Back to the Past: Square’s Golden Age and Modern RPGs

With some hesitation I recently decided to jump into some old games.  Final Fantasy VI and VII, Tactics, and the report comes back like this: What the hell happened?

I purchased a used PS3 to play Ni No Kuni a few months ago.  On the machine were some old Squaresoft games, and feeling like 8 & 9 were probably not worth it I actually reinstalled 7 and purchased 6 to compare the two.  Also it doesn’t hurt to switch to a game designed for the SNES after the eventual burnout Final Fantasy 7 gives you.  Though these games share their namesake they couldn’t really be further apart.  6 has a sinister and evil villain in Kefka, though he is more like Mark Hamil’s Joker, evil but somewhat silly, while 7’s Sephiroth, yeah a khaballism tie-in, is more like Bane from Dark Knight Rises, worrying because he knows so much you don’t.

These villains are different but for the uninitiated Final Fantasy games really don’t have much in common with each other-this appears to be a problem the company that owns the franchise is trying to deal with now.  They have Chocobos, Mogs, maybe a dozen or so summoned monsters that appear in each game, but these staples appear in vastly different worlds ranging from more high-fantasy to stem-punk/cyber-punk settings.  While some games might have magic being core to the world others might have magic seen as evil, while some might have many people engaged in combat at once others have a pared down 3 or so controllable characters.  And yeah they all share status ailments, curative items, and some other things that all seem to come back, but like all the games based on D&D these are constants.  Even Demon’s Souls has Mind Flayers.

So aside from that these games have a very important element-story.  Or they used to.  Now the company that owns the franchise, SquareEnix(Enix took control of Square after the former head of Square created the film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and the flop more or less tipped the balance into financial uncertainty-enter stage right Enix).  The modern mood seems to be they create a world for a numbered Final Fantasy game and then continue creating in that massive world, using the branding as a spring board.

Having played Final Fantasy Tactics some the world of that game, Ivalice, has been brought back in actual numbered FF titles, possibly because of the positive player memories but Ivalice has seen better days like the rest of these worlds.

Final Fantasy 7 though is often cited as the death nail of the JRPG genre, it’s graphic fidelity leading to a sort of arms-race amongst developers where the studios that couldn’t compete(or lost money on expensive games underperforming) were pushed into a less crowded hand-heald market.  Really the hardcore gamer in Japan is playing a hand-heald device now.  But there was a time, before this devestation, this cataclysm which would release itself on their market leading to bad business practices in the long-run when the cycle of new games was continually topped by hits coming from Japan.

With Final Fantasy 7 Squaresoft learned that their localization efforts weren’t close to where they needed to be.


Like the link explains they the company didn’t really understand how important the money from foreigners could be.  For many Final Fantasy 7 was the real introduction they had to the RPG genre, or at least their introduction to the Final Fantasy series.  Set in stone apparently every game contained World Maps, means of travel like Air Ships, Turn-Based combat, and apparently some guy named Cid.  Never the less these were really trappings, these games had grown to be more a huge story players were a part of driving and pushing it to go where they had to, but allowing players to do it their way.  While the smartest move might be to methodically build up a balanced team that could use the strengths of each member to make up for weaknesses(mainly in the designated healer) and slowly build your party’s levels and weapons up to stay on par with the enemies standing between the player and that final screen.  Generally there were a few accepted ways to get to the ending, either building your characters up to have a decent amount of survivability and then load up on healing items and have at it, get the best gear in the game and bring every party member to the level cap, or learn the toughest spell in the game on one character and try the odds.

One problem with these games was they didn’t allow you to go back, if you played long enough it’s not an option, your black mage will get an ultimate destruction spell, your white mage an ultimate holy spell, and whose not going to use those spell every chance they get?  Looking at it from a modern perspective I can understand the changes from 6 to 7.

Final Fantasy 6 was sort of the “final” high fantasy touch of the series.  Granted it had magitech mech robots shooting heat rays, and even crazier stuff, but it also had knights, castles and kings.  It was about empire clashing against free nations, and people perverting and corrupting the will of these very machine like power structures.  However, for all the headiness of it’s themes this game is imprisoned within a Super Nintendo cartridge.  Though it strived for so much more it looks similar to all the others that came before it, so one might not be able to tell with a passing glance what was underneath.

And in many ways Final Fantasy 7 was similar.  The first time a Final Fantasy game was encoded on a CD-ROM the team definitely wanted to “make an entrance” so to speak.  While it reminded me of Oddworld: Abe’s Odyssey remarkably as I played it with my modern eyes this was something to behold in its time.  It obviously was somewhat remarkable for it’s inclusion of graphically produced cut-scene animations every few story beats, but it reminded me an awful lot of a Lego game. Just not as well in the controls department.

