Let’s role-play

My preview of Dragon Quest IV went up yesterday. I’m not sure what it says about gaming as a medium that seemingly half the “previews” I write are for games that are fifteen, even twenty years old.

Anyway. It occurs to me, as I juggle DQ4 and Mass Effect, that in the past year I’ve played a surprisingly wide array of games calling themselves “RPGs.” The former title, here, is the very definition of bog-standard Japanese RPG — which isn’t a criticism, really, as I’m enjoying it, but Dragon Quest is the foundation upon which most Japanese RPGs are built. (Except Final Fantasy and its ilk, as those always struck me as having come from a place that was more about dressing up the old Ultimas in Dungeons & Dragons‘ clothing. Or should that be “the old Ultimae”? Whatever.) Dragon Quest is RPG comfort food, and even if Square Enix wanted to innovate with it they couldn’t; witness the outcry provoked by the initial news of their intent to make Dragon Quest IX‘s combat action-driven and multiplayer. Japan screamed in anger, so they settled just for “multiplayer.”

Meanwhile, the latter — by which I mean Mass Effect, in case you find yourself confused by that last paragraph’s admittedly needless digressions — is very much a PC RPG trying to fit into the world of consoles. And not quite succeeding, I’m afraid. The shooty action bits aren’t as smooth as console gamers expect, while the dialogue has netted considerable criticism from PC-era BioWare fans who prefer the comparative richness of their older games. Something about it feels vaguely compromised — and for what benefit, I wonder? To judge by message board comments, a sizable number of console kids don’t “get” the game, not realizing that the meat of the game isn’t in the exploding of stuff but rather in the conversing with people. They’re the ones who are tossing around words like “overrated,” because they beat the game in 20 hours and didn’t bother with all the plot wrinkles as they were focused wholly on the shuddery, difficult-to-manage combat.

And being an adamant console kid myself, I feel well within my rights to regard them as dopes. Because here I’ve been dabbling more and more outside the narrow confines of Japanese console RPG design, and I’ve been loving it.

The most surprisingly excellent game of the year has turned out to be Etrian Odyssey — a Japanese-made console (well, portable) RPG, sure, but one unabashed in its emulation of old PC RPGs like Wizardry. (Old PC RPGs.) And it’s fantastic. The entire game has less plot than a single Mass Effect conversation, but the story that develops is the tale of the player’s team of warriors. (Various jackasses who name their party members after those characters’ primary action verbs notwithstanding.) Every narrow escape, every desperate dash through corridors crammed with high-level monsters, every square of virtual graph paper you mark off further endears your speechless combatants to you.

Curiously, I’ve found this sort of role-playing every bit as compelling as Mass Effect’s — those little cartoon people are my loyal acolytes. Except maybe the Dark Hunter, he’s sort of unsettling. And unlike most story-heavy games, ME does let you define your character through her (or his) background, and through his (or her) responses and decisions. I was looking at pictures of other players’ custom made Shepards today and found it rather off-putting — none of those were the real Shepard, because Shepard is an angular-looking career warrior named Yukiko, a first-rate sniper whose moral fiber is outstanding. Well, as outstanding as a sniper’s moral fiber can be when their life is built on shooting people. I don’t know who those other Shepards are, but they’re filthy imposters.

(OK, so my Shepard was admittedly just an attempt to create a grown-up version of Rorita. She’s a galactic hero now, folks.)

And then there was Izuna (a lightweight roguelike); Pokémon Mystery Dungeon (an even lighter-weight roguelike), Pokémon (a collection-driven battling RPG), Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker (Pokémon meets Dragon Quest); Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea and Jeanne D’Arc (fond remembrances of Tactics Ogre), Revenant Wings (almost, but not quite, an RTS), and about half a dozen remakes of old Final Fantasy games (uh, Final Fantasy games). Oh, and Chrono Trigger (pretty much perfection). And I still have yet to touch what is supposedly the best RPG of the year, Persona 3, which is somewhere between Pokémon, an old-school PC RPG, Final Fantasy and, uh, Bully.

So, the point of all of this is… that I still like RPGs after all, I guess. I had my doubts for a few years, there. But I suppose I was actually sick of formulaic J-RPGs, which is why I happily passed on Eternal Sonata and Blue Odyssey and regard Lost Odyssey with regretful trepidation. (I want it to be good, but….) I suppose ultimately I’ve been waiting for people to start taking more open PC-style experiences into the console world where I can enjoy them without having to prop open a keymap cheat card in front of my computer. And now they are! I’m thinking I might have to dabble in Windows a little to catch up on some of the classics, though — Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Planescape….

