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April 9, 2015

Final Fantasy Type-0: Kill ‘Em All, Kupo! (Part 2)

So does anybody remember what Cloud was actually like?

Given how FF7 played out, I was under the impression that Cloud was supposed to be a deep probing of the archetype, the concept, and the player.  Hey, you over there playing this!  You’re not a badass super soldier tough guy!  You’re just some wannabe!  But you know what?  That’s fine, because even if you’re not the coolest dude around, you can still be a good guy and do good things!  But even before the big reveal, I thought he was actually a bit of a joker.  Still a jerk, sure, but was Cloud (ignoring his appearances/actions in Kingdom Hearts, Dissidia, and especially Advent Children) ever what you’d call “angsty” or “emo”?  I honestly can’t say for sure.

I ask this for two reasons.  The first is that people have been calling Lightning “female Cloud” for years, and I don’t agree with that.  Her arc (such as it is) has no such merit, and even Advent Children Cloud has more color to him than she did over the course of three games.  Cloud’s specter hangs over the franchise, which wouldn’t be so bad if we had an ironclad understanding of just who he is.  And that feeds into my second point: there’s been an even bigger specter of AAAAAAAAAAAAANGST and EMOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO hanging over the franchise (and Squeenix games in general) for ages.  If Squeenix wants its reputation back, then it’s going to have to answer a simple question: how do you get rid of that stigma?

Type-0 is here to offer an answer.  Unfortunately, it’s the wrong answer.

Part 2: Laughin’ At U
(Or: Excuse Me While I Blame Persona)

I can see the appeal of this game.  The crux of a good drama, I think, is that it has to entail something that an audience can actually care about.  That was a major failing of The Lightning Saga; it had the drive to add in drama, but the sheer amount of gibberish it was built on -- from characters, world-building, what have you -- made it all ring hollow.  It was relentless in its push for conflict for its core six characters, and it reached a point here it didn’t have time for anything else.  Quality well among them.

But Type-0 opts for a different approach.  It’s a world at war!  People are dying!  There’s bloodshed everywhere!  A country is under siege, and it’s up to you to reclaim stolen land!  There’s an inlaid level of promise in that setup, and plenty of ways a creator can take it.  Plus, it implies that there’s going to be a greater focus on the world and world-building; sure, the l’Cie/fal’Cie system might be back (*cringes profusely*), but the game very nearly makes that background noise, at least in the opening hours.  Certainly in one of the opening cutscenes. 

If you’ve read my stuff before, you probably know what I’m going to say next.  Yes, it looks like Final Fantasy has hopped on the gritty reboot train, with all of the baggage that entails.  I’m not opposed to the switch, as long as it’s done well.  In other words?  You can have your death and blood and violence, but it has to have meaning.  There has to be substance beyond that.  If there isn’t substance, then it’s just grit for the sake of grit -- one of the worst things you could ever do to a story.  That much is obvious now, right?

So.  For a while now, FF has been trying to prove that it’s serious and/or mature and/or dark.  Type-0 is, on the surface, the game to prove just how far the franchise is willing to go.  On one hand, I kind of have to commend Squeenix and crew for even trying something like this -- and it just goes to show how flexible the franchise can be when it’s allowed to reinvent itself whenever it wants…for better or worse.  But on the other hand?  If you think about Type-0 for even a second, then the cracks start to show.  And man oh man, are there a lot of cracks.

[nerd rage intensifies]
Am I the only one who thinks the horrors of warfare get thrown aside when you see a bunch of teenagers walking round?  More to the point, just look at our heroes once they make it onto the scene: not a hair out of line, not an ounce of wear or tear, no signs of exhaustion despite pushing themselves who knows how hard just to get to that area.  (The ranged characters like Ace might fare a bit better, but more than half of Class Zero fights using melee weapons -- to say nothing of mental/spiritual exhaustion from magic attacks.)  Queen looks freaking immaculate when she walks onto the scene.  I’ve never been on a battlefield before -- barring games of dodgeball -- but the sheer beauty of the heroes is at odds with the ugliness around them.  It doesn’t mesh.

I’m also concerned that Squeenix is going to mash the drama button whenever they get the chance.  When I first played through the opening sequence, I figured that the gameplay tutorial would start shortly after spear-wielder Nine took the stage.  But nope!  After the fade to black, we go back to the dying soldier and spend another two minutes with him.  Queen was the one who said it was over, and beyond that the minutes prior told me everything I needed to know.  It was punchy enough on its own, but they overplayed it and spoiled the effect.

I will be fair, though.  In the game’s opening chapter, we get a good teaser of both the gameplay and -- maybe more importantly -- the characters.  Or one of them, at least; I actually like that we saw glimpses of Ace’s persona as he silently mourns the death of a comrade.  He may understand that there’s nothing he can do, and that he’ll keep seeing stuff like that for a while yet, but that doesn’t make the pain or the gravity go away.  It’s brief, but it is appreciable.

