Number 2 – Yasumi Matsuno

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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    • Dalen
    • August 5th, 2008

    Matsuno has always stood out from of his contemporaries as a story teller of far greater ambition and intelligence, and the same can be said of his gameplay. Despite leaving FFXII, it is still his game through and through; the new director strove to do nothing more than realize Matsuno’s original design.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • August 21st, 2008

    FFXII is, in my humble opinion, a misunderstood masterpiece. And I agree, though Matsuno left for personal reasons, before the game was finished, it exudes all of his core philosophies and artistic trademarks. It stands high and proud as one of the greatest FFs to date.

    Thanks for the comment and hope you enjoy the blog!

    • Arete
    • September 8th, 2008

    agreed, do you have an ogre battle review? if not, do you plan on making one? i would specially enjoy it, as i apreciate your thinking.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • September 9th, 2008

    Haven’t played an “Ogre” game in quite a few years… time goes by fast. Because of that, It’d be hard for me to get a review done on memory alone. And because of my lack of time, it’d been harder even to play a long game like that again. So, I’m incredibly sorry, but a ogre review seems unlikely. Yet, and I have been planning on this for a while, I would love to review the FFT remake for the PSP, as soon as I get my hands on one 😀
    Thanks for the comments, and sorry for not being able to accommodate your wish!

  1. Gotta say, even after so much time, Im still waiting for your number one Jprg Developer…

    • ruicraveirinha
    • September 17th, 2009

    I am really sorry cescruz, for I never got around doing that text. I didn’t write it initially because I meant to (re)play another of his games, but due to my ever present lack of time, I never got around to playing it (it clocks around 80 hours, an epic rpg if I ever saw one). Additionally, my draft of the text was lost in my laptop, when the hard disk failed and was formatted by the imbeciles at Asus tech support. This in turn, added to the inertia of writing the text in the first place. Since nobody seemed to care, I simply moved on. But now that you showed interest, I have an excuse to go back to it, though I won’t promise anything (lately, my schedule has been claustrophobic :D).

    Anyways, sorry for getting your hopes up and then not delivering. Cheers!

  2. Hey at least give us a hint on who that is because… well I ran out of JRPG developers…
    Or you can just put Yasumi Matsuno on number 1 and make a new text on how awesome the guy and his team are? I am a sucker for this guy’s work hehe…
    Thanks for the reply and I look forward to reading your toughts if you ever get around to it.

    “I reign with my left hand I rule with my right,
    I’m lord of all darkness I’m queen of the night”

    • Haddon
    • June 7th, 2010

    ff12, like all of his games (of which i have played a good deal of all, with the exception of his game on wii) is much more dramatic and thematic of reality set in fantasy, rather than what nearly all other RPGs seem to be: the ideal clash of good and evil where human mishaps and psychology play the largest role.

    the only issue i had with 12 is the game fetl like far too much side-quest, and not enough of the true story. i always ascribed this to yasumi leaving the production team before the entire story was truly fleshed out in his unique style. to make up for it,t he rest of the team, i believe, hastily finished what matsuno had planned out and then filled the game with a great deal of side-quest. though i loved this aspect, giving a feeling of more freedom, it made me a bit sad that matsunos amazing storytelling didnt have as much stage time as it could have.

  1. August 6th, 2013

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