And controls are something that stands out to me now.  These games suffer in modern eyes.  Instead of the 3rd person perspective seen in many RPGs now there is a fixed camera perspective for much of 7.  6, with it’s SNES graphical capabilities doesn’t quite suffer for this since the player is generally in the center of view, but 7 is definitely problematic.  Often I would juggle between screens because the directional pad pushing away from one screen also pushed away on the next, right back to square one, which with the perfectly reproduced load times gets old fast.  Controls are sticky on 7, and the use of the D-pad instead of the analog stick-not even an option-just doesn’t make sense and once you settle in and get used to it really messes with you when you turn on a modern game.

Which I did, I decided to try out my new copy of Fallout 3, immediately the perspective made sense, the analog stick again in full use(never thought I would miss an analog stick) but it’s not like these older developers knew what would become the norm.  But like Resident Evil I think the fixed perspective cameras was a trick to get decent graphics with the memory they had.  Final Fantasy games were known for being long, and a 3D world requires a lot of memory.  First you have the objects-an engine has to create them in real time based on the cameras perspective at 30 frames per second, then you have light, again at 30 FPS, and if you really want to go nuts shadows, reflections on glass, and things like special effects-all at the constant of 30 FPS.  Now it’s easy, a developer licenses an engine, hires a staff that understands how to work on that architecture and things sort of handle themselves.  At the dawn of the Playstation era the consoles were in flux, what worked on cartridges wouldn’t work on PCs, what worked on PCs wasn’t where consoles were headed, and yet nobody knew where they were headed.  But fixed camera angles made this stuff a lot cheaper in development so they could spend more time on new ideas.

Those new ideas were important in creating the dedicated fan base of Square.  These weren’t people making a great game every so often these people created great series of games.  Mana, Chrono, Final Fantasy, these guys were creating at a very prodigious level. Especially considering they would basically make an entire world for a Final Fantasy game and then throw it away and start from scratch.  They didn’t carry over heroes, they didn’t all take place in the same world, what the fans were buying was an entirely new adventure each time, only better.

The big change to me was materia.  I think that’s probably what many take away, besides the CG-ness, whereas before you got new gloves for your charaters, new helmets, new armor or robes, and weapons these were a thing of the past.  Every character in Final Fantasy 7 could use magic because every type of armor had room for materia, the materia would level up like the characters-eventually the fire materia would also allow fire2 and fire3.  Whereas previously you might have a black mage doing damage, a white mage healing everyone, and a fighter and thief taking care of their jobs(maybe a ninja thrown in the party, I wouldn’t want to be in a party without a ninja I know that much) materia meant you could really push what you wanted your party to do.  This system is expressed symbolically in the mother of all spoilers, the death of Aeris.

Aeris, or Aerith as her name was supposed to be air and earth combined(damn it localization) was the only character really designed for one thing because she had a severe weakness to dealing damage.  All of her weapons were low damage weapons, however her limit breaks(special powers activated by taking damage) were focused on her team mates getting health and she had high magic potential.  Basically everyone playing Final Fantasy 7 will use Aeris until her death because her limit breaks are basically game-breaking and her inherent magic stats mean she can heal more than anyone else casting the same spells.  However, before the end of the first disc, yeah they were so nuts this game came out on 3 discs, Sephiroth puts a katana through the young woman.

But this isn’t really a problem as previously stated anybody can do magic.  The next choice the player makes(who to place in their party now) shows the change in this games mechanics.  You really had a heavy amount of free will in this aspect of the game.  Did you want to base this on limit breaks, how many materia slots their weapons have, or whether or not they could attack from far away?  In the long run it just comes down to how cool everyone looks since the game is going to throw so many random fights at you you’ll get to the level cap before the middle of the third disc.

That is the bane of these older RPGs, the incessant random battles.  After playing Cthulu saves the World I see some problems.  CSTW has a battle cap in every area, 20 here, 30 the next, you can slog it out like old school games or go to your menu and choose battle.  The enemies are as random as if the fight popped up organically, but the game gives you that option. You can push through, searching for a chest that contains the weapon that might give you the edge, or you can do a couple of fights wasting magic like nobody’s business, and duck back to the inn to recharge slowly taking care of the necessary battles.

Whats interesting is that those older games had the same idea, in so much as the chance of random incidents of battle was based around trying to level characters up to a level allowed them to take on the next boss.  While you could escape from battles, generally this randomness worked the opposite, meaning by the time you got to that boss you were over-levelled.  And if you spent some time killing enemies trying to get a specific item to drop you were probably viciously over-levelled.

I say this because the area I most recently finished in Final Fantasy 7 was the snow area.  The idea for the area was, well, a snow area.  But they also wanted to disorient you by using many of the same screens over and over again, hiding the few useful items, and not giving you many clues to where you should be heading.  Oh, and every couple of minutes your character passes out and is “rescued” by some guy, waking up at a cabin.  The cabin happens to be where you need to go, but it’s also a hassle to be one screen away from an item just to see your character fall to their knees and that next screen be the cabin.  Not to mention every so often a random fight starts, and you’re pulled from the normal screen to a fight screen, and when you get back you forget what direction you were heading since they recycled SO many screens in this area.

