One trend I’ve noticed over the years is the split personality of the Role Playing Game Genre or RPG. When it comes to most genres you are guarantee to have a similar experience playing one game in the genre to another, not so when it comes to RPGS. Over the years the genre has really become several genres over the development styles around the world. For this entry I’m going to look at two of the more prominent sub genres of the RPG genre
First we’ll look at the Western style(including Europe ) with Computer Role Playing Games or CRPGS. This genre is in no small part inspired by the Dungeons and Dragons game, and that influence is still seen today. In CRPGS plot and story development take a back seat in most cases to character development. Here players design a hero or team of heroes to embark on some quest which will most likely end with the world being saved. While the overall plot is basic, CRPGS allow alot of choices to effect the flow of the story. Encounters can be handled in different ways based on the skill sets of the characters or on dialogue choices available to the player. While the end of the game will remain the same the path to it should be different for each person. Another detail of CRPGS are multiple endings, most often we’ll see a “good” ending and a “bad” ending to the tale. One of my favorite games in the genre is the GeneForge series which not only allows multiple solutions to encounters but keeps the game’s morality choices firmly in the “grey” section. Still there are some problems I have with CRPGS.
As I mentioned, story development isn’t the main focus for CRPGS which places the fun factor of a game squarely on the customization and character development. Balancing a game that lets you build a character is a tricky affair as well as creating adequate challenges. Some games like to throw in numerous skills that for the most part aren’t needed or as vital as a select few, which leads to players shooting themselves in the foot if they create a character without at least one combat skill. Challenging situations in CRPGS are mostly going to be combat oriented and I’ve only seen a few cases where non combat related talents can be used to get through a situation (see Fallout 1 and the GeneForge series as two prime examples). Recently with Oblivion the game really messed up with the idea of scaled leveling (I should prepare a rant for Oblivion soon) which not only destroys any sense of challenging gameplay, but can screw the player if they place non combat skills as their prime skills. Still one of my main issues with CRPGS comes from the story side.
CRPGS have been trying to deal with issues of morality for some time now, and so far I’ve yet to see one game succeed perfectly in showing the merits and flaws with good and evil. I place the blame on BioWare personality, as it seems everyone has copied their bare bones system. In most BioWare RPGS the idea of good and evil boils down to being a complete gopher for people or being more of a jerk then an evil bad ass. The problem I think is that games are still being viewed as something for children and making a game where the protagonist can wipe out a village with his/her own hands is still a no-no. Then we have rpgs that mature means swearing and cleavage, I want to see a RPG where it is possible to hit pure evil, as well as being good. Keep this in mind as I’m planning an entry on morality and such in rpgs. Now moving on it’s time we head to Japan to look at the next genre.
The Japanese Role Playing Game or JRPG of course hails from Japan, and does things abit differently. In a JRPG the story is the main focus with gameplay systems pushed into the background . JRPGs have been around for awhile and the two biggest are the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy franchises, each one involves a group of people having to save the world some how. At this point I could make a joke about certain off the wall plot points *cough Final Fantasy 7 ,if I wasn’t afraid of cos players coming to my house and beating me up. Recently a great trend has been surfacing with JRPGS that not only have interesting stories but unique combat systems to match, with the best examples from the Shin Megami Tensei franchise or SMT. Each game in the SMT series features a challenging combat system that requires mastery to deal with the bosses who can and will exploit the loopholes in it which you can do the same, not to mention a crazy story line that is sure to put some parents on edge. Take for example Nocturne, in it you play a boy who survives the end of the world to be turned into a demon and then set loose on the new world to remake it in your own image,along the way you will get a chance to fight the Christian version of God and Satan. Even with the rising popularity of the SMT series the majority of JRPGS follow in the same foot steps as Final Fantasy which leads me to my concerns with it.
