Shelved It #13 – Shin Megami Tensei V

More Info from Atlus

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: Switch

The praise that this one got when it came out really surprised me. It’s not that I necessarily thought the praise was wrong, but SMT games are a very specific kind of niche that I didn’t think would translate well across the board. I played a ton of SMT4 on the 3DS, but even then the formula of the overall metagame felt dated. 8 years later, SMT5 brings the same fantastic combat with the same outdated metagame, and it feels even worse to me now.

If there’s anything I would point to about the game, it’s that it’s not “hard”, at least not in the traditional sense. What it often is is difficult, but artificially so and I think that’s an important distinction. The game isn’t hard in a skill-based sense. Once you know the counters to a boss, the game is trivially easy since you can build your party as a hard counter to it. What it then becomes instead is hard in a time commitment perspective. You’re now just spending time making parties that are tailored towards fighting a specific boss, capturing and fusing demons that act as defensive counters to the boss’ big attacks to allow you to fight your way through it. Even by where my levels were in the mid 20s, this had just become a colossal slog. A single level was ending up being 25-30 fights, which is far too slow a pace to be interesting. Routinely getting into boss fights that then back you up to a ton of grinding is just no longer fun to me. That brings me to my kind of three strikes of shelving this one.

The first strike was just a straight death to trash. I get that there’s some amount of danger involved in any JRPG fight. I was in the middle of a 30 minute walk between save points and came into a rare fight where the enemy went first. It got off a crit, giving it an extra turn, then finished off the main character on the second attack. There was nothing I could do because the main character dying is an instant game over. I was never given a turn to heal up. I was never given a turn to take out the enemy. 100-0 before I could do anything. Against a boss where I’m prepared, this would just suck. Against a trash mob where I’ve been walking for along time and lose a ton of progress because of the main character death rule it’s infuriating. The main character death rule is one of those things that just has to go.

The second strike was around a couple of side quests. Some of them end with you going back to the quest giver and getting into fights. These generally involve a bunch of wandering around to some random quest giver away from any save point and doing chores, so when you get to one that involves a sudden unplanned boss fight and you haven’t been conserving resources, it’s not exactly a fun time. A couple of these I got through fine, a couple of these I was clearly underleveled or needed a different party for. Losing progress to a side quest is not great.

The final strike was just hitting another boss where I was going to have to redo my entire party to act as a hard counter, and I don’t really need to cover it more than that. I had gone through four rounds and only chipped the boss down by about 25% of its health. It then got to the point where it gained its turn with guaranteed crits, did an AoE, and 100-0’d half my party in one turn. It’s not great when you get to that point because it makes it clear that you need to both grind and rework the party to hard counter it. Guaranteed time waste.

I would almost sit here and wonder if JRPGs have left me behind. At this point I lack both the time and patience to really sit around playing grindy games that force me to increase numbers instead of giving me skill-based ways out of problems. Looking at some of my recent shelved games that certainly would seem to be the case – Scarlet Nexus and Bravely Default 2 particularly come to mind. On the other hand, I’m still finishing more JRPGs than not.

FF7R, NEO: The World Ends With You, Xenoblade Chronicles and Tales of Arise are more action focused, which gives players ways to simply skill through battle. However, they are distinctly JRPGs in their meta games. On the more traditional front Yakuza 7 was incredibly grindy but had a lot of fun stuff to do around it that kept me playing for the hell of the character interactions. Fantasian and Atelier Ryza both had pretty traditional JRPG meta games, but had much better overall flow and a far more compact leveling experience so you weren’t just fighting for the sake of padding out the game’s length. In all of those cases they didn’t waste the player’s time through old mechanics. They let individual fights speak for themselves, and if you died so be it, you didn’t lose progress and you picked up having learned some things to apply to it the second time. Given those, I don’t think SMT5 is that far away from actually being actually really fucking good.

For one thing, just fucking add checkpoints and auto saves before fights. Having to manually save at places far apart from each other is a bad mechanic. Losing a ton of progress because you died to some rando is a bad mechanic. It was bad in the 80s and it’s bad today. If a player dies, return them immediately to just before the fight. Secondly, get rid of the fucking grind. Is there any point to me having to do 25-30 fights to level up? Is it accomplishing anything? Is it proving anything about me as a player? If the grind is reduced, then making parties that are specific hard counters to bosses is less of a chore and actually becomes a fun part of the meta game. If you wanna be really frisky, use the mechanic that FF13/13-2 do and just heal the player between fights. Then your fights could all be hard and you could eliminate a ton of grind. Also, get rid of the MC death = game over. I don’t care if you have to story up some bullshit, but if I have a party of four things and one of them is an instant death, that feels dumb. Let the rest of my party finish the fight. Again, don’t waste my time.

