Tuesday, March 16, 2010

no pictures (FFXIII spoilers)

I finished Final Fantasy XIII the other day, and I liked it. It was a beautiful, intense journey through the worlds of Cocoon and Pulse, showing flashes of where the JRPG genre may be heading as a whole. It was concise and to the point, the battle system was fantastic, the music and graphics were beautiful, and once you finally got down to the rolling plains of Gran Pulse, the game really did open up and give you a ton of stuff to do.

I didn't like everything about it, though. I'm not going to spend eight paragraphs whining about the linearity of the game, because I was expecting the next Kitase/Nomura Final Fantasy to be linear before we knew anything significant about XIII. Instead, I'm going to run through a list of things that actually detracted from my experience.

Lightning died of cholera

FFXIII's pacing is completely, unequivocally terrible. When people complain about the linearity, this is what they're really talking about; the lack of towns and the feeling of being on the run create a grueling pace that doesn't let up until you hit Pulse. This may be a good thing for action games, but for an RPG where so much effort is funneled into crafting beautiful worlds with rich histories, it's a good idea to, you know, give the player some time to lay back and take it all in. FFXIII does not do this until 20 hours in, where it allows you to run around the Archylte Steppe and do a few side missions before pushing you off toward the next story event by hard capping your character progression, meaning you can't do more than the most basic ones.

FFX got by with this amount of linearity by providing sufficient down time to learn about Spira, its inhabitants and their way of life. I have completed FFXIII, and I know next to nothing about the people and lifestyles of Cocoon's residents, much less the ruined landscapes of Pulse. I don't know anything about the technology that keeps Cocoon afloat, or anything about how and why it was built aside from some vague legends seen in the datalog. I'm not sure if this was intentional or not, but regardless, it was a failure on Square's part.

Shin Megami Tensei syndrome

FFXIII's battle system is fantastic, but there's one thing about it that I can't stand. You've seen it in Shin Megami Tensei, now it's in Final Fantasy: main character death = game over. Or in this case, controlled character death.

Phil and I have argued about this on multiple occasions, so I'll break down both sides of it for you: Phil's argument is that it creates a sort of metagame for you to play, where the real challenge is keeping your controlled character alive. He argues that it adds an extra challenge to the battles, making them more intense and strategic.

My argument is that -- aside from the fact that at face value, the concept itself makes no sense whatsoever from a plot or gameplay standpoint (why can't my party members just toss me a phoenix down?) -- it doesn't add any real challenge to the game because you get to a point where the only reason you can't win a battle is because your controlled character keeps dying, i.e., the fight itself isn't hard, you're just getting boned by a ridiculous gameplay mechanic. When you start being forced to alter your party makeup so that you're controlling a high-HP character, like Snow, and using the sentinel role the entire fight just so you don't eat it, you've completely lost me. It puts a huge strain on what you're able to do with the character you control, putting a damper on the experience as a whole. It's just not as fun. Not to mention all the frustration you'll have getting completely tooled in one hit by some of the ridiculously difficult bosses because you made a slight mistake, or didn't switch paradigms fast enough, or the boss decided to cast a death spell on you and it just happened to stick (seriously -- this can happen, on the final boss no less).

Speaking of ridiculously difficult bosses, this is something else that pertains to the title up there: the difficulty takes a massive hike upwards at the end of chapter 9. Much like Shin Megami Tensei, you'll have 30 minute boss fights that could end at any time because the boss decides it wants to OHKO your controlled party member. That is if you can keep up the healing to get that far, constantly getting reamed by AoE attacks and status effects. The thing is, all that would be fine and dandy if it weren't for that god awful game over mechanic. The fights would still be challenging, they'd just be fair. This isn't Valkyrie Profile 2, the battle doesn't end when you kill the enemy party's "leader." Why does it work that way for my party and not theirs? Too many questions, no answers. Bad design choice.

