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In case the contents of this blog don't make it obvious enough, I have something of an affinity for slightly "offbeat" titles, so if there's something out there that few others cover, there's a fair chance I'm at least somewhat up on it.
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Below are a handful of recaps and other links (oldest listed first by section), in case you're interested - asterisks mark promoted articles.
Welcome to my latest attempt to create a series worth reading, a small collection of articles that I choose to call The Forgotten Essentials. Herein, I’m going to write about a few of my favorite game genres, one at a time, and focus my attention upon the tweaks and bits of polish that are uniquely essential to making a game of its type truly memorable. I’m not talking about universal, overarching aspects of game design along the lines of “attractive graphics” or “a sensible control scheme” or “thorough bug fixing” – I intend to stick to very genre-specific elements that apply only minimally, if at all, elsewhere.
Why am I writing about this sort of thing in the first place? Well, partially because most of the “big picture” aspects of game design have been (and continue to be) beaten to death and back again by other writers, though also worth mentioning is my personal tendency to (sometimes) be willing to overlook more “obvious” flaws in a game if it’s obvious that care was taken in getting the less visible details right. It’s probably not a particularly “practical” stance for me to take, but either way this sort of stuff is what I’m likely to notice, and thus be able to write halfway capably about. Hopefully someone out there will enjoy.
Anyways, here is our first installment – to kick off the series, a look at some of the “little things” that I personally value most when I play an RPG. Everyone who’s ever wielded a legendary blade or gained a level knows that there ought to be a decent story at work, that the pacing shouldn’t drag, and clichés should be kept to a minimum, but what truly separates a passable or even a “good” RPG from a great one? A few weeks ago Colette did a write-up on some of the genre’s common foibles, all of which resonate with a (relatively) long-time RPGer like myself, but I plan upon being even more nitpicky in the following – feel free to accompany me, if you’re up to it.
As a final opening item, I should mention that I play relatively few Western RPGs, and am mostly using titles of Japanese origin as a springboard here, but a vast majority of the following items should (hopefully) apply across the board. Now then, on to the Forgotten Essentials of the RPG!
Fully-Integrated Encounter Avoidance – If an RPG is capably-crafted at its core, battling enemies should be, to put it plainly, a good thing – out-strategizing opponents and reaping the rewards is a big part of nearly any such game. No matter how fun any given battle system is, however, there will be times when the player will want to Just Get On With It, and has slain as many low-level goblins as he cares to while en route to fresh hunting grounds (or a new plot point). Granted, many RPGs, new and old, have made items or special abilities available which can be used to either lower or eliminate encounters for a limited time, but I consider this setup imperfect – as it stands, to pass quickly through an old dungeon or evade a nasty enemy while on one’s last legs before a save point will cost you gold or magic which you’d otherwise have expended elsewhere. Think about it – even in the high-penalty “retreat” systems of many RPGs, staying out of conflict is considered something worth penalizing in almost every circumstance – I, however, argue that this shouldn’t be the case. While I certainly don’t advocate allowing players to back out of any situation they’re not optimally prepared for or immediately interested in at will, the genre’s pervasive long-time stance of “you’ll KEEP battling, and you’ll LIKE it” isn’t doing anyone any favors – a little “free” leeway on this front can go a long way towards alleviating frustration without putting too big a dent in the overall challenge level.
In recent years, many RPG developers have been taking welcome steps in this direction, quite a few completely ditching the time-honored random encounters of yesteryear in favor of visible enemy parties, which can be at least sometimes avoided, or even surprised to gain an advantage when conflict does arise. Even games that stick to the old style have found some neat ways to give players a break when they need it – Wild Arms 3, for example, offers up a limited amount of replenishable “avoidance points” which can be spent to cancel out any random encounter just before it begins. Stronger enemies require more points to chase off, while very weak ones can be dispelled for nothing – thus, while gamers are going to need to fight their fair share of battles, they can usually save themselves from being overwhelmed by either unfair odds or raw tedium. Other titles have opted to implement only a limited amount of random encounters on each map, so that after “meeting quota” a player can then explore uninhibited, or simply leave and come back if he prefers to keep fighting. Other capable solutions exist as well, though the aforementioned are a few of my personal favorites – obviously for any of this to work a well-balanced experience system is needed, but that’s too obvious an element to discuss in depth here.
