The summer is a time to crack open the dusty case of a game you have been putting off or ignoring for some time. At least, it is for me. There are few new games coming out around this time, and what better way to avoid the outdoors than catch up on a title that you have only put two, ten, or fifty hours into but have not yet completed?
Well, I decided to combat my perception that the JRPG is a dying genre that has been getting worse over the years. Why not try something old, but not too old? It just so happened that I had an un-played copy of Suikoden V for the PS2, and I decided that I would give it a go.
So I lost some hours of my life, and I will never get them back.
Suikoden V was rated highly, and at least it seemed to be better reviewed than the other games in the series after II. I was a bit excited to try a good Suikoden game again, since I and II are perfect examples of what is good in the genre. I came away disappointed, but only after putting in a couple hours–but why?
Suikoden V has well written characters, acceptable voice acting, an interesting plot, and nice character art. However, the opening of the game is completely insufferable. After giving you a brief portrait of your starting characters, you wander around a town until you get into your first combat situation.
Okay. That's fine. What is next?
After a bit of story, you return to your castle and wander around trying to find an obnoxious little sister, who only shows up after you explore the right parts of the large-ish environment in the right order.
That took a bit too long. Oh! More story. That sounds fine. Now what?
You are sent into the town to explore a senate building and look for a list of gladiators, but only after talking to the right amount of people scattered in the building.
Now the environments are getting really dull. Lots of grey castle-y type stuff.
Finally! You are sent away from your home kingdom to inspect (sigh) the gladiatorial combat arena! That has to be exciting, right? Combat arenas?
WRONG! Wander around, talk to the right people, then when that is finished make sure you wander some more. There is no direct guide, and the game expects you to intuitively know where you need to go, or it expects you to enjoy this complete drag of an experience. This stuff works in 2-D games because you can see a lot more at once, and it is hard to make 2-D graphics as washed out and dull as they are in this game.
This last bit of wandering was the last straw. I put the game back in my overflowing game cabinet and will not pick it up again.
The next day I once again dove into my ever increasing backlog of games and grabbed another RPG–one that I already enjoy, and one that has a solid 60 hours of playtime already logged into it: Dragon Warrior VII for the PS1.
This game was often dragged through the mud when it was reviewed. I can understand why–the game was released in the US far after it should have been, and the graphics in the title were incredibly behind the times (the PS2 was already out). For me, the things that made this game unique were sorely missing in other RPG's.
The load times were speedy, and the battle sequences were sometimes even faster. The sound effects and music harkened back to the best of the SNES, and the job system is probably the most refined it has ever been. The game was thick with content, and like all Dragon Warrior/Quest games it oozes charm.
The best part? The plot of the game plays out like a series of mini-RPG's. The characters have almost no personality to themselves, and the little background they have quickly becomes irrelevant.The game starts off with only a single island where your character is born, as well as your first two party members. Soon you are sent to the past where the other continents that make up the world (which have been erased in the present) are able to be explored. Each new area has a separate problem which requires solving–normally by helping people out and killing a new boss monster. After all this is complete, the mini-RPG that is each new continent concludes with an ending; some happy, some sad, some inconclusive.
The really cool part?
When you return to the future (presumably at 88 miles per hour), you can explore the area and see how it has evolved over a couple generations. Your actions clearly have had an effect on the world–and though the future is always better with your help, sometimes things do not end up as rosy as you may expect.
After that, you take these mysterious shards you have collected back to this temple in your home town and piece them together to visit another part of the world in the past. Some of the plots you encounter are stock RPG encounters, while others are surprisingly unique and occasionally melancholy–doubly surprising considering how much Dragon Quest sticks to it's roots. This structure works brilliantly, as you feel a constant sense of reward for your efforts–especially because you can jump back and forth through time and chat with all the people you have helped.
However, like Suikoden V, this game has a LOT of wandering. This is somewhat alleviated with the mainly 2-D structure of the world, but…Well, confession time.
Dragon Warrior VII needs a guide to play. This game will often leave you completely scratching your head on what you need to do next. The game world is also massive, and although it is well translated and drops you hints on where to go, you will get lost pretty goddamn fast. Why do I love the game so much? Because I had a guide right from the beginning of the game (Thanks Prima!) .
Would I have enjoyed Suikoden V more if I had a guide? Maybe, but that game is way too old to excuse the piss-poor game design and boring environments the game immediately throws at you. The first few hours of Dragon Warrior VII are unique because you don't fight a slime until a few hours into the game. It slowly introduces you to the small island you live on, your friends and family, and the nagging feeling that something is wrong with your world. You pretty much live on an island paradise, but there is a nagging feeling that there should be more places on the globe that just don't exist. You are dragged into a mission to solve that. Suikoden V has good elements too, but it completely failed to grab me.
So without a guide, should you play Dragon Quest VII? Probably not, but if you find a copy snatch that fucker up because it is rare as shit.
Not all games should require a guide to be fun, but Dragon Quest VII (and to a greater extent, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne) certainly do.
The question remains, what can the traditional JRPG do to resurrect itself?
Be less pervy.
Well, that and increasing the hand-holding.
A lot of long time gamers may shudder at such a suggestion, but it comes with a caveat. If a game wants you to explore it better make it interesting, and not frustrating. It is not fun being forced to walk around a dull grey castle and talk to every NPC. That is something I like doing, but only if I am not forced to.
JRPG's need an optional Grand Theft Auto arrow. Need to talk to the king? Just show me where to go. Need to find a lost cat to advance the plot? Just show me where to go. If it is integral to progress in the game, make it obvious. If you need to catch a monster as a side-quest, make it require some exploration. If someone hints that the elf-town has some magic boots hidden under some pottery, then the player can find that themselves. Doing the above keeps the sense of exploration that many people find most enjoyable about RPG's, but also allows those who crave plot to get down to business without the mindless searching that many poorly designed games require.
American RPG's have adapted to this, such as Fallout or Fable. On the other hand, Japanese developers have sadly fallen behind on this sort of thing. Can they come back from their current position?
I don't think so, but after the brilliance of Dragon Quest XI I still have some hope–actually, never mind. My hope was crushed after remembering that Dragon Quest X is going to be on the Wii.