Tales Of The RPG I Just Couldn't Care About

Once upon a time there was a role-playing game. It had cool graphics and a fast-paced battle system. It was filled with mysteries and plot twists. Things were good.

One day, the role-playing game started to feel kinda sluggish. Its characters weren't all that appealing. Its battles felt less like exciting, strategic brawls and more like endless, button-mashing snoozefests.

Then I got bored and turned it off. The end.

Well, that's not entirely fair. I did enjoy the ~10 hours I spent with Tales of the Abyss 3D, a Japanese role-playing game that Namco Bandai released a few weeks ago for the 3DS. I had a good time slashing up monsters and exploring the game's world, a lovely place packed with hulking steam-powered airships and sprawling desert villages. Though some of the terminology left me baffled — you try remembering the difference between "Fon", "Fonons" and "Fonstones" — I wanted to see what would happen next.

But then there was a point — I think it was this past Wednesday night — when I looked at the game and said to myself, "I don't want to play this any more." I'm sure you've had that moment, that revelatory point when you look at a video game and wonder why you're still playing, wonder if you were ever really having fun or just wasting your time.

When you have a moment like that, you ask yourself a lot of questions. Stuff like: Why am I no longer interested in this game? It's good, isn't it? What's wrong with me? Am I a bad person? Do I hate video games? Are video games bad? Should I just become a food critic? I never get sick of food, do I? Are JRPGs dead?

But no. All I have to do is think back to The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, a PSP game that publisher XSEED released last year and the last JRPG I really loved. I couldn't put it down. I was hooked the second I met the main character, a peppy girl named Estelle with a witty sense of humour and some meaningful, real flaws that made her feel like an actual human being. I wanted to follow her adventures through to the bitter end. Because I cared about her.

And, really, when we play a role-playing game, we're usually not fascinated by rule-sets or mechanics or any of those other jargony things that developers love to talk about. We're interested in characters, in stories, in adventures. In people's journeys, people's triumphs, people's hardships. In people.

Of course, it takes a lot of work to make a game's zeroes and ones actually seem like people. As any writer will tell you, convincing an audience to care about fictional characters might be one of the most difficult part of storytelling. But in a world where there are way too many good games and not enough time to play them all, why should we waste our time on RPGs that can't get it right?

The main character in Tales of the Abyss is a boy named Luke who lives in a gigantic mansion. His uncle, the king and his father, the duke, have not let him leave this mansion for quite a few years, which might be why he acts like such an annoying brat all the time. He's whiny, spoiled, and very grating. It got on my nerves.

Luke learns to grow out of that immaturity over the course of his adventure, but that takes quite some time. Time that I just didn't care enough to invest.

So how does a writer make an audience care? The best storytellers have loads of tricks up their sleeve. For example, we tend to connect to characters who are really, really good at what they do. We'll fall in love with even the most despicable assassin if he's really good at his job. Clever lines help. Flaws, too. Not the type of flaws that make you say "damn you're annoying" — the type of flaws that make you say "oh wow, I know how that feels". Hubris. Ambition. Anger. Jealousy. You know, all that good stuff.

Sure, Tales of the Abyss 3D is a solid, competent game, but who has time for solid, competent games? I only want to play the ones I care about.

This Week In JRPG News

What To Play This Weekend

Something new: The aforementioned Trails in the Sky, which you can buy on your spanking new PlayStation Vita (or your spanking old PSP) for US$20. Let me know if its story resonates for you as much as it did for me.

Something old: One game I've thought about a lot over the past week or so is Earthbound, a quirky, classic RPG for the Super Nintendo. It hasn't aged very well, and its difficulty tends to range from stupidly easy to impossibly difficult, but man, very few games take you on adventures that trippy. Why not visit (or revisit) the city of Onett this weekend?

Your Questions Answered

Every week, I post several reader questions about JRPGs. Want to see your question featured in an edition of Random Encounters? Send it to me: [email protected]

Reader DrZaius writes:

What if JRPGs began employing the conversation format of point-and-click adventure games? Honestly, storyline and dialogue are the least important things to me in any RPG. Music is more important in my book. But I'd definitely be more interested in the story if the process of going through the dialog was more interesting. Imagine playing a game like Final Fantasy IX with the dialog system from, say, Grim Fandango. An already excellent game would be 10 times better, especially if it had the quality voice acting and writing from Grim Fandango.

Interesting idea. Square Enix's recently-released Final Fantasy XIII-2 played around with this mechanic, giving players dialogue options during certain cut-scenes, but they never seemed to affect the story, and they never felt as relevant as they did in point-and-click adventure games.

