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  Mechanic #188 - JRPG My Way
Posted: Jan 23, 2014

A settings screen for JRPGs that let you enjoy the parts you like without having to worry about the parts you don't.

  JRPG My Way

The truth is, I don't like JRPGs very much. Except, of course, when I like them very much. Despite the genre being relatively narrow in focus, it's incredibly difficult for me to tell whether or not I'd like a JRPG. This is because JRPGs are not one genre, but three or four genres all mushed together. You've got the narrative aspects mixed with a tactical aspect, with the occasional focus in logistics or dexterity. And depending on how heavily a JRPG leans on each aspect, my interest in it may change completely.

Take Persona 4, for example. The beginning of the game is a two or three hour glorified cutscene... but a really interesting one! In fact, once I got to the meat of the game, which involved running around in ugly random dungeons, I got upset. I wanted to see more cutscenes! Compare that to Valkyrie Profile, one of my favorite games, which has amazing gameplay, but begins with an hour long cutscene that is every bit as bored as I am watching it - and it's unskippable!

This entry is basically a settings menu where you can decide exactly how involved you want to be with these aspects.


I'm going to start with cutscenes, since they are by far the worst offenders. Nothing like moving through a dungeon, having fun, only to have a 10 minute cutscene pop in that spends minutes on the characters staring off into space between voiced dialogue. You don't want to skip the cutscenes, because then you won't know why you are going through dungeons, but lord knows, you don't want to WATCH them either.



Fig 188.1 - Conception 2.

These two screenshots come from the 3DS and Vita versions of Conception II. In one, they've got static images going with the text, while in the other, 3D animated models. This gave me the idea that there could be different levels of cutscenes - somewhere between nothing and excessive, over produced nonsense. So, in the "My Way" settings, you can select your level of cutscene involvement:

Skip Cutscenes - Either you've seen them before or just couldn't give a crap. Don't even bother showing the cutscenes.

Summaries - Instead of showing a cutscene, you get a small paragraph or two telling you what the cutscene accomplished. Something like, "Spikey Haired hero helps girl off the ground. She thanks him, before running off to the east. Hero decides to chase after her."

Static Image Text Box - Like the top screenshot above, these are those easy cutscenes which involve static images of the characters (sometimes in a few specific poses) and text boxes with the dialogue in it. These are quick to move through because there's no animation. They've been used since the dawn of video games to tell stories and while they may not be the most multimedia expressive, they get the job done.

Fully Animated Cutscenes - JRPGs now have fully animated, voiced cutscenes. Some of them are very poorly done, as static 3D models rotate and nod, while others are giant elaborately choreographed scenes of multimedia goodness. Full cutscenes in all their (long) multimedia glory.

  Item Logistics



Fig 188.2 - Final Fantasy PSP.

For most JRPGs, items are a non-event. You pick them up so frequently that they don't matter, or they are so cheap (as in Final Fantasy above) and you become so rich that you end up buying 99 Potions and 99 Hi-Potions every time you are in town... just to be sure. Occasionally, you'll find items that do something besides heal or get rid of status effects, like using flame rods to cast fire without using MP.

For me, items are an after thought. I can't tell you how many JRPGs I've played through without giving a crap about the items. In the few cases where it has matter, I've always erred on the side of not using items, because they are endangered resources and you don't want to be caught without. Ultimately, this ends with me winning the game without ever using items. Some people like the item game. I find it is usually so trivial that it is optional.

So in the "My Way" settings, there are two setting for items:

Full Items - You find items in dungeons. You buy them in stores. You can amass them, collect them, spend them, whatever.

No Items - All items are removed from the game. They are no longer in dungeons or shops. Instead, each encounter comes with a set number of specific items available to you. Like every non-boss encounter gives you 4 healing potions. Use them or don't, you'll still only have 4 healing potions in the next battle. Though you never get a chance to over prepare, you are never left wanting and you don't have to waste time traveling through dungeons to find a treasure chest with a potion - oh wait, you have too many potions so you throw it away.




Fig 188.3 - Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl.

Most JRPGs have a set number of named characters. Some, however, allow you to choose your experience in the game. Final Fantasy allows you to tackle the game with 4 generic white mages, if you want. Final Fantasy 3 has 4 named characters, but they can be changed into different classes. Some games, like Disgaea, give you a mix of named characters and generics, allowing you to pick who you play with.

Etrian Odyssey Untold: The Millennium Girl above has two story modes. The first is a traditional Etrian Odyssey experience of building generic characters and dungeon crawling with minimal plot. The second is a tradition JRPG experience, with named characters with set progression, and a stronger story. I really like this approach, because not only do you get to customize your experience through the game, it makes a strong case for it being two games in one.

I'd like this option to become more standard. I really like Tales of Destiny, largely because of the characters in the game, but I would play it again in a heartbeat if I could use generic characters (like Tales of Narikiri Dungeon X) instead of being stuck with Stahn the entire time.

  Leveling Up



Fig 188.4 - Tales of Xillia.

Lots of JRPGs try to give you ways to level your character up in systems that seem more open than they are. Final Fantasy X has you putting spheres into a grid. Final Fantasy XII has a grid of skills to unlock. Final Fantasy XIII has you putting points into a web of abilities. Above, Tales of Xillia has you purchasing links between nodes.

Know what Tales of Xillia also has? Hit select to auto-level. The game will buy the nodes for you. Maybe it won't customize your character exactly how you like, but you don't put all your points into one set of abilities only to find yourself locked into a different class you haven't upgraded (looking at you FF13). Auto-level. Yeah.




Fig 188.5 - Disgaea D2.

Arguably, JRPGs are all about the combat. Random encounters out your ears, then epic boss battles. But the dirty little secret about it all is that most people don't like random encounters. Even in games like Tales of Xillia, where you can see your enemies, most players just rush by them, only stopping to fight if they need to grind some levels. Some people enjoy them, but in most JRPGs, the random encounters are easy, obvious wastes of time. Wouldn't it be great if you could just fight the bosses?

Bravely Default is a JRPG that includes an option that allows you to increase or decrease the number of random encounters, all the way down to zero random encounters, if you want. You can increase it to grind, and decrease it when you just want to move on. In fact, Bravely Default can be won with zero random encounters.

Pictured above is the Cheat Shop in Disgaea D2. It allows you to trade values around, allowing you to increase the amount of EXP you get at the cost of lowering the amount of Mana. I think something like the cheat shop would be a great addition to most JRPGs, allowing you to have fewer random battles that yield more EXP per battle, but at the cost of making the battles more difficult or yielding lower drop rates.

  Conceptual Notes

- I'm not sure I can take credit for all these ideas, since in each case, I've shown example JRPGs that are already doing it. I'm just collecting these ideas together in a single settings screen that allows the player to play JRPGs the way they want to play them. If you want to watch the cutscenes, you shouldn't have to put up with gameplay getting in the way, or vice versa. More people would see the end of the JRPGs if they could just avoid the stuff that gets in the way.



Copyright 2007-2014 Sean Howard. All rights reserved.