“When nine and nine meet nine, the depths of reason shall stir. When the seal of creation is broken, a voice like thunder shall sound, and thou shalt know -- we have arrived.”
--Ace in the Final Fantasy Type-0 opening.
So you know what I just realized? I have no idea what that means.
Finale: Over in a Flash
(Or: Keep the Flag Flying)
Look. I’m almost certain I talked about this before, but I’ll say it again. I know that there are datalogs in-game and wiki articles out of it that explain pretty much everything. And yes, that’s overlooking the fact that a second playthrough apparently adds more scenes that make the story beats clearer. But it doesn’t make up for the fact that those supplementary materials should be there to enhance our understanding of the story, not ensure it in the first place. This point has been belabored to death, but the fact that we’re seeing this again in 2015 means that Squeenix hasn’t learned its lesson yet.
Sure, you could argue that Type-0 -- the official version that made it to the States -- is a holdover from a 2011 game, and by extension a 2011 Squeenix. But it’s a stupid move now, and it was a stupid move then. If your world, elements, or story in general have factors that make them in any way different from our world and our understanding of it, then explain those factors. Show it to the audience.
This is not a hard concept, and you can’t even use the excuse of “video games have terrible writing”. One Tales game after another has managed to explain its particulars almost without missing a beat. And once those particulars are set up, it not only gives the creators new tools to play with, but puts the focus where it matters: on conflicts, on events, and on people.
But here I am, with Type-0 marking another notch on my gaming belt -- another successfully completed game. Yet if you sat down with me and asked about this concept or that concept, or this event and that event, I don’t feel like I could explain what happened adequately. Because the game didn’t explain anything to me.
So no, I don’t know what “when nine and nine meet nine” means. There’s a guy in the cast named Nine, but he doesn’t do much. Take Machina and Rem out of the equation, and there are still twelve members of Class Zero. There are four countries. Eight chapters in the game. Four crystals. I’m betting that there aren’t nine major storyline bosses. Nine years don’t pass; the entire game might take place in one, and if I actually knew the names of the months in-universe, then I could tell you how much time actually passes. But I can’t even count on the game to give me a calendar.
The sad thing is that that’s not the only element the game doesn’t explain. All throughout the final chapter, Cid mentions the Agito as if it’s the lynchpin of his plans and efforts. But I just sat there saying “What’s an Agito?” I mean, there’s maybe enough evidence to assume it’s some kind of messiah figure, but at times it sounds like it’s a person, and other times it sounds like a place. It doesn’t help that Akademeia talked about Agito cadets, so I just figured it was the name of a rank. But apparently, it actually means something? Like, “Agito” references some sort of very important thing?
That’s not the only question I have. I’ve been wondering since the start what a “Peristylium” is supposed to be, and never really got a straight answer. I assumed at one point that it was the capital of each country, but…not really? So that means it’s the name of the chamber the crystals are in? Or is it the crystal itself? Where are the Peristylium if they’re not the capital? Underground? In the sky?
And even though it sounds self-explanatory, I have to ask: what’s an Ultima Bomb? Are they difficult to produce? Are they more powerful than l’Cie? If the Empire has the ability to access and deploy at least two, then why did they only use one (to good use) over the course of the game? Why not win the war with merely the threat of nuclear fallout? If you’re going to risk mutually assured destruction, why not waste everyone in one shot before they can strike back?
As if that wasn’t bad enough, bare-bones characters drop in and out of this story so quickly and with so little fanfare that they might as well have not existed. Qator the “Unscathed” only implies dark days are ahead, but contributes little besides being sandbagged by Class Zero (and spamming “reprisal” in his final fight/moments as if to imply he had a catch phrase all along). He still fares better than everyone and everything in Lorica; it doesn’t even have a town you can visit.
Not one l’Cie gets adequately characterized or explained; at least one of them practically drops out of the story after his introductory cutscene. Bafflingly, another one gets a hyper-compressed subplot with a son Class Zero wastes in minutes as a “boss fight” -- and it’s more about the now-dead son than anything else. And that’s ignoring the fact that the l’Cie mother doesn’t even look older than Class Zero.