For the most part you’re not going to be playing a JRPG for engaging and satisfying gameplay, as you will be too busy following the story line. On Zero Punctuation’s review of The World Ends With You there is a brilliant imagery of the player carting around the character to each major plot point which sums up the experience perfectly. Both critics and fans compare JRPGS to reading a book as there is in most cases zero interaction between the player and the narrative. Also don’t even think that JRPGS have multiple endings(with a few exceptions) as it would go against the plot the designers have created. One issue I’ve seen is that alot of RPGS have an epic (or try to make it epic) storyline and then have no idea how combat is supposed to play out. Which leaves us with a below average combat system to wade into with each fight while trying to get through the story. Take for example the Suikoden series, I love the story and worlds created for them but I detest the combat system, however there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
When we do get a JRPG that not only has a unique story, but also excellent combat and/or game systems it makes it that much better to play. Games like the SMT series or recently Square-Enix’s latest hit The World Ends With You . In this regard it’s in my opinion that the JRPG genre is evolving faster then the CRPG that still seems to be stuck somewhat in the 90s era of BioWare RPGs (in case you haven’t guessed by now I’m not a fan of their RPGS). I do find it funny to mention that I’m playing the Japanese take of the CRPG genre in the form of Etrian Odyssey 2 . I’m seeing a trend these days of more unique JRPGS to come out , and with my DS and 360 on hand I’m ready to once again kick some leveled monster ass. Just remember this one rule about JRPGS, butterflies are evil death bringers out to destroy you.
For this entry I’m going to go into detail about one of the greatest mysteries that has plagued mankind for ages and many a philosopher has spent years trying to solve… why hasn’t anyone been able to successfully copy Diablo 2!? Oh sure we’ve seen games that have emulated it (Divine Divinity, Fate, Sacred) and some that came close to it (Titan Quest) but we have never heard a game get the title “Diablo 2 killer”. Last year, developers of Diablo 2 tried to create a spiritual successor with Hell Gate London and not only did it not live up to the hype, but were also blasted by critics and fans alike. (A pattern I’m seeing with spiritual successors). As a fan and self admitted Diablo 2 addict I feel it is my duty to break down Diablo 2 to see what makes it tick, and provide lessons for developers attempting to strike gold again.
Diablo 2 is made up of several carefully balanced systems that scratch that itch for action RPG fans. First is randomization which permeates the world of Diablo 2. Every section (minus boss and quest related chambers) is randomized in terms of overall space, treasure to be found, and chances of seeing unique monsters roaming the area. This keeps exploring the world from being too stale on repeat visits which are required to collect all that awesome loot (which will be talked about next). Playing Titan Quest which is my favorite Diablo clone, the one thing it lacked was randomization of that degree. Yes the background and settings were pretty but in action rpgs where you will be building numerous characters, it’s better to have a fresh experience that doesn’t look as detailed over going past the same waterfall every time you play the game. This leads into the reason why you’re going to be going through those locales again and again.
The old carrot on a stick imagery is used perfectly for Diablo 2. While the game will have you believe that your quest is to kill Diablo and save the world, the real reason your playing is to collect bigger and shinier pieces of equipment to put on your character. Diablo 2 features an extensive amount of equipment for your characters to use. Playing on higher difficulty levels means scoring better items to deal with the stronger enemies. Gems and words of power were added to allow customization to your items further improving them, one of my friends who were basically a Diablo 2 god showed me some of his gear which had bonuses that went from the top of the screen all the way to the bottom. Set pieces customized to each character type provided a focused method of improving your characters opposed to the customization
I will give the nod to Titan Quest for providing powerful loot to be found, including artifacts that can add new skills to your character. My problem was that they were made so rare and hard to obtain that chances are you won’t be able to find them and it downplays their importance. In TQ rare loot became so hard to find that it was possible to go an entire act without finding something better. Then there is the fact that bosses are not always guaranteed to drop rare items on death which is just horribly unlucky when it occurs. In Diablo 2 most often you would change your equipment up several times in a single act depending on your luck. With all these items your characters had the proper tools for dealing with monsters of the land.