I suppose this dialogue chaining works for games like Grim Fandango — and Monkey Island, and Day of the Tentacle, and all those other classic point-and-click adventure games — because they were all designed by excellent writers, writers who knew how to balance comedy and emotion, how to write dialogue trees that give you meaningful choices — or at least pretend to give you meaningful choices. I'm not entirely confident that Japanese RPG developers can pull that off.

Reader "cturaniczo" writes:

I think a good discussion point would be the difficulty of JRPGs. I know for some of the old school Final Fantasy games (IV and VI), they had been scaled down in difficulty for western audiences. There have been numerous JRPGs I've gone through, including the ones mentioned, that really seemed to be a breeze. This displeases me. I understand the desire for story is paramount in JRPG games but I love the sense of accomplishment that comes when you finally defeat that boss after dying a ridiculous amount of times. I'm interested in others opinions of dwindling difficulty and if it matters to them this day in age.

I found that one of the few highlights in the otherwise-mediocre Final Fantasy XIII-2 was its difficulty. I had to battle some of the bosses quite a few times before I managed to take them out. And I agree with you there: It's extremely satisfying to overcome a boss or challenge that seems insurmountable. It's a cathartic feeling and something that video games like Dark Souls are excellent at evoking.

Now let me flip this question around and aim it at you lovely readers: Do you think JRPGs are easier today than they have been in the past? Are they dumbed down for western audiences? If so, is that a good thing?


Comments

    I'm a huge JRPG fan, but reading this was like reading 1 == 2 based on my personal experience. While it did take me a few hours to get into Tales of the Abyss 3DS,(about Akzeriuth), I found myself loving the characters and ended up spending almost 100 hours running around trying to complete sidequests. It's been my highlight of the 3DS so far, especially since I've been wanting to play this game ever since it got cancelled for Australia.

    I also have to wonder what you were doing to have any trouble whatsoever in Final Fantasy XIII-2. I loved the battle system in XIII(I did think it had a pretty terrible curve of next to no strategy and then suddenly spiking, but I personally enjoyed the spikes and they at least started in the main story) and hence in XIII-2, but I felt the challenge in XIII-2 was almost non existant, maybe it gets that way in the hidden optional stuff. The only boss I didn't beat first off was the time devourer in the Yaschas Masif, which was purely optional and I suspect was meant for a much higher leveled party, but even with my underleveled party I managed to beat it by changing paradigms around, even if I got no stars for it.

    I personally think that more RPG's should have difficulty levels as opposed to being harder, but they can be really hard to manage. Like story and everything else it comes down to personal preference, one persons difficult is another persons frustrating, while it's another persons way too easy. For me Dark Souls was largely enjoyable, but I got intensely frustrated with some of the forced repetition. I don't mind dying to a boss if I can try again, but areas like the crystal cave where you die to a boss and then have to slog through a horrible area that you've already overcome just to get another chance to try a different approach is incredibly frustrating.

    thought you were talking about skyrim... cause teh first paragraph is exactly how i feel about that button masher with leveling elements.

    I caught whatever is ailing you when ffx13 came out.

    "I’m sure you’ve had that moment, that revelatory point when you look at a video game and wonder why you’re still playing, wonder if you were ever really having fun or just wasting your time."
    Unfortunately the older I get the more often, and quicker, this happens. Even games i had been waiting years for finally arrive and not long after this hits me. I just don't want to play this anymore.
    I think it's more game addiction for me rather than really enjoying it anymore. I just keep coming back...

      ^ this. I'm 31 years old and have been gaming since I was around 14 and I find that lately, I lose interest in games rather quickly. It's alarming because I've always thoroughly enjoyed gaming :S

        Same situation though 30 and been gaming since I was 5 >.>

      This is happening to me at 18... maybe i just get bored fast

    i loved tales of the abyss, i played it a few years ago on the ps2 and loved it the and when i bought it on 3DS i played it for about 70 hours to finish one playthrough, it is a little slow to start but when it does start it is an amazing game and the characters become genuinely likeable, but this is coming from a massive fan of the "tales of" series so to each his own.

    i passed tales of the abyss with about 75 hours play time. i don't understand how anyone could play only play it for 10 hours and know enough about the story and the characters to pass judgement on tales of the abyss. i played it the way it was meant to be played on the ps2.

    playing only 10 hours of any tales game is like watching the first 10 minutes of a movie and saying its trash =/

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