers was tough to stomach, but the cast shoulders a lot of the dramatic weight. Class Zero's 14 (!) playable characters were impossible to tell apart at first, but over time the game builds up each individual's characteristics. I developed firm favorites and eventually found the whole group so likable that I wanted to push forward and get them to higher ground.

That level of choice also feels unique to the Final Fantasy series, but it's an important part of Type-0. Since it takes place at a military academy, I was treated to some downtime between missions. In one situation, I was told that I had four days and 12 hours until the next mission day. Certain actions at the academy pass time — for example, when I chose to nap on a bench and experience a backstory-revealing flashback, two hours passed. When I ventured outside the academy to hunt random enemies, six hours passed.

a chocobo's death sets the tone for a dark war story where horrible shit is going to happen

The academy segments add a slight but satisfying layer of time management to the game. There's a push and pull for what you do between missions. Should you go out and grind to prepare for the next, higher-level challenge? Or would you rather focus on expanding the backstory by seeking out characters who want to engage you in conversation?

The game doesn't provide any easy answers, and choosing poorly can have a negative impact. In one embarrassing situation in the game's back half, I rushed through the academy segment only to discover I hadn't prepared nearly enough for the level 30 mission awaiting me. The game allows you to replay previously completed missions and carry over any experience or items you earn to your current save, which was my only escape from underleveled hell.

Being left to grind out experience on old missions for an hour or two was frustrating, but I also couldn't fault the game. It warned me to use my academy time wisely, and I failed to listen.

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a shoddy upgrade

If you knew that Final Fantasy Type-0 HD is based on a PSP game, you may be concerned that the graphics won't look very good. The truth is actually much worse. Square Enix clearly put the bare minimum amount of effort into porting it to the most powerful console hardware available right now.

From muddy background textures to character models that look as smooth as porcelain due to their lack of detail, nothing in Type-0 HD could be mistaken for a game built from the ground up for PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. This is especially obvious (and annoying) in cutscenes, where characters loop the same three-second animation while they talk for minutes, and the camera fades to black each time it has to switch angles. There's no effort made to hide the fact that everything about this game was designed to work on a low-power handheld.

More bothersome yet, these quality issues extend to the story itself. Final Fantasy Type-0's war drama feels like something that could have stuck with me long-term, but it's hampered by a really awkward translation and subpar anime voice acting. While everything else about the game surpasses other recent Final Fantasy titles, the presentation is a frustrating black mark.

Though time isn't limited outside of the academy, the game maintains a sense of momentum unique to the series. Since the plot essentially follows the progression of a war campaign, you never get to explore a massive world map at your own pace as in some Final Fantasy games. Rather, you work through very narrow, directed sequences of objectives that would feel at home in a Call of Duty game.

That switch to the formula shook my expectations, as did the discovery that Final Fantasy Type-0's combat system is 100 percent real-time. In fact, it feels more like a simplified character action game than a traditional role-playing game. Each member of Class Zero levels up and has deep skill trees to fill out, but in combat you're only controlling one of them, dodging, blocking and tapping a single button to use skills or spells as needed.

Final Fantasy Type-0 juxtaposes the simplicity of its combat with sharp bumps in difficulty

All of these changes could easily have been a wreck, but Square Enix manages to create a flow to the combat that feels really good. It's not incredibly complex, but you have a small army of characters to choose between, and each wields their own weapon type and special moves. Charging up bow shots as Trey feels completely different from navigating Cinque's slow, heavy mace attacks. Any time I got bored of one character, I just swapped to another at the next save point.

Final Fantasy Type-0 juxtaposes the baseline simplicity of its combat with surprising, sharp bumps in difficulty. As I encountered increasingly tough bosses and even some of the more powerful regular enemies, I had to learn how to dodge more carefully and really master each character's abilities. I'm still struggling to gain better control over the complex magic system, which allows you to tweak individual elements — power, cast time, magic point cost, etc. — for each spell.

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Type-0 also mixes up the gameplay at key moments. These diversions helped me avoid feeling like I was becoming burnt out on the moment-to-moment combat. From aerial shootouts to breakneck timed escapes, you're rarely just fighting through waves of bad guys for a whole mission.

The most interesting of these gameplay switch-ups comes in the form of optional missions to retake lost territory. Rather than letting you slice through whole armies on your own as usual, these side missions bear the structure of a light strategy game. You have to control which armies of what types march on which enemy domains, slowly taking over town after town as you build momentum toward your main goal. The tactics aren't particularly intense here, and the slow pacing can be tedious, but I enjoyed how they made me think in a completely different mindset from regular missions.

Wrap Up:

Final Fantasy Type-0 HD is a flawed but appreciated push in a new direction

After years of finding myself increasingly let down by each new Final Fantasy game, I'm as surprised as anyone that Final Fantasy Type-0 succeeds in so many ways. It discovers a fine balance the series has been sorely missing, between simplicity and complexity, difficulty and approachability, scope and scale. It also finds its own voice and a wide variety of things to keep players busy. Not all of those activities are handled perfectly, but damn it, I'd rather have a game that tries something interesting and occasionally stumbles than another generic saving-the-world epic.

Final Fantasy Type-0 was reviewed using a final retail PlayStation 4 copy provided by Square Enix. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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