The lights are on
Tedium is inherently subjective. Some folks like turning over every last stone on the hunt for that last powerful item. Others like grinding for hours in RPGs to maximize their entire party’s potential. However, it’s safe to assume that the broad majority of gamers are interested in having a fun with a game as soon as they press start. Many role-playing games, specifically of the Japanese variety, have notoriously slow starts. I’m tired of ignoring the elephant in the room: A game shouldn’t take six or more hours to truly begin.
I fired up two JRPGs recently, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch and Ys: Memories of Celceta. Ni no Kuni parses out its simple systems over an excruciatingly long time. Hours pass where protagonist Oliver whacks enemies with a stick while casting fireball. After a few hours, he finally gets a familiar in the form of Mitey, a tiny swordsman who aids in combat. Several more hours pass with these two heroes beating down low-level enemies in overly simple encounters.
I enjoyed the gorgeous Studio Ghibli artstyle and the melancholy outset touching on loss, nothing else remarkable happened during the first leg of Oliver’s journey to compensate for the hundreds of dull battles. I understand that new characters and big worlds take time to set up, but Ni no Kuni’s archetypal cast and predictable plot isn’t compelling enough to make up for the initially sparse gameplay. It’s hard to get into the battles when you know it’s just a shadow of what it will be many hours from the outset. No matter how breathtaking beautiful it is. I didn’t unlock a second party member until 10 hours in, which is when more interesting battle systems like AI routines and evolving familiars come into full swing. I write about my time with Ni no Kuni in more detail here. Ultimately, I enjoyed what the game became after unlocking three party members and a means to traverse the world more quickly, but it took overly long to get there.
Ys: Memories of Celceta takes about three hours before letting players loose to explore the sprawling world. The introductory hours are dense with JRPG clichés, and parse out an incredibly basic battle system as if it were advanced calculus. I enjoyed the game that Ys eventually became, but less patient gamers might never endure the boring intro.
I’ve always told myself that you can’t really judge an RPG without sinking at least five or six hours into it. Why do we give an entire genre a free pass when there are such clear examples of other RPGs that come out of the gates swinging? Chrono Trigger pairs you up with two party members and drops you into a time-traveling adventure within 30 minutes. Final Fantasy VII begins with a dramatic assault on an energy reactor, setting up the world, story, and a full party battle system within minutes.
Western RPGs have done a great job of simultaneously moving along story and deep gameplay. Mass Effect offers plenty action up front as well, providing a solid mix of story development and intense action. The first game in the series takes only about an hour to set up before you’re chasing the main villain, and the sequels start with serious bangs as well. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim sets up the basic premise and hides the deeper stories in sidequests and tomes, allowing players to quickly start playing how they like. Of course Western RPGs aren’t exempt from bloated intros. We have clear examples of RPGs that know how to hit the ground running, so what’s with all the stragglers?
When Square Enix released Final Fantasy XIII, many fans praised its unique battle system while criticizing its confounding story and linear gameplay design. Discussing the linear design, many players often point to a later section set on Gran Pulse as a beacon of hope. Gran Pulse is a more open environment with wandering monsters and multiple paths. The catch is that Lightning and her crew don’t arrive on Gran Pulse until 30 hours in. The less restrictive Gran Pulse section is a hint of the Final Fantasy experience most fans were looking forward to. Players shouldn’t be expected to sink in over a day’s worth of time to get to the best stuff.
I used to be the kind of gamer that committed myself to beating every game I start. I’ve endured some terrible games just for the sake of it, but as more great games come out and my time is spread thin I grow impatient with bloated beginnings. I understand many JRPG fans wrap themselves in these archaic gameplay designs like a comfortable blanket. Nostalgia and familiarity are enough to entice some to overlook these shortcomings. While we all have our specific genre preferences, only RPGs demand such a time investment to blossom into their full potential. Gamers and critics accuse the Call of Duty series of delivering the same experience year after year, so why should RPGs be exempt from these repeated offenses?
To be clear, I don’t want the distinct Japanese flavor or methodical RPGs to be replaced with gonzo action. I love the art styles, intricate battle systems, and fantastic universes that JRPGs offer. However, I believe developers are talented enough to introduce game mechanics and worlds at a more reasonable pace. Even Nintendo, a developer notorious for its extended tutorials, has quickened the pace with Pokémon X & Y. How many potential RPG fans have sworn off the incredible genre due to a sluggish drip-feed of game mechanics?
I’ll be starting Final Fantasy XIII-2 for the first time this holiday break. Square Enix was upfront about responding to fan criticism regarding FF XIII’s shortcomings, and I’m excited to see what the developer considers progress for the genre. I’ve wanted to finish the game to prepare for Lightning Returns for some time, but if it expects an inordinate time investment to settle in as its predecessor, I’m not sure if I’ll see the series through to its conclusion.
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