The Underrated Work of the Creative Genius Behind 'Final Fantasy XII'

Getting to know a JRPG master.

You may not know Yasumi Matsuno by name, but if you love RPGs you may well have played one of his flagship games. The biggest is Final Fantasy XII, currently being remastered for a 2017 console release. I took at look at the remaster, dubbed The Zodiac Age, during E3 last week; it’s shaping up nicely, complementing the original design with a few additions that should make the long and strategic title more palatable to a modern day audience.

Visually, the game still packs a strong artistic punch – no surprise considering it was a late-gen release for the PS2 in 2006. The intricate detail in the character models pop and the script’s flowery language sings.

Everything about it bears the hallmark of Matsuno’s work. But unlike many other superstars who have worked on FF over the years – series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi (now an independent developer), character designer-turned-director Tetsuya Nomura (of FFVII and Kingdom Hearts fame) and FFXV maestro Hajime Tabata – Matsuno doesn’t necessarily have the same recognition among fans. More important, his games are strikingly different from what you might expect from a typified Squaresoft, or Square Enix, RPG.

In fact, despite rave reviews, a DS sequel and over 5 million copies sold, it’s still surprising that the Square is re-releasing FFXII, just because it’s not held in high regard by many fans; it’s a far cry from the crowd-pleasing fluff FFX, and especially X-2, presented. Rather than teenage romance or the archetypal hero’s journey, XII is more concerned with the machinations in the world of Ivalice, political and otherwise.

Its varied cast is an ensemble caught up in would-be game of thrones (albeit with a dash of Star Wars, one of Matsuno’s self-proclaimed biggest influences), and its storylines unfold across a swath of kingdoms, allegiances and conflicts. Thankfully by 2006, voice acting standards had been raised, making XII’s story delivery still effective 10 years later.

This is how Matsuno typically defines his settings, on the somewhat rare occasion he makes games: as grounded, Shakespearean and often grim as you can possibly get in a medieval fantasy. It took a lot of experience get to XII’s strangely compelling combat. These dual threads run all the way back to Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen, the director’s first game for the SNES (and later the PS One), which unraveled a dark depiction of political corruption that complemented the intricacy of its class-based design.

Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen

Despite some outward similarities to Final Fantasys or Dragon Quests of the time, Matsuno added several elements to Ogre Battle that would help define many of his design sensibilities. Replacing the cycle of dungeon exploration, fighting random encounters and advancing the story in towns, Ogre Battle focused on a world map populated by enemies, triggering a close-up battle between squads if players found themselves too near, while moral alignments would have effects on the open-ended narrative.

These ideas were refined and brought into focus in a sequel, Let Us Cling Together, which converted much of March of the Black Queen’s ideas into an isometric strategy RPG, which the director has become known for. Eschewing stationary characters battling enemies on a single screen, Let Us Cling Together transformed encounters into multi-unit, turn-based skirmishes, where moving soldiers around battlefields – and using the advantage of terrain – became just as important as choosing the right weapon or armor.

Arguably the most refined of the Ogre Battle template actually came from Matsuno’s first game with Square, 1998’s Final Fantasy Tactics. While the sprawling cast of sellswords, monarchs, knights, nobles and usurpers is much wider than Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Tactics in particular feels heavily inspired by (and appears to follow the essence of) it, in a cynical plot that unfolds over a long and bloody campaign where few in power aren’t driven to horrific acts in its pursuit. (Compared to something like Game of Thrones, it seems likely that Tactics’ bloodshed only escaped an M-rating due to its characters being drawn as stylized 2D sprites.)

While Tactics left behind Ogre Battle’s branching narrative choices, it offered just as much depth as its spiritual predecessors by doubling down on job classes and abilities – you could play the game for a hundred hours and not even come close to seeing everything in it.

Tactics was also the first introduction for many fans, myself included, to Matsuno’s complex and morally gray worlds – not to mention that of his longtime collaborators, character artist Akihiko Yoshida and composer Hitoshi Sakimoto. It eventually received a beautiful facelift in the form of 2007’s PSP redux War of the Lions, which added a grander, Elizabethan-styled translation and beautiful cutscenes in Yoshida’s style, and has since been ported to mobile and tablet platforms which, surprisingly, are far and away the best versions of the game.

After Tactics, Matsuno and most of the Tactics team went on to make 2000’s Vagrant Story for PS One, perhaps the last game that the director is famous for before XII, and easily among the best RPGs ever made. As a late-era 32-bit game, Vagrant Story was able to render Yoshida’s artwork in polygons for the first time, taking full use of the hardware to render gorgeous environments and characters in full 3D. Compared to Ogre Battle or Tactics it’s a bit more of a dungeon crawler (if still one that exudes a Shakespearean aspect), with a good amount of time spent exploring underground areas before the plot opens up through the exploration of an ancient cursed “magick” city.

Vagrant Story

Despite its outward resemblance of something closer to, say, a third-person King’s Field, Vagrant Story has one of the most fascinating battle systems of anything created in the genre. After approaching enemies in real time, initiating a battle allows you to target different areas of an enemy’s body; once broken” it hampers your mark in various ways, which would be interesting enough on its own.

But the real beauty is the risk system. Out of battle, you’re allotted various moves and abilities that you can assign to different face buttons, like, say, gaining back HP or negating status effect changes. By then hitting timed attacks properly, you can chain combinations of moves together, alternating between the abilities you’ve previously assigned. Each successful chain adds more to your risk meter, which in turn slowly mitigates the damage you’ve dealt or effects received.

The higher the risk, the less defense you’ll have when a combo ends, too – so you could hit a high level enemy over a hundred times and gain all your HP back, at the cost of doing less damage with each successive hit (followed by the possibility of getting killed in a single hit after you choose to end the combo). Factor in the fact that some abilities can be similarly timed to soften the blow of an enemy’s offense and Vagrant Story’s battles become exhilarating in their complexity. Matsuno is nothing if not a designer who makes you prove your mettle.

Though Matsuno didn’t ultimately end up as the final director on FFXII – it’s strongly suspected that he stepped down halfway through the project because of creative differences with the heads of Square over making the game appeal to a teenage audience – his design, implementation and world-building are still very much alive in the final game.

The semi-auto MMO-style combat may seem like a turn-off at first (it definitely was for me); once you realize that you’re in total control of your party’s actions – giving you the imperative ability to tactically pivot on the fly during battles a lot – things start to really gel. Next year’s remaster will apparently localize 2007’s International Zodiac Job System edition of the game, tweaking the original’s license board ability shop with the addition of job classes.

Combined with the ability to set ridiculously specific command parameters for changing battle conditions, it’s probably Matsuno’s deepest system yet. (It could also, in theory, lead to remasters for Vagrant Story, War of the Lions or Let Us Cling Together, the latter of which could really stand to be available on more than just the extremely outdated PSP.)

The director hasn’t had the best of luck of late; after some years of little activity and a rocky Kickstarter for a Tactics spiritual successor, which may finally be on a good track after several major setbacks, Matsuno could use some recognition. With any luck, The Zodiac Age might finally be western audiences’ introduction – or re-acquaintance – that as sharp a mind as his deserves.

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