For some cocking reason, during my wee lad stages, JRPG's never grabbed me like the many shooters, racers, and platformers that made up most of my gaming time. I don't remember being particularly picky as even splassics like Wizard Of Oz for the SNES got plenty of attention from me and I even regularly played Vegas Stakes, which was nothing but virtual gambling.
I was fucking 8. Loving slots and roulette. Whatever! Yet, games like Final Fantasy, Legend of Dragoon, or Chrono Trigger, I barely even knew of. Well, I did play a tremendous amount of Pokemon, but who didn't? All those others, I completely ignored.
During the PS2 era, despite the many classics of said era and my tastes maturing, this only changed ever so slightly. I played hours and hours of Final Fantasy X, Star Ocean: TTEOT, and Kingdom Hearts, but I never finished them. I had the free time and persistance to do so, but they were always dropped in favor of games of similar length, such as GTA: San Andreas, that I happened to fall more in line with.
These days, on the other hand, there aren't many games I'll flat out refuse to try and the Internet has proved to be paramount in that newfound passion for video gaming. I've found love in the survival horror genre, Flower is one of my favorite games of all time, I actually sort of dig Dear Esther, and I've been dabbling in just about any JRPG I can get my hands on.
Here's the kicker: I still can't finish a single one.
With an exception...
It's been a while since I've felt truly passionate about what I'm writing about. Even my music blogs can sometimes be more trouble than they're worth, for as much as I may absolutely love video game music and music in general. But, this? Ever since delving into Persona 4: Golden around the time it released, I have been absorbing myself in the universe of Shin Megami Tensei and have been, for the most part, consistently enthralled. It might very well now be my favorite franchise of games, so I've been dying to give it some critical attention at length.
Yes. Shin Megami Tensei, whether it be mainline or it's many (and I do mean many) spinoffs, has remained almost literally the only JRPG franchise that has kept me engaged for the long haul since becoming an adult. There's always something about any other that makes me groan and, subsequently, quit. It's not even that SMT is always amazing. It most definitely is not. ATLUS just seems to know not to dick around when you're crafting an experience that isn't going to end anytime soon.
As I type this, SMT: Strange Journey is stuck in my 3DS on Sleep Mode, with nearly 20 happy hours of play put into it and I still cannot wait to see what's just around the next bend. Yet, most JRPG's struggle to hold my interest for even 2 or 3 hours. Weird, no?
Allow me to make a few points.
You see that world before you? Looks pretty snazzy, don't it? Too bad I never got to really explore it before I completely lost my patience with what is supposedly one of the greatest JRPG's of the last generation, Ni No Kuni.
Go on and say I'm crazy, but I was just not having what Ni No Kuni was having. Sure, it has excellent gameplay, great ideas, and beautiful visuals/art, but even ignoring it's awfully-presented story brimming with incredibly annoying characters (Drippy being the one I actually enjoyed) it's got some reprehensible issues with it's pacing and tutorials.
You see that, now? You will know this game's battle system and world mechanics like the back of your hand before you're through just dipping your feet because this game will refuse to shut up with some of the most patronizing and intrusive tutorials I've ever had to slug through. If I had a brick for every time I said "Yeah, I get it." or "Wow, fuck off already.", given some hired help and a little glue, I'd be able to construct an entire apartment complex.
I'm am serious. Not 3-25 seconds (I counted) of gameplay outside combat before hitting your first town (which can take a while) goes by without either banal dialogue or a thoroughly useless tutorial propping up. Even when I had hit that first town, I was still trying to be convinced that this mother/son story was a real tear-jerker when, so early into the game, there is no real reason for me to care about any of it. The mother had all of 5 minutes (if that) of screentime before she died and I'm supposed to feel sorry for this protagonist who I've also barely gotten to know.
To say that it was overplayed would be an understatement.
Essentially, what the story in the beginning amounted to was "A mother has died, which is an inherent fictional tragedy. Look! Those are tears he is crying. That is also sad, because they are tears and he's just a kid. Ahhh. This is such a powerful story". You know who else writes like that?
I didn't feel as if I was playing a game, moreso doing homework while momentarily getting distracted by something far more fun and interesting.
Who dies early in SMT? Fodder for a death count. Unknown soldiers. And they don't beat you over the head with it either. These deaths add early tension and intrigue, not EMOSHUN.
When you are made to care about someone's death, it's fucking tragic. For anyone who's gone down the Chaos path in SMTIV, you know exactly what I mean. It's heavy. It's heartbreaking. Even if you weren't that big a fan of this particular character, there is something to be said in the gruesome way that they die and especially considering all you had been through with them.
