Monday, February 23, 2015

\\ A Turn for the Worst: Japanese RPG's //

Japanese Role-Playing Games (JRPG’s) have long been a point of much frustration, anxiety, and sadness for me, a genre which I felt unable to meaningfully parse. In my younger days as a child, I found them simply boring, yet was never able to understand why; I always felt that there was some key ingredient I was missing, as my monthly Nintendo Power subscription often reassured me that games like Chrono Trigger, Secrets of Mana, Final Fantasy, and Skies of Arcadia were “true” classics. I read in GamePro and on IGN of the “greatest games of all time” like Final Fantasy VII, Xenogears, Suikoden, Earthbound. I gathered tales of hours lost, classes skipped, life opportunities missed, all in drawn-out anticipation of meeting Sephiroth in battle, of saving the world from Gyorg, of travelling through time with Crono and crew. Sure, I loved Pokémon as much as the next elementary school student, battling and trading our beloved creatures together on the playground and in cramped bedrooms after school, but that was purely tradition of bygone years.

Yet as my love of games proved to persevere, so too did my disdain for JRPG’s. In 2006, with the release of Kingdom Hearts II, I had finally found a JRPG that sucked me in when I bought it on a whim. What perplexed me was that, finally, there came along a JRPG that instantly fired all synapses for me. I cared not that I hadn’t played the original; in fact, that actually contributed to my taking a liking to Kingdom Hearts II. From the moment you begin the game, and the animation set to Hikaru Utada singing her song, “Sanctuary” plays, my young mind is filled with intrigue. When the introductory cutscenes featuring mysterious robed figures finishes, and the controls are handed to I, the player, I’m instantly confused by the protagonist I’m at the reigns of, that of Roxas.

While Kingdom Hearts II has a bit of a slow start, it does a good job of quickly introducing the player to its mechanics, by way of having the player attempt to keep a beach ball in the air with a stick, instead of with a Keyblade to the Heartless. It’s an attempt at world-building, and a cute one that I appreciate to this day, at that. But more importantly, what the game is doing is communicating to the player the general flow and style of the gameplay. It is saying that this Final Fantasy and Disney aesthetic fusion hosts an action game, not the turn-based systems dictating much of Square-Enix’s past efforts.

I played the living hell out of Kingdom Hearts II, both because I was completely enamored by its world but also because I just loved the gameplay loop of entering a room and fighting off a group of enemies with Donald Duck, Goofy, and others from the pantheon of classic Disney characters. The game got very tough at times, and required a lot of concentration from the player. Though the game had the typical elements present in an RPG, namely leveling up, libraries worth of stats to comb over, equipable weapons, spells to cast, menus to navigate, etc., I didn’t much mind; in fact, I loved these elements of the game, not because these things are interesting on their own, but because they enhanced the core play experience of slicing, parrying, casting spells, dashing, calling for help from your AI partners, and summoning, all in real-time.

Stressful, but engaging.
Stressful, but engaging. (Image credits: Wikipedia)

As an adult who has endured enough to feel unafraid of pesky video game tropes, I’ve now braved, or at the very least dipped my toe in the JRPG’s that many consider to be the all-time greats. A genre I once thought I would just never “get”, I’ve now come to understand quite well. More importantly, what I’ve learned from the trials and tribulations of adulthood is that, regardless of what people may tell you, nothing is, in fact, sacred.

The problem at the core of almost every JRPG is the god-awful combat systems. Turn-based combat is an objectively and mathematically terrible conceit that has managed to survive for years and years solely due to its prevalence in early video game history. Here we are, years out from the release of Final Fantasy XIII, a game widely panned for eschewing the explorative nature of the Final Fantasy franchise of year’s past, a game which, in fact, illustrates the many core problems with the genre.

I will admit upfront to having not played Final Fantasy XIII, but I have seen enough footage to understand that it is simply a more linear version of the same game that’s been released ad nauseum for the past twenty years. Sure, the visuals are nicer, the sound more pleasing, the general aesthetic splendor more pronounced than was technically possible in the past, but the contemptible combat systems still remain.

