By BigBob 1 Comments
I haven't played many JRPGs as of late, mainly because most of the genre is derivative and unimaginative at this point. It seems like every time a new JRPG comes out, I'm interested in it for a bit, before a huge deal breaker shows up and I'm no longer interested (This description brought to you by Arc Rise Fantasia, a game that looked awesome until everyone started talking). Square-Enix in particular has been very hit-or-miss for me. The World Ends With You was a fun little game but still too annoying to be recommendable, Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days was fine, aside from the fact that you could just play Kingdom Hearts 2 again and be better off, and Final Fantasy XIII, which started being fun once I turned the game off and started playing 3D Dot Game Heroes instead.
However, it was this summer's release of Dragon Quest IX that set off my cynicism for the company. Dragon Quest is an insanely popular series in Japan, so you would figure the game must have some merits. To add to that, I played Dragon Quest VIII several years ago and thought it was pretty damn fun, if a bit slow. So, I popped DQIX in my DS and was ready to head off on my epic adventure.
Apparently before you can pick up a sword and start saving people, the game designers decided you have to shovel horse crap first. The first hour is a huge slog through tedious dialogue, monotonous fetch-quests, and a lack of direction to let you go to the parts of the game that are actually fun. And even once you have a sword and can start killing slimes, you're on your own for a while and have to get to the second town (with a boss fight in the way) before you can actually build a party. Oh, but you only have the starting classes to choose from. You're gonna have to play even longer before you unlock any of the fun classes! Oh, and when you change classes you start all the way back up to level 1 and have to grind your way back to a respectable level before you can continue. Add in a battle system that takes forever just for a character to walk up and hit something, and dialogue so childishly written that I'm embarassed to even play it, and it wasn't long before I decided this game was a waste of my 35 dollars.
However, now Atlus has released their own turn-based, class-based, dungeon crawler of a grindfest with no story, Etrian Odyssey III. The two games aren't copies of each other, but they share a lot in common, and differ in a few key areas. For instance, Atlus actually knows what players want, and don't waste our time with pointless dialogue and walking from Point A to B to advance the plot. You turn the game on, hit New Game, and you're right at the character creation screen. There's a ton of classes to pick from, but I found that a healthy setup of Tank/Mage/Healer/Warrior/Utility works quite well. Until I discovered that the Farmer is useless in battle, but it only took me a level to figure that out and swap him for a Ninja instead. (why did I pick Farmer over Ninja in the first place? Oh well, who cares) Once your team is set up, you're given your first mission: go in the dungeon and scout the place out. Once you've mapped out the first floor (which is much pickier than I would like), the game pretty much says "Alright, go do whatever now!" While there really isn't that much to do, you're allowed to venture deeper in the dungeon, pursue some sidequests, go sailing in your ship so you can explore faraway lands, and frankly just goof off.
The much quicker pace at which things get going isn't the only advantage EOIII has over DQIX. You level up at the same rate in both games (slowly), and both games give you skill points to allow you to customize your character classes. Problem is, Dragon Quest makes you level up 3 or 4 times in order to gain a new skill or ability, and you really only have the option between upgrading your current weapon choice or a linear class progression. It feels like classes are only capable of one thing and don't feel very versatile, so you wind up just dumping all your points in the same stat just to get the next skill, which won't matter considering you just mash Attack over and over again. It's true that EOIII also loves making you mash the attack button, but the random encounters are difficult enough to necessitate the use of your secondary skills. This is where the game truly shines, because at each level you can make a significant choice that affects your characters. Should I build my Prince to passively heal my party, or work on his buffing skills? Should my ninja incapacitate the enemy, or draw attention away from the party? The possibilities are extremely open-ended, and I haven't even reached the part of the game that assigns a sub-class to your party members, expanding the game even further. Most classes are unlocked at the start, so I can play around in the early game to figure out what I really want my team to be, unlike Dragon Quest which even encourages change your characters' classes and grinding their skills up from Level 1. "Grinding so you'll be able to grind" doesn't sound like good game design to me.
I'm rapidly losing interest in Square-Enix as a developer, but Atlus just seems to produce quality game after quality game. Dragon Quest's design seems so stuck in the SNES days when progression was slow and translations were boring, but it hasn't realized that gaming has changed in the last couple of decades. Atlus changes up each game with every new installment, and knows exactly what its players expect: to have fun.