I really felt like I had conquered antarctica when I started to know my way around that area, but what a bitch.  Sorry, but that’s the truth, the only way to describe the glacier is a bitch.  It didn’t have to be half that hard to get the idea across.  But the found a way to save a couple of bucks in what was probably a bloated project and they took it.  However this entire discussion is pulling away from the point of the topic.

When I plugged in to Fallout 3 I began to wonder what RPGs have lost, if anything, in the contemporary landscape.  While Final Fantasy might have been a phenomena of a very specific gaming landscape, Japanese developers able to get away with stuff because of a “right place, right time” sensibility, that technological boom has been replaced by a much more paced out cyclical hum of where the consoles have left us.  While the Playstation exploded onto the market, allowing for more money to be made if only projects could make it to the finish line, Microsoft’s jump into the marketplace has been decidedly one sided.

As Microsoft began developing their console the idea was to create a player base that was easily marketed to.  Everything about the advertising was designed to create a frequency loop so that unlike the chaos of the 90s gaming budgets would actually pay off.  They didn’t want a mega project to disappear seemingly over-night as they could in the 90s fading from the pages of gaming magazines; Microsoft leveraged televisions being in everyone’s house making sure games became a part of everyones media vocabulary.  Then, when one actually owned the console they began priming the consoles to become the center of everyone’s media world, though not entirely successful on that point.  Controlling every image that comes through an X-box 360, from Ads to what gets posted on that illustrious home screen the X-box, and to some extent the modern Playstation, are designed to keep gamers in the loop about what they want gamers to be in the loop about. The new Call of Duty, the new Halo?  These are what they wanted to be in the center of every gamers vocabulary because they were controlled franchises, they were something that could be marketed and sold easily, iterations each better(slightly) than the last.

The Final Fantasy games are suffering in this world, as even a Call of Duty game can’t help but bring back the previous cast the reckless creativity of the series just won’t stand.  So you have “Final Fantasy 13”, followed by “FF13:2”, followed by “13: Lighting something something something.”  While gamers might not care about the series protagonist or world, the people at SquareEnix can’t let the work that went into the title go to waste.  That just doesn’t work in this marketplace where developers have to spend massive amounts of money to make these HD experiences that not only rival movies but obviously can surpass them.  While Microsoft might have played up that middle-child syndrome gaming felt not quite as popular as movies, TV, and books but possible, so possible they could reach that level, the gaming developers proved again and again games could hit those marks, but they also changed the fan base to gaming in a major way.

Honestly, it isn’t entirely Microsoft’s fault, or anyones.  There is a generation divide happening now.  While I will probably never understand how someone could look at Final Fantasy 7 and say it was an amazing game it is somewhat indicative of how much gaming, as an industry and form, have changed.  Remember that R-rated dirty teen comedy?  You enjoyed it, laughed about it with your friends for like a year, and then a couple of years later another big version of that type of movie came out?  It didn’t really make sense to you how people could keep watching that movie over again, there was already a perfectly good version you saw when you were young.  A couple of years later they did it again.  Eventually there was a true generation gap, kids talked about some movie that you saw and knew wasn’t that good, but it was their first time seeing that movie and they didn’t know it was already played out.  Gaming culture has hit that sort of generation gap.  There are people who have been playing games their whole lives, and others who can remember the dawn of that possibility, still others only remember the take off of home consoles, others the PC…The people who enjoy this hobby have quickly out-paced any semblance of being unique.  Gamer isn’t a term that describes anyone, merely a hobby for some, a job for others.  But as a cultural entity video gaming has existed long enough it can be examined like film or literature and just as validly express itself, it can say as much as these other forms.

But what the hell happened to Square?  From what I’ve heard they aren’t the type of place where advancement is possible.  The way teams are put together and management works nobody is going to advance and become that new talent, and with most of their talent having left over the years they can’t really find people who have worked on the companies best achievements to work on their recent endeavors.  There’s the story of the woman who only makes the cobblestone roads in their games.  Yes, she does that well, but that’s her entire job at the company, cobbling digital roads until retirement.  Recently the head of SquareEnix resigned, but amid EA’s head leaving much of the American gaming press didn’t seem to notice this departure, and with so much gaming press being digital they don’t really have the infrastructure, like most digital press, to do hard reporting about what’s happening in other countries let alone domestically.

I keep running into roadblocks on Final Fantasy 7, the game would want you to do some sort of minigame, or just the ancientness of the entire endeavor leading to having to put the thing down and move onto Persona 3 or Disgaea 4 or Fallout 3 and I feel like there is a link.     Bioshock Infinite.  There’s a serialization in modern gaming that’s quite fascinating.  At the game store the other day I saw a man talking about his love of Morrowind and Skyrim, those were the type of games he really liked.  I’m from the south so his accent was obviously pronounced if I noticed it.  Really gamers have been taught to care about the developing studios of games, not so much star talent.  Unlike, say, rock music, where if you care about performer A you could read a Rolling Stone and hear that they love performer B, C, and D, but hate E for sleeping with their wife, there doesn’t seem to be a huge push to get that sort of understanding of games in many gamers hands.  That guy at the game store was in line ahead of another guy with the same situation, gamed as kids, quit and came back.  The market was designed to get those guys back playing, but not for them to easily figure out what a quality product is.  Even for those in the know quality products are debatable at this point.

