Monday, February 14, 2011

Musings on Japanese Role-Playing Games

On Sunday Afternoon, I hung out with my good friend Jason, who recently returned from South Africa. We were catching up and showing some of our latest video game acquisitions; he showed me Final Fantasy XIII and Lost Odyssey and I showed him Warriors Orochi, Aliens Vs. Predator and Fallout: New Vegas.

Upon showing me Final Fantasy XIII, I immediately saw the goods – the flashy cutscenes, the awesome cutscenes, and the awesome flashy cutscenes. It's exactly as how it was panned by reviewers. It isn't to say it's without its merits. The problem is, the game doesn't have any new ones. The best parts of it are the good parts of other Final Fantasy games. Furthermore, the ATB (Active Time Battle) system is still in use. While it has been modified, it's still what it is. This has been around for 20 years. Square, you need to scrap this. What I saw that I liked was the overworld where you could choose to fight by running into your enemies; how you encounter them is determined by the angle with which you enter the battle. Buuut...this is from FF XII. You can also change class in the middle of battle, which opens up new tactical avenues. Too bad this is from X-II. Then there's the Job system which hails all the way back to Final Fantasy V...I guess I shouldn't complain, though. Not like The Elder Scrolls has gone through any real leaps and bounds since Morrowind. But I don't have to battle for hours on end to beat a super-powerful opponent, which has always been a problem with the Final Fantasy series. But Jay loves it, so it's all good.

I should backtrack a little. For those of you who don't know what a role-playing game is, it's a game where you go on an adventure and develop characters. More often than not, these characters are pre-defined (and rail-roaded into specific equipment and style builds). In some of the games, you will be in control of a team of characters, called a party. In others, you may only be in control of a single character. Characters generally develop by “leveling up”, which is where their abilities enter a new plateau. How they level up is generally based on their class. The means by which these plateaus are defined depends on the game. Most rely on acquiring points called Experience Points. When you get enough, you advance to the next plateau. Others are based on skill advancement; when you've used a skill enough times, it levels up. When you've leveled up enough skills, your character will then level up.

Each character can use various weapons and equipment, even magic – unless the character is railroaded into very specific equipment and skills. This has been an ongoing thing with JRPG's since about 1993 when Breath of Fire hit it big. Characters can develop skills as well, athough this is dependent on the game. Final Fantasy characters have no really need to sneak or pick locks – and in fact, can't. Skill sets are more common in North American and European RPG's, where character builds seem to be much more specialised as far as skills go and much more generalised as far as equipment is concerned.

Some of the more popular role-playing universes are Final Fantasy, Shin Megami Tensei, The Elder Scrolls, Fallout and Diablo. The majority of these are completely unique from each other.

Getting back to showing off games, the next game was Lost Odyssey. This was definitely not my cup of tea. Or I should say that it's the kind of game I'd need a good 20 hours or so to figure out if I actually like it. For such a recent game, I found that it felt more like a SNES RPG like Lufia. - which is 18 years old. Old gameplay styles sometimes hold up. If you don't believe me, play New Super Mario Brothers, it's fanastic. Unlike Final Fantasy XIII, I actually played Lost Odyssey. The first thing that put me off was that I was running into random fights one after the other. Seconds apart at best. This is something that has been expressly protested against from both reviewers and gamers and for good reason: Even if an RPG has a great combat system, constantly fighting can get old fast. From what I gathered in the 15 minutes that I played, the game's combat system is equally antequated.

Somewhere along the line between 1997 and 2001, I developed a dislike for Japanese Role-Playing Games, also known as JRPGs, specifically turn-based JRPGs. A lot of people like them for their story and superficial character development, which is all well and good. But a story can only carry a game so far. I've always carried the belief that if the gameplay isn't good, it doesn't matter how enthralling the story is; the game sucks. Now, with JRPG series – especially Final Fantasy – you really need to watch your P's and Q's; the fanbase is big and rabid. I could be arrogant and say that this is a crowd that doesn't know art but knows what it likes, although that would probably be a better description of me.

Part of the reason that I dislike the genre is that, for the mostpart, it hasn't made any serious leaps and bounds in terms of gameplay since the late 1990's. This is a generalisation, and in fact, it's mostly applicable to Final Fantasy. But it does hold true for a lot of other series, unfortunately. As a matter of fact, I would say the last truly innovative turn-based RPG from Japan was Chrono Trigger (1994), but that's also the last one that I had played that I would give that distinction to. The other problem with this genre is that there's not a whole lot you can do with turn-based systems. It's all been done. Active battle systems - where you take turns in real time – have been honed and refined to the point that you really can't do a whole lot with them. The class systems are only a few generations away from being similar to GURPS (where your characters' prowess and class is more defined by chosen skills than by a specific template), which is used in the majority of the Elder Scrolls series. Another problem is character advancement. Square Enix has some great ideas with their job-wheel, but everything either boils down to a statistic or a spell. At least they're allowing users to upgrade equipment, now. This has been a huge thing with Western RPG's since Diablo II introduced the concept of “sockets”, which would allow you to place statistical modifiers onto weapons and armour.