And while the opening has its issues, I do like it overall.  Throwing you right into the action is a staple of FF games, but the impact certainly feels immediate.  You learn the cost of war firsthand, you get a glimpse of the enemy, and you do your part to try and change things for the better -- well, while working under the assumption that you can change anything.  With the power of Class Zero at your disposal, the game sets you up as someone who’ll take part in the war, but not someone who can necessarily resolve everything.  People are going to die, and flames may very well ravage the streets, but fighting is the only way to keep a bad situation from getting worse.  So speaking personally, I bought into the game.  I was ready to get in deep with it.

And then the real game started.

I don’t think I’ve seen anything with a tonal shift as abrupt as Type-0.  But here we are.  Once you clear the first mission, you head to the game’s primary setting: a magical school.  All the chaos from earlier has evaporated in exchange for Akademeia, a school where military cadets and officials alike gather.  Class Zero’s briefing room is Classroom Zero, and other classes shuffle about in tandem.  As soon as you have free reign to explore, you can run into guys more concerned about their love life, and girls who think you’re trying to attack them.

I’m hoping I don’t need to explain the absurdity of both Cinque and Moglin’s introduction (even if it’s hot off the heels of the introduction of you ninja CO).  But that’s not the only crazy one; head to the terrace when you can, and you’ll run into an improbably buxom woman whose intro cutscene makes damn sure you notice her breast physics.  Talk to her some more, and she’ll gab about how much she loves strutting around in her bikini.  And buying a “sexy swimsuit” is actually something you can do in-game for the sake of a sidequest.

Do these people know there’s a war going on? 

Okay, look.  I know I’ve said in the past that the key to a good story -- especially one with some heady elements like war -- is balance.  There need to be highs and lows, or else it’ll just become a depressing slog.  But even if that’s true, this is not the way to do it.  It’s almost as if the opening and everything that comes after it exists in two separate dimensions, only the dimension with all the war and gravitas and death drifts away so we can have scenes where Nine shows how much of an idiot he is.  There’s this thing called verisimilitude, and Squeenix apparently thinks that’s the name of a disease.  That would help explain why a cutscene detailing the use of Ultima as a nuclear bomb would be followed by a whole load of nothing.

It just slaughters the momentum of the game.  Even if you take out all the quirky cutscenes and introductions, and give the boot to the schoolyard shenanigans, Type-0 by design has to flip the switch from war to school after every mission.  It’s true that you can ignore all of those events and go directly to a mission, but…really, why would anyone do that?  Why wouldn’t they try to explore the space the game offers?  But it’s because of that that the meat of the game gets hamstrung; no matter how deadly or tense the game can get, it’ll deflate as soon as the mission’s over and you go into peace mode.  Cripes, even Kamen Rider Fourze managed to have a pretty consistent tone -- and it’s a show that once had this happen:

If there are going to be these major shifts in tone, then there need to be buffer scenes to help smooth the transition.  The image of a bloody, dying chocobo is a hard one to get out of mind, but the scenes that follow can help ease things along.  Calm things down.  Give us a chance to catch our breath.  And to that end, once the first mission is over the game gives…a bunch of exposition that barely has enough context to be relevant to the matter at hand before bringing the plot to a screeching halt so the player can bumble around a conflict-free academy.  But at least it has the main FF theme.

Great.  Terrific.  Wonderful.  Perfect.

To the game’s credit, the player can soften the blow with a little elbow grease.  Search Akademeia, and there’s a chance you’ll find special events where you get to flesh out Class Zero.  The earliest one has Machina and Rem puzzling over the former’s dead brother, and explaining why it’s important to keep records of the dead.  Another one has Ace remembering the cadet that died in the game’s intro in a decently-sized flashback.  There’s no telling whose story or what event you’ll see when you run around, but hey, I’ll take something over nothing.

For God's sake, Squeenix, those two girls in the middle have almost the exact same face...and they do have the exact same body type.  I'm begging you, mix it up a little.

With that said, I’m still frustrated by Type-0 -- especially because I can see a better way for the game to have played out format-wise.  Imagine a game where there is no guaranteed safe zone for Class Zero to go back to -- or even a military command to regularly report to.  Strip away all the creature comforts and leave the cadets stuck in a bad situation; make them surrounded/swarmed by enemies, and if they want a comfy place to sleep for the night, they’ll have to build a temporary hideout from the territories they seize back from the empire.

There’s a level of tension in there that’s variable, but consistent.  They could be attacked at any time in any number of ways from any angle, and they know it.  But the key element is that in this alternate version, you can get away with having maybe one or two characters besides the fourteen cadets of Class Zero -- and that’s it.  An order here from a struggling CO, a broadcast there from those in power, but putting the Class in a bad spot means that the Class has to come together to make the best of it. 

