I sat down to start work on another Good Idea/Bad Idea, having just been heartily inspired by an evening of playing Fire Emblem when the most unfortunate thing occurred. Having already decided on the subject matter, and having multiple Bad examples of it, I arrived at what was to be the "Good Idea" half the block, and damned if I couldn't think of a single example.
The subject matter was to be "Late Game Party Additions." Yes, another RPG/SRPG spectre, and one that is just handled so terribly so often. You know of what I speak; ten, fifteen, twenty hours into a game, and suddenly you are handed a new party member to add to your team. I'm not talking about secret characters here that you have to go out and find, I'm talking about story-required characters that you can't say no to adding. Too often all this adds is tears, and I do not speak of the joy variety.
BAD IDEA Things are always cooler in Moon language
The inspiration for this little adventure is Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn. As this does involve the late game, I give you fair warning that this will also involve spoilage, just in case any of you out there are still slogging through it.
Fire Emblem, if you have never played it, is one of the most venerable series of SRPGS, with the first one having come out approximately 500 years ago. Ok, it was actually 1990, for the Famicom, but that's still a pretty long time. The games have not changed much over the years, focusing on the player controlling a band of soldiers, each a unique individual, and fighting their way through turn-based missions. A player's units come in a variety of different classes, and can provide interesting interactions with each other through the game's Support system. The real kicker is, and this is one of things FE is well known for, when one of your units is killed in battle, that's it; they are now an ex-unit. No resurrections, no reincarnations, not even an option for zombification; the unit is gone gone gone. 500 years ago, Fire Emblem was played on tiles fashioned of the finest jade from the mountains of the Orient.
What this has the effect of doing, at least to a player like me, is to make you care a hell of a lot about your units. Watching the character's stories develop, watching them develop relationships with the other characters, it all serves to make me want to do my best to keep every single one of those lil' buggers alive.
This, you might say, sounds like a good thing. And you are correct; a game making you care about your normally disposable units is
a good thing, and that's where the problem comes in.
There are a lot of characters in the newest Fire Emblem, so it's inevitable that you start to focus on a few (this is actually extra hard, since the game forces you to use different sets of units during different story arcs, but that's another issue...). When you finally get to the end of the game, to the ultimate confrontation in the final few battles, you are all set to take your finest warriors to seize their chance for glory. But wait! FE has a little surprise for you! You can only take a limited number of units with you into the final set of battles, which is not so surprising. What is surprising is that the game, first of all, makes a handful of units mandatory. The downside here is that some of these units are pretty crappy. I mean, you could've leveled the wazoo out of them, and they'd still be bad. This means you get to take a few less of the units you probably care about and have been growing through the game up to this point.
But to really push the knife in, the game then turns around and adds a handful of units to your party that just kick the ass of most of the units you have. Even your best units, that you've been lovingly leveling and improving suddenly seem pretty weak compared to the powerhouses the game hands you here at the climax of the game. And the thing is, the end battles are pretty damn tough even with these powerhouses. Leave them out and you're probably dooming yourself.
So now, instead of taking your chosen party of destiny into the final battle, you instead have to pick and choose which select members of that group you want to take, backed up by a bunch of lousy characters and a bunch of really awesome ones, both of which you probably have almost no attachment to. If that's not a bad idea, I don't know what is.
BONUS BAD IDEA CAN YOU FEEL THE THUNDAAAAAAAAA!
When I speak the name T.G. Cid, I have a feeling an awful lot of you know what I mean. I know I cannot be the only one who blazed my way through the end chapters of Final Fantasy Tactics almost feeling like I was cheating every time I put him in the party. Always hasted, strong as a the spawn of a cyborg ox and a robot bull (don't think about it), and arrayed with a full arsenal of kick-ass abilities, T.G. Cid earned the T.G. before his name quite handily.
Now, fortunately Cid was just one character, and you weren't forced to use him, but again we have a situation where a game throws an overpowered character your way at a late stage. To me, who of course had once again lovingly raised my randomly named minions, T.G. Cid was sort of the game saying "hey, forget those guys. Check out this awesome shit!" THE BIG PROBLEM
The thing of it is, most games are working hard to get the player to make an investment in their characters. Be it as a simple as an investment in time to try and make a character/unit better, or in the case of good games (or the right kind of player), an emotional investment. To spend ten or twenty or even more hours with a group of characters, working to make them the best they can be, and then to suddenly have the game turn around and hand you something much better than what you've probably accomplished feels kind of like a slap in the face. Or, on the flip side of that, the game hands you a character so totally weak that you're not even going to bother taking a second look at them. Why not let the player take the connection they have fostered all the way through to the end? Do the designers really have that little faith?
As I said, I couldn't think of a single game that has handled this well. So, please, if you know of any, let me know. I like to hold out hope that somewhere out there some intrepid game has found the perfect balance, but part of me also feels that it's just a no-win situation for the player. Is there a game that proves me wrong?