Number 2 – Yasumi Matsuno
“Final Fantasies” have always been tales about love, friendship, family, protecting the world and the conquering of evil… until Yasumi Matsuno took over FFXII and changed the series upside down, that is. Final Fantasies’ mass audience probably didn’t know (or comprehend) Matsuno-san, and so the change of style from FFX to XII (XI is a side note) was probably a shock to many people; to most I’d go as far to say it was downright heresy. Yet, his long career of successes made him, from a commercial point of view, a natural successor to Kitase and Sakaguchi in Square’s long winding series.
He started his career in the Atlus’ “Ogre Battle” series, by directing “March of the Black Queen” and the most notable of all “Ogre Battles”, “Let Us Cling Together”. These strategic RPG’s were quite important in the means, establishing most of the rules the genre still uses today, like dark, political intrigue stories and turn based battles in gridded isometric landscapes. His big chance was when he was chosen to direct “Final Fantasy Tactics”, a series spin-off that was essentially, Square’s response to… the “Tactics Ogre” series; and what better way for Square to beat their competition than buying it out? And though “Final Fantasy Tactics” tried to capitalize on the series’ brand name, at its core, was a spiritual sequel to “Let Us Cling Together”, even if it had a streamlined approach to a difficult and challenging genre. It also featured appealing, stylized and more colorful graphics than previous games, which helped sell the game to the less-hardcore audience established by FFVII. A few years after, “Vagrant Story” arrived, a game that took place in the same universe as “Tactics”, but opted for a more cinematic language, which ended up granting the game with the nickname “Metal Gear Fantasy” from reviewers. Despite its difficulty and somewhat cumbersome interface (no doubt a legacy from his strategy-RPG background), the game was widely acclaimed, and even managed to receive a perfect score from Famitsu. So, when he was chosen to write and direct FFXII, it seemed a natural choice, even if from an artistic point of view, he clearly had divergences in approach with the classical standards of the series. Unfortunately, Matsuno-san got sick before he could finish the game, being replaced by Hiroyuki Itô (co-director of FFVI and director of FFIX) and Hiroshi Minagawa (Matsuno’s games’ Art Director), thus, some of his influence was diminished in the final product. Yet, that didn’t stop from making the game a true sequel to “Vagrant Story”, even if with some shortcomings.
But what really defines Matsuno as a game-artist? In a sense, Yasumi Matsuno is the “anti-Sakaguchi”: his tales are always very cold and cynical, his gameplay mechanics are very complex and most often than not, original and groundbreaking, and the art design in his games is far less joyous than the classic “Final Fantasy” trademark.
Matsuno’s narratives deal primarily with social, political and religious themes, and are often very rational and analytical, completely in opposition to the lyrical nature of Sakaguchi and Kitase’s works. The emotional aspects of his characters are always secondary to the unfolding of the story, having a much more functional aspect than in classic dramatic narratives: they merely help advance the plot. That is probably why many people disliked FFXII: it lacked emotional depth and impact; there was no love interest, no epic story of friendship, no weeping for the death of fallen loved ones, no environmentalist tale about saving the world, and apart the traditional royal family intrigue, even the bounds of family were somewhat absent. But that is exactly what I love about Matsuno: he doesn’t deal with a naive world, where love and happiness always triumph over evil; Matsuno’s worlds are cruel, twisted places where good and evil are hard to distinguish and where anyone, even your loved ones, can stab you in the back. It’s a cruel and harsh reality, but a much more realistic one, nonetheless. It becomes all the more powerful because of the Shakespearean tone of his stories that adds a welcome sense of tragedy, hopelessness and irony to the plot. Unfortunately, that might have gone unnoticed in “Tactics Ogre” and in the first release of “FF Tactics”, because of the atrocious translations. Gladly, from “Vagrant Story” on, Square’s translators understood that the right way to localize his tales was to use 16th century Shakespearean British; the result is marvelous: Shakespearean tragedies set in modern high-fantasy Universes.
The art design, leaded by Akihiko Yoshida, also translated Matsuno’s cynical view of life, by using a palette of mostly drab colors that went to the point of an all-out baroque aesthetic for “Vagrant Story”. In other aspects, like character design, Yoshida’s style wasn’t that far off from the already canonical anime aspect of the series, with the expected large blue-eyed hero with spiky hair, and a funny mix of j-pop clothes with historically influenced wardrobe (no doubt a dream for any “cosplay” fanatic). Still, it was definitely more bold and stylized than Nomura’s by-the-numbers act, with hand drawn graphic-effects and a more mature tone giving it a certain edge. Also, Ivalice, the world/kingdom where Matsuno’s games are located, is filled with desert, sand and a lot of middle-eastern inspired architecture, which also contrasts with the blend of oriental and sci-fi architecture design of RPG’s in general. The soundtracks of his games are also slightly different from the FF series, with scores from Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata which, besides being more epic and opulent, also feel more ascetic than Uematsu’s scores, mostly lacking ballads and more intimate songs to balance the epic compositions.
Matsuno is a progressist: he moved the genre forward when he appeared, and continued to explore its potential with every single game. Like Kitase and Sakaguchi before him, he broke many of the previously established conventions, managing to create a singular style that is clearly identifiable in all of his games. He is acclaimed by critics as one of the genre’s best creators, and in my opinion, with great merit. And even if today he’s misunderstood by the majority of the RPG fan base, I think that someday people will understand the critics better, and comprehend what makes Yasumi Matsuno’s games absolutely amazing.