Ace can be the central character, and the proverbial “leader of the bunch”; the others can express their fears and worries as needed, and butt heads as needed.  But the important thing is that they come together more intimately, and naturally create those highs and lows -- the laughter and the sorrow -- as they go about their mission.  Let them add in the levity and charm in a way that matches the scenario at hand.  Don’t half-ass it by shoving as many Moogles into a stress-free environment as the PS4 PSP will allow.

I know I’m still way early in the game (in a sewer level, at time of writing -- joy of joys), but so far there hasn’t been a mission that’s matched the pressure of the first.  Yeah, I fought a story-based boss, but that was as easy as locking him down with abuses of the critical hit system, and I barely even know who he’s supposed to be besides “an enemy” and “from the empire”.  Part of that is because of the stop-and-go nature of the game; I appreciate that the Akademeia segments more or less turn it into Persona, but it’s the poor man’s version of the SMT spinoff.  I want to get back into the missions and do something about the baddies.  I can’t do that as effectively if I’m jettisoned out so I can faff about in the hopes of chatting it up with Trey or Cater.

This is almost the exact same problem with Dragon Age: Inquisition.  Well, it’s better here because you can skip to the main plot much more easily, but the problem is still there: the two halves of the game create massive divides that hurt the story and the overall product.  Even if you can skip the faffing, it’s still breaking the illusion of a continuous struggle. 

I mean, just imagine what Devil May Cry 3 would be like if every other mission had Dante go back to his place lounge around and eat pizza.  No stylish crazy action (in cutscenes or out of them), no exploring a creepy demon-filled tower; just doing whatever so the game could have some excuse to pad its play time.  Not only would it screw with the pacing, but it would spoil the tone.  Something’s happening right here, right now, so go and -- oh, wait, don’t get to it.  Just go do whatever.  It’s fine.  I said it’s fine.  Don’t worry about it.

I guess the alternative would be taking out content, which isn’t necessarily the ideal state.  But on the other hand, maybe it would work.  If it could make for a tighter experience, then yeah, cut away.  Again, it’s too early in the game to make final judgments, but I mean what I say when I call the Akademeia parts of Type-0 a poor man’s Persona.  The expectation in one of those games (in 3 and 4, at least, and presumably 5) is that you’ll be able to do something substantial at the pace you choose. 

If you want to hang out with Yukiko, you can reliably count on her to be available, and as such you can see her story in line with the overarching plot/themes of the game.  Or if you don’t want to hang out with your comrades or other Social Link candidates, you can still do plenty of other stuff on almost any given day -- go fishing, do jobs, join clubs, hang out with the family…or you can skip all that noise and dive straight into a dungeon.

I would love to be able to talk to the straight-outta-Compton fanfiction.net Sice on a regular basis in Type-0 to flesh her out, but I can’t.  I don’t know where she likes to hang out (besides the classroom, on occasion), and even if I do scour the school, there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to see an event with her -- or even more than a single box of dialogue.  Characters create opportunities; they can set the tone of the story far more than any expository cutscenes.  But when I can’t get that -- when I can only count on glimpses of Class Zero in what feels like once every thousand years -- then that’s a problem. 

Also, not to go off on a tangent, but should I criticize Type-0 for falling prey to the faults of modern games?  Or should I criticize Dragon Age: Inquisition for falling prey to the faults of games from three years prior?

I’m not complaining about Type-0 because “that’s just what you do with modern FF games”.  I’m doing it because I care -- because I owe it to the franchise, and myself, to observe the faults.  Even so, I can’t stress enough that I’m not writing off this game just yet; I want to see as much as I can for myself.  I want to confirm if this is the best installment in years -- if this represents a bold new direction, or if it’s a sign of the end. 

I can’t overlook the faults, but I can’t overlook the strong points either -- because make no mistake, they’re there.  Showing off a bloody chocobo at the start seems like a tryhard attempt to be dark and edgy, but if the game can actually deliver on its promise of being “the darkest game in the series”, then I’m all for it.  I just might be able to overlook the jarring tonal shifts -- including one in the opening credits that willfully lists Bump of Chicken the band on deck.  And setting aside the name of the band superimposed on top of grim imagery, I know them best for making this song:

So.  Even if there are problems, I’m still playing the game.  That means it must be doing something right, huh?  Like the actual gameplay, for one.  Right?  Right?

Well.  I’ll save that for next time.

1 comment:

  1. The road to success is not straight. There is a curb called Failure, a loop called Confusion; speed bumps called Friends; red lights called Enemies;caution lights called Family. You will have flats called jobs. But, if you have a spare called Determination; an engine called Perseverance; insurance called Faith, and a driver called Jesus, you will make it to a place called Success!!

    - The Sun Holidays Code Vouchers