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RPGs are bad “games”

posted on August 5th, 2008 by chris
Now Playing: Song Summoner

The JRPG genre is filled to the brim with games that are so ridiculously easy they are bad “games” – in the sense that a game is something you should have to play optimally to achieve success. The Suikoden series, my favorite of the past two generations, has gone from being “somewhat tricky in one or two battles” to “a breeze at its hardest, with pretty much no thought involved.”

Part of this is a plague of the genre – the phenomenon of grinding. For those who don’t want to think about what they’re doing, grinding is an easy way out. There’s no need to play perfectly when you can spend a few hours killing baddies and come back able to beat the tar out of the bigger baddies. It takes time, but then JRPGs are filled with fluff already (mostly grinding, actually), so spending a bit of time leveling up doesn’t sound too bad.

But strategy is largely lost in RPGs. I have only played two – both in the Lunar series – where playing optimally is not only recommended but required for boss fights, and, if only for that, they deserve much praise. Even in the Persona games, which I have lauded for the strategy required, thought is needed more in preparation than during actual fights.

OK, this game may be hard.

Part of this is, perhaps, an unreasonable expectation on my part. The JRPG is inherently a single-player endeavor, and not everyone is going to want to play for a challenge. I’ve wrestled with the story vs. gameplay question myself, but my favorites are games that do both well.

For a lot of players, bosses that simply repeat a pattern of moves or use them randomly are enough. In Persona 3, bosses demand some strategy, but several fights in FES revealed that boss AI is every bit as bad as the teammate AI. Thus far, I’ve been disappointed. Even Lunar 2’s bosses use set patterns, but the patterns are balanced so well that using the best set of moves is needed for victory.

Is it too much to ask to have a bossfight that involves the same limitations on both sides? Every boss of every game has a higher HP total than your party combined. Remember the fight against Magus in Chrono Trigger, where he had thousands of hit points? Why can’t a game be more balanced?

In most games, your characters can one-shot kill themselves, but have a hard time combining all their strength to take out a single mage – who later joins your party and turns out to be a complete wuss. I’d like to see a game with fights where the sides are closer to equal in terms of strength, but where the cunning AI will give a lazy player a rough time.

Taking out “grinding” isn’t even that difficult – the leveling scheme in Chrono Cross (which I have made fun of in the past) actually does things pretty well. If the non-boss fights occur sparingly, it could certainly work out in another game. It surprises me, considering how many complain about grinding, that no game has excluded grinding entirely.

But then – to some degree, I find I still enjoy the laziness of playing thoughtless games. If I have to think, that means expending effort – if there’s too much of it (if I have to think in every single fight, for example) things start to feel more like work.

Some games work pretty well as a book where you press X a bunch and occasionally explore a bit – The Phoenix Wright-esque RPG. Rogue Galaxy and Suikoden V do that pretty well. FFXII even takes out the part where you press X, and funnels the strategy into a bite-sized area right around the time you get gambits. These games are good fluff – they’re like an easy-to-read, but somewhat shallow novel.

But the really rewarding games challenge the mind on two fronts – by having an intriguing story and maintaining an edge of challenge between plot points. They keep the “game” in role-playing game without losing the role. It takes balance, just like a good boss battle.

7 Comments

  1. SAGExSDX said on August 5, 2008:

    I agree with what you’re saying. I use to be completely anti RPG a year ago. I had played some RPGs back during the 16 and 32bit eras. But since then I’ve been off of the role play stuff.

    Fast forward to 2008 and I’ve actually gone through a relatively decent number of RPGs. I’m not really sure what triggered it. But it started with Lost Odyssey.

    Lost Odyssey actually did away with the whole grinding aspect of RPGs. The game actually did not let you power level for pretty much the whole game. They gave you less and less experience per battle in a given area. So instead, you had to depend on proper usage of elemental rings and magic casters to support your melee characters. So I might argue that Lost Odyssey was actually one of those “rewarding games” you speak of.

