I have a confession to make: I hate JRPGs. I also love them. Then I hate them. And I love them. And so on and so forth for 40 hours or so.
I've been thinking a lot, over the past week, about the ambivalent relationship we have with video games. This was triggered by Star Ocean: The Last Hope, a game in which you travel between planets and kill aliens with swords. The Last Hope is the fourth game in the Star Ocean series, which is known both for intimate character relationships and ridiculous plot twists involving aliens and optical illusions. It's basically the Japanese version of Mass Effect.
I started playing The Last Hope for the first time last weekend, and I found myself simultaneously captivated and disgusted with the fact that I was captivated.
I get that a lot. It's tough to reconcile. But I think it's normal.
Here's my theory: a good video game — especially a good JRPG — is a rollercoaster. It has setup and payoff. It has peaks and valleys. You wade through moments of bullshit because the adventure is fulfilling — and because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
So I'm playing the latest Star Ocean. I'm wandering through the alien-infested ship that serves as one of the game's earliest dungeons. I see a random enemy on the map. I try to get away. He chases me down. He's faster than I am. He catches up, the screen dissolves, and suddenly I'm in a random battle.
During that moment, I feel a little burst of annoyance, because I have to waste the next 30 seconds of my life taking this guy down. Instead of doing something *fun*, like setting plasma bombs to open up doors and hunt for treasure, or taking down some big boss thanks to careful strategy and skill, I am spamming the A-button and checking my email.
That burst of annoyance is met by an equally tangible burst of pleasure when the victory music starts to play and I watch my characters gain experience. Sometimes they level up. Sometimes I get a cool item. And the endorphins rush in.
Can't have the highs without the lows, right? Without those moments of annoyance, what would be the point? How could we enjoy the victory without fighting to get there in the first place?
There's a quote that's always stuck with me, from Edge's Jason Killingsworth, perhaps because it so brilliantly illustrates how I always — always! — feel about the video games I enjoy.
Over the course of a review, the critic needs to be able to say: I love this game, then I hate this game, then I love this game, and so on.
People always ask me why I dislike Final Fantasy XIII. It's so pretty, after all, and the combat system sure is unique. But it's sterile. It's one long ride through mediocrity, a plateau of lame dialogue ("Bring the L'Cie to the Fal'Cie!") and decision-free adventuring. I didn't have a love-hate relationship with that game. I didn't have a relationship with it at all.
So even as I groan at much of Star Ocean's voice acting (why do all modern console JRPGs always have a child party member?) and wince at the random encounters, I'm gonna keep playing. Because the best games aren't the ones you love, or the ones you hate. The best games — like the best relationships — are the ones that simultaneously do both. Those are the ones we remember.
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.