It’s quite appropriate that Final Fantasy Type-0 HD takes place within a military Akademia, following the exploits of 14 extraordinarily gifted cadets. The game is as punishing and uncompromising as the continental war that it chronicles, and it will school you. More importantly, it also serves as a historical primer on the best and brightest moments of Final Fantasy lore. This entry may have been meant to reboot the series when first released in 2011 for the PSP, but only as a soft reset, one that lovingly retains all the classic elements, while gussying them up for more mature players. It doesn’t lack for fan service, such as a march through snowy wastes in Magitek Armor, a la Final Fantasy VI, and you’d better believe that there’s a battle on the Big Bridge with Gilgamesh, as in Final Fantasy V, but none of it gets in the way of the game’s violence: The first of many cinematic sequences features a chocobo’s familiar beak, now slicked over in blood, the critter’s innocence and charm lost.
Of course, you don’t have to be familiar with any of this to enjoy the various dynamic systems found within Type-0. Chocobo breeding and the tactical RTS sorties that make up a small fraction of your missions work whether or not they remind you of similar things in Final Fantasy VII (like Fort Condor). You don’t need to recall the Draw function from Final Fantasy VIII to get accustomed to sucking phantoma out of enemy corpses and using it to supercharge your magical skills. If anything, there’s an added benefit to the unseen games that came before: Thanks to previous Final Fantasy action RPGs like Dirge of Cerebus and Crisis Core, the camera targeting in Type-0 works well enough that if you keep missing the game’s critical-for-success skill shots (killsights) against foes, it’s likely your fault.
Unfortunately, Type-0 also retains an unfortunate mechanism from classic role-playing games: grinding. Each of the main missions are fresh and tend to force new tactical situations on the players, whether you’re trying to avoid being spotted, coping with low visibility, fleeing from unstoppable creatures, or forcing your enemies to open up new environmental pathways for your heroes. But in between these big set pieces (a battle atop crystal clouds or between speeding train cars), there’s a lot of running around and fighting random battles on the main map or within exceedingly bland cave dungeons. Some of this is alleviated by taking on fetch quests that at least offer item-based upgrades/rewards, but the relative lack of fast travel and inability to take on more than one of these tasks at once leads to unnecessary backtracking. Worse, because you have a limited amount of time between each mission, you may get stuck having to replay old missions until every ounce of joy and originality has been sucked out of them.
As with the best teachers, however, Type-0 finds compelling ways to hook you into all this necessary studying. Secret Training provides bonus experience between sessions, so that when you walk away, it doesn’t have to be only in frustration. There are character-based cutscenes hidden all over the place, some very comic in tone, so as to help alleviate some of that bleak wartime tension. (Metal Gear Solid does the same.) The game also dangles a lot of high-level content before you in the shape of Expert Trials, bonus missions that are designed for veteran New Game+ players, and which help to fill in gaps in the plot.
But the primary source of motivation is the large cast of characters, each of whom has a distinct feel. This can sometimes be awkward, as with Deuce’s hard-to-aim flute attacks or the random shuffling of Ace’s card-based fighting. Then again, Eight’s monk-like fisticuffs and Jack’s counterattacking swordplay prove that there’s plenty of room to find at least a few playstyles that fit. And while learning all of these styles increases the incline on an already steep difficulty curve, you’ll be thankful for this practice, as Type-0 has a nasty habit of knocking out your active players, or forcing you to split your party across multiple fronts, so that you can’t just ride a single character to the end. In no ways, then, is Type-0 ever an easy A, but as with all roads least traveled, it’s likely to be the one class you’ll remember.