The governments of any of these countries are a complete mystery. How is it that the modernized Empire feels no different from an absolute monarchy? Is Cid a dictator? Do the people single-mindedly follow his decisions, or is there dissent among the ranks? What’s the rite of succession in Concordia if it allows some sniveling coward to be the next in line? What sort of special agents would allow the queen to get killed, especially if common sense would suggest doubling up on security while she stayed in enemy territory during the pounding-out of a very sensitive ceasefire? What’s the organizational structure of Rubrum’s heads of state? How much power does the commander in chief wield? What’s the role of the commandant? The provost? How much political and social freedom do the l’Cie get to enjoy if they’re living WMDs?
I don’t necessarily need every detail of the world to be spelled out, especially in terms of the political underpinnings. It would have helped immensely if the game wanted to go for a historical fiction/documentary affect, but it’s not a deal-breaker. The problem is that Type-0 -- as I’ve implied again and again -- doesn’t focus on anything on either scale. It consistently mistakes the number of characters for the quality of characters; instead of giving us even one person who gets sufficiently fleshed-out, even over the course of forty-ish hours, the game would rather throw dozens who barely even go through the motions. So again, and again, and again, golden opportunities are missed.
Early on in the game, you meet a tiny girl named Aria in Classroom Zero, who sells you some basic items. At the outset (via an introductory scene) she doesn’t seem like the type to do much of anything in terms of socializing. She’s reserved, uncertain, and outright reels at the sight of the cadets. Can you break her out of her shell? Nope. Can you find out why she’s so shy? Yes -- twenty hours in.
She pops up in the Empire’s territory during the ceasefire alongside Class Zero…for some reason. And in an optional cutscene, you find out the truth: she only stays quiet because her mother told her offhandedly to clam up. When the cadets tell her it’s okay to talk, she turns into a “foul-mouthed” chatterbox. King doesn’t even try to hide his disdain and says she should’ve stayed quiet. My opinion of King shot way up that day.
It doesn’t last, though -- because Aria gets shot minutes later.
Apparently the developers remembered that Type-0 was supposed to be “the darkest and most mature FF yet”, so they thought it’d be cool to have her blood fly through the air as if a bottle of ketchup exploded. Setting aside the fact that Squeenix dramatically overestimated the amount of concern the audience would have over this character’s death, Aria doesn’t actually die.
She just drops out of the game. It’s never explained how a normal girl survived getting a fifth of her torso blown apart, but it takes almost twenty more hours for her to show up again. Apparently, she decided to hang around with Qator, and at some point fell in love with him or something. Don’t worry, though. It doesn’t go anywhere. Aria drops out for real after that, and Qator dies making a heroic sacrifice. It’d be pretty cool if we actually got to know these characters, but oh well. I suppose completely ignoring them for the sake of more wasted time is just as viable a strategy.
Once again, we’re faced with another story that assumes that being dark and gritty (and “mature”) amounts to just throwing in more blood and violence. Not only did they botch that with the sporadic violence and horrifically-uneven tone, but they missed the chance to actually be dark in a meaningful way. When Class Zero is branded as a gang of terrorists and left alone, they’re stranded in what remains of Lorica. It’s not a very long stay, because the promise of an incoming airship to take them back to No-Stakes High removes virtually every shred of tension. More to the point, you actually pass by a major landmark during your trek across the world map to the goal.
Remember the Ultima Bomb I mentioned earlier? You actually see its effects on the world map -- a deep, wide, blackened crater that stretches farther than twenty Akademeias. It would have been a perfect opportunity to throw in a cutscene -- to make Class Zero come face-to-face with the Empire’s actions, the ramifications, the cost of war, and the weight of death. Instead, it’s just another detail on the map. It goes unmentioned for the rest of the game, which applies to Lorica in general. And remarkably, it’s not the only instance; you get to walk past the spot where Alexander slaughtered nearly two hundred thousand people in an instant, and the only point of interest is a cliff where you can pick up some dog tags. For the record, they’re your CO’s dog tags. For the record, Class Zero doesn’t have anything to say about it. No cutscene, no dialogue, nothing.