As a sub-category (of sorts) under this heading, I must make brief mention of “boss warnings” in RPGs – when I’m about to stumble into a powerful enemy’s room (or, worse, activate a cutscene that THEN leads to a tough fight), I’d like to at least be given some indication that I ought to heal up and save, or at least take some other paths and clean out all the treasure chests first before advancing past this point, to increase my chances of surviving. Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne’s simple “You feel a strong presence behind the door…will you open it?” advisory comes most immediately to mind – I wish such bits of consideration on the part of developers, in any form, made appearances more frequently.
Brisk Battle Pacing – As was said earlier, battling should be a good thing, but no matter how well the fighting system is crafted the whole thing can begin to wear on you if it, well, drags. After all, taking one’s time and giving one’s undivided attention to everything that’s happening when facing a new or major enemy is one thing, but no matter how much care is put into it, every single fight isn’t going to be equally enthralling or important, and best serves the collective cause by not wearing out its welcome. Thus, the auto-battle (making all party members use their default attacks repeatedly until the skirmish ends) and fast battle (any number of options to turn off animations, cut down lengthy sequences, etc.) options are greatly appreciated, whenever developers bother to include them – hitting a single button to toggle auto-battle on and off definitely beats mashing the “confirm” key and wishing the menus would come up faster, while ditching longwinded animations and such helps when you’re short on playing time. Offhand the original Breath of Fire is the earliest game I can think of which features some sort of auto-battle (I may well be wrong on this), but it still baffles me as to why this handy feature (and its cousins) hasn’t become a core standard by now.
Taking the “Grind” Out of Grinding – Here’s one more item specifically associated with the battle system, and perhaps the buzzword that makes gamers shudder more than any other when RPGs come up in conversation – grinding. Wandering around and fighting over and over again without making any real progress, usually because either A) You’ve reached a point where you need to gain levels to stand a chance against enemies much farther in, or B) The player just wants to unlock a new skill or some other feature associated with leveling up. If you ask me, situation “A” should never be a factor in a well-designed RPG – a player who wants to move along relatively quickly should be able to do so, as long as he doesn’t try to get out of every battle he encounters (if this is the case, then I’d suggest that he’s playing the wrong genre to begin with). On the other hand, I’m not opposed to grinding for other reasons – IF it’s well-implemented (yes, well-executed grinding can be done). Aside from the most important aforementioned factor (it MUST be optional), leveling for leveling’s sake must present the player with something more interesting to shoot for than a few higher stat numbers – AND shouldn’t make the player wait forever to get to them (some sort of “Exp. Bonus” ability can help here). As an example, say whatever you want about Pokemon, but it gives players an unforced incentive not to rush through every area, as spending some extra time wandering through the tall grass may incite an encounter with a creature you haven’t caught before – and the battles may cause one of your current creatures to evolve into a completely new one. Thus, hanging around in one place for awhile can yield results just as, if not more, interesting than what’s next on the “official” agenda. In short, players shouldn’t feel forced to spend time fighting without moving forward, but those who don’t mind doing so ought to feel that it was worth it.
