Game Ramblings #156 – Pokemon Legends: Arceus

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: Adventure / JRPG
  • Platform: Switch

Look, this is a rough game. It’s hideously ugly. It still for some reason has Pokemon boxes without auto sorting. Balance is often entirely vague even with Pokemon 10+ levels apart. However, I can’t stop playing it. The core gameplay loop is so fundamentally changed but it works far better than I expected it to and in doing so represents a path forward for the series that I couldn’t have expected when Diamond/Pearl came out 3 months ago.

This game got ruthlessly shit on from the trailers, and frankly it isn’t entirely undeserved. This game is ugly more often than not. The Pokemon models are fine, and at least generally consistent. However, their art style doesn’t really match the world’s art style, and the world is atrocious. However, it doesn’t feel like laziness to me – it feels like a failing of technology. This is pretty clearly using some variant of the Sword/Shield engine stretched beyond its limits. The unfortunate thing as a developer, especially on an experimental title like this, is sometimes you just shoot yourself in the ass and this is one of those times. You get to a point where you can either delay a game by years and restart the core tech or just ship it with what you’ve got and move onto the next thing instead of cancelling a title. It’s time for this series to either move onto Nintendo’s own in-house engines or move to something stock, because it’s clear that Game Freak would be better served focusing on the games, rather than the engine.

However, once you get past that the game is a lot of fun, and it comes down to the core loop just really working. Rather than being gym-focused, the entire focus of the core game loop is research. You’re basically going out into the field, catching as much stuff as you can, and returning. That is the core of building the Pokedex here. The relatively non-linear nature of it means you can kind of wander off wherever you want, whether to focus on new areas or completing the entry of a specific Pokemon. The ability to fast travel back and forth to town means your play sessions are basically as long as you want them to be. The ability to craft (!!!!!!) Pokeballs, potions, etc means that as long as you’re collecting resources, you aren’t having to go shopping. If you run out, you just bring up the crafting menu and seamlessly keep your stock together.

It’s the type of loop that just works on the Switch in the same way that Breath of the Wild did. Your play sessions are as long as you want them to be and it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing a 30 minute or 3 hour block. In both cases you’re making appreciable progress that you can drop back into at any time. It’s a loop that just keeps you engaged and playing in an unexpected way.

Even within that loop, the changes work well though. The simple act of being able to catch a Pokemon without starting a battle while still earning XP for it is tremendous. It so completely speeds up the act of traversal that it allows the new gameplay push to just catch EVERYTHING to work. In the old style, the game would otherwise be a slog.

Even if it’s ugly, the environment being so open is also a huge change. Its openness isn’t quite BotW, but it’s also more than Sw/Sh wild areas were. From a gameplay perspective it’s a huge success. Different areas are visually distinct in a way that’s interesting on its own, but also allows for obvious placement of different types of Pokemon in a natural way. Bugs like Combee or Weedle live in the forest, which makes sense. Things like Spheal or Octillery can be found hanging out on the beach. Your Abomasnows are up in the mountain tops and your Magmars are by the volcano. It’s both obvious AND enjoyable. It’s not that they didn’t try to do this before, but it feels even further down the line of making the Pokemon world more natural than it even previously has been.

It’s also a nice change that the player is FINALLY ACTUALLY IN DANGER. You get attacked by Pokemon in the wild. You have boss fights where you as the player are physically attacking Pokemon and they’re spectacularly fun. It’s one of those things that for the past 25 years everyone has been going “well, why is the player immune?” and it finally happened.

That said, despite the big change to the core gameplay there’s a lot of rough edges here. I complained about it during Sword/Shield but the existence of boxes, let alone no way to auto sort them is still baffling. Even more so when your Pokemon are literally being sent back to an open pasture to live their best lives. A lot of the side content is fine in its existence and kind of attempts to drive completion of the Pokedex, but there’s very little variety or necessity to it. The combat that is there is fine, but I’d like to see the new core loop adapted to a game with a more traditional level of trainer battles.

Frankly, balance is also incredibly vague. One of the core changes is that all battles are now speed-based. Speed can mean that Pokemon go first, but also that they can go multiple times in a row. That alone can easily result in your Pokemon often getting one-shot before taking a turn, even when they aren’t at a type disadvantage. Pokemon 15+ levels below your active one can still do significant damage as well, so I spent a lot of time outside of battle healing or going back to camp to rest against things that really shouldn’t have been a danger. It feels like it was tuned to be difficult, but it instead comes across as odd, because type advantage is still the king and the changes made just make the exploration slower, rather than making the individual trainer battles more difficult.

