RPGs are my favourite genre of computer game. Old classics like Phantasy Star IV, Vagrant Story and Shadow Hearts made a lasting impression on me. I’ve been slightly less impressed with some recent offerings. I loved Oblivion, though its levelling system displeased me. FFX and FFXII had a number of flaws (the latter had a potentially great political plot that was never developed and half the characters were tedious) and lacked the charm of FFIV and FFVII.
However, whilst Final Fantasy seems to be plunging over the abyss of linearity (albeit with delicious graphics) there are some good modern RPGs. Dragon Age: Origins was flawed but enjoyable, and Valkyria Chronicles offered an intriguing mix of story and tactical combat.
The benchmark for the latest generation of consoles is Oblivion (until 11/11/11). But what makes a great RPG, and why has Final Fantasy gone from the great days of Cecil and Kain, Cloud and Sephiroth, to being second rate?
FreedomLong ago, when every character spoke only in text and games were on cartridges (or, and I feel ancient as I type this, cassettes) a lack of freedom to choose in RPGs was ok. It was ok because moving a little character of a few pixels on the screen was amazing and new.
Now, it’s unacceptable. There are a few ways to achieve proper RPG freedom. The Oblivion/Skyrim route is simple: create a massive world, cram it with quests, side-quests, random encounters and different ways of playing the game and levelling, and let the player do whatever the hell they like. In Oblivion, the main quest is entirely optional (I actually preferred the excellent Dark Brotherhood quests). So, you can be as evil as you like, stealing things and killing innocents, or very good indeed.
Then there’s the Dragon Age route. You aren’t playing solo, but in a team. However, you choose the members of your party, equip them as you like, change their tactics if you want and get a lot of moral options. So, if you want to be evil, that’s fine. Commit infanticide, enslave dwarven souls to make them mindless, obedient warriors and slaughter a tribe of elves led by Tuvok from, Star Trek: Voyager. It is undoubtedly more linear than the Oblivion way, but you do benefit from the intra-party interactions.
Both routes allow for the player-character to be created rather than pre-defined. Races (well, not in DA2), colour, gender, class are all tailored by the player. The face can be tweaked to try and make a character look beautiful or handsome, damned ugly, or rather evil.
The above two systems work because Oblivion offered literally hundreds of hours of playing time and Dragon Age: Origins enabled players to make different player characters with different parties and to make different moral choices when presented with moral questions.
In short, there’s a hell of a lot of replay value. FFXII offered a little as characters can be customised to fight in different ways and provided with different orders, as in DA:O. But, there were no moral dilemmas to be faced, and the characters were not exactly classics.
World-building and storylineSo, you’ve got freedom. But you need a world in which to be free.
An RPG is best served by a variety of epic locations, and a substantial number of NPCs (non-player characters) which whom to interact. Oblivion had this, but was also let down a little bit by the fact that the vast majority of the characters were voiced by a surprisingly small cast. The dungeons/landscapes were also quite similar generally, a slight problem that is to be mended for Skyrim.
The world also needs a strong history to provide it with an identity beyond Vague Fantasy World. I think Dragon Age has a tremendously strong identity and a great history, and hope that DA3 gets enough time in development to showcase this.
Oblivion felt a little bit too generic, there was not quite enough meat on the bones to make it stand out as distinctive and different. However, it did have a huge world to play in.
FFXII’s political plot could have been excellent, but it seemed underdeveloped, which is a great shame. The general backstory of two massive empires preparing for war was not the most original. I was also puzzled as to what exactly the point of Vaan and Penelo was.
Hmm. Turns out the recipe for a great RPG is shorter than I imagined. There are a lot of peripheral things (easy to navigate menus, great voice acting etc) but generally they’re icing on the cake rather than the chocolatey goodness itself.
I’m hoping for some more news and screenshots of Skyrim to emerge from the E3 Expo, which runs from 7-9 June. If anything particularly interesting comes out, I’ll be sure to post it.