There was a time when a huge fan base had sprung up for Bioware’s releases, but one too many games with the exact same plot and even that seems to be slimming.  But Bioware was a company forged out of Final Fantasy 7.  Their games have to have cut-scenes, have to have developed characters, even thrive or die based on their characters, yet have a problem with giving players a truly open world.  Bethesda on the other hand seems to never be able to make truly difficult games because their players truly can go anywhere at any time, characters really designed as set pieces for stories they want to create.  I couldn’t imagine Skyrim being more popular if you had to make a romantic choice between Lydia or Jarl Balgruf.  I’m sworn to carry you’re burdens, indeed.

In some ways it’s almost like Square’s golden age didn’t even happen to many RPG developers.   Maybe too much time has passed, or not enough.  An article on Kotaku recently praised RPG minigames.  I kept laughing reading it, like these games were so great.  Final Fantasy 7 has a 6 minute long snowboard minigame.  Plot-related of course so you have to do it.  At the time I’m sure people loved the possibilities, Grand Theft Auto 3 hadn’t yet arrived and we were still brimming with adolescent fantasies about games within games within real worlds…needless to say no part of 7’s snowbarding minigame is nearly as good as actual snowboarding titles.

However with the random battles you couldn’t walk for a minute without getting hit with a battle, by the time an hour was through playing you’d be wishing for a CG scene since the only other option was a minigame breaking up the monotonous fighting.  Playing a game like Skyrim or Fallout you get these atmospheric moments, the jagged mountains or cityscapes in the distance, the hum of the insects or radiation.  The feelings only cut-scenes provided are actually expected in modern RPGs ALL THE TIME.  I remember the first time I plugged the 360 up to my HD tv getting mezzed watching the infinitely exploding star behind the Illusive Man thinking gaming really had gone somewhere I always hoped it would as an adolescent.  The only problem is what do do now?

Whatever the future holds it’s probably not SquareEnix.  Seriously, what happened?

Someday there will be a great book about the saga behind the screen.  Until then.


Dragon’s Dogma

So I was wondering about Dragon’s Dogma back when it came out, the reviews were mixed to be sure, but I was instead moved to get into Dark Souls and Fallout: New Vegas.  Great games, games changing how I thought about games, but I saw a video recently that made the game look good(the DLC on the way didn’t hurt) and decided to purchase a used copy.  

DD comes from CAPCOM who are infamous now for creating DLC which is partially on the disc you bought, but for DD they seem to have waited on fan opinions to create the DLC.  For one thing the new DLC, Dark Arisen, will apparently deal with the travel problems.  That’s kind of a big deal because this game is uneven to say the least.  

I’ve been watching a lot of videos lately about game design, AI, and more and I’ve gotten into a new space when thinking about games-I don’t want to just think about gaming as a narrative and gameplay but about choices the developers created for you.  The way devs shape these choices would be the closest thing to an auteur theory in gaming.  While story is definitely an important aspect of a game, it’s nowhere near as important as mechanics and gameplay and player choice or agency-all of which are design decisions as compared to story.  Story seems to be something less important to games in many ways.  For one the game is in flux for much of the development so creating a great character doesn’t matter if his entire area has to be cut due to memory or performance issues.  And plot has a similar problem in that many elements are coming together at any one time so set pieces or events or areas might have to be changed which screws up any plans from before development began. 

So when one begins playing Dragon’s Dogma there is an opening salvo where you are a fully formed arisen, the player character, with a full party-more on that later-going after a dragon.  And before you realize it your fighting monsters, and eventually getting to a big part of the combat-fighting a big monster you can climb on.  Grappling onto your monsters is a big part of combat.  This game can allow players to attack from far away, but also to jump right on the monster and go for the critical areas-or throw your party members onto the monsters while maintaining distance yourself.  This sort of gives a Shadow of the Colossus feel-though never really that epic.  But most games won’t be that epic ever.  

But before going to fight a dragon the story moves on to the actual player character creation.  Once you’ve designed you’re character it’s time to watch a cutscene, where flying monsters and a giant dragon explode from a void opened up in the sky.  The player character lives in a fishing village, the duke’s men are looking for soldiers to help in the wyrm hunt, but the dragon shows up.  The action is now interactive and for a few seconds you get to use those grappling skills to fight the big boss-but the cutscene soon pops back up and the dragon flings the protagonists onto the shore.  To add insult to injury, or just injury to injury he spends the tiniest amount of effort to pierce the heart of our here-a super bloody act.  There’s now a goal to get your heart back.  Yeah, you survive.  It’s not a second opening scene that’s unconnected, you play the arisen, a prophesied figure who can slay the dragon-and get their heart back.  