This isn’t just a problem of “lol, videogames”. It’s not something that’s the result of developmental issues, or finite resources during the game’s production, or strict hardware limitations. Think back to FF7; there’s a moment after leaving Midgar where you get a short cutscene. In it, you see a gigantic cobra -- the Midgar Zolom, the same breed of enemy your party has no hope of defeating at that point in the story -- skewered and oozing blood. Who’s responsible? Sephiroth. It’s a scene that helps establish how powerful an enemy he is, and that even a brief mention of him is enough to bring all the silliness and high hopes to an abrupt end. That game is pushing twenty; comparatively, Type-0 is a fifth of that age, and originally ran on hardware that could likely run circles around that old technology.
And then there’s Class Zero.
It should have been the easiest thing in the world. It should have been the top focus of the game -- beyond the world-building, beyond the setup, beyond the plot, beyond everything. Characters are what people are going to enjoy and remember long before a full understanding of political hierarchy. And that memory -- that enjoyment -- shouldn’t just come from liking how someone looks, or what their fighting style might be. But here we are, with a game where not one character -- not even the main character -- has anything even close to an arc. They never even had a chance at one, because that would imply they had scenes to even establish who they are besides broad-strokes archetypes.
And yet, despite all of that, the ending managed to make me feel for them. It made me feel for the first time in my entire run with the game -- but for all the wrong reasons. Let me put it this way: imagine what would happen if the cast of Persona 4 (or your game/story of choice) was put in Type-0’s ending. Imagine what it would be like watching some of them break down in tears, only to be calmed down by a melancholy song. Imagine them regaining their composure, only to lapse back into their usual selves for a last-ditch effort to be cheerful -- to face the end with a smile. Imagine what it would be like to see their lifeless bodies huddled into a single form, with hands clasped tight.
I would be bawling my goddamn eyes out for the next year. Why? Because I got to know them. They did what any character should strive to do: take on a life of their own by virtue of the craftsmanship behind them. When the hand of the creator becomes invisible, and when the hero or heroine seems to act of their own accord, it’s a sign that something has gone right. It’s a sign that, yes, you can’t spell “character” without “care”.
Comparatively, the ending of Type-0 is utterly manipulative. It’s manipulation that works, mind you, but that doesn’t excuse the cheapness of the trick. I don’t have emotions because Class Zero died; I have emotions because people died. It sounds like a minor distinction, but it’s an important one. There have been times where stories have made me cry, and profusely -- but this wasn’t one of them. Why? Because on some level, I knew that I was being yanked along.
The impact of the scene was just an illusion. It wasn’t earned through countless memorable experiences with a cast I’d come to love and respect; it was just thrown in to try and force a sad ending. Worse yet, the ending couldn’t even commit to that; it suddenly decided out of the blue that the worst characters, the one I had long since started to hate, should take center stage -- and have a happy ending thrown in just ‘cause.
But the sad thing -- the heart-wrenching, soul-crushing truth of the matter -- is that it made me come to a final conclusion: Class Zero deserved better. They deserved better in-universe, without question, and in more ways than I can count. But they deserved better beyond that. They deserved a better story. They deserved a better game. They deserved a better company -- one that would treat them with the care and affection that they so desperately needed.
Type-0 is a bad game. The story is an unsalvageable mess, kneecapped at every turn by an utter refusal to use the tools practically gift-wrapped and left at the door. The gameplay has plenty of good ideas and potential, but the sheer number of annoyances and absurd design decisions leaves me shaking my head. The game in general is much too long and much too unfocused, convinced that adding more will make everything better.
The difficulty is nonexistent, save for confusing cheapness with said difficulty. The music is limited and forgettable, and the specialness of tracks infused with Latin lyrics has long since disappeared. The voice acting is woefully uneven, which leaves almost half of Class Zero sounding cringe-worthy. The visuals vary from moment to moment, with jagged PSP models still in use and sickly fog applied liberally throughout -- which makes several of the good-looking cutscenes made far uglier.
So I guess there’s a question I need to answer: is Type-0 now the worst game I’ve ever played? Is this the game that finally dethrones Final Fantasy 13-2?
The answer to that is a hardy no. As rough as Type-0 can get, it’s still not as bad as 13-2. For one thing, it actually has gameplay that amounts to more than just mashing the X button to win fights on auto-pilot. Things actually happen in it -- stupid things, and not nearly enough relative to the play time, but at least it doesn’t force a mandatory fetch quest after its dumbest moments. There are actually characters I at least want to like. So in that regard, Type-0 is by default the best game in the Fabula Nova Crystallis series I’ve played yet.
