By MajorMitch 4 Comments
For the second month in a row it’s been almost all RPGs all the time. I’ve spent the better part of the first two months of 2014 playing a lot of RPGs, and looking forward suggests the trend isn’t going to change soon. Fortunately I’ve been enjoying them, and thus far they’ve also been distinct enough from each other to not wear me down. February’s primary culprits have been a pair of Nintendo 3DS JRPGs: Pokemon X/Y and Bravely Default. Those are the games I spent the bulk of my time on this month, so that’s what I’ll talk about below. I also played a pair of DLCs this month, one RPG and one not. The first was The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’s Dawnguard, and the second was The Last of Us’ Left Behind. Both are solid pieces of content in much the same ways their respective main games are, and I think both are worth playing if you want more of those games. Neither requires further explanation, however; plenty has been said about both of those great games already, and their DLCs are more of them. So with that in mind, let’s dive right into JRPG mania.
Man, Pokemon got its hooks into me what good this month. I played through Pokemon X/Y’s campaign when it came out last October, and thought it was another good if unspectacular Pokemon campaign. But I also knew that wasn’t the reason I had picked the game up; that reason was purely to dive headfirst into more competitive training and battling. The catch was that I needed the Pokemon Bank to make that happen, which didn’t successfully launch in North America until early February. Once out, the Bank allowed me to migrate all my previously trained Pokemon -- and more importantly all those critical Ditto -- from Pokemon Diamond/Pearl all the way up to X/Y. Then I strapped on my training boots and got to work!
Training a competitive Pokemon is a surprisingly convoluted and time-consuming endeavor. For all the good things Pokemon does, and for how great of an idea it is, the series’ biggest bugbear in my mind has always been how needlessly tedious the training process is. That feeling hasn’t changed much with Pokemon X/Y; training is still obtuse, and still takes forever. You still can’t see explicitly what EVs your Pokemon have, and IVs still remain completely hidden, though you can go through a lot of hassle to figure them out if you really want. Those hidden numbers remain the most ridiculous and frustrating aspect about the entire series to me. Hidden abilities are also still a nightmare to obtain, and riding your bike back and forth to hatch eggs is still the most boring thing in the world. That said, training is not quite as bad as it used to be, thanks to a few subtle, but noteworthy tweaks. For starters, the addition of Super Training is a welcome one. Not only is it a slightly quicker way to EV train, but it also allows you to see a rough sketch of a Pokemon’s EVs (maybe someday they’ll reveal actual numbers). Other minor improvements run the gamut: holding an Everstone guarantees a Pokemon passes down its nature, female Pokemon can pass down egg moves, its seems more likely to pass down abilities, and the new EXP Share makes leveling multiple Pokemon at a time much faster. It still takes a while overall, but a not insubstantial amount of mess around the edges has been cleaned up to speed things up ever so slightly. Pokemon is slowly but surely becoming a better game.
In some ways, it’s easy to wonder what’s the point of all this in the first place. That’s a valid question, and one you can’t really fathom an answer to until you experience competitive Pokemon battling for yourself. There’s a certain edge to battling with fully trained Pokemon that never manifests against the AI, much less in the campaign. Properly trained Pokemon are so finely tuned, so carefully optimized to perform very specific tasks extremely well that they’re incredibly deadly in the right situations. This leads to a lot of prediction and mind games, as one wrong move could lead to one of your key Pokemon being crippled in one fell swoop. It’s all incredibly thrilling, and given how many creatures and moves there are now, there’s a ton of variables to consider, and a ton of creative ways to put a team together. This combination of creative construction and high stakes battles is something I find a lot of fun, in much the same way that something like a collectible card game might be. I used to play a lot of Magic: The Gathering (and still do occasionally), and I frequently find parallels between constructing a team in Pokemon and building a deck in MTG, and battles share similar thrills in both. There are so many variables playing out against each other, it’s exciting to see how it all plays out time and time again. It’s a wonderful payoff, and it makes the rigors of training worth it.
Pokemon X/Y hasn’t done a ton to change battles themselves; they remain excellent on their own. But it has implemented a fair amount of online infrastructure that provide more ways to play. I haven’t played Pokemon competitively since the Diamond/Pearl days, so some of this may have been put in place for Pokemon Black/White, but the ability to battle strangers online makes a world of difference. It’s extremely unfortunate that you can’t battle online with a full party of six (maybe they’ll get there someday), but even with smaller teams it’s worth being able to play someone at any time. There’s even proper matchmaking, along with ever evolving competitions with their own special rules, and a lot of ways to connect with and trade with others online. Pokemon is far and away a much more online, social experience than ever, which is the direction I’d personally like to see the series head. I’ve gotten a lot more enjoyment out of building and battling competitive teams than I have out of the campaigns in a long, long time, and I don’t plan to stop battling anytime soon.