For those unfamiliar with the idea of the turn-based combat system, it is as follows: upon encountering an enemy, sometimes visibly out in the field, or just whenever the game feels like stopping the player to engage with the combat the designers worked so hard on, the game forces you into a combat scenario, which is often divorced from the normal flow of the game’s exploration elements. In Earthbound, the player finds themselves being transported to simply a static visual of their enemies set to a trippy background while strange music bumps and hisses. In Chrono Trigger, the developers managed to incorporate these combat scenarios within the world the players finds themselves walking around in throughout the entirety of the game, a notion which I welcome.

We are then asked how to engage with the enemy. Often, the enemy will wait for us to make a choice, and then the game decides who acts out their chosen move according to the speed stats of your party members and your enemies. The player is often allowed to pick from a range of attacks, ranging from general attacks which don’t use any magic or psychic power/points, to a stronger attack which will use up the aforementioned stat. What that number is depends on a game-by-game basis, usually something integrated with the rest of the game’s world or lore, so a character who is a wizard in a fantasy setting might have magic power, or a hardened war veteran might have gun ammunition for his special attacks. Sometimes, all of our attacks are expendable. The player can also often decide to use an offensive or defensive item in order to carry out some action, such as regaining health points (HP) or inflicting damage upon an enemy. We might be able to have a character defend from the enemy’s next attack, to lose less HP, while sacrificing an attack to our enemies from that character. Depending on the circumstances of the battle, we can even run from the battle if we’re not feeling up to it, and the game might allow for our successful escape. Finally, upon our decision, our character(s) carry out their given actions. Some games force us to wait for a meter to refill before the character can carry out some action.

Trippy, yet hollow.
Trippy, yet hollow. (Image credits: Giant Bomb)

There’s an immediate problem designers face here, which is that, theoretically, whatever character or team of characters has the best stats will likely win the combat scenario. If two characters are attacking each other, and one has a higher attack stat or a certain attack which does more damage than the other does, or one has a better speed stat in order to attack first, one has higher defense, etc., then that person wins the scenario in a theoretical world where this hasn’t already been “solved”.

Game designers knew that this was illogical and terrible game design, but simply decided to ignore the wound instead of tending to it. Simply put, once in a while you will get lucky in these games. You will get lucky because you will nail a critical hit on an enemy, which is a strong attack which has some chance of happening, depending on the results of what’s known in computer science as a “random number generator” (RNG). You will get lucky because your enemy’s attack has the possibility of missing due to RNG; you will get lucky because all your attacks are connecting. You will get lucky because your enemy didn’t decide to use a potion to restore its own health at a point where doing so would be critical to keeping itself alive. You will get lucky because your enemy didn’t decide to call over another enemy to its side to aide in battle. You will get lucky because you decided to run from the battle and it worked! Having luck be on your side feels really good, regardless of what type of person you are.

But everyone who’s been to Vegas probably has a few depressing stories to share. Likewise, people who have played any number of JRPG’s will tell you that sometimes things just don’t work out your way. Your attacks are missing; your enemy’s aren’t. You’re not getting the critical hits that you need; your enemy is. You forgot to grind for experience before a battle you didn’t know anything about beforehand; your enemy’s stats tower above your own.

In the search of further clarity, let’s think about Dark Souls, because that’s always probably a good idea. In Dark Souls, you can do anything if you’re a capable-enough player. I’ve seen amazing videos online of great players going through the entire game using only their fists, with no shields nor swords, axes, or spells to aide in their quest. I’ve watched with my mouth agape as players fight off hoards of undead only by parrying, a tricky and potentially fatal prospect which involves masterful timing. I myself have managed feats I previously thought were impossible, solely because of my experience learning the ins and outs of the deep and rewarding combat system, which has led me not only to level up my character, but to acquire a deeper understanding of the game.

Imposing, but manageable.
Imposing, but manageable. (Image credits: GameCrate)

These feats are only possible because the game’s combat system takes place in real-time. I, the player, have complete agency over what my character does and doesn’t do, and it’s up to me to make smart and fast decisions about how best to proceed in a combat scenario. I must react swiftly and appropriately to decisions which the game’s artificial intelligence (AI) makes, and I must develop long-term strategies on how best to respond to actions from my enemies through careful analysis. I am leaving some of my ability to be victorious in the hands of the AI (I pray that the Gaping Dragon doesn’t use its acid-spray move which can permanently destroy your equipment every time I face off against him), but it’s a far more personally-involving affair than what’s given to me when partaking in turn-based combat games, because I have the capability to react; I can shield if my stamina is full and take the hit, or roll out of the way, allowing myself for an attack from behind, where the enemy is vulnerable. Attacks in turn-based games aren’t televised; it simply becomes your turn to get hit, your turn to defend, and one hopes prays for the best. Nor do I need to hope for critical attacks; they don’t exist in Dark Souls, because the combat system doesn’t need them at a core level to be playable.