But let’s not do anything rash, here.

42 thoughts on “Let’s role-play

  1. Man, it’s just NOT POSSIBLE to heap enough scorn on that asinine GI (is that right?) Etrian Odyssey review. I can’t BELIEVE how addicted I was to that game over the summer. Good lord.

  2. So THAT’S what Yuki looks like grown-up. I’m assuming her sniping career started when she murdered Toasty Frog in a fit of rage.

  3. GeoX: Yeah, it was GI.

    Parish, I really hope next year has some crappy games in it, because as it stands, there’s not enough time in the world. Also, are you going to do another playthrough of ME?

  4. Hell, I will physically bring you/let me borrow my copies of Baldur’s Gate 1/2 if that’s what it takes to make you play them.

    That said, games as a whole are expanding and evolving. More and more freedom is being granted to the individual player. JRPGs are typically extremely rigid affairs, but PC RPGs have always been fairly open. It’s only natural that you should want console RPGs to evolve with the times and give us the “true” experience that PC gamers have been getting (arguably) since the age of Akalabeth and Rogue.

  5. The nail in the coffin for me was Star Ocean 3. I thought the first two (especially the second) did a fantastic job of having a huge set of skills that actually seemed to do something in the game world, and leveling up was suddenly more to increase my cooking and music skills than it was to increase HP and base stats. It was admittedly rudimentary, but it was a crucial step forward for JRPGs that ended up being completely discarded in the third installment. Along with anything else resembling quality, I must add.

    They also had the wild scope and complexity that encouraged you to just play it, dick around, and get what you got and forget the rest. Except for the Eternal Sphere. That’s just mean.

  6. The game that has inspired all modern RPGs and changed all te conventions was and will forever be Betrayal at Krondor. The battle system was very good, turn based strategy battles, you could see your enemies before you fought them and you could avoid them if you hd the skills to do it, there were a gazillion side quests, you could learn things like playing the lute to earn money at inns. But you know what, no one will ever achnowledge that, no one. Because Krondor doesn’t sell anymore, is not a big brand. So marketers will have you believe that Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy or Ultima or Fallout came up with all the innovation. Bullshit. It was Betrayal at Krondor.

  7. Uh, yeah, Betrayal at Krondor strikes me as an evolution of the SSI Gold Box games or The Bard’s Tale.

    I’ve always admired the openness of PC RPGs, but they’re long been mired in boring-ass straight-from-an-AD&D-campaign-manual high fantasy, which to me is the single least interesting fictional setting ever. Even the two BioWare games I want to catch up on are bland medieval fantasy, and they’re headed straight back with Dragon Age. I figure if anyone can make it interesting, it’s them.

    The cross-pollination of east and west goes both ways. American RPGs have always lacked creative settings and interesting characters, and even as J-RPGs slowly start to incorporate western game structure, western RPGs are starting to branch out beyond boring “Thou hero!” tropes. Which is good, because I can’t stomach most “pure” Japanese or Western RPGs anymore. The correct answer is somewhere in the middle.

    Also, I tried Fallout back in the day and it is much too slow to be interesting. Not just the gameplay, but also the 20-minute load times.

  8. If you’re gonna go down the PC RPG gaming route, start with Baldur’s Gate, and work your way with Planescape, then Baldur’s Gate 2. You might appreciate the changes Bioware went through with these IPs (open-endedness, epic storyline, ‘pause-able’ combat), before they got confident and made their own universe(s).

  9. I’d skip NWN, and just play the expansions, then skip NWN2, and just play the new expansion for that. For some reason, those two main games had numbingly cliche stories, while the expansions were actually kinda interesting.

  10. Fallout and Planescape are both highly, highly recommended as a counterpoint to both Mass Effect and any given archetypal JRPG, if you don’t mind wandering into the tall grass of PC-land for a while. As older Windows games go they’re trouble-free to get working in XP (and in Linux with Wine).

    I’ve always had this clear separation in my mind between “role playing” as it exists in Fallout and, say, Deus Ex versus the “stat-building” of Etrian Odyssey, Final Fantasy et al. In Fallout I can decide on a character to play, and develop it with every choice I make informed by that model. In FF that’s irrelevant, you have no means of expression and it has no bearing on the gameplay besides.

