I’ve been playing a lot of RPGs lately without me noticing, namely Mass Effect, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Lost Odyssey, and Borderlands. I know Borderlands is more of a shooter but there are more than enough RPG elements in that game to categorize it as an RPG, if only partly. I’ve noticed something about each of these games.
First off, two of them lack the push of a compelling story to drive the gameplay, something RPGs are known for. Hence the title ‘Role Playing Game’. However, these two are still very much in the vein of RPGs, even more so by the way they have you level up each skill individually rather than have all of your skills gradually go up as you level your character as a whole. I’m talking about Borderlands and Oblivion. In Borderlands (spoilers but not really), you are to find a hidden treasure in this barren wasteland of an area but as soon as you step off the bus, you’re doing missions with little to do with that. In Oblivion (spoilers again but not really; the game’s four years old for Christ’s sake), after leaving the sewers in search of the dead emperor’s bastard son, you are free to do anything. I mean anything! Seriously, I’ve been playing the last two days and I haven’t even touched the main quest. I’ve been joining guilds, doing their assignments, looking for loot; hell, I traveled from one town to another on foot just so I can level up my Acrobatics by jumping the whole way, my Mysticism spells by casting the same spell on myself over and over, my Alchemy skills by picking up foliage and ingredients along the way in order to make potions, and my hand to hand combat skills by punching anything that was foolish enough to cross my path. Borderlands isn’t much different. Most of the jobs I pick up are about killing scags and collecting crap. The game’s gameplay elements are so rewarding and compulsively addicting. Oblivion and Borderlands work on the simple psychological idea of having you do something and something amazing happens on screen and often, you are rewarded for that.
Which brings me to my second point. Another game on this list rewards you but in a different way. It rewards you with its story, which is constantly giving you reasons to continue from an engaging stand point. Borderlands and Oblivion, while they do have stories, are not focus whatsoever on the story. Borderlands just tells you look for this while your killing stuff and collecting loot. Oblivion just uses story elements to immerse you into the world (the main story isn’t the illegitimate son or the gates of Oblivion, it’s the world of Cyrodiil itself). However, the opposite can be said of this game. While the game’s mechanics themselves aren’t as polish or immediate or, well, fun as the other two, the story is what keeps you coming for more. I mean, conversations are a mini game in themselves. Of course I’m talking about Mass Effect. The story is immediate. For example (spoilers, I’m getting tired of that), when they start talking about Spectres and how I might be the first human to receive that honor, I thought “Alright. That’s what I must be moving towards for the end of the game. Not so. I became a Spectre a couple of hours in the game. What was even better though is that there was now another task in front of me to accomplish. Mass Effect doesn’t dangle pretty, shiny unobtainable rewards for the course of the game. You are rewarded often and the game developers (BioWare) were smart enough to use their imaginations and think of something else to reward you with and then pace each achievement to be rewarded at proper times. The story is the main focus point with the combat just being great ideas wrapped together in a functional if not great package.
My final point concerns the last game on my list, which actually has two parts, Lost Odyssey. I don’t like this game. I know someone who does and a few who would. The game is rather standard fare for RPGs. However, during this day and age, the norm doesn’t satisfy anymore. Lost Odyssey in a lot of ways is an amalgamation of the best that RPG classics have to offer. A powerful lead character, interesting partners, a dramatic story line, elements that develop emotional attachments to the characters and the world the story portrays, turn based combat with a slight twist, and a skill / alchemy type system to add strategic and resource value to the game (the synapse component). However, I found the game boring as fuck. I fell asleep playing the game. What woke me up was when I found myself wondering what was it about this game that was so wrong. The first part of my final point is if it’s possible that I’ve been spoiled by recent RPGs, that have pushed what an RPG could be and have innovated the genre in it’s entirety. Is there no longer room for classic RPG formulas. Read: Suikoden, Star Ocean, Dragon Quest, Phantasy Star (not the online series), Kingdom Hearts, nay, even Final Fantasy (gasp!).
While the fan boys cry in their pillows and type nasty comments about homosexuals about that last statement, let me address my second part of this point. Is there a connection in the fact that Borderlands, Mass Effect, and Oblivion are all made by American game companies and Lost Odyssey was made by a Japanese game company? Yeah, BioWare is a Canadian game developer; still North America, still a western developer. American developers seem to be broadening the RPG landscape while Japanese developers stick to tradition with their JRPGs as their called. JRPGs were the norm for so long that is it possible that now that we have something new and refreshing, I no longer what to make any room whatsoever for JRPGs, regardless of how great they may be despite their familiarity? The one exception I can think of from recent RPGs is Eternal Sonata. However, that was made by a French developer despite its JRPG style, and I never beat it because I got stuck on a optional dungeon right before the end of the game that I’m adamant on completing.
In conclusion, I will say that some of these newer RPGs can be intimidating and overwhelming. Bethesda seems to be good at this. I haven’t picked up Fallout 3 yet because I don’t want to devote so much time to understand this new world with new rules, new game mechanics and new stories to tell. To diversify and clarify, I’m not counting the days ’till Final Fantasy XIII comes out but I want to play Mass Effect 2 once I get and finish the first one. I will finish Eternal Sonata one day and I look forward to renting Infinite Undiscovery and The Last Remnant soon. Hopefully, I’ll start seriously playing Fable II and I’ll see what the big deal is about Dragon Age: Origins. Also, I can always get my old school fix with my 360 Genesis compilation, which has all four original Phantasy Stars.