So I guess at this point I’m left here not so much wondering if JRPGs have left me behind, but if the older studios are sticking too much to tradition. A lot of what I find boring about this game is just mechanics that have aged poorly that they’re sticking to for tradition. Studios that have broke away from tradition have been the ones that have done far better. FF7R completely turned that game on its head to great effect. Tales of Arise added a much more dodge/parry focused combat, reinvigorating what had largely become an attack spam battle system. Fantasian took a turn-based system to mobile and made positioning fun while reducing grind to make a compact experience. There’s a path here for traditional games like SMT5, but they need to look at what is causing their games to be 40+ hour slogs, because there isn’t 40 hours of content here. Cleaning those things up gives them a path to be more streamlined, more fun, and importantly actually more difficult, rather than just sticking to being a grind.

Game Ramblings #151 – Forza Horizon 5

More Info from Microsoft

  • Genre: Open World Racing
  • Platform: PC / Xbox Series X
  • Also Available On: Xbox One

Look, this is Forza Horizon. From a meta game perspective, there’s nothing new. You drive around in an open world, find races, find over the top stupid events, crush signs, get a ton of cars. That hasn’t changed. The location has changed. The specifics of the story have changed. None of that is really important though. If you’ve played these games, you know if you like this series by now. If you don’t know if you like it, give it a try. That stuff’s not really what I care to talk about.

What’s nice about 5 is that it’s a lot of the things that they felt like they learned from 4, but amped up and there from the start. Seasons and seasonal play lists are no longer the big new feature, but just part of the game. As a result they feel oddly more integrated to me. There’s more variety in the seasonal play lists. There’s a better push to get you to jump into multiplayer games just to try them out, without the stress of needing to win. There’s just more of a reason to do these things for the hell of it. Being rewarded with cool new cars is just a part of the fun.

The other big thing just there is the Eliminator. For 4, this was the battle royale that was added as a random patch a year after the game’s release. What nobody expected is that it was going to be a hell of a lot of fun. For 5, it’s there from the start and continues to be chaotic. Now that it’s just a part of the game, I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of dumb shouldn’t work but ends up being hilariously find ideas they come up with.

However, the big thing for me is related to screenshots in this one being in different aspect ratios. I was actually able to take advantage of cross platform play this time around, and boy does it work well. For FH3 and 4, my choices were PC or a base Xbox One, and let’s be realistic – that isn’t a choice. I was PC all the way. However, now I have my development PC or a Series X. They’re comparable hardware for me with comparable experiences – I can do 60 FPS in 21:9 1440p or I can do 60fps in performance mode dynamic res 4k. They’re both great experiences and I used them both.

The big thing for me is that the cross platform play just works. A lot of cloud save stuff in the game industry has tended to be sporadic. Nintendo’s cloud saves work well, but require a lot of manual handling that can be kind of a pain in the ass. Sony’s storage needs are so slim relative to the size of modern save files that I stopped taking advantage of it when I left the PS3 generation. On mobile, both Android and iOS have made me want to stab myself in the face when developing on those platform. Steam’s cloud saves work well though because they check when you launch a game for any newer data in the cloud. Microsoft takes this approach, and it works flawlessly. If I was already at my PC, I’d just play there. If I wanted to lay in my beanbag or didn’t want to turn my PC on, I just turned on the Xbox. In both cases I didn’t think about save data or whether I needed to sync things. I just went, it just worked, I just raced.

It should also be noted just how well it runs on any hardware you throw at it, but frankly Digital Foundry covered it better than I will ever be able to.

That was really the important thing for about playing through 5. I already knew I was going to come in and enjoy the game because I’ve literally been doing that now for this subseries for the past decade. What I didn’t expect was how easy it would be to just play where I wanted to play. This series has always been spectacularly fun, and it continues to be so. Now I just know that I can do so where I want, when I want, and I don’t have to worry about the platforms getting in my way.

