It is fitting that a game about war--its passionate triumphs, its bloody defeats, its tragic consequences--would focus so heavily on combat. In Final Fantasy Type-0, you guide a group of gifted teenagers through numerous campaigns to capture opposing cities and kill the powerful beings aiding enemy nations. This group, Class Zero, is made up of 14 characters enhanced with magical and physical abilities, making them living machines of war. Japanese PSP owners have waged that war since 2011, but this high-definition rendition is the first time the battles have spilled into the West. And what a fortuitous arrival Final Fantasy Type-0 is, expressing the travails of war through breakneck battles and demanding boss encounters that test your will.
All of Class Zero’s members interact in enjoyable ways, but most of their stories are overshadowed by the torrid romance budding between classmates Rem and Machina, and their struggle to fight their own demons as well as the war. Their tale is more heartfelt and more engaging than Class Zero’s squabbling, which often relates to the war raging across the world of Orience. The narrative throws in too many names and locations with little explanation, leaning heavily on terms like "l'Cie" and "Phantoma," which are briefly discussed but never fully fleshed out, although you frequently encounter the entities these terms refer to as the story progresses. You're introduced to a dozen characters, only to see them once or twice before they wind up being killed suddenly or dropped from the plot altogether. Outside of Class Zero, the supporting cast falls short and makes for some confusing moments when the narrative depends on you to remember faces you’ve only briefly glimpsed. However, the love story between Class Zero's two ordinary members, and the strong reactions non-playable characters have towards Class Zero's accomplishments, gives the war narrative palpable weight.
The military plot gets complicated quickly, but events within Class Zero are fairly easy to follow until the game hits its first dramatic climax halfway through. It's here that too many major story points are introduced quickly, and all at once. The members of Class Zero are the “children” of a mad sorceress-doctor who is, as you can guess, not all that she seems. The kids get along decently with one another, but not at all with outsiders; Class Zero’s members were accepted to the academy without entrance exams at the insistence of their “mother,” so talking with NPCs as any member of Class Zero often yields deriding comments and snark about how the children don’t fit in with the rest of Akademia, a university breeding children for war.
At any time while wandering the world, you control one member of Class Zero as he or she talks to NPCs, either to receive a fetch quest, or simply to chat. Conversations may have different outcomes depending on which character you are currently controlling. For example, if you talk to Dr. Arecia Al-Rashia as Rem or Machina--the two new members of Class Zero who don’t fall under her affection--she greets you with disdain. Approach her as Ace or Cater, however, and she warmly engages with you. Elsewhere, some side quests require that you talk to certain people or complete tasks as Rem, who is a favorite among her peers. These subtle nuances make all 14 characters matter. Each has his or her own distinct personality, and while some Class Zero members are less bearable than others, they have great conversations when interacting as a group. Watching the airheaded Cinque try and reason with the know-it-all Trey, all while snarky Sice tells them both to shut up, is always entertaining, as is seeing opposing personalities like Cater and Queen--one sassy, and one cold and rational--pair up to solve problems.
Type-0’s combat is marvelous. Your 14 playable characters have four moves each available to them: a powerful physical attack, a defensive spell like Cure or Protect, and two abilities that can be customized with magic spells and attacks unique to that character. At any given time, three party members take to the battlefield, but you only directly control one at a time. You can, however, switch between them on the fly. Classmates and their enemies attack rapidly in real time, leaving little room to breathe, and forcing you to constantly swing the camera around to keep your enemies in sight, which can be a bit of a headache, but ensures you don't spend too much time hammering on one individual combatant. Battles are electric, filling the screen with light and color, and keeping you on your toes as you glance around the arena and speed towards the enemies in most need of extermination.
The ability to swap between characters on a moment's notice is a powerful one. One moment, you fling around Sice’s scythe, and the next, you instantly swap in Trey to shoot down flying enemies with his bow and arrows. Battles give rise to an elegant and satisfying rhythm as you switch between ranged and melee characters as needed. You may only control one character at a time, but the AI that commands the other two party members is always on point. You never feel like you’re taking down opponents on your own, and if you do a good job of leveling up each Class Zero member, then you take well-trained combatants into the field with you. I got into the habit of taking my two lowest-level characters into new missions, along with one of my higher-level ones, and I was delighted to find my higher-level fighter actively pursuing enemies and dealing the same amount of damage he would if I were controlling him. The AI doesn't slow down or deal lighter hits, so you aren't doing the heavy lifting all on your own.
The result of the cunning AI? Your skirmishers feel like a cohesive team, rather than a single hero accompanied by unnecessary deadweight. That’s even the case when you put the game’s support personnel (SP) system to the test, which sends random NPCs into battle to support you, instead of other Class Zero members. SP characters are smart, and typically come in at a level that matches, or is higher than, the character you are controlling. If support characters die in battle, you can’t revive them, but you can call in reserve members of Class Zero to take their places.
Typically, you take on dozens of giant mechs and angry soldiers in story missions, but when crossing the overworld--the giant map on which you walk over Orience--random encounters crop up. These usually entail quickly mowing down a group of enemies for experience points. If there are other enemies nearby, they detect your presence, and the game gives you the option to immediately fight them or retreat. If you accept the fight, you could feasibly clash with four or five groups of similar enemy types in a row without having to run around the map. This is an excellent way to amass quick experience points and materials, as Type-0’s main missions become significantly difficult with each passing success, so you need to do some grinding. The repetition is rarely tedious, however: Small but fundamental touches like the combat’s whirlwind speed, and the option to repeatedly fight the same random counter several times without traveling, mean you don't have to run in circles, wasting time hoping for more foes to appear.
