Last year was a fairly interesting one for RPG fans. Some of the biggest names in the genre finished their PS2 swan songs long ago, and went off in search of new platforms. This left 2007 as a year for new ideas and lesser known series to take root and grab the hearts and money of fans. 2007 may not have had a big new Final Fantasy, but perhaps that is a good thing, as it allowed these other games to stand out, rough edges and all. While it comes a bit late, the following is an assessment of some of 2007’s biggest RPGs from both Chris (vl’s resident RPG expert) and Christian (who continues to look for the genre’s masterpiece). We also included FF12 in the mix. It may be a bit old to us modern folk living in 2008, but it is such a major departure from Square’s usual offerings that it deserves a bit more discussion on the site.
In terms of introducing ideas, be they bad or good, Persona 3 makes some subtle suggestions that are nevertheless incredibly potent. The entire game revolves around the idea that a person is made by their choices, and so every single decision you make likely has an effect on your character’s stats or Persona. RPGs often like giving us choices, but they are usually only an illusion (for example, you simply may not be able to say “no”), or are nullified by allowing the player to earn the rewards of all the choices through means of brute force leveling and exploration. When you do something in Persona 3, it sticks, and there’s nothing you can do about it except reload the game. I absolutely love this concept, as it makes each playthrough a little different depending on what you do, and also makes you feel like you are playing the role by investing in this character.
Persona 3 is my favorite RPG on the PS2, and for good reason. It’s not that it does everything well – in fact, it’s often repetitive, somewhat slow, and occasionally downright unfair. What it does do right, however, is what so many games do wrong: it doesn’t have one aspect that really sucks.
The battle system is easy to learn, yet throws the occasional curveball at you to get you thinking. Only the main character can change his persona (which affects the three As: attributes, affinities and abilities). By the same token, he is also the only one who can be directly controlled. It’s a refreshing simplification after the earlier games, which involved too much management in battle. This comes at some expense of control, but it is worth it.
The plot has a gradual buildup, but the gaps are filled with steady side-plots and well-done characters. When a game gets me to care about a nameless taxi driver, it really says something. Far more questions than answers are to be had early on, which can get somewhat frustrating, but as the plot begins to unravel, the wait feels very much worth it. As Christian pointed out, even the silent character is very well done, as rather than being simply a guy who is there, you get to make decisions left and right for him, many of which feel quite natural.
As a bonus, if you’re one of those people who waited before buying, Atlus has granted you an unusual reprieve: P3’s expansion pack FES, once thought to remain Japan-only, has been released stateside. It even includes the original game for a total price of $30 (a sight better than the $70 you would normally buy it off eBay for).
P3 also realizes just how shitty RPG combat can be, which is why battles are only one aspect of the experience. Adding in the high school/social/story/dating aspects to Persona 3 makes for a varied experience that never tries to drag you down or wear you out. As any DnD fan would know, roleplaying can mean more than fighting and rolling dice. Persona 3 gets this, and we are better off for it.
I have sadly not finished Persona 3, though I know it is not the game’s fault but my own. I smile every time I boot it up, and I always watch the intro video. The reason I can’t push farther into it is because years of playing other jRPGs have trained me to think that the only way to play this genre is the OCD way. There simply is no way to see everything in P3 in one playthrough. That’s fine and dandy, but I am constantly afraid of being screwed over. What if the choices I made were the wrong ones? What if I find myself grossly underpowered when I get to the end of the game? There is a time limit after all, and so I will be unable to grind. More than a few RPGs have put me in such compromising situations, and no, none of them were roguelikes. I know Persona 3 isn’t tricky. It is meant to be balanced enough that it can be beaten in many ways. But I constantly wish to fire up an FAQ and see what I “should” be doing, and I refuse to sully the experience this way. P3 wants to be a pleasure, and I am trying to make it into work. Thanks Square.
