Once upon a time there was a role-playing game. It had cool graphics and a fast-paced battle system. It was filled with mysteries and plot twists. Things were good.
One day, the role-playing game started to feel kinda sluggish. Its characters weren't all that appealing. Its battles felt less like exciting, strategic brawls and more like endless, button-mashing snoozefests.
Then I got bored and turned it off. The end.
Well, that's not entirely fair. I did enjoy the ~10 hours I spent with Tales of the Abyss 3D, a Japanese role-playing game that Namco Bandai released a few weeks ago for the 3DS. I had a good time slashing up monsters and exploring the game's world, a lovely place packed with hulking steam-powered airships and sprawling desert villages. Though some of the terminology left me baffled—you try remembering the difference between "Fon," "Fonons," and "Fonstones"—I wanted to see what would happen next.
But then there was a point—I think it was this past Wednesday night—when I looked at the game and said to myself, "I don't want to play this anymore." I'm sure you've had that moment, that revelatory point when you look at a video game and wonder why you're still playing, wonder if you were ever really having fun or just wasting your time.
When you have a moment like that, you ask yourself a lot of questions. Stuff like: Why am I no longer interested in this game? It's good, isn't it? What's wrong with me? Am I a bad person? Do I hate video games? Are video games bad? Should I just become a food critic? I never get sick of food, do I? Are JRPGs dead?
But no. All I have to do is think back to The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, a PSP game that publisher XSEED released last year and the last JRPG I really loved. I couldn't put it down. I was hooked the second I met the main character, a peppy girl named Estelle with a witty sense of humor and some meaningful, real flaws that made her feel like an actual human being. I wanted to follow her adventures through to the bitter end. Because I cared about her.
And, really, when we play a role-playing game, we're usually not fascinated by rule-sets or mechanics or any of those other jargony things that developers love to talk about. We're interested in characters, in stories, in adventures. In people's journeys, people's triumphs, people's hardships. In people.
Of course, it takes a lot of work to make a game's zeroes and ones actually seem like people. As any writer will tell you, convincing an audience to care about fictional characters might be one of the most difficult part of storytelling. But in a world where there are way too many good games and not enough time to play them all, why should we waste our time on RPGs that can't get it right?
The main character in Tales of the Abyss is a boy named Luke who lives in a gigantic mansion. His uncle, the king, and his father, the duke, have not let him leave this mansion for quite a few years, which might be why he acts like such an annoying brat all the time. He's whiny, spoiled, and very grating. It got on my nerves.
Luke learns to grow out of that immaturity over the course of his adventure, but that takes quite some time. Time that I just didn't care enough to invest.
So how does a writer make an audience care? The best storytellers have tons of tricks up their sleeve. For example, we tend to connect to characters who are really, really good at what they do. We'll fall in love with even the most despicable assassin if he's really good at his job. Clever lines help. Flaws, too. Not the type of flaws that make you say "goddamn, you are annoying"—the type of flaws that make you say "oh wow, I know how that feels." Hubris. Ambition. Anger. Jealousy. You know, all that good stuff.
Sure, Tales of the Abyss 3D is a solid, competent game, but who has time for solid, competent games? I only want to play the ones I care about.
This Week in JRPG News
* Square Enix's Bravely Default: Flying Fairy is looking pretty damn awesome. Andriasang has a bunch of screens for the oddly named title, which will be released for 3DS this year in Japan. It almost looks like a sequel to Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light.
* Infamous Final Fantasy villain Gilgamesh is coming to Final Fantasy XIII-2 as DLC. So's a mysterious villain from Final Fantasy VI, Siliconera reports.
* If you live near Boston, check out this Final Fantasy concert.
* The iOS version of Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky will have new features and possibly new story elements. Hopefully this one makes it over to U.S. shores.
* Siliconera has some details on the first seven classes in Etrian Odyssey IV. Apparently you can be a Fortress. No word on whether that's a human being.
What To Play This Weekend
Something new: The aforementioned Trails in the Sky, which you can buy on your spanking new PlayStation Vita (or your spanking old PSP) for twenty bucks. Let me know if its story resonates for you as much as it did for me.
Something old: One game I've thought about a lot over the past week or so is Earthbound, a quirky, classic RPG for the Super Nintendo. It hasn't aged very well, and its difficulty tends to range from stupidly easy to impossibly difficult, but man, very few games take you on adventures that trippy. Why not visit (or revisit) the city of Onett this weekend?
Your Questions Answered
Every week, I post several reader questions about JRPGs. Want to see your question featured in an edition of Random Encounters? Send it to me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Reader DrZaius writes:
What if JRPGs began employing the conversation format of point-and-click adventure games? Honestly, storyline and dialog are the least important things to me in any RPG. Music is more important in my book. But I'd definitely be more interested in the story if the process of going through the dialog was more interesting. Imagine playing a game like Final Fantasy IX with the dialog system from, say, Grim Fandango. An already excellent game would be 10 times better, especially if it had the quality voice acting and writing from Grim Fandango.
Interesting idea. Square Enix's recently-released Final Fantasy XIII-2 played around with this mechanic, giving players dialogue options during certain cut-scenes, but they never seemed to affect the story, and they never felt as relevant as they did in point-and-click adventure games.
I suppose this dialogue chaining works for games like Grim Fandango—and Monkey Island, and Day of the Tentacle, and all those other classic point-and-click adventure games—because they were all designed by excellent writers, writers who knew how to balance comedy and emotion, how to write dialogue trees that give you meaningful choices—or at least pretend to give you meaningful choices. I'm not entirely confident that Japanese RPG developers can pull that off.
Reader "cturaniczo" writes:
I think a good discussion point would be the difficulty of JRPGs. I know for some of the old school Final Fantasy games (IV and VI), they had been scaled down in difficulty for American audiences. There have been numerous JRPGs I've gone through, including the ones mentioned, that really seemed to be a breeze. This displeases me. I understand the desire for story is paramount in JRPG games but I love the sense of accomplishment that comes when you finally defeat that boss after dying a ridiculous amount of times. I'm interested in others opinions of dwindling difficulty and if it matters to them this day in age.
I found that one of the few highlights in the otherwise-mediocre Final Fantasy XIII-2 was its difficulty. I had to battle some of the bosses quite a few times before I managed to take them out. And I agree with you there: It's extremely satisfying to overcome a boss or challenge that seems insurmountable. It's a cathartic feeling and something that video games like Dark Souls are excellent at evoking.
Now let me flip this question around and aim it at you lovely readers: Do you think JRPGs are easier today than they have been in the past? Are they dumbed down for U.S. audiences? If so, is that a good thing?
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG. It runs every Friday at 3pm ET.