Once you wake up in your village of Cassardis you pick your class and start picking up simple quests and getting urged towards the capitol of Gran Soren.  So the next hour of the game spins you through the motions of getting to Gran Soren and learning combat and weapon skills.  Though the innovation for this game is the pawn system.  Just like you created your character you can create a character AI will control that will forever be in your party and you can pick up 2 other pawns from other gamers(or created by CAPCOM).  

People technically rent pawns using a specific currency, any pawn under your level is free and a level or two above is still cheap, but the best way to get currency for better pawns is having a pawn people want to rent.  When you let  a pawn go you not only give the creator a gift item but a rating(if you want) so that good pawns get to a higher level of notice via rankings.  You want your pawn wearing the best gear possible, using the best spells or skills, just like you want your character optimized.  When the game came out people posted videos about how to get hundreds of thousands of Rift Crystals(currency for pawns) by creating pawns people would choose.  However, now that the game has been out for a year it’s been pretty hard to get those sorts of rewards for my pawn, interest is down, people have given up the game, and if nobody is renting your pawn those rewards won’t come.  This doesn’t mean I haven’t had the best pawn possible, or that I didn’t get lucky once and get over 150,000 crystals once, but I imagine there would have been better numbers if more people were playing.  Why aren’t people playing then?

The game is really uneven.  There’s no great travel method in the game, though once you beat the game you get more options.  Fast travel, which Skyrim will let you do for free and opens up in Dark Souls about 1/3 the way through, costs a lot of gold, especially in the early game. You can only fast travel to a Port Crystal-and you only get one on New Game. New Game + the number goes to 10, so you can travel to Gran Soren and 10 other spots at ease.  At ease so long as you get a ferrystone, 20K gold(or less but that’s involved).  So you’re first game you spend a lot of time just walking around, running until you’re out of breath, fighting camps of goblims, the occasional big monster, and then getting to your destination. Then, you walk back the exact same way, through the big monster, the goblins, and finally back home to hand in that quest.  Unless you want to wast the gold you need for upgrading your weapons you are going to walk everywhere-heck you walk everywhere from the capitol until you get your first Port Crystal about 2/3 through the main story.  If the terrain was more varied, if the capitol was actually centrally located, if there was just some other way to travel that was unlockable at some point this process of fighting the same monsters you are obviously more powerful than after the first few levels wouldn’t be such a big part of the game.  But it is, dealing with traveling and fighting these basic monsters will take up so much space between the main quests.

The other thing between the main quest chain are the side quests.  Fetch quests, escort quests, just fairly boring stuff for the most part.  Having gotten through my second run of the main quest I’ve found that if one of these quests isn’t easily doable, forget about it.  You’ll end up getting people killed who sell things-like cheap ferrystones, and just reload from a save.  Otherwise they’re the types of quests that just get completed-kill 10 of this, 3 of those, 1 of ????…good for XPs but not really interesting or fuelling the narrative’s complexity or depth.  

That said it can’t really be expanded, the dragon is come, and a group called Salvation is ruffling up the people of Gransys with spys and espionage and cultism.  Gransys and it’s neighbors are a world where monsters exist, and the several countries that do work will come to each others aid if a big monster-dragon-shows up.  Though normally they spend their armies on fending off the monsters at the edges of their realms.  With the dragon(or wyrm as the game calls it) having come back these monsters are moving into the area people live in and the only way to bring the world back is to banish the dragon.  Moving through the main quest sees the hero grow to a big monster hunter with him and his pawn having great knowledge of every kind of monster-but also learning more about the intrigue of the local government and what being the arisen means.  And yes, it is Chrislike though the game attempts to hide it.  You are a fisherman, you come back from the dead.  It’s not terribly hard to see.  The problem with the quests is aside from the main quests and a few key side-quests there isn’t much in the way of learning about the world. 

This game has so many NPCs and I don’t want to talk to any of them.  They’re awful and all speak in an awful faux Olde English using “aught” and “naught” way too much.  And to be honest the pawns in your party will talk way too much.  I don’t need to hear about how aught grows in the forest, I’m level 100 I know forests are full of curative agents.  One of my least favorite NPCs is the guy in Gran Soren you use for lodging.  Nighttime is important in Dragon’s Dogma as where wolves might have populated an area by the road after dark skeletons and zombies will show up, where once bandits stood now phantasms and sorcerers appear.  This would be pretty fun if night time wasn’t super dark.  You carry around a lantern, but this doesn’t help much beyond about 2 yards circling you.  While you can give a lantern to everyone in your party that would require a lot of fuel which is a lot of weight.  Its just a bad lighting system inherent in the game, and something designed possibly to create difficulty and tension just becomes a muddy and confusing mess the more you actually deal with it.  While the trip to Gran Soren the first time should have you dealing with the darkness just as you get to the castle gates, and thus the zombies surrounding the place, extended time in the dark isn’t as spooky later but it’s so tiring.  The mechanic could have been so much more interesting.