    Not a quality judgment either way, there are fantastic games on both sides of that divide. But I do feel as though the more expressive, role-playing game is becoming a bit of a lost art. Stat-builders are just much easier to architect and they’re definitely the norm in Japan.

  11. Fallout pretty much doesn’t have load times if you play it on a computer from this decade. It’s one game that deserves a second chance.

    Then again, if you only play one PC RPG, make it Torment.

  12. What? You haven’t played them but already they have bland settings? From the outside Baldur’s Gate games may look like high fantasy, but trust me, they’re a lot more nuanced…

    Skip NWN unless you’re going to powergame with three other people. It’s a horrible single player experience compared to BioWare’s older games.

  13. If you’re intrigued by some things about the Baldur’s Gate games but don’t like the generic fantasy setting, play Planescape. Problem solved.

  14. Definately seconding the recommendations here for you to try Fallout and Planescape: Torment. Baldur’s Gate 2 (skip BG1, it hasn’t aged nearly as well) is up there but it’s just so damn long. Through in the expansion, which is pretty much required if you want to finish the story, and you’re looking at 200+ hours of gameplay easily.

    Besides, Fallout and Planescape in my opinion both provide more opportunity for what it seems you like, namely roleplaying through character customization and dialog choices. BG2 is much more about the D&D combat which I’ve never found really translated that well over to videogames in the first place.

  15. I know you’ve got tons of games in your back catalogue to play, but you really do need to play Persona 3. It has largely gotten me reinterested in a “been there, done that” genre.

  16. Any of you guys played Orcs and Elves or whatever? Seems interesting… or should I just save my money for Etrian?

  17. All of you talking about Baldur’s Gate 1 should check out http://www.pocketplane.net/tutu – it’s BG1 in the engine of BG2.

    That said, I haven’t actually tried it yet. I intend to as soon as my friend Dan comes back into town with his various BG CD’s.

  18. I’m finding myself constantly wishing ME was actually more like the old classic Bioware/Black Isle RPGs. I enjoy most RPGs, but my loyalties lie solely with the PC crowd – the sheer amount of customization and freedom you have completely dwarfs everything else.

    For recommendations, you can’t go wrong with the Infinity Engine trilogy: Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate, and Planescaept torment. Icewind Dale is mostly an old-fashioned dungeon hack, Planescape has combat as an afterthought, and Baldur’s Gate is a nice mix in between. As everyone says above, play Planescape if you play one. I’ll champion that any day as the best game of all time.

    Other recommendations:
    Arcanum: Extremely interesting steampunk setting, and an absurd amount of character customization in terms of spells and abilities. Doesn’t quite hit what it’s aiming for, though.

    Vampire the Masquerade – Bloodlines: So long as you patch it up, this game is a very faithful translation of the pen and paper game. Whether that’s a good thing is up to you (I personally love it)

  19. Arcanum is amazing zoombini, if you don’t play Betrayal at Krondor because it’s old an icky MS-DOS play that one. Planescape is O.K., but Wizardry 8 beats the living crap out of it and also Might and Magic VII.

  20. I think of it this way: Fallout is to computer RPGs as Chrono Trigger is to console RPGs. I have never before or since played an RPG on either platform that felt so wholly perfect to me despite some minor quibbles here or there.

    Seriously, give Fallout 1 another shot. The load times are not nearly as bad on a modern computer, as someone else already said. If I had to sit someone down and make them play one PC RPG to make them respect and/or love the genre, it would be Fallout 1. It is “perfect” to me in the same way that Super Metroid, Symphony of the Night, and Chrono Trigger are.

  21. Recently many have asked “can video games be art?” This question has already been answered in the form of Planescape: Torment.

  22. You know Parish, as a matter of fact I would recommend you play all of Sir-Tech’s masterpieces. Jagged Alliance games are some of the most utterly fantastic PC gaming experiences you could ever have. Sir-Tech is kinda like the PC gamers Sunsoft, some really awesome games released that defined entire generations and the video game industry in general, too bad the entire thing was closed and will be horribly missed.

  23. Adahn – yes, you are correct. Also, considering the nature of the masks we wear online, that’s the perfect name. I’m going to steal it.