There’s more to it than that, though. For me, it was almost a given that 13-2 would be an unrelenting disaster. That wasn’t the case with Type-0. It gave me hope that things would change -- and the potential I saw in the early moments would shine through. It didn’t. In a lot of ways, that makes it hurt far, FAR more than something like 13-2. For moments at a time, I could see a good game peeking out at me. I saw glimmers of something good. Something likable. Something to bring me back into the fold with a loving embrace. But that didn’t happen. I got suckered again, I wasted my time again, and it feels as if I was wrong for even touching the game. Again.
Class Zero deserved better. So did I. So did everyone.
But you know what? I know why you’re here. I know why you’re reading this -- why you’ve read everything up to this point. You’re here to see me say “Final Fantasy is dead!” or “Squeenix is terrible and should just give up!” And I’m not going to. I’m absolutely not going to.
I’ve already done that. I know that my hero is dead -- and that this game is just its desperate attempt to try and claw out of the game. Raging impotently at a company thousands of miles away from me, and wielding a million times more power than me, isn’t going to do any good. I made this blog so that I could do something constructive -- to offer up more than just run-of-the-mill, largely-impotent nerd rage. If I’m going to say anything more about Squeenix, Final Fantasy, or anything in between, it has to be something meaningful.
So I’ve been thinking about it for a while now. I’ve been trying to answer a slew of questions. “How can one company be so incompetent?” “Why can’t they just make a good game?” “Why can’t they fix Final Fantasy?” And really, there is no absolute, perfect, world-changing answer. At most, all I can do is make some broad generalizations and sweeping assumptions. Hardly befitting. Probably wrong as all get out. But the answer I’ve come to is still mine alone -- and it’s one that you’ll definitely want to hear.
Now. Let’s begin with an introduction.
This is Davis. He’s a guy I came up with a long time ago -- and a guy I’ve been refining ever since. What’s his story going to be like when his time comes? I don’t know. But I have a few ideas. For starters: he’s a guy that wants to do the right thing. He wants to fight for those that can’t fight for themselves -- to take on the strongest, vilest enemies with pure guts, and use the power he has to ensure brighter, peaceful days.
Even though he has that burning passion, he’s a very low-key character. Easy-going, kind, humble, and goofy -- i.e. unabashedly corny -- more often than not. He’s got serious chops as a chef, but he’ll still show off his fanboy side when the right TV show pops up (just ask him about his trading cards; I dare you). At the start of the story, he’s nothing more than a penniless drifter hoping to rendezvous with an old friend -- but his terrible luck has thrown a wrench in his plans every step of the way.
He’s the sort to face his problems with a smile, though -- the irony being that he’s one of the last people who should be so happy-go-lucky. His hard-knock life culminated semi-recently in his comrades -- a band of trained, expert mercenaries -- getting slaughtered by monstrous forces, with dozens of square miles razed alongside them. But he survived. The scars of that battle and the losses he’s endured (even before that one) haven’t gone away, and don’t anytime soon.
A chance encounter with a seasoned veteran sets his adventure in motion, but if he wants to be a hero, it’ll take more than guts. He’ll have to come to terms with his survivor guilt, his fallibility as a mere mortal, and the gap between ideals and reality as he marches down his road. Said road leads him into direct contact -- and combat -- with what’s effectively an evil goddess.
Okay. Let’s have another introduction.
This is Julia. The first thing you need to know about her is that she’s big. Very big. At the start of her story, she stands at roughly thirteen stories tall -- and she has the strength to match it, and then some. On the surface, she’s the “gentle giant” personified; nothing would make her happier than being able to hug others (and be hugged, even more so), but past experiences have taught her that it never ends well.
Whatever the case, she’s no pushover; with quiet confidence and an iron will, she’ll stand tall against any offenders that come her way (and they will come her way, as these things tend to go). Despite that, she’s a very reclusive and glum person; even when she smiles and tries to offer her support -- singing to those brave enough to approach her -- the air of melancholy around her threatens to crush entire mountains.
