It’s no big secret that I am a rather massive fan of RPG’s, both the Japanese and Western variety (although I tend to lean towards the former). There’s something all-encompassing and absorbing about them for me, the way the stories work, the way the characters are written and their interactions with each other. All of that is a given, of course – it’s the very lifeblood of a good RPG, to keep the player involved and gripped, much like a good book captivates its reader.
That isn’t just it for me, though; I like my experience to also be an adventure. I don’t want the whole game to be dictated to me, on rails and with not an ounce of freedom; and unfortunately that seems to be what is happening as RPGs become more focused on looking pretty than on giving decent amounts of exploration and content.
This viewpoint has been cemented for me in the last four years, or so. In fact, I think it probably started with the mess that was Final Fantasy XIII, when exploration ceased to become a thing, world maps and navigation a distant memory and where you have your hand-held as you’re led through long, tedious corridors of enemies, briefly broken up with cut scenes. Unfortunately, this seems to have become the go-to recipe for the genre, or variations of it at least.
My most recent foray into JRPG (I know it’s not new now, but I’ve been neck-deep in Neverwinter for… well, a long time) has been Dragon Quest Heroes. I loved Journey of the Cursed King. It was, without a doubt, one of my favorite games of the PS2-era (which seems so long ago now, doesn’t it?) – a true JRPG, with the design, humour and storytelling one would expect from the genre. It offered a compelling, if slightly odd, story; endearing and quaint in its own way.
I suppose, naively, without reading much about it in the run-up to release and avoiding too many spoilers because I had to wait ‘til the Christmas after its release for it, I had assumed it would be more of the same. Alas, I was of course disappointed. Although the gameplay itself is good for what it is, essentially Dragon Quest Heroes is levels consisting of endless hack-and-slash, in-between which you can rest, buy items and various other things on board your airship. That’s it. Now, don’t get me wrong, it does what it does very well. It isn’t bad, by any means. Slightly repetitive perhaps, but not bad. However, it does sum up my point quite well. RPG’s just don’t offer the same level of immersion they used to.
Where I used to spend an hour or so exploring every nook and cranny of a new town, finding its secrets, talking to its citizens and soaking in the different atmospheres of each place, I now feel rushed through each one. There’s no differentiation between one and the other, no distinguishing features for each place I visit; my mind goes back to Final Fantasy IX, where each town not only took some work and map exploration to get to, but also had its own identity. I can recall quite perfectly the musical score for each one, how it looked and what sort of people lived there. If I tried to do that for, say, Final Fantasy XIII, I’d be stumped.
When World maps once consisted of hidden caves and grottos only accessible by certain means of transport and a great deal of effort, I now find there is no expansive map for me to explore at all. What I want to see, I suppose, is a story like the Final Fantasy games of previous generations, with the extensive focus on exploration and travel as something like Skyrim. Imagine (and hopefully it soon will be a reality) running across the map and seeing the Gold Saucer come into view across the horizon. Wow.
I suppose the question really is, is it my opinion that’s outdated and have games genuinely moved with the sway of what the market wants from a game? Is it really the games that have lost their way, or am I just… getting old? Have RPG’s just moved on and I’m looking at things with some very suave rose-tinted spectacles?