Story missions in Type-0 are straightforward, but not without their rewards. You usually run through a maze of connecting rooms, destroying the opposing soldiers as well as the beasts that serve them. Mercifully, Type-0 adds a handful of checkpoints to each level, allowing you to save frequently, and never did the game fail to offer me a checkpoint right before a major battle or complicated mission. Some battles require you to think tactically, throwing in air strike support, and forcing you to carefully find cover while you summon and position bombs from above. Others feature bosses with a half-dozen health bars that only take damage from well-timed critical hits. In these instances, you must act strategically, waiting out enemy attacks while getting as close as you can to strike. Missions constantly change up their layout and goals, giving rise to a vast number of combat situations and strategies.
The mission variety is beautifully complemented by the diversity of combat techniques at your disposal. Right off the bat, Type-0 asks that you level up each class member as evenly as possible, as each uses unique weaponry: swords, guns, a sword-whip, a deck of cards, or even a magic flute. Certain enemies are most susceptible to certain kinds of magic, while others go down only when you unleash brutal melee attacks. Others still fly around and can only be reached by ranged weapons like guns, or Ace's cards. Having so many possibilities lurking underneath your fingertips makes it enjoyable to spend equal amounts of time with each Class Zero member.
Characters earn ability points as they level up, and you use them to unlock more powerful abilities. Those two ability slots can be any combination of physical and magic attacks, though it’s best to stick at least one magic attack in there if the character doesn’t use ranged weapons. In this same way, you customize the abilities of your summons: powerful beings like Shiva and Ifrit that are called to the battlefield by sacrificing a team member for the remainder of battle. These summons deal significant damage, making them ideal for boss battles, and the more frequently you use them, the more powerful they get.
Magic spells can also be customized with Phantoma, a mysterious resource you collect from slain enemies. Different colors of Phantoma ascribe different properties to spells, and can be used to lower the spell’s cost or casting time, or to ramp up its power. Exceedingly powerful weapons eventually become available, although they cannot be customized. But between curating each member of Class Zero’s individual attack lineup and the potency of their spells, you take ownership of your characters' progression--and as you internalize how powerful Class Zero is becoming, the story in turn gives context to their growth. Type-0 gives you fine control of every party member’s advancement, and in doing so, encourages you to tackle bigger challenges so that you may continue to guide them upwards and onwards.
All told, Type-0 does combat and customization better than many of its fellow RPGs. It’s immensely satisfying to land hits in rapid succession, and then to instantly switch to another character, whaling on an enemy to cinch a five-second victory. This one-two punch of role-playing richness gives rise to a “just one more battle” mentality, though you should note that not every encounter is a seconds-long fireworks display. The HD version of Type-0 includes an Easy mode in which battle is more manageable, but Normal mode is wildly difficult and requires a modicum of grinding to bring yourself up to speed. Mercifully, the game lets you change the difficulty at any checkpoint, so if a certain boss is giving you grief, you can adjust the difficulty level to make it through. This is a nice touch if you come to Type-0 for Final Fantasy’s familiar brand of storytelling, and not so much for its nail-biting enemy encounters, though it’s worth mentioning again that combat is the game’s primary draw.
There are a bunch of optional missions in addition to main storyline tasks, but you can safely get through Type-0 without completing any of them, should you wish. These include skirmish missions, in which you run across the map supporting troops as they invade enemy cities, and side quests that require you to fetch specific items for NPCs. The former reward you with experience points and extra checkpoints across the map, while the latter give you much-needed support items like Mega-Ethers and Elixirs. These tasks are simple, so you can accomplish a few of them before heading into storyline missions without breaking into a sweat. My primary gripe with Type-0’s campaign structure lies with its boss battles, which rely all too heavily on the Hopeless Boss Fight cliche, ushering you into scripted encounters you aren’t meant to win. The final boss sequence is the greater disappointment, however. Final Fantasy games are known for the grand battles that cap their stories, but the wan final fight subverts tradition in a particularly unsatisfying manner.
Type-0 looks good, but it's an uneven visual experience due to the inconsistency of its high-definition paint job. Backgrounds are gorgeously detailed, and each area is stuffed with NPCs that invite you into conversation, making Orience come alive with personality. The main characters move beautifully, and their expressive faces convey a wide range of emotions. However, characters who are not part of Class Zero, or are not important to its members, don’t benefit from the same care and attention. Many of them look much as they did on PSP--just a little smoother. It’s awkward to see conversations between Machina and Cadetmaster, as one character looks great and the other hasn’t been touched up to match.
Final Fantasy Type-0 HD is about the fluid and frantic action, which propels you towards the next battle, and then the next, and then the next. The overarching story is tough to chew on, but the heartfelt personal stories vividly address the ugly side of war--the blood, the gore, and the sadness that lingers even when the memories of why you were fighting fade away. Yet it’s the battles themselves that make the most forcible argument for spending 25-plus hours with Final Fantasy Type-0, for it's in the combat arenas that Orience truly comes to life.