The reason for that is simple: time and time again, Julia proved in the past that she’s the monster everyone thinks she is. For starters, she has never known what it’s like to be human; setting aside her horns and tail, in her earliest memories she stood twice as tall as the average man, and only went up from there. Her past is full of harassment and hatred -- that is, until it becomes full of destruction and death. At one point, Julia snapped and embraced her power, and used it to slaughter her way across the landscape to help a cruel emperor gain control of the planet. Her reward for her service: banishment to the depths of the earth, alongside many of the peoples she helped to oppress.
But the plot offers her more than just a chance at redemption. Years after her banishment -- during which she learned to accept as her rightful punishment -- Julia rises again. Spurred on by the words of a cursed child and a promise of an almighty sanctum of magic, she begins her march to repair the world she broke in half. But said world has changed in her absence -- and she’ll have to fight massive monsters within and without to do her duty.
And here’s one more for the road.
Say hello to Kyoko. She’d love to tell you more about herself, but she can’t; a run-in with a masked man -- someone thought to be a mere urban legend -- leaves her stripped of her memories. Dumped in the boonies with no identity and no records to her name (one she has to create for herself on the spur of the moment), she resolves to figure out who she was. Because as time goes on, she realizes that the masked man targeted her for a reason.
The trick is that even if Kyoko is stuck in some tiny little town, the world she lives in is wired beyond compare. Technology abounds, to the point where there aren’t just high-powered computers lining the streets; humans themselves have been upgraded to access and transmit data as easily as they would spot a cloud in the sky.
Facilitating that is the virtual world, Gigs -- a verifiable alternate dimension where the rules of reality stop applying, and the cybernetic reigns supreme…as does the chance for cyber-crime. Kyoko may have lost her memories, but she finds herself more than capable of parsing through Gigs with nigh-superhuman skill and wit -- and so begins her mission to solve a slew of mysteries cropping up. She wants to find the masked man; the problem is that the number of suspects now approaches seven billion.
Saying that Kyoko has workaholic tendencies would be an understatement -- but in the absence of her old self, she develops a new one alongside her blossoming cyber-abilities. While she tries to be kind to the people that take her in (with an emphasis on tries), her hunger for new information borders on the surreal; she’s outright obsessive at times, and scary because of it. She’s slovenly, tactless, and lets her perversion slip out on occasion -- but underneath her quirks lay a brilliant mind, an untamable spirit, and yes, even a warm heart.
So you’re probably wondering what that has to do with anything. Did I want to just show off terrible art? Did I feel like doing the old “original character, do not steal” song and dance? No. I wouldn’t have trotted these three out if I didn’t want to illustrate a point. See, these are all characters that I want to write stories about someday. Three out of ten, as a matter of fact. Are they good? It’s absolutely impossible to know at this point.
Here’s the thing, though: these nobodies are more than just my creations. They’re testaments. These are all people -- unreal people, but people all the same -- that predate this blog by a wide margin (some more than others, but even then we’re talking on a scale of years). They aren’t the same characters as they were when I first came up with them. Not by a long shot; even in the time since I started Cross-Up, they’ve seen iteration after iteration after iteration. And I’m still not even close to done with them.
When I say “characters create opportunities”, I don’t mean that as some ironclad rule. You can think of it as a helpful observation, but for me, it’s something like a personal belief -- an idea to live by. There are times when I feel frustrated over the fact that I haven’t nailed these characters in stone (you have NO IDEA how hard it was to get Julia up to this state, and she’s still probably the farthest from complete), but that’s fine. Each time I make a change -- an improvement, however minor -- I feel better. I feel like I’ve accomplished something before I’ve even written one word.
So what’s my point? What am I getting at here? Well, it’s simple. It’s the answer that I came up with, after all this time. It’s what manages to explain, however slightly, the state Final Fantasy is in.
Squeenix isn’t having fun anymore.
Coming up with new ideas and new factors and new elements for my characters -- for Davis, for Julia, for Kyoko, for anyone -- is fun as hell. The same goes for their worlds. The same goes for their plots. The same goes for their themes. The idea of creating a heroic character who believes in the path of guts is exciting, and just imagining it is fun. Working with a character wreathed in quiet sorrow -- one who plays the Goliath against a slew of Davids -- is like getting a hundred toys for Christmas. I want to dive headfirst into the concepts of transhumanism and evolving technology, and I’m so happy I might be able to do that with a character as distinctly bizarre as Kyoko.
