What JRPGs should learn from Final Fantasy IV

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For anyone who has read my recently posted review of Dragon Ball Fusions, you’ll note that I closed out my piece with a little tangent about how I disliked modern JRPGs. I’m not sorry I wrote that, as I feel it helps one understand my frustrations with Fusions. The game does literally nothing to break the typical mold of JRPGs and it suffers for that.

One thing that seems to be misunderstood is my attitude towards the genre, as a whole. I don’t dislike every JRPG ever made, just most of them after Chrono Trigger. As a matter of fact, I’m going to now explain why Final Fantasy IV’s remake is one of the best examples of the genre and how Fusions and Bandai Namco could (and should) learn a thing or two from Square Enix’s past.

The opening of Final Fantasy IV immediately breaks the stereotypes of the genre. You aren’t playing some prophesized hero on a quest to save the world from an ancient evil; you’re a man who begins to question the morality of the orders he is being given. That insecurity leads to you being stripped of your position and sent on a tedious (and ultimately terrible) mission.

After falling from grace and hitting rock bottom, Cecil (the main character) vows to travel the world and help others in need. This goal thrusts him into an adventure that has a few twists and turns and introduces an incredible cast of characters along with some innovative and thrilling combat mechanics.

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With age, I’ve grown to understand why people enjoy turn based RPGs. Having that layer of strategy and tactics play out in a manner with which you are given limited control is an extra challenge on top of any difficulty selection (with which the remake of Final Fantasy IV offers two options). You can’t predict the future with 100% accuracy and any mistakes lead to emergent gameplay in the style of damage control. Failure to come back from the brink of death leads to a game over, but succeeding brings an incredible sense of accomplishment.

The thing is, most modern JRPGs do very little to distinguish each of their battles. Dragon Ball Fusions, as a matter of fact, is basically the same exact game for 90% of its playtime. You can approach every single battle with the same team of people and never even come close to losing. Some side quests offer up variety, but holding victory to different stipulations shouldn’t be relegated to optional content. A game should be challenging the player every step of the way.

Final Fantasy IV does exactly this. The default difficulty definitely makes things easy, but you are constantly faced with enemies that have weaknesses to different magic attacks or require you to play defense with certain characters. A lot of the bosses are resistant to magic or physical attacks and the rotation of your party members help switch up tactics without lecturing the player with dialog boxes.

Even the animations of the enemies can clue you in as to what needs to be done. One of the main bosses, Rubicante, will move his cape and that lets the player know physical attacks are now diminished in effectiveness. Of course, the only way to discover this is by trying things out, but the game gives players the freedom to learn these nuances on their own instead of throwing an utterly baffling amount of information at the player and then hiding important details in a “tips” menu.

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Then there is the active time battle system, which forces you to think on your feet. Sure, the characters won’t be moving on their own and everyone goes in a turn, but failing to select an option within a reasonable time limit will grant the enemy a chance to retaliate. You can’t just sit around and think forever, something that modern JRPGs have regressed back to.

One of the coolest additions to the remake (and even the PSP port) is the auto battle option. Grinding was worked into the design of older JRPGs because of the lack of technology powering them. Making a long and meaningful game on the NES was an arduous task without raising the difficulty. While removing grinding would have been preferable, having the auto battle for easier encounters removes a tremendous amount of tedium.

Let’s say you don’t gel with the combat or find it tedious; that can be understandable with the length of a lot of JRPGs. Final Fantasy IV’s story moves at such a brisk pace that I was able to complete in 20 hours while undertaking numerous side quests. I was never bored, I constantly felt the severity of the situation at hand and I had concern for the characters in my party. When certain events would strip me of some of my party members, I got legitimately sad.

Newer JRPGs don’t do this often. Most of the time, you have a group of people who never face any consequences. They don’t die, never get called away or come under ailment; they are basically terminators. Everything that happens in battle doesn’t matter, because they will always be there for you. I usually get pissed off because the party size is arbitrarily limited and I can’t use them all at once.

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Final Fantasy IV may be a bit too happy about shifting around the dynamic of your group, but at least you never feel like anyone is being wasted. This is also putting aside how some events in the plot permanently remove members from the game, even if they still exist in the story. I’d really hate falling in love with Tellah, for example.

Still, the constant drive to keep the plot moving and have you seeing new things is refreshing. A lot of big budget games, let alone JRPGs, pad the length of their runtimes with meaningless content to justify a higher price point. Reaching the finish line feels like busy work instead of having the game motivate you to complete it.

Now are there any examples of modern JRPGs I enjoy? Sure, quite a few. I’ve always been into Kingdom Hearts, but that is possibly the best example of mixing wonder and joy together with two gigantic corporations collaborating. Having Disney’s dream filled worlds collide with the battle systems of Final Fantasy is so crazy and extreme that it balances out into fun. The combat also reminds me a lot of Diablo, in some bizarre manner.

Xenoblade Chronicles is also one of my favorite Wii titles, even if that deviates incredibly from the typical JRPG mold. It borrows heavily from World of Warcraft or even Final Fantasy XII, but it has an ever expanding world that is densely populated with believable characters. Maybe the sidequests are totally pointless, but the game doesn’t offer harsh punishments for failure to save or prepare; you’re allowed to make some mistakes and keep going.

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Tales of Vesperia was a game I bought on a whim after conversing with an old friend. He was a huge fan of the series and I loved the presentation aspect, but it left me feeling indifferent. The combat is pretty awesome, almost mimicking Street Fighter with combos and special moves, but the characters and elongated plot don’t do the game favors. Instead of being concise and giving the player forward momentum, the game has a tremendous amount of detours for characters to doubt themselves, almost once an hour. It really drags at the end.

Lost Odyssey is also great, but it suffers from the limitations of the Xbox 360. Being one of the first “next-gen” RPGs, the game utilizes the Unreal engine to push HD graphics. That requires a lot of disc spinning, so the load times are absolutely horrendous. Random battles take about 20-25 seconds to load and most of the game is waiting around for things to start. The combat is great and the story is incredibly deep, but even it falters with Disc three being worthless. Why are children so hard to write?

For the rest of my experiences with games, I just see the same kind of crap. Infinite Undiscovery was a borderline embarrassing waste of potential and Final Fantasy XIII is the worst example of that particular series. The newer Star Ocean titles also play things incredibly save and do nothing to push their settings; they just expect space to be awe-inspiring by itself.

That loss of wonder and excitement is what makes something like Dragon Ball Fusions feel so disappointing. It may not be a bad game and has some pretty complex battle mechanics, but it doesn’t really respect the players time and input. The game tasks you with suffering through the same encounters and plot points until it ends and gives you nothing in return.

Maybe I’m comparing apples and oranges here, but I just want my playtime to feel like it mattered. I know that is getting caught up in an arbitrary definition, but older games usually put more of an emphasis on world building and player involvement. I just want to see that return to JRPGs, instead of the influx of bloated games with little originality.