So when you find someone who allows you to rest for the night on the road you use them, but I really felt like I should have been able to make camp. You can actually collect kindling during the game, I feel making camp could have worked, but then you might not get the second benefit of these hostel keepers-changing your vocation.  As a JRPG there are vocations, classes.  Unlike a game like Skyrim where you choose what you want to advance each class has specific growth stats, striders get way more stamina but warriors more health.  Though one of the great things about the game is the class system which lets you switch back and forth, using great gear you find that’s only applicable to specific classes or advancing classes to get their rewards, something the game doesn’t make clear is that these choices won’t change your stats later.  If your character has been a mage for 40 levels, but you decide magic isn’t for you at all you will never get those points back for health and stamina.  Though this does create that sort of improvisational feel if they would have provided more information on this upfront I think people would be much more focused to how long they play as certain classes.  However, this does allow for interesting builds to form.  Though there are only so many high end weapons and I learned the hard way that even with 22 levels of magic before level 100(where all vocations growth drastically drops off) my character would never really get the most out of magical weapons.  Which wouldn’t be a problem if I didn’t already have the best pure damage weapon.  D’oh.  

And these vocations aren’t even, though the warrior gets the best growth for health they have a severely limited move set of 3 fighting skills, which means you are super limited.  I wish there was a more visceral type of warrior with better moves, but it just doesn’t exist for DD-warriors are purely tanks designed to soak up damage and aggro.  But each class allows for purchase of specific skills and augments-skills are always active once purchased, and augments are somewhat more limited with only a handful turned on at any time and yet usable with any class.  So even if the warrior was a fairly boring character it gives players some great augments useful to whatever style they want to use later on. But at what cost?

These augments and weapon skills can be changed anywhere you can sleep at basically, with vocations only changeable in Gran Soren.  The problem is every time you speak to that NPC he wants to say something, every single time.  Having to skip through his conversation is incredibly tiring the thousandth time, and all the NPCs are that way.  You can talk to them but you don’t have any choice in what to say, just whether you want to take on the sidequests they might provide-and giving them gifts as well to increase their affinity for you.  There is a romance aspect of the game, but whoever has the highest affinity is chosen, so even if I’ve done everything to raise my relationship with the girl with a rapier that a princess from another country if I talk to the guy who sells ferrystones after her that guy shows up as my romance.  Yeah, kind of weird and un-romantic.  It’s like Japan heard Bioware has these intricate romance relationships within their games creating a romantic metagame and somehow the signals got crossed.  So while the game has way more characters then something like Dark Souls, which also doesn’t give you any option in what you say to NPCs, the actual relationships and connections are much more superficial.  What sets these characters apart in Dark Souls is over time you piece together the story of their NPCs, each a dark and tragic saga of a world going mad, whereas DD just makes you mad that you’re expected to listen to the same things over and over.  Once again it’s like they just didn’t test elements of this game enough with different people.

Though the equipment enhancing is another story, as weapons get better the amount of gold required to upgrade them rises but also the materials required become more rare.  So if you really want to upgrade an item you will begin scouring the DD wiki looking for where the items are found.  When you fight a dragon there’s a chance your equipped gear might get upgraded to the highest level-Dragonforged.  While any gear upgraded once has a chance, unless you’ve upgraded the gear 2-3 times already there’s really a small chance the gear will get upgraded, however when you defeat the dragon who stole your heart you get every piece of gear dragonforged, as well as high level dragon versions of whatever you’re wearing just asking to be dragonforged.  And while upgrading gear wouldn’t be a problem normally, considering ever item uses different materials to enhance you never sell materials since they might be used in upgrading something down the line.  This means the random system keeps you kind of poor.  However eventually the need for XPs and the need to dragonforge your equipment has you running around hunting the biggest monsters you can find.

Which isn’t a problem because this starts the post-game, not New Game + but post-game, an area called the Everfall is now open and the world drastically changed, higher level monsters are everywhere, many more dragons just roaming around for dragonforging that new gear, or attempting to.  But the Everfall is the big attraction, a multi level dungeon full of end game gear and weird combinations of enemies.  This is the most fun part of the game.  Though each dungeon looks almost the same the sheer ease of getting to the enemies makes it so much fun.  Now you don’t have to run around if you don’t want to, place that ONE PORT CRYSTAL in the right spot and you might now be able to hit up 2-3 big monsters in one run, and after that jump through the Everfall when you stock back up on healing items and fight 4-5 more.  The game finally feels like it’s opening up, and it’s over.  

Though the Everfall has one more treasure in the Ur Dragon.  A giant dragon(ok just as big as the final dragon) that when beat gives you really good gear. However if you’re playing online there’s a tougher version that gives even better gear just for hurting it and surviving. The Online Ur Dragon has so much health that everyone on the server fights him at once, not together, but the monster has to constantly check the server to see what everyone is doing to it.  On top of that every time the Online Ur Dragon is defeated a new generation arrives with more health.  When I first fought the Online Ur Dragon it was the 200th generation.  Landing the killing blow gives you the best gear in the game, dragonforges every item you’re wearing and gives you pretty great bragging rights since each generation is tougher whoever finished off the last dragon is the king of the hill.  