The other main issue which turn-based combat systems introduce is the mathematical necessity for the grind. Grinding is the act of engaging with enemies that are of a lower level than your party for the sake of gathering experiencing points (XP), and leveling up your characters. It is a completely monotonous and boring task to endure. Yet, often grinding becomes necessary when a player needs to succeed in a specific combat encounter in order to progress in the game if their party’s stats are lower than the enemy. It becomes up to the designer to ensure that this hill becomes manageable enough to climb without much bullshit to wade through throughout the game’s playtime, but this means then that difficulty steeps become impossible to implement if the designer doesn’t want players to have to grind. In fact, what we know as conventional “difficulty” is not actually present in games that inherently are based little on skill and more on luck and the grind. In Earthbound, with no sense of the game’s usual self-awareness, when the player encounters an enemy that is extremely underleveled relative to them, the game will skip the fight for you altogether, still rewarding you with items and XP, because surely the act of combat couldn’t be engaging on its own.

Thus, it’s of little surprise that when reviewers and fans alike talk about JRPG’s, often very little is said about the gameplay, because the systems themselves simply aren’t interesting or enjoyable to engage with at a critical level. Instead, we tend to focus on the elements which are not quite superfluous in nature, but often have little to do with the core gameplay loop, elements such as the narrative (but not the game’s “story”, for that tale is one of tedium), the visuals, the music, the characters we fall in love with.

I don’t lament people for caring about these things. Great narratives create meaning and can frame ludic elements in ways that transcend the core gameplay loop, and aesthetic elements are crucial to developing the feel and atmosphere of a game. But at what point do these aspects become façades with which to distract from a game’s central ennui? Are people attending an Earthbound convention really there to talk about how engaging it was to fight off hordes of antoids? No; they’re gathering to talk about the cheeky writing, the grooving music, the hearts of the game.

But to reach the heart we must first pierce the skeleton. At some point, the gameplay in JRPG’s tends to distract from the things that players actually love in these games. Why then, must they be there? In sampling some of these games, I found myself marveling at the visuals, the pristine soundscapes of people like Nobuo Uematsu, Hirokazu Tanaka, Motoi Sakuraba, my admiration for the artistic backbones of these games so great that I wished these games had a reduced emphasis on combat, or none at all. One of the greatest lessons modern developers have learned is the ability to cut out superfluous elements. Games like Kentucky Route Zero, Shadow of the Colossus, Dark Souls, Katamari Damacy, To the Moon (which was made in the visual and aural style of a game like Chrono Trigger, but features no combat), Super Meat Boy, Problem Attic, Braid, Antichamber, The Floor is Jelly, and plenty more are great because their developers began with a central gameplay conceit, and then focused the ensuing aesthetic elements around that core interaction with the player.

Familiar, now whole. (Image credits: Freebird Games)

By no intention from Square-Enix, Final Fantasy XIII’s greatest success was that, through its linear pathways and other distillations, it illuminated to its audience the core failings of a genre which is all but on its last legs. The mantle of developing JRPG-style games has been taken up largely by independent developers, with some exceptions (see: South Park: The Stick of Truth, which, again, people enjoyed for its dedication to the crude visual style of the source material and for the writing by the show’s creators, not much for the unremarkable turn-based combat); this is pretty revealing, when one considers that often these smaller developers operate on relatively niche audiences.

As Old Man Murray did for adventure games, so will I do for the JRPG in saying that, just maybe, these games were never very good. Beautifully-crafted exteriors? Perhaps. Music worthy of world-renowned symphony performances?  Indeed. But as games, they lack. And that’s a shame which resonates longer and deeper than any of the genre’s swollen playtimes. Still, I do hope to one day be proven wrong through play and maybe even enjoy these games, but my turn is through. For now, I wait.

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