It’s not often that a single game has changed my outlook on games so much – especially in the RPG genre, which seems to see only occasional innovation. Usually it’s in the form of a plot twist here or a stylistic change there that is incorporated into a group of cliches. While some carry an idea out a bit better, and a cliche-filled game can still be a lot of fun, many games feel like a string of cliches in a different order with a new battle system.
For a long time, I really thought I didn’t care much. Oh, the first Persona was neat and all, and the Suikoden series’ focus on larger events was cool, but it was the nifty, well-done battle systems that I convinced myself I really enjoyed the most. As a strategy lover, I wanted a game to challenge me, rather than tell me some silly little story when most novels are far better anyway. To summarize, a good battle system will make a solid game regardless of the story, but a good story can’t stand on its own.
Recently I played through Persona 3, which made me think a bit more about how important stories for games can be. Near the end, I was getting sort of tired of the battle system – 60 hours is a long time to be beating enemies the same old way. But the story kept me going.
Then I played through Wild Arms 5. Despite an enjoyable enough battle system with good difficulty, I really lost motivation a little more than halfway through – suddenly the tatters of a story that are in the game didn’t matter to me anymore. The story is, to put it simply, just about everything that is wrong with the JRPG genre – in the end none of the villains were truly evil except Kartikeya. And Kartikeya killed himself to conveniently prevent Greg from having to do so. And why did our heroes win? Because they never gave up. You know, unlike all the hundreds of other losers who tried doing the same thing. Or maybe they won because they were kids who had vaguely mystical powers and an annoying catchphrase.
After WA5, I knew I needed a good game to get me back into the genre. I received a few recommendations for Skies of Arcadia Legends and set to work, and I loved it. There were a few times I played it over Super Mario Galaxy, which is saying something. And yet… something was wrong. I didn’t like the battle system, but I kept playing anyway. The voice acting was mostly pretty bad (when it was coherent), you got only the vaguest directions on places to go, and the music (while good) was not particularly memorable. The game’s sky-based setting really made it amazing. The exploration and a few of the characters made things especially fun, putting this game among the best I’ve ever played. Without a good battle system.
I think a lot of games can learn a lesson from Skies. It creates an entire world and populates it with all kinds of interesting people to talk to and places to explore – and that alone can make a game enjoyable. Wild Arms 3 is at least somewhat inspired by Skies, and some other games have bits and pieces of it, but I have seen no games take this idea and run with it quite as well.
A novel can give you a good idea of what a world is like, but it can’t show it to you while you gaze on in amazement. This is, I think, one of the new frontiers that video games can cross – give us a fully-crafted world to explore and we’ll be at it for days. Dwarves, elves and hobbits are all well and good, but they aren’t necessary. Give us interesting cultures, different civilizations, long-abandoned temples and make us feel like we’re a part of it all. Skies shows it’s possible to breathe a good semblance of life into a world – now I’m just waiting for a game that follows up on it.