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RPGs - Artificially Padded Slow Adventure Games?

Working Designs and Game Arts are usually very good RPG companies (well, WAS in WD's case), but there are two games in particular that illustrate to me that either they didn't know what they were doing or didn't care: Lunar Dragon Song and Vay. Both of these games had the same problem (well, there were MANY problems in LDS, but still): forced grinding.

Look, in the older RPGs, we didn't mind so much. It was all about strategy and development. However, as time's gone on, RPGs haven't grown easier so much as...friendlier? I think that's the word I want to use. Anyway, that's why if you compare something like, say, the original Final Fantasy to Fable 3, you realize that yes, it was a different time, but it was also centered around the idea of actually having a band of heroes that you had to help train, buy stuff for, and so on in order to really get through that tricky dungeon, while Fable 3...well, I just watched my sister-in-law trudge through the game without doing any side quests, buying properties, or leveling her character up at all.

Sure, as a result she beat it in about 2 nights, but that's besides the point. Or is it? Maybe I've been wrong about RPGs all this time. Maybe all the "side missions" are really about excuses for grinding, not treasure, exploration, and development. See, I've always thought that when I was playing something like, say, Persona 3, I was helping my characters train so they could fight the evil that lurked in Tartarus and as they got stronger, I could go farther.

The biggest problem about Persona 3 is the biggest problem in pretty much any RPG up to the 90s: losing your progress. It's a clever risk/reward system that only a few games at the time actually challenged (such as Dragonquest). It's also a FUCKING ANNOYING system that's really only been tweaked within the last 10 years or so.

Above, from the left: girlfriend who's been watching him play for an hour, guy who's been playing for an hour, jackass friend who will later claim he told him at least 5 times he should really go save before that next fight.

We all know the deal. We've been trying to get through this dungeon for hours. This is maybe our third attempt or so, so while we know about most of the dangers, random encounters are...well, random, after all. We're desperately trying to find a save point because the last one was all the way the fuck back at the beginning and the designer clearly had no intention of providing us at least some sort of handy shortcut back there.

Suddenly, random encounter with far too many enemies...congratulations, you just wasted a few hours of your life. Game over. Yes, again. So what to do? Well, usually I give myself a 15 minute break, play or watch something else, then go back, grind in the foyer or first floor or wherever for an hour, save, then try again. But here's the thing...why? Why do I keep coming back?

Is it because I genuinely enjoy the game...or the grind? And here's the thing...if you keep getting used to games like Fable 3 where they're very fun, visually impressive and all, definitely have high production values, but really have nothing beneath them when it comes to what most old-timers will refer to as "actual RPG grit"...is that what we're going to end up with from now on? And is that really a bad thing?

Let's go back to Persona 3 for a second. What if every time you get killed in Tartarus, it ends up being a "nightmare?" You wake up in your bed, back in the dorm. The penalty? Well, you lose half your money and all your party members are sick, so you can't return to Tartarus for a while. Now you might say the developer should be smart enough to then make the game harder and work around that, but the game is already hard, has multiple difficulty levels...so I don't see why that would be a problem, anyway.

"Difficulty too high? I dunno, mang, I just work here."

Plus, it would give you the ability to probe further and really gauge your progress each time with less consequence. Of course, some might see that as not having enough risk/reward and killing the overall strategy and mindset of Persona 3. I would look at it as me possibly having a chance at playing it further without becoming eternally frustrated all over again. See, I love Persona 3, but at a certain point in the game, I just hate myself for playing it because of how frustrating all the elements I initially like come to bite me in the ass.

But maybe I'm looking at this from the wrong angle. Let's go back to Fable 3. Now, I've already talked about this game a bit in my Frankenstein Project article (also, I think the choice elements were far greater in Fable 3 than any other, just sayin'), but one thing that should have stuck with you was the "Road to Rule," a bullshit way of leveling up your character that involved expending guild seals to open chests in whatever order you chose.

"I'm here to kick ass and open chests, and I'm alllllll outta asses."

The problem there is it doesn't make much logical sense and is way too casual for my liking. See, I would've been more willing to accept something that worked more like this. "The Labyrinth of Choice." You can get this wild overhead view where it looks like one giant maze and you can warp to any end point you already have, so you never actually get lost, but you can explore it all the same.

