As I’ve grown older I have become more acutely aware that compromises are ubiquitous in game design. I once raised common questions like, “Why don’t they make this game longer,” “Why isn’t this game more open ended,” and “Why isn’t there more dialog in this game?”
A longer game time may dilute the story and make gameplay tedious. An open ended game is less focused and loses narrative potency, and more dialog can slow down fast paced gameplay. I now realize that for every obvious improvement, there is at least a small case to be made for keeping a design choice unchanged.
When I was younger I longed for complexity in games. I still enjoy titles on the more complicated side, but I can see the folly in demanding every game be dense and technical. In the strategy genre, for example, having thirty different stats and forty different abilities for each character, keeping track of height, distance, volume, HP, MP, TP, relative positioning, absolute positioning, and absolute relativism can be a fun time. It can also suck the life out of a game.
Every additional element in a strategy game, and probably in any game, makes all other elements slightly less important. It is therefore possible to add so much complexity that the game is diluted to a degree where nothing is particularly important. A series like Fire Emblem maintains a fan base despite the advent of horrendously complicated SRPGs precisely because simplicity actually makes basic tenants of strategy, like positioning and concentration of force, more important.
The current heavyweight champion of convoluted strategy RPGs is Final Fantasy Tactics. I may have a stronger argument if I could deride this game for being a boring stat fest, and that’s exactly what I’d do if I didn’t absolutely adore the game. Before I move on to modern bloated SRPGs, specifically Disgaea, it is necessary to explore what made Final Fantasy Tactics so good.
Why did I enjoy Final Fantasy Tactics? Playing it in 1998 was crucial to shaping my response. Before this game, I had not played a strategy RPG more complicated than the decidedly straightforward Shining Force. Final Fantasy Tactics had the benefit of being my first dense SRPG and its originality, coupled with my youthful longing for stat crunching, went over smashingly.
Tactics also had a nicely developed world that included interesting maps on which to wage war. The plot was obscured by an odd translation but it worked enough to provide highs and lows in the drama, and the battles themselves varied in significance more than in a binary way of important and unimportant. The job system was also incredibly deep and rewarding and is debatably unsurpassed to this day.
As I outlined why Final Fantasy Tactics worked I realized complex SRPGs aren’t forever damned to fail, but unless they make some large changes, Nippon Ichi’s SRPGs are. Disgaea is boring. No, not boring, but while playing I am enveloped by ennui. I keep putting hours into it, pumping stats up, getting better items, but it ultimately makes me feel empty. It is too similar to its predecessor La Pucelle.
A critical compromise has been made in Disgaea; level grinding has been given more attention than any other portion of the game. The game is primarily about leveling characters, transmigrating them into different classes to learn additional abilities, leveling them more, and making runs in the “item world” in order to level up gear. While it’s completely possible to play the game straight through, I doubt the type of person who picks up a Japanese SRPG is likely to do this. I was drawn to the item world and into the glamorous world of power leveling and you probably will be too. Playing the game in this manner ensured I was completely distanced from the plotline.
Disgaea received an excellent translation and some very good voice acting. The dialog is often incredibly funny, but the plot feels far removed from the majority of battles. Instead of establishing a story movement before each fight, the game introduces a whole chunk of battles with one plot piece. This means you are left to fight multiple battles that seem to have no significance to or impact on the story line. And thus we get a binary system; a battle is either pointless and is put in your way to extend the length of the game, or it is a boss battle. There are no shades; either you are killing drones or bosses.
These flaws are exacerbated by the lack of interesting maps. Battles are reached through a portal so there is no opportunity to establish an overworld (no pun intended). Once you teleport to the battle areas, you are greeted with bland map after bland map. It appears some effort has been made to sex some of them up, but they all ended up feeling simply generic. Needless to say, there are no epic battles in Disgaea.
This wouldn’t be so bad if Nippon Ichi hadn’t made a second fatal compromise; the battle system and character mechanics are bloated. There are so many character classes, so many abilities for each, a separate way to level skills, to level characters, and to level items. In battle you must keep track of your characters, their proximity to other characters you control in order to perform combos, prepare attacks that are allowable based on positioning and contend with “Geo panels.”
Geo panels affect same colored spaces of land with status changes such as “invincibility,” and, “Defense -50%” At first, they seem to exist to add more strategy to battles but it soon becomes apparent that the crux of the game is detonating the geo panels on each map in a specific order in order to score bonus items; geo panels actually exist to distance you from the physical conflicts your party is so often involved in.
Battles are a joyless match off of Excel sheets when not focused on the seemingly endless task of lining up geo panels correctly. The randomly generated maps of the item world feel distinctly inhuman as asinine design after asinine design is spewed out for me to play on. If there is any sense of accomplishment in Disgaea, it comes not from actually succeeding in battles but solely in procuring new items and watching your stats skyrocket.
Disgaea still took 50 hours of my life. There is no denying that for the right kind of gamer, the title can provide a lot of entertainment. The right kind of gamer is not me, at least not right now. My time in Disgaea felt like my time in the Sims, fun while it lasted but ultimately very unsatisfying and utterly pointless. I have a good number of hours in me to waste on a game like Disgaea, but I recently used them all up. I shouldn’t have played La Pucelle first.