For me, writing is fun. Imagining itself is fun. And ultimately, creating something -- with thoughts, with hands, with words written or spoken aloud, with any means possible -- is fun for everyone. At least, it should be. Being able to explore those possibilities is part of the fun; there are times when things in the real world don’t go your way, but with a creative outlet, everything is in your hands. You can decide for yourself what happens when Event A transpires, or Character B heads to World C. You can see what happens when the road less traveled gets traveled.
Creativity itself, no matter the medium, represents infinite possibilities -- a box full of toys and tools where you’re never truly bound to one basic method. If only for a moment, everything is in your hands. And if you’re not making use of those tools -- if you’re not playing with those toys to make some magic happen -- then what the hell are you doing with the box?
A Squeenix that doesn’t feel like playing with those tools doesn’t necessarily mean a Squeenix that’s incompetent. It could, and easily, but it’s not a predetermined failure. No, I think that the problem with Squeenix -- with Final Fantasy in its current state -- is that it’s stopped being about having fun. It’s a business venture. A formality. A surefire way to restock the war chest.
The Fabula Nova Crystallis project caught them unaware, and overwhelmed them as a result. FF13’s scale was too great in terms of development, and the focus was too narrow; too many details floated in the air for anything to come together, let alone a competent game. But Squeenix had to steer into the skid after the failure of the money-sink that was vanilla FF14 (and probably some of vanilla FF13, I bet). So they threw out 13-2 as fast as they could, with no concern as to what they could do with their tools. And then they did it again with Lightning Returns. And now they’re out of bullets in the chamber.
Type-0 is just a victim of that mindset -- that desperate scramble to put something, anything out there. What could have been a strong, standalone title ended up being strangled to death by expectations, poor planning, and a need to service the brand rather than the story. Or to put it a different way, the pressure got to them. Squeenix just had to push something out and hope for the best -- for sales, potentially -- so that they could live to fight another day.
And they dropped the toolbox squarely onto their foot -- and crushed it flat.
There was no time for exploration. No time for thought. No time for fun. Only results. By their own hand, they forced themselves to lag behind in the race for success and adoration. And now that they’re playing catch-up -- with developers from the east and the west -- they have even less time. Always rushing towards the next goal, the next release, the next disc that will provide some momentary relief, they’ve practically forgotten what it means to explore those possibilities. Let alone make a good Final Fantasy game.
It’s not just a matter of skill. It’s about Squeenix missing, again and again and again, the possibilities that lay before them. The tools are scattered on the path ahead, just waiting to see use -- just waiting to help assemble the perfect creation. But in their desperation, in a mad, endless struggle to keep pace with the gaming world, they just scoop up whatever tools they can and build whatever they can. They just make the best of what they have and run. Run, and drop tools. Run, and hurt themselves. Run, and reach the goal with a creation well below their means and potential.
And because of that, they aren’t having fun. They can’t have fun. And until they realize that they need to breathe that spirit of fun, that will to explore new roads and avenues with a franchise that has one of the widest audiences around, Final Fantasy will never, ever be good again.
I’m not all that hung up about it, though.
Call me presumptuous for thinking that the creative heads at Squeenix aren’t having fun; assume the worst and just say they’re a bunch of bumblers. But you know what? That’s fine. It doesn’t matter if you buy into my theory or not. What matters most is that even if I, or anyone else, can’t count on Squeenix to deliver the fun, the fact remains that I can have fun. I can entertain myself, and it doesn’t cost me billions of yen. I can do something that makes me happy, even if what I dream up never goes an inch farther than the inside of my skull.
I guess in the end, that’s going to be my takeaway -- from Type-0, and Final Fantasy as a whole. Once upon a time, the hoary old franchise opened my eyes to possibilities. It made me want to dream up worlds, scenarios, and heroes of my own. And now I can. And even if the franchise continuously disappoints me, and even if I wouldn’t dare call it an inspiration now, it’s still a teacher. It’s still giving me valuable lessons. It’s still reminding me of the infinite possibilities.
Will I be back for FF15? I don’t know. Will it be good regardless? I don’t know. Will I ever care about the brand again? I don’t know. But there is one thing I know. If this really is the last time I play a Final Fantasy game -- if I have to look to someone else to give me the joy I’m looking for -- then I have one thing to say.