But all this is post-game, yeah the post-game sets up the true understanding off an arisen, it explores how the actions of the main quest culminated, and sheds some light on Gransys, but not that much.  I wish I could say the explanations for the world, for the arisen were interesting but not so.  I really felt it was too little too late in an attempt to make sense of this world and why you would want to be here.  

A big part of RPGs is abnegation, playing a game where you get rewarded by raising your level and stats, by having things like side quests that create easily definable goals to tick off.  Over the years the RPG in Japan grew very different from the RPG in the west.  Though both came from table top roots in role playing success of narratives in Japanese games meant their industry trended towards games with clear and defined protagonists.  While in the west it was much more like a game of D&D: you created a character and role played with them.  These developers focused on creating compelling experiences by giving variety of play based on expecting gamers to perform as such.  In Japan after Final Fantasy VII, the Playstation game that rewarded players with cut-scenes for completing challenges(something new at the time), their entire industry trended towards that sort of story telling.  However, this became very expensive in later cycles and western developers could expand to include also good combat, interesting worlds and characters, even good stories.  Final Fantasy games are now just a collection of cut scenes with battles along the way that play very similar to the original games that are around 30 years old-only with better graphics.  

In recent years both branches of the RPG genre have been created by various different regions-western style RPGs now coming out of Japan.  Dark Souls is an example of this, and CAPCOM seems to have wanted to follow this trend but without putting the money or time into the process.  I can’t really say, but with the new DLC supposedly responding to fan feedback I hope this has been a learning experience.  Though the tech demo shown at the Sony PS4 conference appears that they’re moving more towards copying Dark Souls, if the demo is to be believed.  Dragon’s Dogma though is worth a play, maybe wait for the version to drop containing the expansion on the disc, no need in wasting money on a used game that’s probably priced the same.  

When I finally finished the Everfall I decided I wanted my character to build up some magic skills, that meant a New Game +.  New Game +, NG+, is an interesting phenomenon.  Basically you keep your first character and their equipment and start the game over.  On Dark Souls this means the enemies get tougher, and progressively tougher on each subsequent NG, though some games try different things out.  For Borderlands and Borderlands 2 NG+ is for building your character up to MAX level, once the game is completed a second time all the chests in the world switch to MAX level allowing for versions of guns way better than anything previously as well as all enemies moving to this status allowing you to use those guns for fun to kill enemies to get better guns at that level(yeah, BL is confusing that way since you just beat enemies you’ve already beat building up a weapons cache for no real reason).  

Dragon’s Dogma uses NG+ basically as a chance to start a class you haven’t prepared for at all.  If I had just switched to a mage in my first game every enemy would have killed me-but NG+ let me run around fighting enemies I had a chance on(though my health was way too much for these guys now to stand a true chance).  Also that whole problematic traveling changes since you can buy those extra Port Crystals and set up easy travel.  You’re second playthrough is a fraction of the time of the first-all the gold from those endless dungeons post-game means ferrystones and upgrades are a binary choice.  Also the Port Crystals cary over to any more NG+s so you no longer have the same travel problems ever.  

This is whats weird about the game’s final design.  The dungeons are so fun in post-game but the main game world is basically dungeon-free.  They’re obviously good at creating this sort of stuff they could have figured how to make it work.  All the walking and the day/night cycle would work if monsters randomly spawned-if there was a chance the 30 minute treks wouldn’t be the same but they basically always are.  Yet post-game ups the challenge why not have more random events to make the walking interesting?  In Skyrim people just show up as you walk, maybe a guy hands you a sword to hold then a guard talks to you and says he’s looking for that criminal.  Or monsters fighting each other and bandits in Borderlands-Dragons Dogma basically fills the world with pawns walking around waiting to be rented.  Yeah, it feels like there’s people populating the world, but they’re just going to tell you about aught in the forest if you enlist them.  They won’t help you out if a monster shows up, and monsters jump right past them to chase after you.  The world is littered with outposts full of guards and military, but most won’t have quests for you, or even much story info-wheras most games have gotten to a point where they know how to use environmental storytelling.  There was basically none of that with pawns piping in to tell you things every so often.  That’s really quite lazy.  There is a religion in this world, there are old gods, there are other nations with political intrigue, but none of it gets explored.  And for a game where the entire country is surrounded by water you never unlock any sort of boat or shipman to help you get around.  Even if it just cut 15 minutes off a walk that would have helped so much.

