I Am Error: An analysis of current RPG games
|October 13, 2011||Posted by S.A.Perkins under I Am Error|
This is the big one. Can I get through this article without mentioning that certain game by BioWare? I hope so, otherwise I may have to consult a psychiatrist about my deeply ingrained addiction, considering I’m actually playing it while writing. Moving on though, I thought that this time I would move away from topics about video games as a whole, away from issues of controversy and such things (I don’t half sound like a pretentious arse when I talk about that sort of thing), and instead I’m simply going to talk about my favourite genre of video games: the RPG (and now you can see why it’s going to be hard for me not to mention That Which Must Not Be Named, eh?). To those not familiar, the term stands for Role-Playing Game.
There are two kinds of RPG I can talk about; western RPGs, developed by people like Bethesda, BioWare (I never said I couldn’t talk about the company), id, and Lionhead Studios; and the ones that people have probably heard less about, the JRPGs (Japanese-RPGs, to those of you who have been living in the Untempered Schism for the past few decades), including games like Final Fantasy and Star Ocean. As most of you probably know, my favourite game ever is Final Fantasy VII, and it still is although I haven’t played the damned thing in about five years – and believe me, I weep because of it – but I’ll be the first to admit that the Final Fantasy series has dropped from the top spot and instead has fallen in with the rest of the JRPGs, right at the bottom of the RPG hierarchy. I’ll get onto why JRPGs rest ever-presently on the bottom of the pyramid in a moment, but I’m going to go off on a tangent and talk about western RPG games first.
Bethesda and BioWare probably pioneer western RPG games at the moment, with BioWare bringing out an MMORPG, The Old Republic (not so much my favourite kind of game, but it has lightsabers, so instantly I want it), in December this year, and Bethesda famed for its Fallout and Elder Scrolls series of games (sorry I used the word ‘Scrolls’ Bethesda, please don’t sue us!) which are some of the best RPG games I’ve played. They combine the best elements of an action game – mainly the combat – and the best elements of an RPG game – by which I mean everything except the combat. Oblivion, the fourth game in the Elder *censored for legal reasons* series, has a fantastic skill development system – which can regrettably be exploited by cheap arseholes who spend the entire game leaping around like a coked-up spider monkey – and great combat, which could do with some improvements, sure, but was still excellent for the time (all these issues will be addressed in Skyrim anyway, so the nerdgasms will ensue with much force come November) and as such it remains a fantastic RPG, although the whole ‘you have to buy all your spells and you have no real combat abilities’ thing was a bit of a downturn.
Fallout is also fantastic as an RPG, because it doesn’t include fantastic spells and abilities, but instead puts you in the role (of course, one would expect this of a role playing game, but you’d be surprised how some games don’t actually do this) of a wasteland survivor. Rather than allow you to flesh out your character with fireballs and invisibility spells – which would have been totally bitchin’ in my opinion, but I suppose not many people would have agreed that being able to zap Super Mutants with summoned lightning would have been a good idea – you simply upgrade your character’s base skills around your play style. You can be a silver-tongued adventurer, bartering your way out of most situations, or you can be a silent sharpshooter, picking off enemies from a distance. Trust me when I say, however, that you don’t want to be a melee specialist in Fallout. The number of times I’ve charged, sledgehammer in hand, into the waiting arms of a giant Radscorpion… well, just take my advice. You wouldn’t like the resulting molestation. But that was great because it was a game in which you actually played a role, and you still had all the elements to make the game an RPG but it had the exciting aspects of an action/shooter. That’s why western RPG games are better than JRPG games; they don’t just remain solely along the one path of other RPG games, but instead combine elements from other genres to perfect an RPG, and really make you feel like you are in the role of the character you are playing.
Dragon Age and its sequel are two western RPG games, developed by BioWare (also famed for another game, whose name escapes me), which really are more… ‘pure’ RPG games (that’s me being slightly game-cist, but that’s not to say I have anything against the ‘halfblood’ RPGs; I mean, I’m always in their neighbourhood) in the sense that they don’t have many action elements in them. In fact, Dragon Age: Origins is a point-and-click tactical combat game, and I don’t exactly class sitting back and waiting for your characters to do their jobs as action. However, to me it excelled as an RPG game because it really did put you in the role of your character, allowing you to pick dialogue options, a unique background story, make very different decisions in each unique mission depending on your character and choices, and form your character the way you wanted to. I for one made a very stereotypical Elf character who specialised in archery and was very nice to everyone (I have a compulsion to always pick the ultra-good guy path in any game). I could just as easily have made him a bit of a grey character, good at heart but willing to accept bribes, and that’s why I loved Origins - your character and story relied on you to drive them forward and alter them, and they didn’t just fall along some linear path with you merely picking skills and talents. That’s where Dragon Age 2 disappointed so much (I know I praised it in my review, but opinions change, so hush), because it just didn’t have the same immersion. You could make decisions, yes, but there was no real alteration of the story depending on your actions, and every mission was the same, regardless of most previous decisions. It’s also true that it had better combat – unless you don’t like mindless button bashers, but I’m one of those who takes a grim pleasure in games like Dynasty Warriors, sitting back and massacring hundreds of men with the slightest button press (yes, I know I need professional help) – but the fact that its role playing elements weren’t nearly as good (although the talent trees were an improvement due to their far less linear style) made the game worse as a whole. Dragon Age 2 was good, but I’m hoping the inevitable Dragon Age 3 will bring the two games together and combine their best elements.
