There is perhaps no feature more reviled in gaming than the one this column is named after: gamers, as a general rule, hate random encounters.
Take Stephen Totilo, for example. The other day I was showing Kotaku's fearless leader a little bit of Bravely Default, the upcoming 3DS game that is best described as "what Final Fantasy used to feel like." Before he even saw the game in action, he said he didn't like (paraphrased) "all those invisible encounter things." Yes, I know what you're thinking—Stephen Totilo is an uncultured philistine. But maybe he has a point.
Invisible monsters are something of a relic, a vestige from the days when programmers didn't have the memory to implement all those little monsters that would attack your party in games like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Like world map icons and avatars, random encounters were understood as an abstraction—every time the screen gets blurry and the speakers screech, your heroes are being attacked by wandering monsters. They're annoying, yes, but that's always kind of been the point—to get to the real meat of an adventure, you have to chew through all the gristle.
Today we have grown accustomed to seeing our enemies on screen before they attack, and when a JRPG comes along with those antiquated random encounters, gamers get aggravated. Why can't the bad guys appear in the dungeons? Don't these guys have enough RAM now? Even at their best—not invisible, not random, not excessive—insignificant enemy battles can be tedious. RPG dungeons are peppered with enemies that you're expected to stomp easily, both as an obstacle to make completion feel more rewarding, and as a way to grant your characters the points they need to gain levels and grow really powerful. (Math!) But because those encounters are so easy, we wind up mindlessly grinding through them, going through the motions like one of those old married couples on a TV sitcom that hasn't had sex in years.
This might be why people don't like random encounters. But. BUT! North America is about to get a game that changes everything.
Bravely Default has an inane title, a divine soundtrack, and a few innovative tricks that could change the way we'll look at JRPGs in the future. Developed by the team at Square Enix responsible for Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light, Bravely Default is a turn-based medieval fantasy game with classes and equipment and Blizzaga and all that jazz. Like 4 Heroes of Light before it, Bravely Default uses these familiar trappings to do some unique things.
I'm about ten hours into the game, playing in English on a review copy provided by Nintendo, who published Bravely Default in the west. I'll have some impressions early next week, and a full review eventually, but for now, allow me to talk about the one toggle that I think every next-gen JRPG should steal.
Bravely Default has invisible random encounters, yes, but...
Look at this. LOOK AT IT. You can set the encounter rate. And change it at any time. You can slide the modifier to +100%, +50%, 0%, -50%, or -100%, which turns off all random encounters. It turns off all random encounters.
Let me emphasize: you can turn off all random encounters.
...You can play the game by exploring and dungeon-crawling at your own pace, without having to worry about those pesky invisible enemies, and then you can max out the slider and grind for levels when you get stuck on a powerful boss.
...You can play normally, and then when you feel like your characters are strong enough, you can cut the encounter rate in half or get rid of it entirely.
...You can turn off all encounters when your party is low on health and you're stuck in the deep crevasses of a tough dungeon, then turn them back on once you've found a save point.
...You can keep the slider at -50% to make the game a bit more challenging, or boost it to 50% or 100% if you're one of the rare souls who loves random encounters.
...You can time your progress so you only have to fight random battles when you're doing something else, like watching TV or cooking dinner. (Note: if you figure out how to play 3DS while cooking dinner, let me know.)
Or you can just play normally. Flexibility! With a slider like this, you can play the game however you'd like, which is perfect. It's the developers' way of saying "Look, guys, we need to have battles—because you need to be able to practice and progress—but we don't want them to feel like a chore." It discards narrative realism in favor of mechanical convenience. It's bloody brilliant.
Other JRPGs have played with this idea before: Final Fantasy VI has an accessory that prevented random encounters; Earthbound allows you to take down weaker enemies without even entering battle; many of the Dragon Quest games have temporary repellents that you can buy to ward off battles for short periods of time. But no JRPG has offered this level of customization and flexibility. Combined with some of Bravely Default's other options, like fast forward and auto-battle, it's like this game actually wants you to enjoy yourself by playing however you'd like. Imagine that!
And indeed, sometimes turning off random encounters can feel indulgent, or naughty, like you're using a cheat code or skipping integral parts of the game, but you've gotta fight'em eventually, or else bosses will crush you. A slider like this allows you to play and battle at your own convenience, rather than the developers', and that's unprecedented. It's a feature that other JRPG makers need to steal, or at least consider adopting in some way. Let us play how we'd like.
Top image via Final Fantasy Wiki