Diablo 2 featured a wide variety of beast, demon, and vermin for the player to go up against. Enemies had their own unique talents and were not afraid to use them from reviving dead pals to using your own skills against you. Elite versions of enemies add to the danger with resistances and special modifiers, who can forget getting killed by the electroshock ability of elites. Boss fights in Diablo 2 were epic featuring enemies that towered over the player. The rewards for killing them were great with rare and powerful items to be fought over. My favorite (or least favorite) enemy were the swarms of insects in act 2 which brought back painful memories of being attacked by bees when I was younger(funny story that I should share at some point). Moving on it’s time to talk about how your spreading the death and destruction to these beasties.
The character classes in Diablo 2 really showcase Blizzard’s ability to create back stories and add depth to their worlds. Each class comes with their own unique background and abilities. What I love about the D2 classes is that they get away from the standard Warrior/Wizard/Archer archetype seen in most fantasy titles. Classes range from an Amazon skilled with both bow and spear, to my personal favorite the Necromancer which coincidentally started my love of using pet classes in RPGS. With the expansion we’re given the druid and assassin classes that add even more variety to the game and guarantees repeat playthroughs. Now in most action RPGS that would be it in terms of diversity, but D2 goes a step further by providing 3 unique skill trees for each class. Each one is self contained to turn your character into a demon killing bad ass, but it also allows you to try generalizing by going up 2 or all 3 trees evenly. A few years ago I believe Blizzard released a patch that added in synergy bonuses that each skill would give you for putting points in them further allowing you to develop unique characters. TQ is the second best with giving the player unique classes by allowing you to create a class out of two different skill trees, but I still give the nod to Diablo 2 for allowing diverse characters.
Lastly is multi player, I’ve been saying this for years now but I believe Blizzard owes a huge debt to the people behind Battle.Net, Blizzard’s online service. Every game in Blizzards lineup has benefited from this service and offers features that I rarely see other companies use. Such as cross game chat, and a variety of ways of finding people to play. Diablo 2 was set up so well that I never played a single player character as it was so easy to create characters for online play. Action rpgs thrive on the chaos of multi player and Diablo 2 is no exception, combine that with the diverse ways of creating characters and you have a formula for a game that can be played for a long time.
So after that long praise of a game that is about 7 years old what lessons should be taken from this? Customization, randomization, unique classes, and lastly easy to use multi player are the foundations of a great action RPG. As of this writing I feel the itch to reinstall D2 to see if I can put that bastard and his annoying brothers in their place once again.
While I’m on what seems to be a never ending quest to find a job, I thought a good use of my time would be to try one of the many turn base strategy (or TBS) titles I have in my library and attempt to play one almost competently. So I pulled out the manual of Civilization 4 and prepared to read it when I remember all the work and frustration that went into learning it the first time and I decided to put the manual away again. Before I start this little rant against the TBS genre I’ll give a little prologue to my stance. The real time strategy genre was my first major foothold into pc gaming, and I didn’t start looking at the TBS genre until around 2003 with Civ 3 that was on sale.
Looking at my game library for TBS titles, I have what is considered the whos who of the genre, I have Galactic Civilizations 2,Alpha Centauri, Civilization 4 (and 3), Age of Wonders 2, Dominions 2,both Rome and Medieval Total War , and lastly Europa Universals 3 and yet I cannot stand playing any of them anymore(I still haven’t purchased Armageddon Empires, it’s still on my list). I have tried to get into each game on this list in the past and each time I’ve met with failure, hopefully through this entry I can see what went wrong with each game and hopefully help out the various designers in improving their games.
Lets begin with the essence of a TBS game, or otherwise known as the 4Xs . The 4X stands for the 4 major game mechanics featured in any TBS game and they are, eXplore,eXpand,eXterminate,and eXploit. The first 3 are pretty self explanatory while the last one figures into a diplomacy model and ways to interact with the AI to take them down easier. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, TBS games are played almost like a board game with each person or AI taking a turn and moving on to the next player. With the basics out the way now to turn to my beef with the genre.
