The JRPG genre is filled to the brim with games that are so ridiculously easy they are bad “games” – in the sense that a game is something you should have to play optimally to achieve success. The Suikoden series, my favorite of the past two generations, has gone from being “somewhat tricky in one or two battles” to “a breeze at its hardest, with pretty much no thought involved.”
Part of this is a plague of the genre – the phenomenon of grinding. For those who don’t want to think about what they’re doing, grinding is an easy way out. There’s no need to play perfectly when you can spend a few hours killing baddies and come back able to beat the tar out of the bigger baddies. It takes time, but then JRPGs are filled with fluff already (mostly grinding, actually), so spending a bit of time leveling up doesn’t sound too bad.
But strategy is largely lost in RPGs. I have only played two – both in the Lunar series – where playing optimally is not only recommended but required for boss fights, and, if only for that, they deserve much praise. Even in the Persona games, which I have lauded for the strategy required, thought is needed more in preparation than during actual fights.
OK, this game may be hard.
Part of this is, perhaps, an unreasonable expectation on my part. The JRPG is inherently a single-player endeavor, and not everyone is going to want to play for a challenge. I’ve wrestled with the story vs. gameplay question myself, but my favorites are games that do both well.
For a lot of players, bosses that simply repeat a pattern of moves or use them randomly are enough. In Persona 3, bosses demand some strategy, but several fights in FES revealed that boss AI is every bit as bad as the teammate AI. Thus far, I’ve been disappointed. Even Lunar 2’s bosses use set patterns, but the patterns are balanced so well that using the best set of moves is needed for victory.
Is it too much to ask to have a bossfight that involves the same limitations on both sides? Every boss of every game has a higher HP total than your party combined. Remember the fight against Magus in Chrono Trigger, where he had thousands of hit points? Why can’t a game be more balanced?
In most games, your characters can one-shot kill themselves, but have a hard time combining all their strength to take out a single mage – who later joins your party and turns out to be a complete wuss. I’d like to see a game with fights where the sides are closer to equal in terms of strength, but where the cunning AI will give a lazy player a rough time.
Taking out “grinding” isn’t even that difficult – the leveling scheme in Chrono Cross (which I have made fun of in the past) actually does things pretty well. If the non-boss fights occur sparingly, it could certainly work out in another game. It surprises me, considering how many complain about grinding, that no game has excluded grinding entirely.
But then – to some degree, I find I still enjoy the laziness of playing thoughtless games. If I have to think, that means expending effort – if there’s too much of it (if I have to think in every single fight, for example) things start to feel more like work.
Some games work pretty well as a book where you press X a bunch and occasionally explore a bit – The Phoenix Wright-esque RPG. Rogue Galaxy and Suikoden V do that pretty well. FFXII even takes out the part where you press X, and funnels the strategy into a bite-sized area right around the time you get gambits. These games are good fluff – they’re like an easy-to-read, but somewhat shallow novel.
But the really rewarding games challenge the mind on two fronts – by having an intriguing story and maintaining an edge of challenge between plot points. They keep the “game” in role-playing game without losing the role. It takes balance, just like a good boss battle.