So in the end Dragons Dogma lacked a focus.  While some systems were quite polished others were just lazy.  I remember fighting the Ur Dragon and clinging onto him, but the camera couldn’t see me because it was caught on his wing.  Yeah, that broke the immersion of what was supposed to be a big deal of the combat in all the advertisements, but also that meant I had no control of my character moving around his body since up and down would just feed back and forth as the camera got caught on the wing no matter how far I pushed in either direction. I mean that’s the games big go-to technique on its main boss and they didn’t have any way to deal with the camera on that?  To be honest you really can’t control the camera, not in an options menu anyways. As well there are moments in the story where they take the camera control out of 3rd person and find a fixed point in front of you so that you run towards the camera with a monster behind you.  The problem is the game knows that the monster would get in the cameras way, yet this ruins the tension that the chase is supposed to create.  When designing things like that developers need to stay away from these “lose lose” propositions.  Same thing with quick-time events in general: even if it allows for doing things not within the games systems or controls drawing attention to what the game lacks is not the right way to deal with these issues.  It’s a person designing based on what they want to do instead of what they can do, like I was saying about story you can’t create the story but you can create a game then allow a story to work with it.  

Dragon’s Dogma really suffers from the things it gets wrong, the NPCs, the weak world-creation, the lame world design, and not planning ahead enough. Also the game doesn’t quite nail down what it wants to be.  Is it a super-hard Dark Souls game, is it a true open-world RPG, is it a party based MMO-like?  Though the influences are obviously there, and the blends are unique and rewarding at times, they also allowed some of the worst parts of these games to come over.  Dark Souls can have boring interactions with NPCs because the NPCs have great stories, Skyrim also can have the same because some NPCs are more dynamic and every story at least has decent writing and crafting behind it whereas no NPC in Dragon’s Dogma is worth the time of day.  If they would have thrown in a few more dungeons, re-thought the world map, and maybe even put more energy into weapons and vocations and combat-all of which they more or less did excellent at-this would be an incredible game.  

Instead CAPCOM is trying to sell gamers DLC that probably should have come as a patch, and more dungeons that should have been in the original or on DLC months ago.  However, if they did listen to reviews and criticism, fan feedback from people who really enjoyed the game and found a rewarding experience amongst all the disparate shards of experiences, I hope they continue to support games in this manner.  Specifically this game.  I know it’s far-fetched but I bet they could make challenge dungeons as DLC and people would buy it if the new content really does fix the games deficits.  And with everyone eying the future, optimistic at new consoles and new IPs, I hope this game gets another chance.  Yes, there are lots of problems that will drive you nuts at times in the game, and the story isn’t rewarding at all, and NPCs(just NPCs), but the combat is excellent.  The feeling when your pawn has come back with all 5 star ratings and you know you influenced another persons game positively, it’s really cool.  

Oh yeah, one last thing.  The game has 1 save file.  Released in 2013, if you select New Game and selected a save device with a loaded save file it gets overwritten.  Yeah, you could create a save on another drive(probably should every couple of days if I think about it) but that’s not very likely.  I know this is supposed to be a design choice focused on experience in some way but its just awful.  Like the loads of walking it’s just all bad.  The game doesn’t save super-often and I don’t think you can change that.  It has what are called checkpoint saves, leaving the city or entering it count, entering or exiting a cave or dungeon-but beyond that you have to save if you want to protect your progress.  However, if you realize you messed up you have to quit without saving and re-load.  If that load didn’t fix whatever mistake you made you need to go into the save menu and load up the checkpoint save-if that doesn’t work you are screwed.  However, when you move on to post-game you are given a sword which is used entirely for killing yourself.  Seriously.  If you’ve ever played a game where you have to get loot from chests you might recall saving in front of a chest and opening the chest-then quitting and reloading to open the chest again.  In Dragon’s Dogma you can save yourself so much time buy using that sword to kill yourself, selecting retry on the death menu and re-opening the chest.  This technique doesn’t screw with your stats either.  It’s interesting that the game did something like this which really does think about the end-user experience.  One of the worst parts of Borderlands 2, probably a big reason why I quit playing that game, is that so many times the developers didn’t think about that sort of stuff.  Yeah, that suicide technique doesn’t force good gear to appear in chests, but it does save you a minute or so ever time re-loading would have happened meaning you can be saved an hour worth of time if you’re looking for any 1 item-that’s hours and hours of time if trying to get multiple pieces of end-game gear.  And it’s a good thing because if you are playing a game for abnegation and just opening chests b/c you don’t feel like fighting a dragon right now you might as well spend that full time getting gear and not loading and re-loading.  

That’s something that really says to me that they’re thinking deeper about this game, yeah the overall experience suffered from a few decisions not really thought out-players didn’t need filler quite so much or at least better quality-but there are a few gems of ideas in the game.  Play it if you get a chance and want to see those ideas and build a party to take down monsters.  There’s definitely some strategy in this game.  However, don’t go in expecting too much from the elements that aren’t fleshed out-you’re not wrong in the first hour of the game about those things they won’t get fixed any time soon.  But hopefully in a year or two the company throws fans of this game a bone, because there really needs to be a version of this world that’s more evenly developed and the people who sat through 20 hours of walking when this game came out deserve to play that game.