Not even Persona is at all laden with tutorials. Just like SMT proper, they hand you the basics in a concise manner and then leave the rest to you. Hell, your initial fights in Persona offer no tutorials at all! You know why? There's not exactly a whole lot left to the imagination when your only options are a single attack, no magic, no ability to escape, and a single target.
If this were Ni No Kuni, you can bet your sweet bippy that these fights would make damn sure that you understood that whatever menu selection was highlighted was what was going to shift into a new menu when you pressed 'X', that "Attack" was where your "attacks" were, etc. They'd probably even make sure you remembered what the function for moving around your character outside combat was so that you could smoothly transition into another series of tutorials in the next fight.
This is what's called respecting the player's intelligence. If I feel as if I'm being treated like an idiot, simply put, I'm not gonna be on good terms with either the game or it's developers. Many other games are the victim of terrible tutorials, but at least those end much quicker than Ni No Kuni's and while Ni No Kuni might be more mechanically complicated than a lot of games, there are intuitive ways of teaching a player your game, no matter how complicated, without burdening them with text.
You're artists, not manufacturers. Get creative.
You might've noticed that I haven't once complained about the very idea of focusing on a game's story rather than it's gameplay. That seems to be a common misconception whenever I make complaints not just about Ni No Kuni, but any game of it's kind. No. That isn't my problem. Remember that I said I actually liked Dear Esther (despite it's pretension)? My focus simply lies in how a game's story and gameplay are presented to me.
For it's first several hours, Persona 4 is mostly story. However, story and gameplay are delivered with a clear consistency, there are little tutorials, there is build-up rather than senseless/anxious prodding of your humanity, and complimenting all that is a general quality that is incredibly solid.
Ni No Kuni lacks all of that. All the more painful is that it would be just fine, juvenile storytelling aside, had the developers known not to take the piss out of their own ideas.
A little more talk and a lot less action
This isn't actually something I have a big issue with (now), but it has been something I've found myself occasionally irking over since Pokemon Black/White and how SMT handles it is simply preferable.
You see, in Pokemon Black/White, like in every substantial Pokemon entry, there is a "Team" antagonist. A group of jerks that are out to do jerk things in Poke'Land. Here, they are called "Team Plasma". For some time, they are made out to be basically the Pokemon world's answer to PETA. However, it is later revealed that their push for Poke'quality was but a front for tricking the not-jerks into releasing their Pokemon in an attempt to thin out potential resistance.
A masterful plot, to be sure! But, no matter their ulterior motives, this canonical concern over Pokemon "enslavement" got me thinking that, ya know... yeah. Pokemon is essentially cockfighting. All those years spent playfully butting into other trainers and Pokemon for friends, XP, and glory was given new perspective and, for a long while, it made me feel very guilty for wanting to continue with the franchise.
I know it's sounds stupid. I get it. "It's just a game". That would be reasonable, had Team Plasma never been a thing. I can continue pretending what I'm doing in a game is all on the up and up and loosely justifiable so long as said game doesn't then try to tell me that maybe what I'm doing is, realistically, pretty terrible.
At that point, fantasy and reality collide in the most unpleasant of ways. While an interesting idea and an adorable satire on the radical side of PETA, Team Plasma doesn't lend well to the universe of Pokemon. In fact, it blows it wide open.
Thankfully, after a little while, I've gotten over it and will happily play even Black or White to it's conclusion. Still, for these past few years, I haven't been able to play Pokemon with as purely innocent of a mind as I was once able to.
In SMT proper, as well as in Persona 1 and 2, you aquire demons/personas by conversing with them. Consolidating them according to their personal tastes or morals will usually start things off, though sometimes they will extend a helping hand before you even have a chance to select "Talk". Typically, that's not the case as you usually must negotiate after the aforementioned conversation in order to officially win their favor. This could mean paying them, granting them an item from your inventory, letting them pummel you right quick, etc.
Assuming it all goes well, they will then usually end up your allies from there on out.
I use words like "usually" quite a lot here because the system is very unpredictable. Demons/personas may just take what they get from you and leave, they may refuse to talk to you, their stances aren't even always the same. You only have vague hints to work off of, such as their visual attire, how they answer to previous questions, the manner in which they speak, their fighting styles, etc. Though, as I've said, this sometimes isn't enough.