I was anticipating this one more than any other RPG in recent memory. Too bad it did not live up to its potential. It had so many good ideas, such as its item synthesis system and load free combat. After the initial wow factor, it all begins to fall apart. The combat gets tedious, and making new weapons and learning skills will cause you to farm item drops as you would in an MMO. Rogue Galaxy is a lot like Dark Cloud 2 (items, monotonous dungeons, etc.), including having most of its major issues. Not a bad RPG, as it doesn’t stray terribly far from the mold, but it wasn’t nearly bold enough for my liking. At the very least they could have made the space pirates actual pirates and not a bunch of do-gooders.
Rogue Galaxy mashes together every anime and video game cliche it can and ends up with something so derivative you have to either love it or hate it, but its plot and characters are not really the focus of the game. Rather than worrying you with complex issues like real character development, a realistic plot, or thinking, Rogue Galaxy has you swing your sword and shoot your gun a lot. That about sums it up, and initially it is a refreshing game. After FFXII, which I found overly dramatic, Rogue Galaxy was a breath of fresh air.
Unfortunately, after a while I found I had had enough of the whole “fresh air” business. The weapon-mixing system is neat enough, but gets every bit as repetitive as the combat. The mini-games, hunts, et cetera are fun for a while, but in the end it’s just even more fighting. There’s ultimately no motivation to do much of the “100% completion” for all of the minigames and weapons because there’s just too much of it to deal with. RG is great for the first 30 hours or so, but the fighting doesn’t stay fun forever. Dungeons grow from being sort of interesting to incredibly boring, even with the quick battle loading.
This is a technical wonder. Some say Odin Sphere’s 2D graphics look too good to be true, even though the game was made with little time and money (thus shattering any excuse Konami might make about their laziness to create new Castlevania sprites). Unfortunately, storybook visuals do not instantly make a good game, and Odin Sphere is too confused to know what it wants to be or how to do it properly. For instance, the combat is less action RPG and more straight up action game; it even has rankings for your performance. However the controls aren’t fast or responsive enough to be up to the task. Combat requires more than mashing the attack button, yet that is the one tactic that is most reliable. The nail in the coffin however, is item management, or rather the lack thereof. It is important to constantly plant seeds and mix potions in order to have good stats and powerful items, but the ring style item structure of your inventory is confusing and slow, making it easy to forget what you have and easier to throw away what you might have actually wanted. It adds up to much more downtime and resource management between fights than there should be. It isn’t that the gardening concept is bad, it simply ends up chewing away more time than it needs to.
On a final note, Odin Sphere can have massive slowdown, either due to the PS2 struggling to render the visuals, or because of bad coding. Either way, this only makes it harder to succeed in combat.
Christian is spot on with Odin Sphere. It looks beautiful, and is fun for a time, but item management and the battle balance really ruined it for me.
My only additional comment is regarding the perspective. The sprites are amazingly well-drawn, but the reason you see so much detail is that your character takes up about 1/5 of the screen. As a result, you can’t see anything but your immediate surroundings. Even with the minimap, I’d find myself under attack by long-range enemies I couldn’t see, or have closer-range enemies charge in from offscreen unpredictably.
This one is cheating, I know, but I finally got around to the latest Final Fantasy this Christmas, and I am sad I waited so long. This is the most wonderful, honest script the series has ever seen, delivered by quality voice actors that minimize bad deliveries and awkward pausing. The story dismisses many of the epic, schlocky tropes of the genre in favor of a more straightforward tale of politics and war. The combat is different and yet effective, awarding strategy but also allowing for a brute force approach. In short, we may never see a FF game like this ever again. For one, Matsuno went crazy and left the project (and Square in general). Two, fans seemed to hate it. So many years of bad design choices by Square have made the kids believe that unless you are killing God with a team of anorexics with zipper and hair gel fetishes, then you simply aren’t doing it right.
Final Fantasy XII
I can accept that perhaps XII, which I have yet to finish, may fall apart in the end. But who cares about how much it rips off Star Wars? FF has been doing that for years, only this time it borrows some themes and plot elements, rather than just meaningless name drops. And the story? Complaining about how the story uses classic storytelling methods instead of relying on cheap “character development” and anime stereotypes seems childish. Which, I suppose, it is; it was teenagers who fell in love with the genre back in 1997, and it is new teenagers who keep it going a decade later. The same people that download Naruto fansubs and worship Evangelion are the same ones who allow something like Xenosaga and Kingdom Hearts 2 to be considered good examples of storytelling in the genre.