  24. I’ve been playing through Dragon Quest IV and I’m shocked at how much I’m actually enjoying it. The original game hasn’t aged well at all, but this remake somehow makes it totally tolerable.

    Seriously, I’m shocked. I can’t stop playing, and I usually hate RPGs this hardcore nowadays.

  25. A few months ago, I did actually go back and try to play fallout. It is really slow.

    The pace of the game itself is brisk, its world and plot interesting and refreshing the whole way through. The problem becomes that the engine tells the story at kind of a slow pace. Making all characters run, and having the computer jump up the speed of your opponents and teammates in battle will help a lot, but it’s still kind of shaky.

    Also, the only builds I’ve found to be viable are ones with agility 7+, and the traits small frame, and gifted. Then again, there are lots of situations in Fallout where Charisma-Boy-ing your way through isn’t really viable.

    Still have really fond memories of the game though. It’s only a matter of time before I try to play them again. I will keep you posted.

  26. Oh and if you do find Fallout’s combat clunky/slow/annoying, know that it’s one of the most fun games to play as a sneaky talker who never fights. Lying your way through a base full of hostiles knowing you’re just one slip-up away from discovery == win.

  27. Oh, Prince of Qin is also amazing (even though is not a western PC RPG), it is the most beautiful game, the chinese music tunes are simply beautiful, the gameplay is like Diablo but with combat that goes beyond clicking a lot (elements play a big part and how you combine the elements, a fire sword might be weakned by a water armour, etc). I beleive Prince of Qin would be nire for you Parish, since it has the gameplay of a PC RPG, but all the beauty and sublime-ness of an Asian RPG. It would be easy(er) to digest than Fallout or Fallout 2 (which I actually burned like I burn all games I think it’s creators deserve to be punched in the face for trying to sell something on the basis that you can pimp your wife, I mean what the fuck, I’m gonna pimp the wives of the entire black isle studios staff to see if they like it, assholes, oh, my god, I’m becoming Jack Thompson-ish now, but now, because I think violence is fun, but sexual perversion and “machismo” is not).

  28. I’m pretty sure there’s quite a few things you can do in Fallout that Black Isle would rather not have happen to them. That’s not exactly the point.

    I remember that it was noted on the box or one of the ads, but it was either tongue-in-cheek or just stupid marketing trying to be “edgy”. It also was a sterling example of how open-ended the game is. Reading too much into it is silly, especially considering how it’s not exactly a viable way to earn much money.

    Plus, in the context of the game, it’s consensual. You’re not sending her to the rape farm.

  29. Can someone explain to me why random, unprovoked violence is acceptable but consentual, censored sex between adults is not? (Yes, it’s been asked before – but this time, we’re in the presence of someone who might actually give an answer.)

  30. RE: Fallout and inhuman developers.
    The game does offer you lots of ways to be a complete douchebag. Mostly because in reality, when the niceties of modern civilization are absent, people are pretty awful if they don’t like you!

    RE: Arcanum-
    From what I hear, Arcanum is broken because there’s really no point in not being a magician. Magic is far more badass than its alternative (tech) and becomes almost essential later in the game, limiting your real effectiveness.
    From waht I know, Arcanum has some of the most horrifying bugs and glitches ever to not get past the first town on my computer. I view it as successor to Fallout, with some of Fallout’s slowness removed.

    RE: Baldur’s Gate
    Want to play. Have not found.

  31. Because violence has a point in video games. Sex in video games has produced horrors like Sex Olimpics for Commodore 64. Seriously, it’s no big science.

  32. to be fair to Fallout 2, you can also play as a woman who pimps her husband. Its equal opportunity filth, and therefore to be praised for its progressiveness.

  33. “Can someone explain to me why random, unprovoked violence is acceptable but consentual, censored sex between adults is not?”

    Because America is a silly place founded upon violence and puritanical sexual morality. Haven’t you been paying attention?

  34. “Because America is a silly place founded upon violence and puritanical sexual morality. Haven’t you been paying attention?”

    Toasty, you are my new hero.

  35. Is the violence acceptable? I hear Brokaw called vids a cancer… and Lieberman, Clinton and some lawyer guy…

  36. My son’s great grandma’s name is Yukiko. I can’t imagine her as an interplanetary adventurer, though. But she does like bingo!

  37. “Because America is a silly place founded upon violence and puritanical sexual morality.” And alcohol. But sometimes that pesky puritanical morality gets in the way of it.

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