    However, I do sometimes feel that the ability to power level is a way to have some sort of adaptive difficulty level. If a certain stage or boss is too hard, the player just has to go and do mundane battles in order to beat the boss easier. In a way, I feel this is a good approach to difficulty in games. If viewed this way, it is similar to how flOw worked and what Jenova Chen wrote his thesis on.

    One other facet of “grinding” that I find acceptable is when the point of the grinding isn’t necessarily to get past a difficult part but rather to reach some goal, whether it has to do with getting money or obtaining a rare item or learning new skills. I’m currently playing Disgaea on PSP and the game really presents a lot of short term goals that really makes grinding a joy and gives you something to look forward to. Yeah, grinding is enjoyable here, strange as it may sound.

    Anyway, this year really has turned into the year of the RPG for me. It doesn’t look like it’ll be letting up with the RPGs coming for the 360 in the near future.

  2. chris said on August 6, 2008:

    The Suikoden games are also highly anti-grind in the same way as you mention Lost Odyssey is. In fact, once you’re the right level you can “let go” (basically like running, only it always works) encounters whenever you want. This is closer to removing the grind, but there’s no way to simply “auto-let-go” (not a big deal in 1&2, but the PS2 entries have significant load times – and spending 15 seconds getting into and running from a battle is really annoying).

    I don’t mind grinding to some degree – but I prefer it to be pretty quick or strategic. Metal Slimes in the Dragon Quest VIII are a good example. If you know what to do, you can grind pretty quickly.

    I’ve heard some really good things about Lost Odyssey in general. Maybe it’s time to consider getting a 360.

  3. jay said on August 6, 2008:

    I always thought removing grinding from RPGs would improve them and force more actual strategy. Attempts at this have had very mixed results though. Fire Emblem is awesome but is very stressful because it doesn’t let you grind. Saga Frontier allows it but enemies are always around the same level as you so it feels like a cruel joke.

    An optimal system would perhaps create multiple tiers of enemies. Say the cannon fodder are always their default level, the mid bosses semi level up as you do and the big bosses are always on par with your party. The goal would be to allow the player an easier game to some degree as a reward for grinding and getting the best crap but also maintaining some form of difficulty.

  4. Christian said on August 6, 2008:

    Fire Emblem and Shining Force are the other edge of the blade – if there is a fixed amount of Experience, even small misjudgments or distributions of XP can be devastating later in the game. Yes it is a matter of skill, but the only way to gain skill is to learn from your mistakes, and no one wants to learn through a complete restart.

    Ultimately most of these issues come down to the fact that under the hood, RPGs are all glorified spreadsheets. Something drastic has to happen to shake up the genre, but it is so entrenched that those making and playing them would likely write it off as something else. Hence the cycle goes on.

  5. pat said on August 6, 2008:

    in shining force you can gain experience, egress, restart the battle and repeat as necessary. its not as obvious as it is in other games, but it is grinding.

    final fantasy tactics does the opposite of what you describe jay. cannon fodder levels with you but the story battles do not. this creates a weird sensation when you struggle to kill some chocobos and then crush the wiegraf/velius battles without flinching.

    and im surprised to hear that about lost odyssey. im playing blue dragon now and it seems the game encourages you to level all abilities with all characters. gaining that much exp and SP seems like it would require some grinding. although the game is remarkably easy, so you definitely dont have to grind just to progress.

  6. Christian said on August 6, 2008:

    “in shining force you can gain experience, egress, restart the battle and repeat as necessary. its not as obvious as it is in other games, but it is grinding.”

    ….son of a bitch!

  7. Max said on August 11, 2008:

    I am horribly ambivalent about RPGs as a genre precisely because of this kind of stuff. Some of my favorite games ever are RPGs (Mass Effect, Fable) and yet some of the games that I loathe most are also RPGs (I hate the vast majority of the JRPG stuff). For me, grind-heavy, generic JRPGs have completely slaughtered the genre and continue to perpetuate repetitive, mindless game design practices. I know that sounds very harsh, but I really do feel that strongly about it. I believe every game worth its salt should at least TRY to innovate in some way, and the never-ending stream of generic JRPGs is akin to making more and more terrible sequels for the same bad film.

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