To its credit, FFXIII does have a very forgiving nature, in that if you do get a game over, you can simply retry instantly with no penalty, which is a great idea that more games should look into. It's interesting, though, that they would make the later boss fights so maddeningly difficult if they were trying to cater to a wider audience with this game. Because, you know, if that's what they were going for... it probably didn't work. This is by far the hardest game in the entire series. It's not close.

In every JRPG, some Snow must fall

I hate Snow Villiers. Not so much the character itself, but what he represents -- that is, the entire plague that destroys the plot of every JRPG in existence.

A bold statement, you might think. Well, let me explain. Snow Villiers is a typical anime archetype, an overconfident guy with his head in the clouds who likes to give speeches about "hope" and "destiny" and "following the path in your heart." You've heard this before, right? Right. In the beginning, most of the characters resist his idealistic notions. Lightning famously punches him in the face when he starts going off on his silly tangents early in the game. The thing is, later in the game, everyone sees him as some kind of moral leader, and they all adopt his idealistic outlook on their whole situation. This is where the problem is. Here's why.

It's. Not. Human. Snow is alien. There is no human being in existence who would react to the dire situation of these six people the way Snow does -- Hope or Sazh's feelings of dejection are far more accurate. You have to understand: this isn't spilt milk. This is "your whole life now belongs to fal'Cie, and if you don't do what they ask, you turn into a monster. And if you do, you turn into a crystal for eternity." So basically, as far as they know, they die no matter what they do. Of course, this is on top of other major problems the party is dealing with -- Sazh's son had become a Sanctum l'Cie, Hope's mother was killed, and Snow's fiance/Lightning's sister completed her focus and was crystalized. This game wants me to believe that this guy is still an idealistic optimist after all that? I'm sorry, I don't buy it. I especially don't buy his sentiment that he actually believed there was a chance Serah would wake up from her crystal form, given that there was no evidence of it ever happening before at that time.

So how does this connect to every other JRPG? Simple: there is a character like Snow in almost every JRPG ever made, and that character almost always causes the story to shift from being a realistic drama piece to a deus ex machina-ridden mess of misguided sentimentality. Strangely, Final Fantasy is almost exempt from this aside from Aeris, Tidus and Snow, but I'll use Aeris as an example.

Aeris knows that Sephiroth is going to summon meteor. He has the black materia. That seems logical. She, however, has the white materia: holy. She apparently has a hunch that holy's purpose is to counter meteor, so she goes off on her own to the City of Ancients to use it, and we all know how that ends. So, if you will, try to follow her thought process: did she know for sure that holy would stop meteor if it was used? If so, how? Knowledge of the ancients? Probably, as is explained a bit later in the game. Then try to follow her thought process as she goes alone to use holy. Why would she do that? To protect the rest of the party? I doubt that, considering it'd be safer for everyone to go in a group. What if Sephiroth had killed her before she finished summoning it? At the very least, the rest of the party could have assured she succeeded in finishing the prayer. This whole sequence of events was highly stupid and showed how misguided she was as a person.

This ties into Snow because the entirety of FFVII's party becomes the "what would Aeris do?" troupe as soon as she dies. They want to carry on her dream and all that. When meteor is actually summoned, the party ceases its logical examination of their situation, and says "we have to fight Sephiroth," knowing full well that it won't stop meteor. They're relying completely on holy, and they don't even know if it "worked." Why? Because they all "had faith" in Aeris and "believed in her." You could argue that fighting Sephiroth was about all they could do at that point, and you'd probably be right, but there were more logical methods of reaching that conclusion than "let's just fight Sephiroth and wait for holy." Like, you know, "well, the world's probably going to end, maybe we can take down Sephiroth before we all die. Because it's all we can do." And then holy could have saved them anyway.

In essence, Aeris' presence pollutes the story and prevents it from being well-told. Prevents it from having a unique message, even. This is the effect that the "Snow" archetype has on JRPG stories: it robs them of their message and replaces it with "follow your heart and belieeeeeeeeve!" Which may have been a powerful message 25 years ago when it first showed up in a video game, but I think we're all tired of it now.

