Cheating Death: How SMT IV solved a problem I didn't know existed

Posted by Masterherox (59 posts) -

I play a lot of JRPGs, and I mean a LOT of them. While admittedly not as many as some people, the actual number could still make people think I'm a little nuts. State of my mind aside, though, the genre has provided me with many hours of interesting stories, creative characters, and all around enjoyment.

And frustration. A VERY good deal of frustration.

See, JRPGs are not without their problems (some may say that problem one is being a JRPG, but I disagree and digress). Most of them require a hefty time commitment, as well as a willingness to go along with certain foibles and elements you may not enjoy in order to get to the parts you will. Put these two things together, and you can imagine why game overs are both something I have hated, and something I have not thought much about.

Elsewhere, autosaves, quicksaves and checkpoints have alleviated the problem of losing, and even besides that, death usually isn't that bad in other genres. When you die in a fps, it's usually not that far back to where you were and you can take on the situation in a new way. When you die in a platformer you have found out about the layout and are likely to take things a bit slower now. Even most western RPGs have incorporated some way of keeping a track of your progress so not much is lost should you kick the bucket.

Yet, dying in a JRPG is often quite harsh. Many games in the genre tend to hand losing in one of two ways:

A: You are forced to reload your last save, or

B: You are sent back to a town, inn, or healing device of some sort, usually missing money, experience, health, or all three.

These deaths are, quite simply, infuriating. This is made worse by the fact that most JRPGs handle saving either through scarcely placed points or though saving the game so slowly that it becomes a hassle to save, leading to people not doing so as much as they should. And although B is a better consequence than A, neither leaves you with a good taste in your mouth. In fact, there are many times when death will cause a player to just put the game down and never come back, and the reason is simple. Or, rather, the reasons are simple.

Reason 1: Lost Effort

One of the main pulls of a JRPG (and indeed RPGs in general), besides story (If you happen to like those stories) is the concept of accruing strength, resources, and progress. Gaining experience to level up, gain abilities, and tackle things you couldn't before, and making your way past challenges to the end of a difficult dungeon are so key to the experience that the very idea of losing these things becomes an almost traumatic experience.

And, of course, losing these things is exactly what happens when you die. You wind up having to do everything you've already done, gain the levels you've already gotten, hit story beats you've already seen, open boxes you already know the contents of all over again, and again, and again...

And this is made worse by...

Reason 2: Lost Time

JRPGs usually take a while to get through, largely due to combat taking forever, dungeons taking forever, and story parts taking forever (so, all in all, everything). This is why, when you've already put in a large amount of time to complete a task, or get through a dungeon, the last thing you want to do is be told "Whoops, sorry bout that, go and do it all again".

Where as other games usually have you redoing minutes of gameplay, JRPGs can force you to redo HOURS. This is why the sentiment of "I already did this, I don't want to do it again" is more common here than anywhere else. Some games have, admittedly, tried to soften this blow, but it not usually addressed outright, or at least not that I've seen.

And then there's

Reason 3: The Above Two in Conjunction

I... I don't have a reason three. I felt like I should though, rule of three and all that. Just... Suffice to say that the above two are bad.

So What?

Now at this point, you may be wondering "Hey, you just detailed how much you hate these things, why are you saying you didn't realize this was a problem in the title?" If so, good on you. If not, then think that, so I can answer it.

See, it's like I said before: there are foibles in these games that you put up with, things that you don't necessarily like that you deal with so that you can keep playing. Now, it might also mean bad voice acting, or a dull combat system, but how these games handled death was just so commonplace that I never thought much about it. It's like saying "Hey, why does it have to rain? Rain sucks, so lets get rid of it". That's just plain silly, and it's not the sort of thing that bears much though.

But Shin Megami Tensei IV has stopped the rain.

(and don't go digging too deep into the long-term effects topping the rain would have on the world. It's a silly thought, not an uneducated statement)

Shin Megami Tensei IV

Let me preface this bit by saying that this game is tough. Quite tough. Quite "I am level thirty now, but these level eight guys can still pose a threat and kill me" tough, and yes that has happened to me once. As such, death is a constant companion in these games (in the metaphorical sense, he's not actually a companion, though I do enjoy the fact that I have to clarify this). That's why it pleases me that the game has handled dying so well, striking the perfect balance between being something that isn't just a slap on the wrist, and being something that will make you quit the game.

Early on, when you die (Not if, when. This game is, as stated, tough, and casting the wrong thing at the wrong guy can and will kill you) you are taken to the after life, where you meet a rather grumpy old fellow by the name of Charon. Everybody Say Hi to Charon!

Hello again Charon.

This guy is the person in charge of getting people across the river to the actual afterlife. Problem is, there's a line. A long line. This means he is a busy man, far too busy to put up with your shenanigans. Thus, he offers an ultimatum: Give him some money (or, as I take advantage of, playcoins) and he will bring you back to life, saving him some extra paperwork, and you, er, your life. Accept and you will be brought back to right before you got into the deadly fight. Deny, and it's an actual game over.

Now, his prices aren't cheap: early on at least the financial cost of coming back can take almost everything you have, and playcoins don't pile up that quickly for them to always be an option (and you might want to use them elsewhere), and that's what makes this such a clever solution.

You see, not only does it fit in with the feel of the game, but it provides people a choice: are you willing to pay the price in order to keep the progress from the last time you saved, or have you done so recently enough that you are fine with going back and trying from a save point? This choice, though simple, is actually quite clever (at least, I feel so, though I admit I am simple and not clever).

