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Party System

Written By mista sense on Thursday, October 28, 2010 | 8:37 AM

It's that "too many games to play" time of year. I don't deal with it well. I'm pretty poor at multitasking, in fact -- I like to concentrate on one game at a time, and if it grabs me such that I feel like finishing it, I'm compelled to do so before I start anything else. Of course, I can take diversions into downloadable action games, or take one disc out of the Xbox 360 so that my friends can do that multiplayer deathmatch whatever thing they love to do in Reach, but mostly I'm a one-thing-at-a-time kind of gamer.

Actually, sometimes I get so overwhelmed I don't really play anything at all. I celebrated my birthday by partying a lot and going to a lot of music festival bands (fortunately, my result was a lot better than this), and in terms of gaming all I really did was beat Persona 3 Portable. You know, basically the game I already beat a while back when it was out on PlayStation 2.

Actually, it felt quite a lot different this time. Although it changed really nothing about the gameplay (although making those P4-style tweaks to the battle system was much, much needed), the gender swap changed lots about the narrative for me and the way I related to the characters. Remember that Kotaku article I wrote about that?

RPGs are kind of tough that way. On one hand, it's a "role-playing game"; it's meant to be the story of a character's journey, and any good story allows different people to get different things out of it. On the other hand, the gameplay is most central, and in most cases there is an "optimal" way to do everything. Story-driven decisions can sometimes be directly at odds with the decisions you "should" be making to optimize your character's strength or progress.

For example, in the case of Persona 3, your character starts dating another character and you'd rather they spend every possible day together -- but because your "rank" with the game's characters affects your power to create the Personas you summon in battle, it makes more sense to distribute your time equally among other characters, even those you're disinterested in. In fact, it's essential.

The conflict between what you'd like to do to create your story and what's ideal for the gameplay is probably the primary problem with RPGs. That's why open-world RPGs like Fallout 3 are so good; their format makes great strides toward alleviating that friction. By the way, I'm almost relieved New Vegas is so buggy -- "oh, I'm waiting for a patch, that's not out yet, is it, I dunno, I haven't looked" takes some of the pressure off my queue of games to play by the end of the year.

The other main issue, particularly in the Japanese RPG format, is that you can make a million different character classes for the player to choose from, and each one still has an optimal set of equipment and attributes that renders all others useless. It's puzzled me since the '90s: You go to a new town and the shops offer a whole raft of equipment, but one is the best, period. Why not just buy that one? Oh, can't afford it? If not for "better stuff", then what are you grinding for, anyway? Go kill some whatevers until you get some more currency, solved problem.

It's made that whole customizing and outfitting process seem very pointless, some kind of tacked-on relic that's no longer relevant. I go through those motions and sigh, "oh, so this is one of the things they mean when they always say 'Japanese design doesn't know how to get up to date.'"

Not that I really believe that, of course. The Persona games could never have come out of the West, for example. And in fact, it's a completely traditionalist JRPG franchise that's taken the first approach to characterization and customizing that I really like, the first marriage of party system and leveling mechanics that I'm having a ton of fun with.

I dunno why I just assumed I wasn't going to like Dragon Quest IX. I haven't played a Dragon Quest game since I was a child, and that's because I just assumed I'd have to be killing a million slimes in an endless dungeon and being all super old-school and shit. But I decided to give it a try, mainly just to do due-diligence, and am finding DQIX completely enchanting. With the Final Fantasy series having lost its way so badly lately, DQIX demonstrates a real opportunity for the brand to become the quintessential must-have fantasy RPG.

You have a main character, a Chrono Trigger-style silent protagonist, and the central story arc blooms neatly into many smaller side-threads that feel organic -- something that I think Western RPGs lack, as you often find yourself feeling as if you're fulfilling tacked-on errands for a character you have no narrative reason to support or be interested in.

And you generate your party as your own custom characters that you can swap in and out at any time, with no limitations to how many you can create within a given class (they cap how many characters in total you can create, but it's a pretty generous number). You create their look and name them -- which basically means you're free to imagine whatever you want about who they are and why they're with you.

I used to be turned off by these kinds of systems; I'd rather have a party of story-based and well-realized characters working together, than view my heroes as interchangeable dummies, the sum of their abilities and nothing more. But the world is rich enough that you want to make little people you believe could exist there, and it solves the "only one optimal choice" problem in a neat way.

Say you decide to make a Priest for your party; you conceptualize a little bit what you want that character to look like. But outfit them in the items that provide the best bonuses to their strength and defense and suddenly my floppy-haired staff and robe character looks awkward in the same kind of armor that another character is wearing. They don't look like the character I've visualized; they don't look like they're going to be playing the role of healer in my party.

For the first time, I start choosing stuff that's less-than-optimal from a stats standpoint because it just looks cool on the character; it makes them look how I want them to look. I want my Mage in a dress and heels, dammit, and if it makes her weaker -- aren't the magic users supposed to be more sensitive to damage than the hero is, anyway? I can deal.

It breaks the boring "upgrade to new equipment, sell the old equipment, repeat" cycle in a way that enhances my concept of my characters at the same time. I find myself hanging on to all the cute little robes and hats and armor plates and outfits there are, because I might want to use them on a new character. Seeing what kinds of new characters I can make up and add to my hero's journey becomes a big part of the game's fun. They all look so cute!

Also cute: NEW KITTEN. I decided on naming her Yorda. Shh, we can make fun of me later.

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