It's not hard to take Tidus' example either: he finds out Yuna will die if she finishes her pilgrimage, and convinces the rest of the party that they can kill Sin permanently. With absolutely no knowledge of any method that allows for it. "There has to be a way!" he says. Then they find a way and everyone believes!

The worst thing about this archetype is that the only reason their approach "works" is because the writer writes it that way. It's a method of covering up a lack of creativity and skill -- not because they couldn't follow a simple logical process and form a story around it, but because they couldn't do that and keep it interesting. It's a lot like Tetsuya Nomura's approach to character design -- cover up your lack of taste and creativity with an abundance of seemingly random and needless features. Belts, zippers, meet teenage idealism.

Don't get me wrong, though, I really do like the game. I'm still playing it, actually, working on maxing out the post-game crystarium so I can fight some of the harder Pulse mission enemies. It's a lot of fun. I still like FFXII (a lot) better, but FFXIII is probably only the second example of a JRPG being done very well on a current-gen console (the first being Tales of Vesperia). Granted, it's also one of the more flawed games in the series, and I honestly think the 83 it has on Metacritic is closer to what it deserves than some people think. I'd rate it higher, though, personally.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

so this guy says to me he says, "bayonetta is such a god of war ripoff"...

RPG elements. If you've read a video game review in the last five years or so, you've probably heard someone say it. What does it mean? In game industry terms, it's the implementation of a character progression system that usually includes upgradeable equipment and experience points, among other things. These are certainly RPG elements. To clearly define the full range of what "RPG elements" are, though, you have to first define what an RPG is.

This is a pretty interesting topic right now, because as more and more people flock to the former counter-culture of gaming, more and more opinions about its genres are flooding in. Frankly, many of those opinions are not opinions at all; they're misinformation. In fact, I'm not even sure anyone knows what an RPG is anymore. Perhaps that's an exaggeration. However, I know what an RPG is.

Things that do not define a roleplaying video game

Yeah, no roleplaying in roleplaying games. I know. But look, true roleplaying is only possible in tabletop RPGs. You don't get it in video games. If you want to call the lite pseudo-morality choices you make in Fallout 3 "roleplaying," well, you're wrong. That's not roleplaying. That's a small group of branching paths -- paths that don't even change the overall direction of the game. It's more like driving in a different lane on the same road -- the path through the game is always identical, even if there's differences in the dialogue or the ending. Ironically, Japanese games like Seiken Densetsu 3 and Radiata Stories have done a better job at making the game actually change based on your decisions, but it's still not like true roleplaying.

The morality systems you see in Bioware and Bethesda games don't come close to approaching the depth available in a tabletop game where you build your own character from scratch. It's not much different from having preset characters in a JRPG -- you just get to choose to be good or evil instead of having one choice. That's what every choice in those games boils down to: it's very black and white, and it's nothing like true roleplaying.

That's not to say games should be criticized for not having roleplaying in them. There's a reason for that. It would be impossible to program that many different possibilities into a single game, at least at this point in time, and even if it were technically feasible, it would take an unprecedented amount of time. So no, there is no roleplaying in video games, and certainly not in RPGs.

Deep storylines/"story-driven gameplay"
A "deep" or "intricate" storyline definitely does not define an RPG simply because it's not exclusive to RPGs. The games with the most mature, complex storylines, in fact, are largely based in the text adventure genre, a genre that is mostly on rails and, largely, has no combat. Grand Theft Auto, as a series, has a more intricate storyline than most RPGs. The same can be said for any number of action and adventure games, even some shooters.

As for RPGs that are "story-driven," can you name a game where progression isn't driven by some kind of story? Actually, you probably can. However, you'd quickly notice that this is also not something exclusive to RPGs. If you're talking about cutscene-heavy games like Xenosaga, all they've done is made the plot intrusive and self-indulgent, while missing the point of why video games are created -- to be played. And again, for every Xenosaga in the RPG genre, you've got a Metal Gear Solid in the action genre that does the exact same thing. Is MGS an RPG? No.