First is the amount of energy required to even play these games, I know they’re turn base strategy titles meaning that they’re supposed to be slow. Yet I hate to have to play 10+ losing games before I’m suppose to “get it” and everything will click magically and I’ll have everything understood. It doesn’t help that each game is practically its own genre with different nuisances and hidden rules to learn. Unlike other genres there is very little carry over in terms of skills from playing multiple games like Galactic Civilizations 2 and going onto Civilization 4. While the general idea of game play remains the same(the 4Xs again) the execution of those mechanics will require you to start from scratch to play the game well. Chances are some hard core fans of the genre will come after you if you ever dare say that another TBS game is like their favorite. Trying to play Europa for the first time was impossible for me and I read through both the manual and the huge strategy guide that came with it, to no avail. Hurting this genre even more for me is the interface design.
Creating an interface for a TBS title has got to be a nightmare, as they are some of the most complicated games out there. The old rule of having everything important on the main screen is impossible as there are so many game systems to keep track of that the screen would become a jumbled mess without multiple sub screens. On one spectrum we have Europa with dozens of little buttons of various uses which open up sub screens with yet even more little buttons to click on. Then we have a game like Dominions 2 (and 3 from what I’ve seen) which has to have the worse interface ever to introduce people to it. All you have is are a few numbers on screen and the game map , that’s it. Civilization 4’s interface was halfway decent and is the easiest one in my opinion to understand from a first glance. Now that I’ve talked about looking at the game, it’s time to talk about what happens when all those little units meet.
Combat plays a huge role in TBS games , obviously as it is one of the Xs. There are 3 popular systems for combat in a TBS game, first is zero control by the player. In this combat plays out with no interaction by the player, two armies clash with each other and the winner is based completely on the combat system, Civ 4 popularizes this
system. Next is small control over combat, the player controls combat in the sense of directing fire or adjusting a slider. Winning comes from the player making the right decisions and of course having the right units under control. Europa and Armageddon Empires are two examples of this. Lastly is taking the player into a completely new system for combat. Here combat plays out almost like another game, with the success or failure gauge primarily on player skill and units controlled. The total war franchise and Age of Wonders 2 are fine examples of this style.
The majority of my problems stem from the first and third style. Combat to me needs to have the player invested in it to make it matter, playing Civilization 4 the combat felt very plain to me. It was hard to figure out how I would lose battles and attacking cities was a nightmare as one archer was able to kill 5 warriors at one time. On the other side, with combat moving to another system there is too much investment in my opinion with combat. I hate to have to spend 30 minutes fighting one battle that may or may not mean anything in the scope of things and then fighting another one right after it. Also the fact that you have to learn yet another game system makes things even more complicated for a new comer to grasp. The 2ND option is my favorite, as it provides the right amount of user input and gives battles a sufficient lasting impression without having to spend a long time on one battle.
Moving on it’s time to talk about the AI. Playing a TBS game is a complicated endeavor for human players, and it can be even harder to program an AI to play the game at equal skill. Many TBS titles instead of programming intelligent AIs, instead level the playing field by tweaking the rules against the player and for the AI. This drive me crazy as I hate this kind of balance, and it seems more like kicking the player in the crotch instead of giving the player a meaningful challenge. Fortunate not all TBS titles suffer from this, and I have to commend Galactic Civilizations 2 and Armageddon Empires on delivering intelligent challenging AI. Which were most likely created using some form of voodoo from my understanding 🙂 .
The other side of this is diplomacy or the eXploit system, this is where the facade of playing against actual opponents is shown. In many titles with a diplomacy system , it feels very mechanical and never really plays out requiring a tactical skill by the player. I never feel that I could really bluff or trick my opponents with it, and I eventually never go to the diplomacy screen.
