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Friday, August 9, 2013

Four Things That Make JRPGs Great

What Makes A Great JRPG?

There’s something almost intangible about what makes an RPG truly special. Sometimes, the game’s mechanics, storyline, and presentation all come together and make a truly great experience, one that is more than the sum of its parts. Of course, sometimes one aspect of a game can be lacking, but it will have other features in excess, and it will still end up being enjoyable. Still other games just flat out suck, and fail to grasp even the fundamentals of good game design, making for a joyless, soul-crushing experience.  
Now, I came off from playing Xenosaga Episode 1 (which is one of those games that flat out sucks, just so we’re clear) and was feeling very, very disengaged from gaming afterwards. A double dose of Ocarina of Time and Shin Megami Tensei IV provided a cure of sorts, and though the Xenosaga games left a bitter taste in my mouth, they got me thinking about what makes the RPG genre tick for me. Where do some games succeed where others fail? I don’t really have any grand thesis where this topic is concerned, since a lot of it boils down to personal preference, but there are a few things that I think makes RPGs that much more enjoyable. Interestingly, these are all things that Xenosaga Episode 1 completely failed to provide, so consider this a protracted takedown of this awful, awful game, as well as an opportunity to remember some truly fantastic games that are far more deserving of a player’s time.
I will, for the record, leave my original review of Xenosaga 1 on the site, even though it really isn’t representative of my opinion of the game anymore (I would have been much, MUCH harsher).

Number One- Have an Exciting Beginning

If you’re going to spend forty hours playing a single game, it should make an effort to impress you straight away. Be it with a flashy cinematic scene or a fun gameplay segment, the opening hours of a game should work to not only teach the player how to play, but also make an effort to awe the player and invest him or her in the world. Xenosaga’s opening can only be described as boring- despite a few intriguing plot elements being established, not a whole lot happens. After a confusing CGI scene where a group of scientists find some large golden monolith, we cut to our protagonist, as she runs errands on a spaceship for five hours. Not exactly the most engaging of introductions. Ironic, considering that the opening to Xenosaga’s spiritual predecessor, Xenogears, remains one of my favorites.  
Think back to the opening sequence of Final Fantasy VII. I guarantee you that there isn’t an RPG fan alive who doesn’t remember that opening, and with good reason. It’s the best possible introduction to the world and characters of Final Fantasy VII, grabbing the player’s attention with the dramatic music and the sweeping shot of Midgar, and then further drawing them in with Avalanche’s attack on the Mako Reactor. The opening of Final Fantasy VII succeeds on both basic levels, as it begins the story in epic fashion and provides an exciting gameplay segment. I’m not saying that every game needs to start with an action sequence, though- but it’s still important to get the ball rolling quickly, before the player has time to grow disengaged with the game. For instance, within the first hour of Chrono Trigger, the central plot element of time travel has already been introduced and the player finds themselves in medieval times. The point is, the introduction to an RPG can either get the player ready to embark on an epic journey, or it can make them turn off the console and go do something productive.

Number Two- Make Exploration Fun and Rewarding

There’s nothing wrong with a linear game. Most games are linear, where the player progresses through events through a certain order. However, just because a game is linear doesn’t mean that exploration should be discouraged. When it comes to RPGs, allowing the player to go off the beaten path and find things has the dual effect of making the world more believable, while the player is gaining more enjoyment from exploring the game world. To its credit, Xenosaga offers some optional minigames and the occasional out-of-the-way treasure chests, but the environments are so oppressive and sterile, funneling the player from one cutscene to the next, that exploration feels like a chore. At least in a game like Final Fantasy XIII, the environments are really pretty and vibrant, and there is at least one location the player can explore to their heart’s content.

Truly great RPGs have always allowed the player to explore their worlds, so I could realistically give any halfway competent game as an example. Curiously, my pick for this spot is Star Ocean: The Last Hope, which I understand is considered by many to be the black sheep of the Star Ocean franchise, but hey, I liked it well enough. One of the reasons I enjoyed The Last Hope so much was because I enjoyed exploring the environments. The game is about a group of planetary explorers, so each new planet means a new area to run around in, where crafting materials and hidden treasure chests and found in every nook and cranny. Now, I’m not saying The Last Hope was a great game solely due to this element, but I think it does show how even a game with serious problems can be enjoyable when the player is having fun exploring (look at Skyrim, for example). Giving the player free reign to explore the environment is one of the best ways to increase their investment in the game’s world.

Number Three- Have a Fun and Engaging Combat System

Do I even need to say it? Xenosaga’s combat was terrible. It was obtuse, where even twenty minutes of tutorial didn’t manage to convey all of the mechanics. It was slow, where most encounters would take almost ten minutes, and the enemies were hard to avoid and respawned constantly. The music was the same for EVERY SINGLE BATTLE except one, and I didn’t even mention that in the review for some reason. Worst of all, it was boring, and outside of the occasional difficult boss, it required no strategy.

Having a battle system that is quick, easy to understand, and fun is a key aspect of any RPG, since it’s the portion of the game that you will be spending the most time with. I think Final Fantasy VI is a game that nails the speed of combat, with most battles being over in less than a minute. Final Fantasy X has an engaging and strategic combat system, where being able to see the turn order lets the player formulate a plan of action, yet the battles don’t become bogged down or repetitive (I’d argue that FFX has the best combat system in the entire series). And of course, I can’t mention excellent combat systems without bringing up the Shin Megami Tensei series. Nocturne introduced us to the Press Turn battle system, where hitting enemy weaknesses gave the attacker an extra turn of battle. This simple concept is part of what makes Shin Megami Tensei games so challenging, yet so rewarding.

Number Four- The Little Things Are the Most Important
This is kind of subjective, but it’s something that I’ve started to pay more and more attention to- the little details in RPGs are what make the experience truly memorable. Not just the minute details in the world or the game’s presentation, though those are important. You can have massive production values and a grand cinematic storyline, but it’s the little character moments and story beats that add value to the overall experience. For all of Xenosaga’s pretention towards epic storytelling, I never once felt attached to any of its characters. They felt uninteresting, detached, and were not relatable in the slightest.   
I look back at many games and realize just how important those details are. It was the strange and colorful cast that helped to make Chrono Trigger so special. The very realistic and human drama of school life was at the center of Persona 4. Of course, the best Final Fantasies were the ones where we grew attached to the characters. Would Final Fantasy IX be nearly as memorable if we didn’t laugh at Zidane’s attempts to woo Princess Garnett, or cry at Vivi’s struggle to come terms with his identity and the inevitable end of his existence? The most important facet of RPG storytelling isn’t how convoluted the writers can make it or how much religious symbolism is shoved in, but the characters and how their relationships impact the plot.


So, there you have it. Four elements that I feel make for great RPGs, as well as aspects where Xenosaga 1 failed miserably. I'm not saying that every game need to have all of these aspects in order to be fun- but it certainly wouldn't hurt!  

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