Why Do RPGs Work? Part 2 – Progression

Starting an RPG is a massive undertaking for a gamer. While a 20 hour running time in almost any other genre is considered long, it is fairly short for any RPG made in the past 15 years, with games regularly reaching the 40, 50 or 60 hour mark. It probably won’t be a thrilling ride all the way through, either. Glacial beginnings and intermittent rough patches are practically hallmarks of the genre, while level grinding and sprawling, empty dungeons are merely commonplace.

So why play RPGs in the first place? In this series I’ll look at three different parts of what can work in a typical RPG structure, with three different games to demonstrate each one of them.

In Part One of our Why Do RPGs Work mini-series, I singled out Baldur’s Gate II as having an especially slow opening, but almost every RPG has a cripplingly slow start. On the Western side, slow, dreary opening dungeons are the norm. Just look at Fallout 2, Baldur’s Gate 2, Planescape: Torment or any of the first four Elder Scrolls games. JRPGs don’t fare much better, and tend to have either overly verbose (Star Ocean: Till the End of Time) or weirdly uneventful (Persona 4) openings.

Persona 4 eventually becomes a deep, clever, delightfully charming RPG, but it takes good five or six hours to get there.

In Baldur’s Gate II, or any of Black Isle’s RPGs, I start to get interested once I’m allowed to explore the world, and start chasing plot hooks that interest me, but in more stat-driven RPGs, I really start to have fun the first time I grind. Grinding with weak enemies for a poorly balanced boss is dull, but at this early point I feel like I’m puzzling out the game systems. A lot of the time this is just getting accustomed to the rhythm: how battles flow, how characters become more powerful, and how quickly. Sometimes there’s a lot more. Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne’s Fusion system, which allows any two or three of the hundreds of collectable demons to be combined to create a new type of demon with a selection of its parents’ skills, engrossed me so much that I spent a good half hour running in a circle, recruiting every demon I can find and making a pleasantly overpowered, efficiently balanced party.

In almost any Shin Megami Tensei game, character progression is king. Nocturne has some great world building, and Persona 3 and 4 and Digital Devil Saga all have strong, character driven stories, but the focus is still on exploring elaborate dungeons, fighting an endless number of demons and crafting the perfect party. Even though the dungeons I was exploring had a tendency to be overly labyrinthine or simply dull (a few Persona games even have procedurally generated dungeons), I stayed interested because every battle was a new opportunity to make my characters more powerful in a way I very much controlled, and which meshed with the story fantastically. Because my main means of increasing my party strength was talking to demons and combining them through a mysterious ritual, I felt like I was as inhuman as the rest of the world.

The Cathedral of Shadows is a recurring feature in the Megaten series, and for good reason. It even made it in to the MMORPG.

In a sense, Baldur’s Gate 2‘s wealth of sidequests is similar, but I feel like I get something completely different out of it. I don’t feel like I have a lot of control over how my characters develop, save for an extremely daunting number of spells, and just need to wander getting better gear and occasionally leveling up. I’m sure if I were more familiar with Dungeons & Dragons the leveling would engage me, but that’s not what I appreciate about Baldur’s Gate 2. Almost every quest involves some combination of navigating dialogue trees, exploring a safe area and dungeon crawling, and my characters’ talents and place in the world are all extremely important to how this unfolds. As I explore, characters talk to each other, argue, fall in love and give suggestions for where to go next. I feel like I’m able to control a branch of story hooks as satisfying and as complex as a Shin Megami Tensei game’s fusion system.

What I like about RPGs is all about having a personalized, unique stake in the proceedings, whether that stake is mechanical or narrative in nature. All that is needed is for the underlying logic of the gameplay and game world to be consistent, easily understood by the player and deep enough to be manipulated in interesting ways.

That’s where Blackguards, an interesting but frustratingly unpolished tactical RPG I reviewed last month, falls flat. Blackguards has a wealth of side-quests and a passably interesting world, but almost every quest would lead to a lengthy battle, with the conversation options ultimately proving irrelevant. Even dungeons were nothing more than a map overlay leading to successive battles. Because the gameplay was so separated from the game world and the parts of it I found interesting, I was unable to engage with either the story or my considerable freedom within it. The character progression, which involves hunting for trainers that know how to teach certain skills, felt similarly arbitrary.

Blackguards focus on glacial combat undermines every bit of world building or character development present.

Which brings me to what I consider the perfect RPG gameplay system. It is a system that evolved through several of the early Final Fantasy games, and has since begun to migrate to other franchises, such as Bravely Default, but I will be focusing most intensively on Final Fantasy V’s interpretation. The system began in Final Fantasy I as a simple character selection, resulting in a fixed party of four made up of any combination of six possible classes, or Jobs. Upon completion of a certain side quest, the four party members upgrade to an advanced Job, determined by their starting Job. Final Fantasy III allowed the four party members to change Jobs at any time to best suit the immediate situation with new sets of Jobs becoming available after certain points in the story.

As enjoyable as Final Fantasy I’s replayability and III’s variety and freedom are, Final Fantasy V is where the Job system was really perfected. Like Final Fantasy III, Jobs can be switched at any point, with more becoming available as the story progresses, but what makes V so special is how Jobs can be combined to make extremely specialized parties.

After each battle, both experience points and Job points are distributed. Experience points, like most JRPGs, lead to a linear boost in power after they reach a certain amount, but job points go towards leveling up each characters’ current Job. Whenever a Job levels up for a character, a new ability is unlocked. These unlocked abilities can then be equipped by that character no matter what Job they are currently using. Sometimes these abilities are new spells or skills that can be executed by that Job, but most of the time they are separate quirks with specialized uses, many of which are innately part of that Job but can be combined with other Jobs to create powerful builds on the fly. An early boss that alternates between magical and physical resistance can be toppled by a team of Black Mages with the Monk’s ability to fight barehanded, while the deadly Mystic Knight can enchant two weapons at a time with the Ninja’s dual-wield ability.

All of FFV's Jobs can be mixed and matched to create staggeringly unique party combinations.

Final Fantasy V‘s Job system is so engaging because it not only gives the player total control over how characters develop, but steadily increases the options over time. Jobs constantly give new abilities, and I found that whenever I had created a build I was happy with, there were already five or six new jobs to experiment with. New Jobs are unlocked every time the protagonists make contact with a new crystal of light, and much of the story is about the four warriors of light harnessing the crystals power to fight off an unknown evil force. Suddenly the Job system is more than an elegantly presented, open-ended skill tree, it is a vital part of the story, and represents the characters learning to harness an otherworldly power.

The great thing about RPGs is how they can take otherwise disparate gameplay systems come together to create engaging gameplay out of pure numbers, or to tell a story with those numbers. One of my favorite parts of any RPG is directly before the final encounter, when the world is wide-open and I have only one enemy left to defeat. I can explore both the world and the nuts and bolts of the game mechanics until I find something that will be enough. When I find that piece of gear, special skill or bizarre strategy, I’m right there with my party. I’ve found a way to overcome insurmountable odds, and with everything I’ve learned from my journey, I’ve won.