My friends all know where my ambivalence in general towards JRPG's come from: Final Fantasy VII. Now, to be fair, I was playing Final Fantasy VII and The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall side by side. This is impotant because FF VII is highly polished whereas Daggerfall, while recognised as a bug machine, still maintained very high ratings and won far, far more rewards. In short, it was like being forced to choose between blade steak and Filet Mignon. With Sauce BĂ©rnaise. Yeah, I know, hard choice. In the end, I forgot about FF VII and spent six months in Tamriel.  Why?   Final Fantasy VII was a minimalist RPG and Daggerfall was everything plus the kitchen sink and an extra pair of blinds thrown in. While all of Final Fantasy VII worked (whereas some of Daggerfall was broken), FF VII's features were okay but mostly superficial, and little of it was new. The stuff in Daggerfall that did work was absolutely necessary for character development, and the stuff that didn't was superficial fluff. Conceptually very cool, but ultimately useless. FF VII essentially moved in a straight line, Daggerfall was open-ended and huge. Where Final Fantasy pigeon-holed character builds, Daggerfall let you do whatever you wanted. But FF VII had the wicked-cool cutscenes, super-evil villains, and had an alleged green agenda. Daggerfall had crooked politicians, conniving lords and crazy seers. Oh, and a plot to usurp the Imperial throne.

A lot of the Final Fantasy stuff is unfortunately stereotypical for the turn-based JRPG. That isn't to say that they're all bad, let alone exactly all the same. Unfortunately, I do get the impression of every single one that I read about that the Japanese developers take superficial things very seriously. Either that or they've run out of gameplay ideas and simply mask them with unique methods that still result in the same ends. Like in one of the Shin Megami Tensei games where the characters attack enemies by essentially mimicking suicide. I mean, either way, they're still taking a turn to attack the opponent. It just has a sado-masochistic vibe – which is still superficial. It isn't like Oblivion where you can perform different charged attacks based on the direction you move in, and each of these attacks can have another special property.

Final Fantasy VI (which came out in 1993) brought some really awesome combat ideas to the table, and these have helped keep the series from going completely stale. These include being able to steal from opponents in combat, using special equipment, and charging up special attacks. This was nerfed (made significantly less effective) horribly in Final Fantasy VII, but from what I've gathered, many JRPGs still plant special attacks on characters. Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre did, and these attacks really helped bring the classes out into their own. Games like Final Fantasy which pigeon-hole characters and make them very cookie-cutter (Every FF game after VI has someone that only uses swords, someone that only uses staves, etc.) are being crippled right out of the door. Even Blizzard's Diablo II, a game with specific character classes, was developed so that each character can be highly customizable – and they are. Excluding class-specific equipment, any weapon or armour is good to go. The real differences are weapon proficiency and skills – but that's as far as the restrictions go.

Obviously, playing games in which the ability to customize becomes a superficial venture annoys me. I have to admit, the Final Fantasy games have very strong stories and the characters contain a great deal of depth. Moreso than Western RPG's, but they tend not to go into “TMI” territory. If you're questing for the Holy Rock of Saint Richard The Minute, does it really matter if the quest-giver is a homosexual philanderer who still sleeps with women, likes to eat babies, bark at the moon and cry a river over spoiled food? Probably not.

I guess that's not fair, JRPG's aren't that bad. They sometimes kind of feel like it, and coming to Western RPG's, a lot characters tend to hold their thoughts and emotions close to the chest until the time is right. Knights of the Old Republic is a beautiful example of this, as is every Elder Scrolls canon title from Daggerfall to present. The Fallout series is also a good example of this. However, unlike Final Fantasy, most of these games are not actually driven by the story; they're driven by exploration, loot, opportunity for moral depravity and leveling up. In the Fallout series, you tend to not even know who the real enemy is until the very end – in fact the first game in the series to break this tradition was Fallout 3. Even the console game, Fallout Brotherhood of Steel, leaves you completely in the dark until about three quarters of the way in. Mind you, anyone who played Fallout 2 would have had an idea who would try to throw the lionfish into the blender after playing Fallout 3 for a couple of hours.

Clearly, Western storytelling is wildly different than Japanese storytelling. Or is it? Atlus uses the Fallout method in many of its games – and it seems to actually produce far more RPG's than most companies in a single year. At least they know the value of the twist.

This isn't to say that all Japanese RPGs suck. I very much like The Ogre Battle/Tactics Ogre series by Atlus (in fact, I like a lot of their RPG's in general, at least what I've played), and they try to take great leaps and bounds to change the genre. Their action RPGs aren't half-bad, either. Summon Knight comes to mind here.

That said, Square-Enix has a tough road ahead of them to regain me as even a potential customer. Final Fantasy VI had me wanting more, and Final Fantasy VII was a quick dive to snap up the casual RPG gamers – and unfortunately, the series didn't stop there until XII. For the fanbase, XIII is another slap in the face. Mistwalker, the guys who made Lost Odyssey and, as far as I remember, Blue Dragon? They don't even have a chance. They need to bring their gameplay out of the dawn of the 90's, because no shiny graphics can cover that up.

That said, does it mean that old games are inferior? Not exactly, some things are timeless. Like Super Mario World, Syndicate, Smash TV, Contra, and despite the newer games in the series, Street Fighter II. You need to figure out for yourself what you like and what you don't like; it doesn't pay to be an elitist because you tend to miss out. And as long as the Xbox 360 gets inferior JRPG's and I remain short of cash, I guess I'll be missing out, too. Of course, I also need a 40 hour+ long game like I need a hole in the head.

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