If I had my Johnson drop kicked every time I heard some fuckstick say "I play RPGs for story," I would lack the ability to bear children. If you're really playing RPGs for their stories, you should have stopped after you played through FFVI, FFX, the Suikoden series and Chrono Cross, because those are the only RPGs off the top of my head that approach the pet waste the boot of literary excellence stepped in. How about you play games with good stories for story and stop polluting my genre with your tryhard bullshit? Do you read reviews? Actually read them? That's how you find out which games have stories worth looking into. Better yet, why don't you move to an artistic medium where your faux-hipster ass is welcome? Thanks.

Not to be a dick or anything.

Turnbased combat
The only reason RPGs used turnbased combat in their infancy was because there was no way to have a more active battle system in a board game. Unless you wanted to look really silly. Or set up a fencing match with your dungeon master every time you encountered a monster. It just wasn't viable, but if it could have been different, it would have.

The turnbased combat model became a part of the standard RPG experience, and naturally, it was kept when RPG video games were first created. No one thought to switch to an active combat system until, if I had to guess, the mid 80's.

Things that define a roleplaying video game

Character progression centered around visible statistics
STR, DEX, AGI, VIT, INT, MND, CHR, WIL, HP, MP, ATK, DEF, SPD, all that stuff. It affects the way your character performs, mostly in battle and sometimes out of battle, as seen in many WRPGs. These statistics, in varying forms, have always been one of the pillars of RPG gameplay. Going with this is the concept of leveling up, whether it's through defeating enemies for experience points or other means, and these statistics increasing for every level gained, whether the progression is set, random or chosen by the player.

Herein lies one of the grand concepts surrounding the RPG: starting out as a fairly weak adventurer and eventually building yourself into a powerful warrior. It's that sense of accomplishment and progress that makes RPGs addictive, fun and definitely not for everybody. It's the genre most demanding of your patience to truly enjoy, but it can also be the most rewarding if you're willing to take the time for it. This sense of gratification is only enhanced in MMORPGs, due to the fact that everyone else can see your progress for themselves, and the sense of companionship you build playing with other people.

I would argue that those of us who think a compelling plot is the most important thing in an RPG are really just looking for instant gratification, because they don't actually have the patience for RPG gameplay on its own. Then they cover it up with "LOL u dont play rpgs 4 gameplay, if i wanted 2 have fun i wud go play halo." You know, fake ass motherfuckers.

just sayin'

Random number generator/dice roll
The random number generator, or dice roll if you're playing a board game, is a vital element of any RPG. It helps to decide a ton of stuff, including but not limited to: damage dealt and received, encounter rate (when applicable) and item drop rate.

In determining damage, the RNG produces the element of "randomness" (though it's not truly random, we'll just call it that because it fits - look it up if you're curious) that you see in RPGs. You notice how your attacks don't always do the same damage -- that's because every attack you launch goes through a mathematical formula that includes your attack power, the enemy's defense, any special modifiers for your attack, and a random variable which is produced by the RNG. This creates a damage range for your attack to fall into.

It's the same thing for encounter rates: every step your character takes has a chance of entering you into a battle. In some games, the chance will increase with every step, while in others it's set in stone, but the timing of the battle itself is always determined by an RNG. Drop rates are the same. So are many things -- the RNG is so deeply ingrained into the gameplay of an RPG that I'm not sure you could make one without incorporating it in some way. Without it, you get Zelda, which is something many people confuse for an RPG, but it really isn't. Then again, it's used in virtually every other genre as well, including sports games. However, RPG is the one genre that uses it as a central element, with almost everything that happens during gameplay being affected by it in some way.


What, you thought there would be more? No, that's all. That's all that defines the core mechanics of an RPG, western or eastern. It's funny, because everyone thinks it's so complicated. It's not.

Oh, you want to talk about WRPGs and JRPGs? Why? That is a dead ho-

You know what, fine.

