I have an admission to make: I pre-ordered Final Fantasy XIII all the way back in 2010 (paid almost full price, too!), played it for about an hour and twenty minutes that March and then proceeded to leave the game untouched for more than three years. Even still, when Final Fantasy XIII-2 came out, I went ahead and bought a shared copy with my brother. He beat it immediately, and I let the game sit on my shelf unplayed until just recently. Why did I put off playing these games for so long? A combination of things, really: I tend to avoid long games until I’m in the right mood for them, and a lot of people were super-critical of FFXIII when it first came out. It sounded like a disappointment and a time-sink, and I wasn’t in the mood for either.
However, after I recently knocked out Demon’s Souls, I found myself craving more good RPG experiences. The FFXIII games were the most logical place to look, if only so that I might finally clear out my backlog of 360 and PS3 games in preparation for trading in one or both systems. I started out with XIII-2 because conventional wisdom is that it corrects all the missteps of XIII, but even though the game was a lot of fun, the story was convoluted and confusing. I felt like I was missing something, so I decided to give XIII a shot after all. Much to my surprise, I’m really enjoying it – the battles are a lot of fun once you can paradigm shift – and I’m already a good twenty hours in after just a few days.
So why was everyone so hard on the game? Was it just a case of preconceived notions, or is there something genuinely missing?
I do think it helps that I knew to expect a linear game, but I’m also not bringing too much baggage to the experience. I played a few JRPGs on the SNES, but I was never a super-fan. The other GS folks who played FFXIII back in the day – Eddy, Anthony and Nick – all feel very strongly about the changes made to the Final Fantasy brand for XIII because they were huge fans of the earlier games, and I think that was a big part of their disappointment. As for me, I’m enjoying FFXIII so much that I wish I hadn’t let myself be talked out of playing it when it first came out. The contrast between our experiences made me wonder if there is some core experience to an RPG that modern games can deliver without slavishly recreating the gameplay mechanics of 1997.
For example, Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead completely up-ends the point-and-click adventure genre, forgoing mystery-meat puzzles for tension and moral conflicts, and the changes were so genre-defining that classic adventure games just feel outdated and dull to me now. Even still, I’d argue that The Walking Dead is identifiable as an adventure game thanks to its emphasis on characterization, storytelling and (limited) exploration. Along those lines, the Final Fantasy series has changed drastically over the years, but where Eddy and the guys feel like it isn’t a “true” Final Fantasy game, I think it delivers enough of the RPG experience to scratch my itch.
Thinking about this made me wonder what kinds of experiences an RPG needs to deliver to pass muster. World exploration? Character leveling? Loot for the taking? Monster battles? There are already a handful of next-gen games announced that may deliver some or all of these characteristics, but will any of them capture that old-school RPG feeling? If so, is that feeling only about nostalgia, or is there something truly missing from modern RPGs?
If you could take a revisionist approach like Telltale has with adventure games, which parts of the RPG genre do you think are crucial building blocks and which just get in the way? I certainly don’t miss turn-based battles, and I find massive open-world games exhausting, but I can understand the desire for more exploration than the beautifully appointed tunnels offered in FFXIII.
Long story short, I’ve got a lot of questions about the RPG genre, and hopefully you’ve got answers. I’m also curious to know what upcoming RPGs are on your radar. Let us know in the comments!