Game Ramblings #150 – Monster Hunter Rise

More Info from Capcom

  • Genre: Action RPG
  • Platform: Switch
  • Also Available On: Windows in 2022

This is the one that finally cracked the code for me in this series. It’s not that I haven’t tried the Monster Hunter games in the past, but they never really clicked for me. This one did. In past games I could never really grok the combat in a way in which I could remain effective. Ranged never felt that good to me in those past games and melee had a pace that I just didn’t enjoy, so I would play them for a few hours and put them down once the challenge ramped up. As a point of reference, I largely only played this series previously on the PSP and poked a bit at 4, but didn’t get far enough to really get anything useful out of it. Rise instead felt like a total package made for me.

The core loop of the Monster Hunter series was always what drew me to it, even with my reservations about the combat. I loved the loop of going out, getting some materials, then seeing what you could make out of them. That pull is still there. I was making armor simply because I could. I was trying to get complete collections simply because I could. I was rekilling past hunts simply because I wanted more. That pull is something that is very rare in games. Combined with a 15-20 minute loop, it’s also easy to fit in a hunt in small chunks of time, rather than having to devote large blocks to make notable progress.

Going out for a hunt never feels like a waste, because it’s either something new that you’ve never fought before or it’s something old that you’re fighting for a specific material purpose. In my last post about Bravely Default 2, I talked about the game not respecting the player’s time. Monster Hunter Rise feels like the opposite. They respect the player’s time greatly. Sure things are challenging, but they never make you do things simply for the sake of doing things and they never throw things at you that aren’t very clear. You’re doing x hunt for y reward. You make x weapon with y materials. You spend x money to upgrade y armor. You know what your goal is and you can go out and handle it, and you’ll always be rewarded for doing so.

Combat though was always where I fell off of past entries. I’ll be the first to admit that I tend to gravitate towards ranged classes in games when I can. I play hunter in WoW. I beat recent Tomb Raider games almost entirely with the bow and arrow. One of my big blocks in past Monster Hunter titles was that ranged was there, but never felt effective to me. The shooting mechanics weren’t great. Damage avoidance wasn’t that effective. Playing solo basically meant that you’d be spending most of your time trying to get at range to even fire, instead of being on offense. This one in particular does a few things that really build out the gameplay systems to allow those things to just work better.

The first big feature is the Wirebug. This is ostensibly a traversal feature in that it’s used to zip around the world quickly, as well as get up cliffs quickly. However, its best use is as an oh shit button. If you do end up getting knocked back by attacks, you can use this to quickly dodge at a long distance from the enemy. In past games, getting hit as a ranged character was typically a huge problem. You’d end up spending a bunch of time then trying to get away to a distance at which you could effectively fire while also having to deal with the fact that you had a pissed off monster on your heels. By being able to just one-button get out of the way you end up gaining a lot of time to simply shoot at things.

The second real big thing is simply that you have help. You get both a cat and dog helper with their own gearing and own capabilities. This alone changed everything for me in solo play. To some extent these work great just as aggro sponges. They won’t necessarily always be pulling the monsters, but they pull them enough to give you time to move and re-assess the situation. They also have their own skills that end up being useful in general. I had my dog geared more towards damage with a focus on being able to break the monster’s core areas. Breaking serves a dual purpose of generally slowing or stunning the enemy for a bit, as well as generally removing some attack capabilities. I had my cat instead geared towards defensive purposes. It had a skill to lay a pot that healed status effects (poisons, slows, etc) and a second skill to lay down an AOE health heal. By going that route, I could often focus directly on attacking rather than running through the complicated UI to find my specific healing items.

Those things all just made soloing easier. It’s not that the pals necessarily replaced humans, but it allowed me to play ranged much more effectively. I spent less time running or healing and more time attacking. I had more time to line up shots to critical areas. I had more time to lay down traps or explosives in spots that I wanted to pull the enemy into. It just made the entire experience more fun without necessarily making the game more complex.

This moved the series in an interesting direction. I guess ultimately it’s a little more friendly to casual players, but it doesn’t feel like it moved the needle enough to make it lose the existing fan base. It does just enough to allow me to play the game in a way that I’ve always wanted to without it feeling like it lost the core resource acquisition loop that I always wanted to love. Now that I’ve gotten through this one, I’m thinking it may be time to go back a couple years and check out Iceborne to see if that one can keep my attention as well as Rise did.