At last it’s time to talk about my biggest issue with the TBS genre in general. In one interview by Sid Meier (the creator of the Civilization series) he describes a turn base strategy title as a set of interesting choices (paraphrasing here), my problem is that in most titles that is a complete lie. There are alot of choices, but only a few that are right. I remember reading a build order list for newcomers to play Civilization 4, for those that don’t know me those are the bane of my existence for strategy titles as it takes out the strategy. When trying to play Civ 4it’s very easy to not have that worker built in time, or you spent one turn too long getting a technology research and that could screw you up completely by the AI. Worse is when you play for 10 hours to find out that you probably should have zigged at hour 5 instead of zag and now the AI’s army is going to decimate you. For some people they find that fun and a learning experience, to me that is a punch in the face. I don’t like to play video games as a shopping list experience (ok build 2 warriors, now research fishing, now build a worker, etc) I want to be able to improvise, if plan A fails I shouldn’t be screwed I should work on plan B which comes around 5 seconds after plan A fails. I can take losing if it’s the eventual outcome of a war gone wrong, or they built the better economy, I don’t want to lose because of one very fast blitzkrieg that came about out of no where.
Three TBS titles that avoid this fate are Alpha Centauri, Galactic Civilizations 2, and Armageddon Empires(this from my time played with the demo). One reason is the degree of customization, in Alpha and Galactic you can customize your units and build new ones to your liking. Not only does this add extra personality to the game, but it helps avoid those quick losses,if the enemy is attacking me with X I can create Y to fight them effectively. While in Armageddon Empires you create your entire army from your deck which adds personality and allows for interesting choices. Also by limiting your army (and the AI’s) in that manner it adds a degree of importance to battles while still providing chances for hell mary plays with stealth units. Personality , customization in some manner should be a prerequisite system in any strategy title (which goes back to my love of CCG based systems: http://chronicgamedesigner.blogspot.com/2008/04/ace-of-spades.html ).
To be honest I’m not sure what the perfect solution would be, one part would be making titles more user friendly and providing an extensive manual and tutorial. Still alot of these problems I will admit are more of my opinion then anything else, which makes me wonder if I create a TBS game in a style I like, how popular would it be? Lastly I just want to say I have nothing against the designers behind the games I’ve mention or the fans of their respected games,it’s just I’ve yet to find a TBS game that I really enjoyed.
When I was first thinking of character relationships in games nothing amazing came to mind as the same story seems to be told over and over again with rare exception (look at Shadow of the Colossus and ICO). Still while thinking about it, one other game came to mind that had excellent story telling was almost Shakespearean in style. For this entry I’m going to look at Odin Sphere, as I think it was considered a niche hit for the PlayStation 2. Unfortunately in order to discuss why the story was amazing I’m going to have to spoil some of it, I’ve been thinking about the right way to do this and I’ve decided on this method. If your not going to play Odin Sphere look for a spoiler filled section at the bottom of this entry past my signature. There will be some light spoilers for the game in the rest of this entry but I’ll try to keep the major plot points a secret.
Now onto to the game, Odin Sphere takes place in yet another fantasy world driven by conflict. The prologue talks about an ancient cauldron which has all kinds of power in it and two sides are fighting for it. The game starts with a battle between these two sides: Ragnanival a kingdom that is inspired by Norse Mythology, and RingFord a forest army (think fairies and such from Mid Summers Night Dream). You begin in control of the Norse army ruler’s daughter and begin cutting through the various enemies when your attacked by the mysterious “shadow knight”, the battle ends with the Norse army victorious and the “evil” forest army in ruins. Now if the story just continue like that I wouldn’t be writing an entry on it now would I?
Odin Sphere has two amazing elements to it’s story that makes things interesting compared to other titles. First is that your really playing the game as 5 different characters in the world. Each one behaves differently and will experience the game from a different viewpoint, and I do mean different. A few chapters down the line and you’ll be controlling the daughter of the forest army and see the events that led up to the conflict but from her view point, and see how “evil” the Norse army is.
Next is the timeline of events, in most games that have multiple characters the chain of events progress linearly as you switch characters. For example in a game that takes place across a week , character A would be in control for days 1-3 and character B would take over for days 4-7. Instead in Odin Sphere each character’s story takes place over the same relative stretch of time. So while that conflict is going on another character could be on another continent at that time, this lets us watch a variety of events over the same time line giving us a more complete picture of the world. There is abit of weirdness having to repeat boss fights again with different characters but the game does a good job in explaining the rationale behind it. It doesn’t hurt that the game has an amazing art style to boot.
