30 minutes. That's all I need. 30 minutes to decide whether or not a role-playing game is worth playing.
It's that first half-hour that comprises an RPG's most important moments. It's when we meet our hero. It's when we find out what he or she wants. It's when we're introduced to the game's world and core mechanics. It's when we fight for the first time. It's when we start seeing the first roots of the story. It's when we see and hear and play what we'll be seeing, hearing, and playing for the next 50-500 hours.
And when that first half-hour is boring, when a game's first impressions are sub-par, there's really no reason to stick with it.
That might seem unfair. After all, RPGs can run upwards of several hundred hours. To dismiss a massive game based on its first 30 minutes seems premature, like turning off a movie because you don't like its opening credits.
But in an era where countless sources of entertainment are constantly vying for our attention, why should we accept any less? I don't like wasting my time. If a game's creators can't make a good enough first impression to hook me in its first few minutes, why should I trust them with another few dozen hours of my time?
On a whim yesterday while doing some errands, I stopped by my local gaming store to see if they had anything interesting. They did indeed have something interesting: Resonance of Fate, a Sega-published JRPG made by the people who developed the hit-or-miss sci-fi Star Ocean series and a few other gems, like Radiata Stories. Resonance of Fate is one of those games that I've always meant to play, but never have. The perfect impulse buy.
So I got home, popped in the game and watched the opening cinematic, which is super dramatic. There's a gun. Botched suicide. A raven-haired girl leaps from a tower as a pocket watch falls from her hands and shatters on the ground and a Bieber-haired boy charges to rescue her before she plummets to her doom. It's all set under the luminous backdrop of what appears to be an 18th-centry European city. It's neat stuff.
After these first few minutes, I'm taken to a house with three characters: a man I don't recognise and a boy and a girl who may or may not be the boy and the girl from the intro. (I really can't tell.) The man says something about needing to go out and suddenly I'm in control. There are no directions, no instructional prompts. No introductory sequences or I flip through the menus and see their names: Zephyr, Vashyron, and Leanne.
"Cool," I think to myself. "I'll wander around and figure out what's happening on my own."
This was a bad idea. A few minutes later (after heading to some sort of guild and accepting a few quests) I'm in a battle and I have no idea what's happening. I try to target an enemy, aiming each character's firing reticle with the X button and waiting for them to charge, but the bad guys interrupt every attack before it finishes. I start mashing buttons and moving my characters around, which makes weird red and blue lines appear on the screen. The game makes no attempt to explain what's going on. I die several times.
With a reluctant sigh, I open up the menu screen and start up the tutorial, something I hate to do. A well-designed game eases you into its mechanics without forcing you to read supplementary materials.
The tutorial is 16 pages long. I immediately turn off Resonance of Fate.
Look, Tri-Ace. You guys might have devised the most brilliant battle system in the world. This game could be an absolute masterpiece, a triumph both narratively and mechanically. But if we can't figure out how to play without suffering through endless chunks of instruction, why should we give it a chance at all?
I don't think it's unfair to say that as a general rule, JRPGs have a serious accessibility problem. Because their stories and mechanics are often complicated and unfamiliar, they can feel obtuse. It can take a few hours to get the hang of them. This needs to change.
At this point you might be raising an eyebrow and picking up your pitchfork, ready to tear me down for daring to suggest that games be less hardcore. I am not saying games should assault you with prompts and baby-steps like Fi in Skyward Sword or any Zynga game ever. Nor am I suggesting that games should look more like this. But no game should require me to suffer through a lengthy instruction manual. I shouldn't have to memorize a series of rules and commands with no context or escalation.
The best RPGs introduce themselves with grace and aplomb, guiding you through their world without making you feel like you're holding their digital hands. Watch the introduction to Final Fantasy VII, for example. We're introduced to the city of Midgar and we get our first glimpse at one of the game's most important characters, Aeris. We meet the "ex-soldier". We get into a battle, which is quick and easy: all you have to do to win is press Fight. (The game's more complex mechanics, like the Materia system, are introduced at a reasonable pace rather than all at once.)
A large part of Final Fantasy VII's success draws from the fact that anyone can play it. You don't have to be a genre expert or hardcore gamer to follow along with the adventures of Cloud and crew. You just have to dive in and pay a bit of attention. When a JRPG doesn't pull this off, when it turns you off in its first few minutes because it is inaccessible or tough to follow, the genre suffers accordingly.
I haven't given up on Resonance of Fate just yet. I'll slog through its tutorials and try to master what appear to be some extremely unwieldy mechanics. But I'm already mad at it. That's the power of first impressions.
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.