While this unpredictability can occasionally prove annoying given the level of challenge SMT provides and the necessity of aquiring as many allies as possible, most of the time it's very satisfying and crafts a believable world where otherwordly and intelligent creatures live and fight alongside or against humans. Whereas Pokemon, by comparison, is, ironically, far more brutal and contrived.
It makes plunging the world into total chaos, destroying it entirely, instilling God's law, somewhere in-between, etc. with a clear concious a whole lot easier.
Skill over outside reliance
In stark contrast to Ni No Kuni, Rogue Galaxy was an equally as vibrant experience that I was finding myself very much enjoying from the onset. Aspects lovingly reminescent of the original Star Wars trilogy and action-RPG concepts that were actually somewhat creative rather than derivative of many other JRPG's, there was something immediately likeable about the whole thing.
Collecting and crafting new equipment was also insanely addictive, your allies were fun and humerous (despite some dodgy voice acting here or there), there were multiple playable characters almost from the get-go, the combat had as much flair as it did fun... there were so many things to love about the game.
Until I realized exactly why it was I was finding the combat so "satisfying".
Considering how cheap these things are, the game seems balanced not around the combat, but around your ability to grind as many potions as possible.
Once I began to feel as if the game was becoming a little too difficult, I began to reevaluate my strategies around blocking more rather than using it as an afterthought. This gave me a chance to observe just how the AI was doing without my assistance and, wow, they're fucking idiots.
"THIS is why I'm loosing potions and revives so quickly?!", I asked myself. I've seen the AI literally stand perfectly still for seconds, doing nothing, leaving themselves open for a critical blow. Given the real-time aspect of the combat and the inability to pause and closely observe the battlefield (camera controls are switched off while paused), there is no intuitive way of making sure your allies are making use of their most basic functions like they should be.
You can change characters at almost any time, yes, but this will only alleviate so much frustration. The "Team Commands" also don't do a terrible amount. "Stand Back" is telling them to do nothing while clumsily running away and only sometimes blocking, "All-Out" will have them using potions and revives automatically (they at least do that pretty well), "Focus on the same target" I swear doesn't even fucking work, etc.
The last boss I fought was the final straw. He has a far-reaching insta-kill attack which, naturally, requires having a few revives on hand. You can't be playing all 3 party members at the same time, so somebody is likely going to die and that somebody might very well be the main protagonist who is the only person on the team that has the tools required to allow damage from other teammates to be done to the boss.
Smart. Really smart.
In SMT, items are often used as last-minute resorts. In combat, if you have the right team, you'll hardly ever need to use them except for those rare instances. Not only that, but using potions on a consistent basis will require a lot of money. Money better spent on the Compedium, gear, upgrades, etc.
There are attributes that will negate some attacks completely, send damage back, convert the damage into health, or simply resist certain attacks. You can also have your own insta-kill attacks, as ineffective as they may often be. All the while, the games are still very challenging and you will only make it out alive if you know exactly what it is you are doing even at times you are convinced you absolutely "got it".
Early on, the games may even outright hand you plenty of healing items or even a healer demon/persona. Before long, observant players will have it become clear that healing attributes are far more useful than simple potions and that's when you start experimenting with Fusion. You may even want to keep some demons/personas in your inventory for the sole purpose of using their skills outside combat (which is a thing you can totally do) to heal your party.
Building an A-Team of perfect warriors for every occasion or grinding items. Which sounds more fun to you?
I'm not going to pretend that items are completely useless in SMT or that they aren't sometimes just about required, but at least 95% of the time it all comes down to healers and how efficient you are at maxing out your parties. That, to me, is significantly more satisfying and actually makes me feel as if I'm accomplishing something rather than letting an item so easily obtained do all the work for me.
In regards to SMT's own "Team Commands", many seem to think Persona 3 before Portable was, at times, almost unplayable because the AI was inable to follow up on said commands.
If I'm being frank, I don't think these people knew how to use them all that well because in my 50+ hours of Persona 3: FES (granted, this is only maybe halfway through), I only had Yukari make a single mistake in healing me rather than a weakened teammate. Could higher difficulties (I was on Normal) exaccerbate this minor issue? I don't doubt it, but I, personally, never found them to be detrimental in the slightest. Each command drastically changed each member's strategy and, 99% of the time, they did what I expected of them. Whether it was guarding, buffs/debuffs, exploiting weaknesses, whatever.
But, hey, there is always Portable.
Now, this one? This one hurts. It really hurts. But, I gotta say... I had to quit Final Fantasy IX.
