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.

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I’m Part of the Problem

Every now and then, a treasured developer will produce a game so dissimilar to their previous work that fans will begin to rage. They’ll lament the good old days and chat about how said developer has lost their way. What happened to the tight level design? Where are the classic monsters? Why does this game feel so different?

Id Software’s “Rage” is such a title. Playing almost nothing like their previous games, “Rage” feels very awkward to a longtime Id fan. Why would you even bother with this title, outside of the developer’s legacy? After playing through the game, I can’t answer that question.

Still, I can’t help but think I’m a part of the game industry’s biggest problem; creative stagnation. Id Software tried their damnedest to create a brand new IP and I hate the game. Hell, even when they took “Doom 3” in a different direction than the classic games, I was first in line to bitch and moan.

“Rage” definitely isn’t a shining example of game design, but it’s not poorly made. When the characters finally shut-up and you’re thrown into a dungeon, it plays like a better version of “Fallout 3.” The guns have great weight and the graphics completely sell the putrid creatures and their agility. It can be really tense.

In the same instance, though, nothing about the game is original and most of the ideas are half-baked. The upgrade system shouldn’t even exist with how few options are available, the car combat side missions feel like half of a game (or early PS1 era cash grabs) and the weapon crafting is entirely pointless when you can just buy everything.

“Rage” is mind blowing if you haven’t played a single game this generation. If you have, you’ll just keep thinking about “Borderlands,” “Fallout 3” and “Call of Duty.” It’s sad when even in a brand new game, I can’t escape thoughts of everything else.

I can’t even tell which Call of Duty this is…..

At the same time, because I made those previous games successful, I’m partly responsible for “Rage” being an amalgamation of features from other shooters. I can’t imagine playing a classic style game in the modern era, even though I’d probably enjoy it to some degree.

Still, when new IPs are released, I’m the one responsible for sequels never happening. I’m the guy that craps all over “new” ideas and stops developers from taking chances. I dictate to them that Call of Duty and Battlefield are the only way shooters should be, so why even try something new?

To that degree, I also disliked “Sonic 4.” I’m not one of those people who abhor the physics, though. I was more in the camp that the level design wasn’t adequate and that the boss encounters lacked originality. Since I love classic Sonic, though, what else was Sega supposed to make? How do they make me happy?

I’m also the same person that is lambasting Square-Enix for “Final Fantasy XIII.” I can’t stand the auto-battle system or how streamlined combat is. The linear level paths for an RPG do nothing for me and the absurd story just brings my piss to a boil. How else is Square-Enix supposed to innovate, though?

If I could embrace “Rage” as an actual beacon of creativity, then maybe we’d be a better and more realized sequel. Maybe Id Software could expend more time in designing new mechanics or fleshing out the groundwork laid down with the first title.

If I treated “Final Fantasy XIII” with more respect, maybe Square-Enix would finally give us that “Final Fantasy VII” remake or another title in the classic, 16-bit style (excluding the FFIV pseudo-sequel).

Since I don’t allow developers to try anything new, I fear that the next generation of consoles will just keep producing the same garbage over and over. I keep buying awful sequels in hopes that some of the original joy will be contained; I almost never leave happy.

Even this looks like Call of Duty….

So my only conclusion is that I am a part of the problem. I’ll do my best to embrace the indie game scene, but I don’t see how I’ll be helping triple A title’s become more diverse in the future.

Cinematic Narratives

As gaming evolves and budgets become larger, there seems to be a trend going on: lavish cutscenes. You’d be hard pressed to find a modern, mainstream, triple A title that doesn’t feature cutscenes in some significant way. Be it “Metal Gear Solid” or “Alan Wake,” games just push their narratives onto us through the use of cinematic cuts.

I’ve seen this trend bemoaned as the death of gaming. I’ve heard critics lambaste titles that rely too much on scripted events and FMVs. I’ve read complaints from fans that most games are more movies now than they are game. Is this really a bad thing?

I just recently finished “Binary Domain.” The game was created by the producer of the Yakuza series by Sega. If anyone has played any entry in the Yakuza series, they will tell you that the cutscenes are long and plentiful. Still, the narrative set-up by those scenes is leaps and bounds ahead of most games in the modern climate.

Regardless, as gaming grows and matures as a medium, why is it so bad to include cutscenes in your game? Much like a musician who seeks to tell a story through the use of a concept album, can a video game not decide to display its narrative ideals through cutscene?

I suppose there is a point where enough is enough. The Atlus RPG Classic, “Persona 4” starts off with a 2 hour prologue that is text-based with limited interaction. Capcom’s brawler/adventure hybrid, “Asura’s Wrath,” is composed of 80% cutscenes. Hell, “Yakuza 4,” one of my favorites, includes over 5 hours of non-interactive FMVs. Isn’t that just too much?

I say no. Much like every movie isn’t about broken cops or drug lords and every book isn’t a fantasy novel in the vein of J.R.R. Tolkein, video games do not have a single mold with which they can convey their message. If a developer sees fit to include 6 hours of cinematics, why is anyone even complaining?

This is pretty damn close to “Lord of the Rings,” though…

Maybe the ability to skip said cinematics should be included in every title? Well, I just finished “Shadows of the Damned” three times for the Platinum trophy and I was able to deal with the cutscenes each and every time. They even took on new meanings during my third playthrough as I focused on other elements to the game design, namely Akira Yamaoka’s glorious soundtrack.

I suppose gaming just provides a radically dissimilar interaction than movies, which is why people are sick of seeing so many FMVs. Instead of having control ripped away, most gamers want to keep going. I like getting breaks from the action, though.

The Uncharted series, for as generic and unoriginal in gameplay as it may be, has some very well done cutscenes. Extraordinary motion capture and superb acting combine to make the cut aways something you seek out. While I enjoy popping soldiers in the head, I’m more eager to see Drake’s interactions with Sully and Elena. It gives me a nice chance to catch my breath.

“Max Payne 3” was an exceptional case for having more cutscenes in games. The transitions Rockstar employed to make game and cinematic blend are so ahead of the competition that I barely knew when to stop playing and hardly ever wanted to. I blitzed through the title because I was sucked in by fierce opposition and tight controls and compelled forward through wonderful acting and supreme direction.

After playing such a great game like that, I’m left pondering why I ever thought ridding games of cutscenes was a good idea. Still, I do understand that some people just cannot stomach their existence and want nothing to do with them. I appreciate that viewpoint.

But when did our medium ever conform to one idea? The amount of games I’ve played where there are no cinematics far outweighs the amount that do. You can fire up any number of indie games and get your old-school fix, but even titles like “Portal 2” and “Doom” do not feature any FMVs in sight.

So to any naysayers of cutscenes, all I have to say is just avoid the games that have them. I, on the other hand, am looking forward to the day where an entire game may just be one long cutscene (Hotel Dusk doesn’t count!). I’m all for a slightly interactive movie, as long as the plot isn’t as garbage as “Heavy Rain.”