Ease of Travel – One of the genre’s most appealing features to many players is how many places there are to see in just one game – while a few RPGs choose to remain relatively “small-scale,” which has its own appeal, most instead draw gamers in with a palpable sense of grandeur, giving them huge worlds to tool around in, and something of interest to see or do just about everywhere you happen to go. The frequent downside to this, however, is that there’s most always bound to be a long stretch between where you are and where you’re trying to get to, forcing you to traipse (and, frequently, fight) your way through long stretches which hold no immediate interest for you. While forcing players to take “the long way around” when encountering an area for the first time is understandable (after all, you can’t just let players skip around to their heart’s content until they reach the end credits), making them do it again when they want or need to backtrack a bit is far less excusable. Many RPGs fall back on the traditional “airship solution,” but this sort of universal travel mechanism is frequently not made available until the end of the game – while this does makes sense, considering that allowing players to go wherever they want from square one will likely result in them encountering challenges they’re not prepared to face (unless the entire game is tailored to avoid this, which gives birth to its own separate problems), it doesn’t solve the intrinsic problem at hand. In short, I’d like to see more RPGs give players a limited but effective way of quickly going back to where they’ve been for a majority of the game – the “teleport” mechanic of Blue Dragon comes most immediately to mind, but it’s hardly the only viable solution.
Not Leaving Me Clueless – I know that not everyone does this, but when I play through a game for the first time I like to do so without any sort of guide or other outside help if I can – the ol’ instruction manual is as far as I go until I’ve completed the sucker “blind” at least once. Sometimes, however, reading a FAQ after finishing a game to see what I missed the first time around can come as something of a nasty shock – more often than I’d care to remember, seeing what sort of arcane hoops I’d have needed to jump through to obtain certain powerful items makes me say “How in the heck did they expect me to figure THAT out?” Granted, the really powerful stuff should certainly not be a cake walk to get, but on the other hand it shouldn’t be so well-hidden that you have next to zero chance of even knowing it exists unless you’re reading ahead. I like figuring out a tough puzzle or uncovering a well-hidden path as much as anyone, but in many cases doing so is next to impossible without at least a slight nudge on the game’s part – even if it’s just a random townsperson making fleeting mention of an obscure rumor or a momentary glimpse at a seemingly unreachable treasure chest, it’s at least a hint that I should be looking for something. I’m not demanding the answer on a silver platter, but I need to at least know that there’s a question being asked in the first place – while it’s not a “pure” RPG, did anyone seriously figure out how to get the Beryl Circlet on their own in Symphony of the Night? If so, you’re a lot more perceptive than I am, to say the least.
Changing gears a little, success within an RPG is almost without exception quite reliant on proper preparation on the player’s part – this, in turn, is dependent on the player having some idea of what exactly he should be preparing for. Thus, if the boss of the current dungeon uses stupidly powerful fire spells that I stand no earthly chance against unless I equip fire-resistant equipment, I’d like some premonition of what I ought to bring with me into that battle – if I’m flattened the first time around because the game didn’t give me the slightest hint as to what I should be doing beforehand, it’s not a Game Over I’ll feel I’ve “earned” (lacking a better term). Again, it doesn’t have to be super-obvious – even if such a hint is only obtainable via thorough exploration of that dungeon or persistent information hunting in the previous town, just, again, give me something besides purely blind luck to go on. Also, while I’m at it, allow me to wag a finger at the handful of developers who choose to keep the inner workings of many of the game’s basic systems secret from the player for most (or all) of the game – honestly, it’s been nearly ten years and I STILL have no freakin’ clue how Tetra Master works (except that it sucks, but that’s another article).