It wasn't because it was bad. Lord, no. For it's first 15-20 hours, it was sheer quality. The charming characters, the gorgeous settings, the great music, the story, the solid combat... I was so convinced that I was going to finally finish a Final Fantasy game, be able to talk about it with fellow fans, and maybe even read our Ben Davis' Experience Points piece on it.
Final Fantasy IX was shaping up to be one of the greatest games I had ever played, but I, sadly, just couldn't take the immense amount of grinding required to experience the game's best aspects.
Whereas Rogue Galaxy relied on potions to get you through even some run of the mill fights, Final Fantasy IX simply makes it all too easy for that to become how you get yourself through fights despite it's lack of challenge.
At the point that I was at, in a very short amount of time, I am able to casually obtain plenty of "gil". Enough gil, in fact, to suit up with the latest gear, some extra niceties, as well as a whopping 99 potions and still have maybe 10,000-20,000 gil leftover. For the uninitiated, that is a lot. I had way more gil than I knew what to do with and my enemies stood no chance against both my supply of potions and my various healing spells.
To make matters worse, combat in Final Fantasy IX is simplified to a fault. Besides gratuitous healing outside combat, my strategy was the same attack for every character and for just about every fight. Even most boss fights had a certain air of predictability to them. "Instead of using this attack with this character at all times, I'll have to occasionally use this one." like it was no big deal.
Lack of difficulty and monotony do not go well hand in hand. I can play a game for it's artistry or story, but not when it's 50-100+ hours long. After some time, the actual act of playing can quickly become a burden when I'm not getting any meaningful feedback from the game. Pointless battles, long treks on-foot, etc.
If I could skip the gameplay of Final Fantasy IX, I most definitely would.
Boss fights in SMT? Hollllyyyyyy shit. You better believe they matter.
SMTIV, in particular, has some of the most legitimately frightening or intimidating boss fights I've ever witnessed. Merkabah, Lilith, Lucifer, Pluto, Asmodeus, etc. and even if you are fully-prepared with tons of items, the best demons, and the best skills, things will only go so easy as long as you have an exact strategy in mind and even then you can be surprised.
Personally, playing for stats and memorizing the objective best party to use for every fight is no fun. So, I usually get members that I'm presuming I'll need and then I pick out who I happen to be feeling that playthrough. So, I'm only making it even more challenging for myself. Heh.
"I want that one. I like him."
I also just have a really terrible memory. So that helps.
While there might be some grinding to do in these games, it never gets old because of it's perfect level of challenge. It may look easy, it may even feel easy, but just wait until you either make just a single mistake or are thrown just one curveball. Momentum is suddenly in the enemy's court and you have to think fast.
The battles themselves also stay interesting as exploiting an enemy's weakness is of the utmost importance. The exact fashion in how these systems play out varies from game to game, but, at their core, it remains the same: Know what attacks work best for which enemy. Don't do that and fights will either last much much longer (wasting HP, MP, items, and lots of time) or you'll die very quickly. Demons/personas aren't Pokemon where their attributes are often front and center. Just because an enemy can fly, doesn't mean it's weak against "zio" attacks. Though some do have obvious weaknesses, most do not.
Not only are you always on your feet, but your strategies must differ from fight to fight. All of this accomplished with very simple mechanics rather than branching rulesets, weird deviations, or randomness (... not that there's anything wrong with that).
SMT does so much with so little and that's something I've always appreciated in any medium. Perfectionists have a lot on their plate if they want to be the very best you can possibly be at these games, all the while casuals have both strict rules yet plenty of freedom in how they can act within said rules.
God, I love this franchise.
I didn't think this blog would be quite this long, but there it is. Words, man.
I still have plenty more JRPG's to try. Final Fantasy XII has been fairly impressive (awkward acting aside), but I've only played a few hours. Wild Arms 4 is also in my collection and that should prove interesting as people seem pretty polarized about the changes that came from the staples of 1-3. I should also give Tales of Xillia a second try.
Oh and I've been meaning to play Valkyria Chronicles for a loooooooooooong time. I bet that's at least decent. Maybe even worth a complete run. And Xenoblade! That was pretty good. But, again, I only did get in a few hours. Stuff like Xenoblade and Final Fantasy XII were games I was playing back when I had nowhere near the moxy to complete games I have now or had when I was much younger.
But, as of now, my point stands. There are so many JRPG's that I just cannot gel with and, somehow, it all comes back to SMT.
And while we're at it...
Such fucking good music!