After spending close to 200 hours playing Oblivion, I’m ready to say that I’m done with the traditional, turn-based, menu-driven RPG. That goes for upcoming releases, games that have come out in the last few years, and even all-time classics from the 16-bit days. I don’t care if it’s Lost Odyssey, Legend of Dragoon or Final Fantasy III; I can no longer justify wasting my time with a game whose idea of “interaction” involves being teleported to a battle screen and then choosing my actions off of a list.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t all because of Oblivion, but is rather a feeling that has been building up for years. It’s impossible to play a game like Baldur’s Gate (which actually involves some strategy) or Star Ocean (where you actually get to control your characters), and not think that that this is what RPGs should have been all along. Oblivion was simply the last straw. After spending so much time in role-playing bliss, the RPGs of old no longer seem like classics, merely obsolete.
The problem I have, and have always had, with “normal” RPGs is their gameplay, or more accurately, lack thereof. Combat in traditional RPGs generally plays like a demo of a game still in progress. The battle screen looks like a placeholder that was being used as a test for the programmers to see if the basic outline worked, as though they were going to finish making the game so that you actually control your characters later on. Except they instead released it in this incomplete form. And have continued to do so for years.
Some may argue that this kind of gameplay requires strategy, but with minimal (if any) attention paid to factors such as terrain, range, or movement, there’s hardly any thought required at all. The “strategic” aspects of most battles generally come down to telling your mages to cast spells and choosing fight for everyone else. Most RPG battles can be won simply by pressing the same button over and over. That’s strategy?
The majority of these random encounters are walkthroughs in which a handful of weakling enemies throw themselves at you in hopes of doing a miniscule amount of damage. Much like the opponents Mike Tyson faced early in his career, they’re lucky if they can survive to the third round before being annihilated. Rather than provide any kind of challenge, their goal is simply to win by attrition, wearing down your characters’ HP (not to mention your own patience) a tiny amount every battle.
Of course, in order for that to work, there has to be a battle every few seconds, which the designers of these games often seem all too happy to provide. This is the fundamental flaw with almost any traditional RPG — they’re structured so that the part of the game that is the least amount of fun (combat) is ultimately what you’ll spend the majority of your time doing. Some games are so bad about throwing you into battle constantly that you can actually become disoriented and forget which way you were going in a dungeon. This creates something of a negative feedback loop, as each wrong turn punishes you with additional battles you wouldn’t have gotten into otherwise.
Most role players defend this horrible gameplay by claiming that a good RPG is all about the story. But playing an RPG for nothing other than the story would be like watching a movie that keeps exiting back to the DVD menu every 30 seconds, and then you have to spend a minute pressing the play button repeatedly until it starts again. It also doesn’t help that RPGs have spent the last 15 years or so sticking us with ridiculous characters. Look no further than Final Fantasy X, which gives you a team featuring not one, but two professional water polo players (one of whom is actually armed with a dodgeball), a goth chick who carries a stuffed animal into battle, and two teenage girls. One of those girls is an all-powerful summoner, but in cutscenes she speaks so awkwardly that it’s hard to imagine her ever being able to actually summon a powerful ally without stuttering some words and screwing it all up. All I’m saying is that it’s pretty hard to take the story seriously when the debate for the most believable character is a toss up between a talking blue lion and some old guy carrying a moonshine jug on his belt.
Imagine this: The world is about to be conquered/annihilated by some megalomaniacal tyrant wielding superhuman powers and evil magic. In order to stop him, you’re going to have to travel the world, battle all kinds of monsters — from inexplicably angry squirrels to giant friggin’ dragons — and retrieve some lost ancient relic. Who would you want to take up the quest to save us? Maybe some kind of elite soldier, or a world leader, or even Spider-Man. Or at the very least, Kurt Russell. I’ll tell you who I don’t want — some group of kids who either have no experience with this kind of thing, or are new recruits in the military. Nor would I have much faith in a mime (Final Fantasy VI), a cat riding around on top of a giant bunny suit (Final Fantasy VII), a or big blue frog thingy that’s only coming along to eat things (Final Fantasy IX). And I certainly wouldn’t want some rock star who plans to kill his foes by playing guitar at them. We all made fun of Revolution X for it’s insane premise that we would be saving the world with the help of Aerosmith and that music was a weapon. Why should we find it any more plausible when Chrono Cross has us doing the exact same thing with a Marilyn Manson impersonator?
In other words, it’s just kind of hard to buy into a game’s story once I find myself asking “Wait, did that little girl just kill a T-Rex? With a paintbrush?” You know who would be a plausible character to kill a T-Rex? A bigger T-Rex. Put one of those in my party and we’ll talk.
And yet, many gamers still find traditional RPGs kind of fun. I can’t exactly explain it. Maybe it’s that the combat kind of resembles gambling (you just kind of make an educated guess as to which menu choice is right and then hope for the best). Or maybe it’s the music. Whether they admit it or not, people play games like Final Fantasy and Suikoden pretty much just as an excuse to listen to the music. (That’s probably why the soundtracks are so expensive and hard to find. Once you can listen to any of the songs any time you want, you won’t need to play the game anymore). Well, I’ve had enough. Final Fantasy, meet Ebay.