When I haven’t been deep in the Pokemon rabbit hole, I’ve been playing a fair amount of Bravely Default. Despite both being turn-based JRPGs on the Nintendo 3DS that require a lot of grinding, they feel fairly different from each other. In fact, Bravely Default feels mostly like a 16-bit era Final Fantasy game. In fact… it feels like Final Fantasy V. That’s primarily due to Bravely Default’s robust job system. There are a wide range of “jobs” (the Final Fantasy word for “classes”) that your four characters can take at any time, ranging from thief to knight to black mage, and you can switch these jobs on the fly at any time outside of battle. You level up each job independently, and each comes with its own stable of active and passive abilities that are unlocked as they level. There’s quite a bit of variety in the large number of jobs available, and trying out and experimenting with them all is a lot of fun. What makes it better, and what lends the game its most interesting layers, is that you can equip a limited number of active and passive abilities from other jobs you’ve leveled in addition to your currently chosen job. For example, if a character is currently a ninja, but had previously obtained levels in the thief and white mage jobs, I might also be able to equip white magic as a secondary active ability and a passive speed boost from the thief class, all while technically being a ninja. It’s all about mixing and matching, and the sheer number of options lends the game an almost overwhelming amount of customizability.
The job system in Bravely Default is very similar to what I remember it being like in Final Fantasy V (though it’s been a long time since I played it), and it’s the reason I really liked that classic. And while Bravely Default owes much of its core design to Final Fantasy V, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t experimented around the edges. In fact, Bravely Default has made a number of seemingly minor, but very welcome tweaks that allow players to circumvent a lot of the potential hangups common to JRPGs. Three tweaks in particular combine to make that traditional JRPG pitfall -- grinding -- infinitely more tolerable. First, you can adjust battle speed with the D-pad at any time, and the fastest speed is pretty darn fast. Secondly, pressing Y flips a toggle that will repeat the last commands you assigned manually. Finally, you can set the rate at which you encounter random battles, ranging from double all the way down to none; yes, you can turn them off entirely. All three of these things combine to make grinding through battles against the same enemies move super quickly, yet also allows you to slow it down whenever you want, and also pick when and where to have your battles. It’s a surprising concession of control to the player, one that doesn’t change what JRPGs are for those that love them, but it allows everyone to enjoy the game and all it is at their own speed.
Bravely Default implements another interesting twist in its battles, via a pair of aptly named moves you can always make called “Brave” and “Default.” They’re essentially opposite sides of the same idea: Brave lets you take up to four future turns now, Default lets you store the current turn for later use. It sounds a lot more confusing than it plays out (at least it did for me initially), but it basically allows you to take a lot of actions at once at the expense of doing nothing for a few turns. It can be powerful if used well, and a lot of times against normal enemies it helps you end battles quickly by taking all your turns up front. Against bosses it requires more judicious use, and since enemies can do the same thing, a little bit of cat and mouse can sometimes occur. It’s not a drastic change to traditional turn based battles, but I do find it to be an interesting one (and it can also help speed up grinding).
I’ve enjoyed Bravely Default overall thus far, though it hasn’t been perfect either. Primarily, I don’t find myself caring about any of the characters or the plot. It’s all very typical JRPG stuff, and I think both the writing and voice acting in particular are sub par. None of that has grabbed me, which leaves me playing solely for the job system and combat. Those things are great, but I also get the impression that the game is a lot longer than I initially expected. I’ve been playing almost 30 hours, and get the sense that I’m not even halfway (I’m near the end of Chapter 3). If my gut is accurate, then Bravely Default may end up wearing me down well before it’s over. That would be a shame, because I have enjoyed it thus far. Finally, as parting thoughts, I think the game’s look is gorgeous, especially some of the town backdrops. It has a lovely art style, and it’s accompanied by a solid musical score. I’ll plan to keep plugging away at Bravely Default, and may share some additional, final thoughts once I’ve finished it.
Looking Ahead to March
Thanks to the way fiscal years work, March has slowly but surely become one of the biggest gaming months year after year. 2014 only strengthens this trend, with a flood of new releases coming out during the month of March. Among the avalanche, the main four I’m interested in are Dark Souls II, Titanfall, Infamous: Second Son and Diablo III: Reaper of Souls. Dark Souls II is the only one I’m desperate to play ASAP, and plan to pick it up on release (continuing my RPG trend). The rest I will get to as I can, which may or may not be in March. I also want to play Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze at some point, along with Skyrim’s second DLC, Dragonborn, but those are turning into more distant goals for the time being. For now, I’ll continue to chip away at Bravely Default, while bracing for gaming’s version of “March Madness."