Not Fearing Improvisation – Segueing from the previous item, RPGs are indeed largely about being prepared in advance for the challenges you face – we’re okay with this (again, provided that aspect is polished enough to expunge unnecessary frustration), but all the same we’d like at least a little bit of ability to act spontaneously without completely screwing ourselves over. Or, if you want to get REALLY crazy, why not encourage a bit of thinking on one’s feet from your players? It doesn’t have to be anything fancy – something as basic as a “wait/skip” option that allows you to “save” a party member’s ready action for later if he’s not able to contribute anything this particular round, instead of forcing gamers to waste his turn and have to wait a full cycle before he’s available again. Or the ability to switch in your reserves – encountered an enemy only vulnerable to magic, but only have physical attackers in your group? Instead of forcing players to drive themselves nuts (and probably die), unable to change their setup until battle’s over, why not let them switch their Monk out for a Black Mage when they need it? Or, to bring up elemental weaknesses again, let them switch to a different set of armor if their current duds turn out not to work too well against a particular bugger? Say what you will about Final Fantasy X, but it did very well in this area – I almost never felt that failure on my part was due to a lack of options at my disposal. Moreover, this sort of freedom doesn’t have to make the game less challenging – why not include more enemies that can change their own tactics and such at will, forcing players to keep on their toes and not rule any particular setup or strategy out completely? Finally, if you’re going to offer such freedom, don’t attach too many strings, as if you’re grumbling about it all the while – i.e., don’t make switching out party members such an all-consuming event that it allows the enemy to beat the snot out of you in the meantime, thus rendering it all but completely useless.
Giving Me References – If you want to boil it down a good ways, success in a role-playing game comes down to how well the player can manipulate and take advantage of the information he’s given (yeah, I guess you could say that about any game, but it’s more front-and-center here than most other types) – as was mentioned before, giving players enough information to keep them from getting frustrated is a must for any respectable RPG. Taking things a step further, though, I would argue that giving players open access to information that’s not particularly “vital” can still have a profound effect on the overall experience. For instance, how many times have you managed to find some sort of special key halfway through a game that lets you open all those locked chests you’d seen along the way, and then have to waste your time trying to remember where they all were, unless you’d been scrawling them down on a sheet of paper the whole time (Atelier Iris 2, via roundabout means, makes sure this is not a problem for you – I’m hard-pressed to think of any others)? Or realized that you need a particular item later on for a certain type of weapon forging – you know that you’d seen some monster from way back when drop it, but which one? Or just wanted to review a particular clue that a villager gave you awhile ago, to make sure you hadn’t missed something therein? Why more RPGs don’t offer you a bestiary, item compendium, key term encyclopedia, or other such menu-screen database is beyond me – it’s not like they really need to add anything new to the game, just give a player more unrestricted access to what’s already there. Of course, if a developer DOES go the extra mile (i.e. writing up “biographies” of characters or enemies, offering extra background regarding the game’s world, etc.), I certainly won’t protest.
User-Friendly Cutscenes – While there’s definitely some merit to the idea that the use of cutscenes should be minimized in general, the fact of the matter is that they’re unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon – not to mention that, truth be told, sometimes it’s just nice to sit back and watch a little bit of the plot unfold without having to constantly death-grip your controller. In any event, since RPG gamers in particular are likely to be dealing with cutscenes from time to time for awhile to come, we’d appreciate it if developers didn’t get so caught up in showing off all that pretty CG and such that they forget how things are on our end. In her aforementioned article Colette specifically mentioned the ability to pause a cutscene if you need to suddenly get up for a minute – considering how simple, yet maddeningly elusive a feature this is, I can only assume that it never occurs to many game makers that time doesn’t stop during their cutscenes (or else they’re even lazier than we think). Heck, even if they don’t feel like adding this feature for whatever reason, why not throw us a bone via the aforementioned “Glossary” feature, and allow players to view past cutscenes at will from there? Or, on the other end of things, why not also give us the option to skip through scenes we’ve seen before, if we’re in a hurry? Ah, and before I forget, I also ought to mention that by now every game ought to have a standard set of dialogue/language/subtitle options for situations like this (and the game in general) – if you really want players to enjoy your little mini-movies, let us tailor them to our needs and preferences a little bit. We won’t destroy your artistic vision, honest.
Well, that’s about all, I suppose – the things I consider to be “forgotten” essentials within the RPG genre. Well, at least the ones I could think of – I’m sure you have others, and I’d certainly be interested to hear what they are (remember, keep them as genre-specific as you can!). Hopefully you enjoyed this feature – I currently plan on doing two more of them, and see what happens from there. See you next time, and thanks for reading.