Learning to enjoy RPGs again

A short attention-span isn't really conducive to enjoying a lot of Role-Playing Games, particularly when life gets in the way. But I've sort of found my way back into them.

by Robert May on Afternoon Robot

I feel like I never learnt how to concentrate in a game as a kid. My brother and I used to swap whenever we got frustrated, and so we cooperatively played our way through most single-player games. Ever since, I've played games from all genres, but I have very rarely gotten into RPGs; the possible exception being Pokémon games, but even those have failed to hold my attention since Silver. MMORPGs became my thing, alongside most other genres. I love playing games with other people, and tend to get bored by myself.

The biggest problem I face when playing a single-player RPG is: "why should I care?"

I don't care about side-quests or playing around in an open-world, as it turns out. And this has been pretty consistent for me across all game genres; I don't even enjoy leveling in most MMORPGs, because it's kinda boring wandering around by myself doing quests with dull stories for people I don't care about.

However, I finally found my way into enjoying single-player RPGs, and it probably didn't come from the game most people would expect. I bought two RPGs at the same time last year; Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Xenoblade Chronicles 2. I was bored of Zelda within 2 hours and swiftly gave it to a friend, and instead found my way into:

Xenoblade Chronicles 2

Or "That Slutty Sword Game" as it has become known

I'm not going to pretend that this is the greatest game ever made, or that it has the greatest story ever told, but it does have something. It has quite a lot of anime tropes, and your partner wears very tight hot-pants, and yet I found it captivating (not just because of the hot-pants). The world-building in it is magical, even if it's not that original, and the way the landscapes open up makes it feel very exciting as you explore the world.

JRPGs can be frustrating, with their dated combat mechanics or irritating enemies chasing you around the overworld. XC2 hits a sort of mid-point between say, the "Tales of" series and Zelda (which is far less frustrating); there are overworld enemies but you can avoid a large number of them. I'd say this is still one of the major pain points for me in RPGs, but XC2 managed to pull me past that by keeping the story tempo up enough that I could suffer through it.

And that's what it really excels at: pace. It pulls you into the story quickly and doesn't let up, and this is my great discovery as gifted to me by XC2; if a game pulls me along in a story, I will stick with it. Open-world games be damned, I want a fucking story, and I want it forced upon me. I'm sure you can faff about as much as you like in XC2, collecting catgirls and pretty men as you would Pokémon, but I blitzed through the game and ended up at the final boss about 20 levels too low because I was enjoying the story. Also that final boss is actually hard, which surprised me.

After I finished XC2 (my first complete single-player RPG in about 15 years), I've gone on to try a number of other games.

The Failures

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I'm not going to claim that BotW is a bad game, as that would be ridiculous. It's not my sort of game, however. I do like open-world games, such as Grand Theft Auto, but in the world of RPGs I usually don't find that they click. The worlds always feel a bit lifeless and empty to me, and I get a feeling of "why am I bothering".

Voice-acted cutscenes are a big boon to a game these days, and although there are some in BotW, they are spread quite thin; alongside the story. And honestly, I know how the story will end, because it's a Zelda game: Link wakes up -> does some stuff -> beats Ganon.

Final Fantasy XII

Got to a desert, got bored. Desert too long. Combat system was pretty interesting though.

Mass Effect: Andromeda

Got to the point where they mentioned pylons needing fixing on multiple planets, and decided I couldn't be fucked. At least the eyes weren't crazy like in ME1-3.

The "I've started them"s

Xenoblade Chronicles 2: The Golden Country

The large expansion and prequel story to XC2, which I've started and barely made progress in. Knowing what happens to the characters in it kinda prevents the story from hooking me in, but I would like to continue.

Final Fantasy XV

Kinda enjoying this but haven't made much progress in a while. Mechanics are quite fun and the setting is interesting.

Tales of Berseria

Picked this up after Tales of Vesperia. Love the story and the main character, but the game mechanics are frustrating; the combat makes little sense, the overworld is pretty aged in both graphics and gameplay-style, and it has a lot of backtracking.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions: #FE Encore

Bought this very recently and haven't given it enough time yet. Also by Atlus, makers of Persona 5, it has a number of similar mechanics but set in a J-Pop world. Has an extremely important menu option:

One of only two options when first starting the game. Super important

NieR: Automata

I really like how this game plays. I love the crazy gameplay changes and bonkers mash-ups of genres. I got distracted when I was originally playing it and need to get back to it.

One thing this games boasts, as do a few others like Fire Emblem, is having multiple stories/playthroughs. I will unfortunately never see any of them bar the first one, as I just don't see myself playing through a game multiple times. I often feel like it's a bit of a cop-out from the writers; pick a story and go all-in.

Astral Chain

From the same makers as NieR, but on the Switch. I found this oddly frustrating to start, having just come from NieR (the epitome of smooth combat), and the lower framerate of the Switch didn't necessarily help. However once you get to File 03 the combat starts to pick up speed and it feels more like how it should be played. I'll get back to it at some point.

The Hits

Tales of Vesperia

Very nearly finished this, need to get back to it. Enjoyable story with slightly aged mechanics. It being on the Switch definitely helps, and I'm not sure if I'd have stuck with it if it was on the PS4. I particularly liked the main character, who is not your standard goodie-two-shoes dweeb that you get in most games, and the rest of the characters are largely very interesting and more nuanced than I expected.

Persona 5

Phenomenal and massively time-consuming. Currently stuck on the last dungeon, very close to finishing it. Don't think I have the stamina to get through Persona 5: Royal though.

Dragon Quest XI

Once you get past the dated anime style, this is a rather charming game. I've finally taken some time to ease myself into it, and once the story picks up it gets going at a nice pace. I like how bright and lively the world feels, and it seems to hit a nice mix of retro-RPG mechanics and modern features.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses

I really loved Final Fantasy Tactics back in the day, and FE: Three Houses reminds me heavily of that, mixed with Harry Potter. Unfortunately I spoilt the story for myself when looking for optimum classes for specific characters, sigh.

The Conclusion

What I've realised about myself over the past year is that there are two main considerations for me with a single-player game now:

  1. It must have a gripping story, with interesting characters
  2. The gameplay must not be so annoying that it ruins #1

I can deal with a moderate amount of crummy mechanics if the story is worth it, but woe betide any game that makes me backtrack through a sodding desert again. Oddly, visual novels don't really do it for me, and I find them slow and boring.

I'm hopeful for Ni No Kuni 1&2, which are next on my to-start list. I briefly tried NNK2 and found the combat very pleasant, so tying that with an interesting story and a beautiful setting should be enough for me.

I'd like to see more western RPGs that take the characterisation and stories of JRPGs and introduce better game mechanics. I started Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order recently and that seemed to be on the right path. Too often games from the west fail to make me care about any characters, and too often games from Japan make me want to smack the game designer upside the head.