In praise of Akihiko Yoshida’s videogame fantasy art

With the imminent release of Square Enix's Bravely Default, Ryan provides a profile of its talented artist, Akihiko Yoshida...

Although undoubtedly a collaborative process, a unique fusion of programming, design and music, a strong visual style is vital to the success of any videogame – and the RPG genre in particular. After all, it’s an RPG’s job to transport us to other realms, whether they’re Tolkien-inspired and otherworldly or set on a far-away, distant planet.

It’s difficult to imagine, for example, the Dragon Quest series without the artwork of Akira Toriyama behind it – all vivid colours and sharp lines – or the Final Fantasy franchise without the character designs of the legendary Yoshitaka Amano. RPGs create new landscapes and engaging characters, and a distinctive art style is a vital element in their ability to captivate us.

Akihiko Yoshida is among the most talented artists currently working in the Japanese games industry. Born in 1967, he began as a graphic designer at the tender age of 20, with the release of the RPG and platformer hybrid, Zeliard. Although it wasn’t the best hack-and-slash game ever made, it was successful enough to get a port to the PC in 1990 (it was originally programmes for the Japanese computer, the NEC PC-88), and served as Yoshida’s first rung on the industry ladder.

After Zeliard, Yoshida made the jump to another videogame company called Quest, where his job description shifted from graphic designer to artist. It’s here that he would work on the pivotal game in his career: Ogre Battle for the Super Nintendo. The tactical RPG gave Yoshida’s art style its first showcase, as he designed both its characters, monsters, and the tarot cards which played a vital role in the game’s battles. 

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Ogre Battle was a critical success, and most importantly, so was Yoshida’s art; so much so that he also worked on the sequel, 1995’s Tactics Ogre: Let’s Cling Together. It was on the Ogre games that Yoshida began working with the designer and director Yasumi Matsuno, and their collaboration would be an important one.

Shortly after the release of the second Tactics Ogre game, Yoshida and Matsuno left Quest to work at Square (later Square Enix), where they were joined with another key artist from Quest, Hiroshi Minagawa. There, they worked on the first entry in a new direction for Square’s hit Final Fantasy series: Final Fantasy Tactics, which incorporated the successful strategic battles of Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre into the FF universe. 

Having found a haven for his talents at Square – he’s remained at the studio ever since – Yoshida then worked on the PlayStation RPG Vagrant Story (again with Matsuno and Minagawa), the Japan-only handheld game Wild Card, before embarking on his highest-profile assignment yet: Final Fantasy XII.

It was this 2006 sequel that brought Yoshida’s skills as a character and background artist to a wider Japanese audience. Distinguished by his delicate line work and subtle yet individual use of colour, Yoshida’s work can be recognised in an instant; few other artists are as good at creating both captivating, warm-looking characters and fantasy backgrounds with a dizzying sense of scale and perspective. 

Yoshida has listed Rembrandt, Millet, Whistler, Katsuhiro Otomo and Moebius as his influences, and while it’s possible to see elements of some of those artists in his work, it’s also notable how flexible his style actually is. Technical yet subtle, intricate yet full of movement, Yoshida appears to be as at home designing a hulking monster in armour or a fantastical skyscraper as he is a willowy heroine or adorable familiar. 

Largely eschewing digital art techniques, Yoshida insists on creating his artwork with pencils, and only at a later stage will he use computers to add further layers of colour. It’s a technique that first became prominent on Tactics Ogre, though the limited colour palette of the Super Nintendo meant that the greater intricacies of Yoshida’s art was often lost. But in 2010, Yoshida got to refine his designs for Tactics Ogre in a port for the PlayStation Portable, which he insisted on redrawing for maximum impact.

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“The tone and style expressed in the original game is the origin of what I consider to be the ideal art style,” Yoshida told 1UP in 2010, “so it wasn’t difficult to create something closer to my ideal. But it was very stimulating to look back to the days when I approached projects with exceeding passion.”

Since the release of Final Fantasy XII in 2006, Yoshida has continued to contribute to the look of the FF series and its various offshoots, including Final Fantasy Tactics: The War Of The Lions in 2007, and Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes Of Light for the Nintendo DS in 2009. 

In each game, Yoshida has continued to develop his individual style, drawing on the kinds of Medieval inspirations that have long been a touchstone for fantasy artists, while mixing them with shapes and ideas from less obvious quarters. When designing the armour for the character Gabranth in Final Fantasy XII, for example, Yoshida revealed that he’d been inspired by the padding worn by mountain bike enthusiasts.

And on the occasions when his inspiration’s run a little dry, Yoshida sometimes resorts to drawing a very particular part of a character’s anatomy to provide a starting point. “When I’m having trouble coming up with a design,” Yoshida confided in a 2006 interview, “or I’m otherwise stuck, I’ll start working on the back or buttocks. Using these as starting points, the ideas seem to flow very smoothly for me.”

Perhaps realising that this might seem a little strange, Yoshida quickly added, “It’s not really something I understand myself.  But the designs for many of this game’s characters started this way…” 

Yoshida’s designs and lightness of touch are all over his most recent project, Bravely Default, which finally makes its debut in Europe this December. Combining 3D, polygon-based versions of Yoshida’s character designs with his hand-drawn, 2D backdrops, it looks and feels like an offshoot of the Final Fantasy series, albeit with a story and cast all its own.

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Having already garnered hugely positive reviews in its native Japan, Bravely Default continues Square Enix’s proud tradition of captivating role-playing games, and once again, Yoshida’s glorious artwork is at the centre of it, bringing warmth and vitality to its heroes, villains and fantastical vistas. 

Bravely Default is out on the 6th December in the UK and Europe.

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