Normally I don’t like to call graphics beautiful in games as that is a very subjective description, but Odin Sphere is one of those rare exceptions. The art style comes across as a storybook come to life, with some of the most amazing character design I’ve seen on the PlayStation 2. Some of the boss fights are truly epic as they can take up multiple screens, in fact the graphics engine is so powerful that it causes slowdown during some of the more intense fights. The music also goes the distance of providing an excellence ambiance to the events. I also have to give props for having the cutest dragon I’ve seen that can also incinerate you within seconds.
By now you’ve notice that I haven’t mentioned gameplay yet, and that is because it is where Odin Sphere stumbles abit. Odin Sphere is an action RPG in the truest sense, and the gameplay is very repetitive even though each character has a different style of attacking. The game’s alchemy system requires you to grind out ingridents to make the most of it. The finale of the game requires an inordinate amount of grinding out the necessary levels and items to stand a chance against the final bosses, but for people who like a great story with their games, it’s easy to grit your teeth and bear with it.
Mega super spoiler warning, this section I’m going to be discussing my favorite relationship in Odin Sphere in which I’ll be spoiling the plot of two chapters of the game. If you have any intention of playing Odin Sphere I would not read on, if not or the gameplay isn’t to your liking then here is my favorite story relationship in the game.
This relationship is between the daughter of the king of Raganival, Gwenendolyn (or Gwen for the rest of this) and Oswald the Shadow Knight. Halfway through Gwen’s story she attacks and kills one of Raganival’s generals and in doing so earns punishment from her father the king. The punishment is to be stripped of her ranking and given to the Shadow Knight, and to be magically effected to be forever in love with him, she is then put to sleep by a spell and told that when she wakes up she will be under the love spell. So we the player and Gwen find her in a castle and assume that she is now cursed with feeling love towards Oswald. He gives her a powerful ring as proof of their love and goes to fulfil an oath he made. Gwen says that she’ll stay in the castle if he orders her to, which he responds by saying that she is not an object and will not stand for anyone to treat her that way.(Keep a note on that as it will come back later). The oath he made was the king of another land who was promised to be Gwen’s husband before Oswald and so Oswald made a deal to fight for him in exchange for Gwen. Eventually through numerous events Gwen realizes that it doesn’t matter if she is forced to love Oswald as she couldn’t bear to live without him.
Now I’m going to skip alot of the story as it wouldn’t make sense if you didn’t play it and I’m not going to turn this thread into even more of a book. Turning our attention to Oswald’s chapter we learn of his past, he was adopted by one of the higher ups in RingFord . His adopted father sold Oswald’s soul to the queen of the underworld in exchange for his shadow knight powers and to serve his adopted father. For all his life he was not in control of his life and was just and object by his adopted father, until a failed coup kills him and Oswald is free. He fell in love with Gwen the first time he saw her while spying on the other kingdom. After the failed coup Oswald was sent to the netherworld as per the contract his adopted father made and ran into Gwen’s father the king who infiltrated the land for his own purpose and was ordered to kill him. The king begs Oswald to spare him in exchange for a castle, and Gwen’s hand in marriage which he agrees to. He tells Oswald that she has been put into a deep sleep and when she is awaken she will be forever in love with him.
This isn’t right to Oswald, as he detests anyone being used as an object(like him by his adopted father) even it means that she will never love him he decides to break the love spell before waking her up. Which sends him across the world finding a way to break the spell, leading him into a fight with a king who was promise Gwen’s hand and stole her from Oswald’s castle to use the love spell on her. After defeating him in combat Oswald made an oath to fight for the king in exchange for letting Gwen go. After all that and with the knowledge on how to break the love spell he decides to wake her up. The best part is that the player at the time with Gwen thought that it was within a few days that Gwen went from sleep to being awaken, but instead all this happened between those two events and she eventually no longer cares if she is under a spell or not and loves Oswald. Now that is a love story if you ask me with action, adventure, and so on which should be no wonder why as I’m also a fan of the movie ” The Princess Bride”.