What's closer to a "true" RPG: WRPG or JRPG? Which has better storytelling, etc.?

WRPGs, or "western roleplaying games," have sat squarely at opposite ends of the RPG spectrum from JRPGs, or "Japanese roleplaying games," since the late 80's. What really separates them?

Truth be told, not as much as you think. As discussed above, WRPGs tend to give you the illusion of many different paths to take when there's usually only two, or maybe three, with the structure of the plot remaining mostly the same regardless. JRPGs don't bullshit you -- you know right off the bat that the ending is going to be the same no matter what you do, aside from arbitrary or pointless stuff that adds extra scenes to the ending, or changes it slightly, or whatever.

As far as gameplay goes, WRPGs tend to have you build a custom character with a class and stats of your choosing, then send you on a fairly non-linear quest in a horribly generic Tolkien-esque fantasy world. Other classic western franchises are sometimes ripped off too, like doing sci-fi stuff in a Star Trek-influenced universe, or actually playing within the Star Wars universe in Knights of The Old Republic. The combat is usually realtime, or "pseudo-realtime" as seen in many Bioware games, and generally has very little depth or strategy involved.

A common feature of WRPGs is the ability to perform various actions outside of battle that are influenced by your stats, such as lockpicking (DEX), computer hacking (INT) and persuading NPCs through dialogue trees (CHR).

As for storylines, you get boring, standard fantasy that seems to have been written by people who are still fascinated by dragons and stuff. You know, 12 year old shit. As a whole, storytelling in WRPGs is uninspired and dry. The Fallout series (1 and 2, mostly) is an exception to this, boasting some of the better storytelling in gaming, though it is set in a decidedly Mad Max-influenced post-apocalyptic United States. Mass Effect is another example of solid storytelling in a WRPG.

In JRPGs, you have preset characters, though many games put an emphasis on equipment and skill customization. You replace generic Tolkien world with generic animanga fantasy world. Gameplay usually has a heavy focus on high-rate random encounters, turnbased combat on a separate battle screen and flashy special attacks. JRPGs as a whole are much more linear than WRPGs, but with that, you tend to get a tighter, more polished game world.

Storywise, JRPGs are conflicting, because they generally try very hard to be complex and to appear mature, but perhaps because of the translation to English (but probably not), this effort can never seem to escape being ultimately trite and overwrought. The one-dimensional, annoying, inhuman and archetypal characters don't do any help to back it up, either. What you get is a big, sloppy mess of bad writing and a half-baked plot that's far too unbelievable to ever relate to. Any moralistic or political allegory is lost in this. Some may call it a cultural difference, I still call it awful storytelling.

They just informed him that he's going to grow up to be the lead singer in an Evangelion tribute band

Basically, they're the opposite of WRPGs -- instead of being uninspired and dry, they tend to have too many ideas and not enough talented writers to make something great out of the good ones while throwing out the bad ones.

WRPGs and JRPGs are the same under the hood. Their battle systems, storytelling, art style and pace all tend to differ, but they borrow from each other often and use the same mechanics to build their gameplay over. If I had to say which is "closer" to the "true" RPG, it's definitely the western style. I'd say that Japanese RPGs tend to have more interesting plots, if we're disregarding all the crap that gets shoveled into both sides. That's just an opinion, though.

Still, I really don't think JRPGs and WRPGs are different enough that they should be considered separate genres from each other. Different schools of the same style, sure, but not completely divided. It's a common sentiment among foolish people that JRPGs are somehow "not really RPGs." This is not true.

Sadly, most gamers are not adept at analyzing their own arguments. Or anything, really. This is the double-edged part of free speech and encouraging the exchange of ideas: misinformation is spread, and there's not a whole lot you can do to stop it. Already we have a whole generation of people who think Xenogears is good and Final Fantasy XII is bad, and it's only going farther down from there. We have people saying that Bayonneta "rips off God of War." That is beyond sad.