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then the formula of the overall metagame felt dated. 8 years later, SMT5 brings the same fantastic combat with the same outdated metagame, and it feels even worse to me now.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 #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.

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
  • 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.