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the formula of the overall metagame felt dated. 8 years later, SMT5 brings the same fantastic combat with the same outdated metagame, and it feels even worse to me now.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

Game Ramblings #147 – Tales of Arise

More Info from Bandai Namco

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: PS5
  • Also Available On: PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series, Windows

The Tales of series has always been one where the combat has always trumped any other problem I’ve had with the individual titles, and this one really isn’t that different. The stories of the various titles have always been fine to good but generally fall into pretty typical anime cliches, and this one isn’t really different. The presentation aspects have always been a bit behind the AAA curve and as much as this one is a huge step forward for the series, it’s still distinctly AA. Where this one again greatly succeeds is that combat is a lot of fun – and for probably the first time in the series for me, I’ve found a defensive style to actually be extremely fun while still being practical to play.

Games like Berseria started really pushing the game away from the mana-heavy skill usage of prior Tales games, and this one definitely kept that going. Where it kind of differentiates from that title is that basic attacks are split into their own chain separate from Artes. Functionally though, it’s very similar to Berseria. You attack, you try to break the enemy’s defense, and if you can break them you get a big attack and go AOE ham on the field. From an attack perspective, it still has a great flow in terms of chaining attacks with your team to keep the enemy in a hit chain and increase the chance of stunning them. In general I was able to quickly fall into a nice rhythm to where I could get in my attacks while keeping an eye out for the enemy’s incoming volley, then get out of the way as it came through.

Where this game really separates itself from the past is that it finally feels like 3D navigation is here to stay. General in-combat movement is more typical of recent action RPGs, with left stick being independent movement and right stick being the camera. It’s a small change, but it makes the game flow less like the generally fixed in/out movement of even 3D Tales games. This one also felt like it really had the biggest mindset towards defensive maneuverability in the series to me. Past titles had side stepping and that sort of thing, but the feel of it is much more natural to me. A heavy focus on dodging became part of my default toolset, rather than being an oh shit button that I used on big fights. Avoiding incoming damage and not relying on healing was a big difference for me, and it really encouraged active participation in the fights, rather than simply being a button spam with little damage mitigation.

Healing in general also went through some big changes here. Where Berseria encouraged character swapping to let characters heal out-of-combat, this one is kind of a more typical experience. You’ve got characters that are fairly traditional healer mage types. However, healing is tied to a single resource pool for the entire party. Having two healers has choice benefits, but it doesn’t have resource benefits. What it ended up doing was allowing me to bring in a dual-healer approach on bosses while using a more damage-focused party for regular combat, without really being able to cheese the game with a double mana pool for healing.

It’s an interesting change that had some ramifications on overall item and resource balance. Your typical orange+ potions that refilled MP in past games are now tied to that new resource, and given the stack limits (still 15 like past Tales titles…), double healers can burn through the resources incredibly fast. This ties all back into the damage mitigation, where reducing the need for your healers to actually use the resource becomes incredibly important.

Unfortunately, some of the negative parts of combat have been carried over as well. Put simply, the AI are incredibly stupid. They will not reliably dodge incoming attacks, even if there’s a giant obvious laser line tell going right at them. The healers will not first get away from the enemies to start the healing, even if it’s clear that they are in danger range. They do not have good target prioritization, and the tools to manage AI decision making don’t really do a good job of exposing this functionality to the player. It ends up in a situation where combat works great against single targets, then falls into chaos as more targets enter the fray. Luckily, bosses are largely party vs 1 affairs, so it’s generally not a big issue.

Some of the power curve decisions are also interesting, but I’m not sure I particularly liked them. There’s typical weapon/armor/accessory slotting, but there’s also now skill points tied into title trees. As you earn titles for doing things (ex: finishing specific character-focused side quests, doing specific activities, etc) you’ll earn the series typical titles. However, they’re now tied to four additional skills that can be purchased with SP. Earning all skills for a title will then unlock a larger passive stat boost that sums to the character.

Compared to the mastery stats on gear that Berseria used, this felt oddly boring to me. It’s an effective system, but it didn’t really encourage me to do anything. I kind of found the most useful next stat, then bought the skills for it as I could. The titles are kind of naturally gained by just playing the game normally, and you really don’t have to go that out of the way to get them all. The mastery stats in Berseria, despite being similar in practice, felt a lot more influenced by player completion than this. In that system I was still effectively building SP to get a skill but I was only getting one per piece of gear, so I was spending more time focused on making sure that I had backup gear ready when I left towns, and spent more time trying to make sure I wasn’t missing any chests that might have more gear. It’s a subtle change, but the title skills just got rid of a small stress factor that I feel really let the system down in Arise.

Overall though, this was a fantastically fun game to play. I could sit here and nitpick the story and make notes about how it was pretty cliche, but frankly I don’t play these games expecting a great story. I jump into them because I want JRPG math combined with an action-focused combat system and I got a heavy dose of that. 50 hours later, I was still enjoying jumping into battles, and if that’s the only thing I have to say coming out of a game, that’s a pretty good indication that they did it right.