All I am trying to say is that the problem is not with Final Fantasy XII. It is an outlier in the series no doubt, but it is a good game, and I hope someone learns some lessons from it.
Of all the games of the past year, my opinions on Final Fantasy XII have changed the most. Though I still agree with most of my review just after playing it, I don’t find myself wanting to play through it again at all. Part of this is because the game doesn’t really lend itself to replayability. In most cases, there’s only one “best” way to do things. You’ll always want to use Haste, Protect, etc in the same situations, you’ll always want mostly the same Gambits, and since the characters you choose don’t make a real difference, there’s no variation.
By the halfway point, battles are so hands-off that they’re not terribly interesting, and customization dies off as you fill in the last parts of your License Grid. The plot moves in spurts separated by rather long dungeons and (if you’re a completionist) dozens of hunts or side-quests. I usually like to give the completion thing a try, but FFXII made some of the hunts so difficult or random that I gave up.
Overall, FFXII feels very mechanical to me. Characters are all the same in battle, battles are set-and-forget, and by the time the better characters got any backstory, I wanted Vaan to die violently. The intrigue is all well and good, but not a whole lot is particularly deep – you can see most characters’ motivations simply by looking at them. That said, though, a couple of the story elements were refreshing. There are shades of gray everywhere in the plot, and very few people end up looking entirely good, and there are amazingly no evil religions. There are a couple of nods to the series stereotypes (such as Vaan’s lack of masculinity) but all in all it does feel different plot-wise. Hopefully the next entry does as much and brings control back into the battles.
Wild Arms 5 (bonus)
Ahh, the power of cheese. It might not be the absolute worst plot I’ve seen, but Wild Arms 5 is the only recent game I know of with enough cliches to rival Rogue Galaxy. If you are looking for a feel-good plot with maybe a few bits of darkness for contrast, an entertaining world to explore, and well-done if recycled characters, you should play… Skies of Arcadia, which WA5 seems to have pilfered from considerably. The world in WA5 is actually pretty decent, all told, but there is very little that can save the game from the mindless repetition of “Never give up!” from the main characters.
That said, the battles are strategic and, once you get going, the extras are pretty satisfying. Even the early extra dungeons were fun to go through, and any game that’s able to get me to play extra after 40 hours nowadays deserves a pretty hefty bit of praise. If anything, over time, I’ve come to like WA5 a bit more; I can ignore the plot to some extent because battles are fairly well balanced and it has really good music. I am willing to forgive a game almost anything if it has good music.
Wild Arms 5 feels a bit like a slow-running roller coaster. The early game is boring and the finale stretches itself a bit too thin, but right in the middle it has more than a few moments of exhilaration and has great pacing. If it didn’t start so gradually, end so poorly, or have horrible dialogue, it would be a really great game.
Can someone tell me how insipid the ‘high school’ factor of persona 3 is? You guys have been raving about this game for a while now and i’ve been wanting to get it, but just like with buffy the high school setting/problems is a major deterrent. Thoughts?
Shota, the high school factor isn’t quite what you’re thinking. Yes there is some HS kid drama, but it isn’t all Buffy style. Its not even more “anime” style. Its mostly silly shit that kids worry about, a few with major problems you can help them with, and a few people you can date. Its all fairly light hearted, and it is set up so that even when a character has a problem, they aren’t brooding about it every time you talk to them.
I think the game does a pretty good job at not sweating the small stuff. When someone tell you they’re worried about failing exams, I feel like you’re supposed to laugh at them, rather than feel any sort of pity.
Umm, how about Mass Effect? That was a 2007 RPG, it seems. Or did we already talk about it to death? :)
ahh, seems its a PS2 only list. Nevermind :)
Max – the list isn’t PS2 exclusive on purpose. If anything, it focuses on jRPGs, as that is what Chris loves to play and I find myself constantly analyzing.
Luckily, Mass Effect has been covered on the site, and has led to a ton of discussion. Your comments on the game are more than welcome however, and you just might get even more conversation started.