Not to say all RPG games are good. Fable 3, by Lionhead Studios, showed a lot of promise, and I bought it on release day expecting it to be as good, if not better, than Fable 2, which I loved (even though it was still buggy and kind of crap). Instead I got a boring, predictable experience with very little immersion and, well, very little point in actually playing the damn thing. You pick prince or princess and lead a revolution against your evil brother (no, it’s not a spoiler, it’s on the bloody box), and the adventure kicks off from there. You don’t really get to do much in the way of skill tree upgrades, other than a fairly linear system called ‘The Road to Rule’ (which is a grammatically confusing sentence – is the Road something you’re using to rule, or are you supposed to rule the Road itself? Make some sense, damn it!), and you don’t exactly become all that involved in the role of the prince – just using myself as an example, though I wish I’d picked the princess, seeing as the prince is a pompous douche – as you follow the same path along the storyline until you reach the end, by which time you really will have done most of, well, everything. There aren’t that many side quests as far as I could see, but if I’m perfectly honest I just lost interest after I finished the main storyline, and I haven’t really picked up the game since except to play a bit of co-op with friends to massacre innocent townspeople and maybe perform a few gay marriages – not my choice, but my friends find it hilarious (I have the best friends). Then again, I shouldn’t expect anything less from Peter Molyneux – who I believe I have already called various bad names in the past - who decided to follow up a faux-RPG game with something that can’t even qualify as an RPG. If Fable: The Road doesn’t strike you as the ultimate fall for the Fable series from the ranks of good RPG games, then I guess I’ll just have to lock you in a padded cell so your insanity can’t infect the rest of us.
Now, moving onto the topic of JRPG games, we come to a great dilemma. These games are RPG games by definition, but really… I can’t bring myself to like many of them. Take two of my favourites, for instance. In Final Fantasy VII, you play the part of Cloud Strife (or whatever you want to call him, I know my brother settled on Spikey McGee) and journey around a massive world on an epic quest that remains one of the best storylines I have encountered in a game. Its Materia system was great, and I was able to customise all my characters into their roles as I wanted them – until the game decided to throw the bloody All Materia at me, throwing all notions of team strategy out of the window – and the combat was just turn-based enough to mix it up a little in comparison to its predecessor. As great as Final Fantasy VII was, if you look at the game that has come so long after it, Final Fantasy XIII, you can see that the series has slipped. The Materia system is essentially gone, replaced by a linear weapon upgrade system with a scant few accessories to equip, with a strange team strategy system (Paradigm Shift, which sounds like some teenage electro-punk band you might find in a dingy club no one has ever heard of before) and a combat system that basically had you selecting the ‘Auto’ function for the entire game, seeing as it did what you would have done anyway but quicker. How far has the series fallen? A long way, is the answer. I won’t even be able to tell you if Final Fantasy Versus XIII will be any good, because thanks to the curse of Hades I’ve been graced with an Xbox while the game is a PS3 exclusive. Huzzah. But my point is that Final Fantasy, like most JRPG games, has fallen into the same ridiculous traits of a completely linear storyline, with a largely closed-off world and completely bland characters you really wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of (although I’d take Hope’s shoes, if only because it would mean I’d finally get into a position to beat that little shit to death with his own feet, the whiny *censored*).
Star Ocean is another JRPG that I have a particular affinity for. I’m not sure why though, because the series contains every element of eastern RPG games that I revile – whiny, angst-ridden characters with more issues then brain cells, reasonably terrible dialogue that makes House of the Dead 2 sound like George R.R. Martin, and a rather terrible skill-system. In Star Ocean, you don’t learn skills by picking them from a tree, you are merely assigned a weapon and skill set, and gain the same skills once you reach a certain level. Star Ocean 3: Till The End Of Time at least had the dignity to allow you to forge your own weapons with unique additions to work like accessories to customise your character, and the combat wasn’t terrible either, with a large arena allowing you freedom of movement to attack at your leisure, though there was little tactical grace to it. You press a button, your character runs in and attacks. If you’re about a millimetre off the ‘flanking’ parameter, you lose the bonus and the enemy almost always turns to face your attack. Plus, if you aren’t controlling them, you will find that your characters will waste their mana and health for no good reason, using obsolete skills or spells, or healing people who really don’t need to be healed. There’s a tactics screen, apparently, but it makes no difference to the end result. Star Ocean: The Last Hope, the final game in the series (I have my doubts, given that we’ve heard that before *cough* Halo 4 *cough*) was much worse, the story being something akin to, essentially, every other JRPG story out there, with little to say for it; full of convoluted plot developments and holes that ruined the immersion, which to be honest wasn’t that good to start with. Neither Star Ocean game really made me feel like I was in the role of my character, which, given that it is a role playing game, one would assume would be its main purpose. But, much like myself in PE lessons at school, Star Ocean failed to get ahead of its competition at any point, and stumbled and fell far before the finish line. At least I took some of those other bastards down with me though.
The length I could go on about RPG games is pretty gargantuan, but I’d like to stop now, considering that I’m going to come off like a raving lunatic and eventually I will mention that game that I said I wasn’t going to talk about. So, in short, RPG games are something of a double-edged sword – on one side you have western RPG games, brilliant and always improving, with blended elements of other genres and a real sense of role playing, and on the other side you have JRPG games, which are old, stale, and not likely to get any better any time soon. I hope they do though, I really do. I want Final Fantasy XV to be good, because I know I’m going to buy it on release day and I don’t want to waste that money. Still, I have many other games to look forward to on the western front, and none of the RPG games at the moment can even hope to compete with Mass Effect.