If this represents a new path forward for the series then all the rough edges don’t really matter. It has its problems, but this pushes a new gameplay archetype for the series that just works. It’s familiar enough, but far more active and far more fun than the JRPG slog that the series has really become known for. If it’s instead just a sidetrack between entries, then hopefully it’s at least a lesson to them that it’s time to take a serious look at their tech stack moving forward. However, after how much I’ve been enjoying this one, I think it’d be a huge loss if this doesn’t represent the direction the series will be sticking to going forward.

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.

Shelved It #12 – Bravely Default II

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: Switch
  • Also Available On: Windows

I hate when games waste the player’s time. JRPGs are notorious for it, but there’s ways to make the grind typical of the genre rewarding – either through good side content or fun combat. Bravely Default 2 never got to that point and was so actively trying to make the game not fun that I gave up at about the 8 hour mark. Even for a series known for grinding, this one was pretty egregious.

The core of BD2‘s combat is around saving and using turns in the future to defend through incoming damage then pop a bunch of attacks or heals at one time when things open up for you. In general, this works pretty great. During general trash fights, you find the weaknesses for the various enemies then do what you can to try and hammer through it in one turn. It’s a fun way to give some strategy to trash fights beyond just running in and hammering attack to win. Where this falls apart is in the way they structured boss fights.

One of the core defensive measures that the AI have is counters. For example, they may counter physical attacks giving them a chance to counterattack if you hit them with a weapon. The boss fights take this to a level that felt actively punishing. For example, the boss that had me shelving this game did the following:

  • Weakness to ground-based attacks, which are physical on the Vanguard class, but with a counter on physical attacks that deals AOE damage
  • Single-target physical counter on singing abilities, despite the fact that I had literally just earned the Bard class so from a natural player standpoint would therefore be exploring its use in my party
  • Counter on healing, despite the fact that the previous two counters basically required me to be doing AOE healing
  • AOE silence, which becomes super obnoxious when the counters have you tending towards just using magic

The strategy that ended up being the most practical was to just use stacked poison magic and get the boss to die to DOT damage. It’s slow and boring and your party is for the most part idle and tossing items, but you aren’t taking a ton of unnecessary damage.

It’s this kind of setup that just feels unnecessarily punishing to the player. The game spends the entire time encouraging exploration and use of weaknesses to kill enemies quick and effectively, then spends its time on bosses countering the weaknesses so you have to find some random bullshit mechanic to actually take out the boss. Your other choice when you hit these bosses if you simply have the wrong party setup is to instead backup and grind new classes to find the right combination. It’s a bit of a typical problem of wide-ranging class-focused JRPGs, but the design choices of BD2 exacerbate this. It’s especially negative when they are directly countering the things you just earned so you’re forever discouraged from really trying new toys. The entire process feels like it’s wasting your time leading up to these fights, because you could very well have just been focusing on the wrong thing without knowing that you’re screwing yourself over.

It feels like it should be a small thing to just get through the boss fights and move on, but it’s one of those things that will endlessly frustrate me in games like this. I want my JRPG boss fights to be challenging me to the limit of my abilities, but I want that to be because the fight is legitimately hard with however I choose to play. I don’t want to play guess the mechanic and then have to grind to come around to the fight. Once I hit that point where I’m annoyed by the big moments, I’m out. There’s plenty of other games for me to play that will respect the time I put in to them in a better fashion.

The original Bravely games had similarly punishing grind issues, so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. Those had both a ton of grinding, as well as unnecessarily long plots where they liked to tell you to redo the entire game half way through. What they generally didn’t have were such punishing mechanics attached to the core boss fights. Sure their bosses were hard, but stragies around exploiting the fight’s weakness mechanics weren’t generally just hard countered, and hard countered for multiple things. Bravely Default II just goes so overboard with the counters that the bosses stopped being fun, and extremely quickly. It left my in a place where I just didn’t want to continue playing the game. It’s one thing in a JRPG if the trash is on the boring side, but once the centerpiece fights become something that I don’t want to do, it’s time to shelve a game – even moreso when I’m only 8 hours in.