The point? There are a bunch of locked doors that take you to other parts of the labyrinth. Different parts of the labyrinth allow you access to different upgrades, but before you go to them, you have to unlock the doors. You unlock doors by fulfilling certain tasks that are relevant to certain aspects of your character and even then, there are still choices you get to make as far as opening doors.

Also, let's say the doors asked you a cryptic question such as "Would you choose your family or your kingdom?" One door would then have a picture of your family while the other, your kingdom. You choose one and get a certain type of upgrade, you choose the other, you get the other. See, at least it would center around more choice, which is a main focal point of the Fable series, AND there would be paths drifting off from those choices that would lead to more doors, more choices, more upgrades for THOSE areas, etc.

I realize that might sound a little confusing, but come on...it also sounds a little awesome. Of course, I just realized I didn't entirely explain why I used Vay and Lunar Dragon Song as examples earlier, besides mentioning the grinding, so here goes. In Vay, it takes a little while before you get your first combat buddy, but even when you do, you're both seriously under-leveled for the tasks ahead of you.

"Holy shit! A gelatinoid? Already?! FFFFFFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU-"

How seriously? Serious enough that if you don't level up at least a few times, you will get killed on the field map while traveling from location to location. Now in games like Final Fantasy, this was common...however, this was released in 1994, a time of such RPG classics as Breath of Fire, Shadowrun, and even Final Fantasy 6. Now sure, only one of those waived the risk/reward system, but they all clearly had a better grinding/developmental structure.

Not Vay. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I had to get to just before a boss, grind the shit out of my guys, try to fight the boss, get my ass handed to me (often within only a few turns), wash, rinse, repeat. And yes, this was even AFTER getting all kinds of restoratives in stock and buying all the new equipment. At first I thought I was overlooking some sort of strategy or I was supposed to lose or something, but that was never the case.

...probably still dead in 3 turns, give or take.

The worst, however, was Lunar Dragon Song. This is mostly because LDS is all about terrible design choices. It's hard to find an RPG where everything is done so wrong that it's borderline unplayable...but LDS makes the cut. Couple that with mandatory, excessive grinding for ridiculously and unfairly overpowered bosses and you have a game no RPG fanatic could love.

So where do I sit on this? Well, it's true that often I'll pop in a game just to waste time grinding on it. That sounds pretty bizarre, I'm sure, but it's something I do if I don't really have something I want to play, but I want to play SOMETHING. For example, I recently started back up Metal Saga. It's not a bad game, but it's not brilliant either. I don't think I'm going anywhere with it, but it's definitely fun to pop in and go around grinding the shit out of it.

Above: Another thing in Metal Saga I'd like to grind the shit out of.

The Persona games will also always be fun, but there's so much shit to juggle and so many things I'm worried I'm missing or could be doing better that I get all OCD and wipe out entire days just to do them "better"...even if I didn't quite understand I already did them as perfectly as I possibly could. And yet, I don't want to have to sit with a walkthrough in hand to completely do everything as it gets fucking tedious.

I'm not sure if maybe I just need to rethink how I play RPGs or just plain stop being obsessive and enjoy myself, even if I end up missing a bunch of shit. Or maybe Persona 3's simply the worst example I could come up with. Hard to say, really. So if you made it all the way to this point, I commend you, but I also have a question for you: how do you feel about all this? Does it make sense or am I just blowing smoke?
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About gunsageone of us since 2:58 PM on 04.11.2008

I've been gaming since 1987. I used to be a big Nintendo fanboy, then Square jumped the shark, so I followed. Eventually I realized neither Square nor Nintendo were the only companies out there worth following and my collection more or less speaks for itself now. I love to meet up with people on XBL, though I haven't done much online with the Wii. I've also been writing game review articles since 2004 on the old Project Wonderboy, then Morphine Nation, and now back to the new Project Wonderboy and various other sites.

I also help out in writing for a local videogame store website (VGMX). Not much else to say, really, when it comes to gaming. I wouldn't consider myself an expert, but I would say I'm experienced.

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