When I interviewed Hajime Tabata last year about his portable games, he candidly asked what I thought of Final Fantasy XV. I tried to be politely circumspect about my complete lack of interest in the game. "It looks really nice," I said, "but a lot like Kingdom Hearts, which I'm not really a fan of."
At the time, I didn't think much of his amused smile at my response. It's only in hindsight that I realize his amusement stemmed from the fact that he was a year deep into directing the game's transformation from tenuous Kingdom-Hearts-alike to something much more akin to Western action games.
Final Fantasy XV represents a massive change of scale for Tabata, whose previous work at Square Enix has been restricted to the small screen and small-ish budgets of PlayStation Portable and mobile titles. Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII was a portable revelation at the time, but it was nevertheless a bite-sized adventure designed specifically for play on the go. FFXV, on the other hand, could possibly be the largest game Square Enix has ever produced; eight years into its development cycle, it's almost certainly the most expensive.
Still, there exists an essential bridge between Crisis Core and Final Fantasy, and that's Final Fantasy Type 0. Tabata said at the time of Type 0's Japanese debut (back in 2011) that his ambition for the game was really greater than the PSP could properly recognize, a claim borne out by the fact that it was one of only a handful of PSP games to span multiple UMDs. The game's jump from PSP to the high-definition remaster for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 is more than just an excuse to bring the game to the U.S.; it's an opportunity for Tabata to bring the game more in line with his original ambitions.
And, as he mentioned to us at PAX Prime, reworking Type 0 for the new generation of consoles has given his team a running start at mastering the ins and outs of these systems. Let's be clear, though. You won't mistake Type 0 for a game built from the ground up for PS4; while the original PSP character models for the playable party have been replaced with the high-quality versions from the cutscenes, much of the rest of the world has a bare-bones look. It's by no means ugly, because Square Enix's PSP games looked better than anything else on the system, but this is not a top-to-bottom overhaul of the game, and it's largely running off the same assets that appeared in a two-generation-old handheld system. But viewed in the same light as something like the God of War Origins Collection for PS3 — and assuming it's priced accordingly — Type 0 HD's technical shortcomings can be forgiving.
Though the game (somehow) misses the 1080p/60fps visual benchmark that many corners of the Internet so dearly covet, it does run solidly and smoothly at 30 frames per second. That's a pretty considerable improvement over the choppy PSP version, which seriously pushed that system's limits to its ragged, broken edge. But on top of this, Type 0 HD incorporates many new camera tricks; the point of view, for example, has been pulled back away from the character to allow the player to drink in more of the environment. Likewise, Tabata says many encounters have been adjusted as well to incorporate more ranged combat with a greater number of participants than was possible on PSP.
Most noticeably, the camera has adopted the weight and blur of many third-person shooters, such as Gears of War or The Order: 1886. The camera snaps from point to point, not instantaneously, but with a moment of inertia at the beginning and a dash of motion blur. The original game featured the quick, jarring camera movements common to PSP games, so this change in presentation has a huge impact on how the game plays and feels.
"It's interesting that you mention Gears of War," says Tabata. "I wasn't going for that effect specifically, but I wanted to make it so that within that fast pace you can more easily follow the objects even if the viewpoint doesn't snap exactly to the objects on the screen. With the PSP, you were really more focused on the character. But when you play the game on the bigger screen, I wanted to make it so that you can see your environment even if your eyes wander off the screen — to be able to have that immersive feeling.
"It all boils down to adjusting the visual aspects to be more appropriate for the bigger screen. But the basic mechanics, where you zoom in and out between being on the field or in combat, that's still largely the same as the PSP version. Having that sort of zoom effect is very unique even within the Final Fantasy franchise. But my personal taste is that I want to have an almost primal connection between the player, the character on-screen, and the controller."
The similarity in Type 0 HD's controls and viewpoint to cover-based shooters may not be deliberate, but Tabata admits it's also not an accident. Both this remake and the new face of FFXV reflect his own taste in games, which like many Japanese game enthusiasts increasingly looks toward tentpole Western titles.
"Ever since I took the central position for Final Fantasy XV, I've made the calls about the game based on my personal tastes," he says. "I lean toward more of a Western style, both in terms of the visuals and the combat. But I don't know that it's correct to say this is 'influenced by' Western games... it's more about my own tastes. I personally like that style, so I wanted to incorporate it into the game."
While some may see the convergence between Japanese and Western titles as an unfortunate homogenization of formerly distinctive styles of games, it's hardly anything new. The larger Japanese publishers have been attempting to climb aboard the Western bandwagon for the better part of a decade, and the results have rarely been anything but Frankensteinian. Tabata's approach, at least, seems organic: Not imitating a foreign style out of obligation or desperation, but from sincere enthusiasm. It's a sort of spiritual inversion of the open admiration Western indie developers have for classic Japanese games; and given the success we've seen in the likes of Shovel Knight, it's not unreasonable to think a designer with the experience and resources Tabata currently commands can pull off a similar feat as well, though on a much grander scale.
For now, Type 0 HD won't simply be a bridge for the developers as they work toward bringing form to the eternally vaporous FFXV; it will also offer players a chance to get a sense for the FFXV's team's potential. The game itself feels like Final Fantasy VIII for a post-Lord of the Rings world with a team of students at a Garden-like magical academy taking part in fast-paced, large-scale battles. Rename Class Zero "SeeD" and replace place names with the likes of "Galbadia" and you should have a general sense of the vibe of Type 0 — though it can be darker, and bloodier, and the menu-driven combat has been replaced by real-time battles where the controller face buttons engage different skills.
In short, it's a nod to the series' past with an eye toward the future. Opinions on the game by those who imported it vary from "amazing" to "not as good as advertised," but Western gamers will be able to decide for themselves in March. And, based on that, decide whether or not they should be excited for what lay ahead in FFXV.