While the most obvious effect of this is just getting a second chance in combat, it also gives you a second chance to save (You know, that thing you should do more often), as this game does allow for saving anywhere. If you do save and die soon after, you can just reload, keeping your hard earned money out of Charon's grubby kind hands. It almost feels like the game is chastising you for not saving enough, but still gives you a chance to make up for it, something so many other games don't do.

Even if a player doesn't decide to come back and instead decides to fight back from their last save point, simply by giving the player this choice lets them feel like they're still in control. The game didn't MAKE you redo everything, you CHOSE to do so. You had a choice to come back, but you wanted to do it the other way and for as small a thing that is, it can make the world of difference in whether or not you keep going. Few things can make a player mad like forcing them into something they don't want to do. In these cases, even the illusion of choice can make things better, so an actual choice is practically a godsend.

Somehow, SMT IV manages to take the worst part of many JRPGs and, while keeping the fear of it occurring alive, manages to relieve the frustration associated with it, and now that I'm used to it, it could be difficult going back to games where dying means redoing several hours of my life. Still, awareness is good. I mean, just because something isn't always at the forefront of your mind doesn't mean it isn't a problem. And you can't fix something if you don't know it's there. And knowledge is valuable under any circumstances.

I could keep going with pithy phrases and sayings, but it really all just boils down to the fact that, in a genre that is often accused of being stagnant, and having some very deeply rooted problems, finding a solution to such a frustrating thing is just plain great.

#1 Posted by L1GHTN1N (399 posts) -

Agree 100%. I'm about 9 hours in so far and have been enjoying the hell out of it. On my train ride home today I ended up dying, and hadn't saved in almost an hour. Losing that much progress probably would have caused me to put down the game and and not come back to it for a very long time, if ever. Huge death penalties due to me stupidly not saving is often a reason I drop games; I despise replaying large chunks of games.

Luckily Charon came up, I paid him in Play Coins, came back and immediately saved. Death was still a punishment as it should be (I was finally going to clear that room in Find Mii II today...) but doing so without completely fucking over your progress is fantastic. There's also been a few times where I've said "Nah, I'll just get in line" and restart, but like you said because I was making an active choice to do so I wasn't nearly as pissed about it as I normally would be.

Nice blog!

#2 Edited by believer258 (11048 posts) -

You didn't know that not being able to save anywhere was a problem?

I'll accept not being able to save anywhere in some games as long as the checkpoints/save points are common enough (Final Fantasy X, thanks!) but being able to save anywhere is always a nice bonus. You must only play JRPG's if you didn't know it was a problem, though. Western RPG's and first person shooters, especially PC shooters, often allow you to save anywhere you feel like it.

On the topic of Charon, though, I have two problems with him. The first is that he's utterly useless. I might have used his services twice in the beginning of the game, but I quickly stopped. He simply costs too much macca to be practical at all. Maybe it's because I save every time I do something remotely significant (this is so bad on PC games that I have quicksave remapped to fucking G), but I never lose much when I die. The second problem I have with him is that he's asking for a bribe because he's lazy. If he's really so lazy and wants me to go back to the real world, then why doesn't he let me? Why does he need to be bribed to do something that he wants to do and clearly has the power to do? And why does one man make a difference in the mountains of people that he already has to process? The whole mechanic isn't particularly well justified for story or gameplay reasons, except in the "I forgot to save" predicament. In which case, boohoo, don't forget next time.

But that's a minor complaint. It's annoying to fast forward through his lines every time I die, but it takes all of ten seconds to get back into the game. One second would be nice (Load a save? Yes. Which one? This one. Done.), but it's hardly a major issue.

EDIT: Oh wait. In my late night posting, I think I might have misread your post. You're saying that Charon is the solution. Oh. Well, in that case, I totally disagree with you. Saving anywhere is the solution to death being annoying.

#3 Posted by TheManWithNoPlan (4445 posts) -

That seems like a really smart way to contextualize a fail state. Great blog.

#4 Edited by Zeik (2114 posts) -

I think comes down to a case by case basis. A game like Etrian Odyssey I don't think would work as well if you could just save anywhere and then opt out of death with some cash, since it's all about surviving in the Labyrinths as long as you can and knowing when to get the hell out of there. It can be frustrating to lose progress, but that's part of the experience.

In more traditional JRPGs though I think it's a worthwhile mechanic. Even with the ability to save anywhere it's nice to have the option when it's really necessary. Late game the macca prices are pretty ridiculous and usually not worth it, but if for example I just had a good mutation happen on a skill and then died straight after I'd probably sacrifice the money. I'd be perfectly okay with giving up the ability to save anywhere and keeping the death tax. (Being too overzealous with saving feels kind of like cheating to me anyway.)

#5 Posted by TobbRobb (4408 posts) -

What a fun read. I like your style.

But yeah, save systems in Jrpgs is the number one reason for me quitting in the middle, even though I can generally put up with some major bullshit in games and I do enjoy most other aspects in a Jrpg. Redoing hours though... SO frustrating.

In related and recent news, Final Fantasy 7 has pretty decent save points in dungeons. Though they dropped the ball on save points for long story sections. "Except the Kalm flashback, I thought that was neat".

#6 Posted by Oscar__Explosion (2157 posts) -

Final fantasy XIII does this same thing of dumping you right before the last fight you lost in if you died. It's one of the only things I can say I appreciate from it.

#7 Posted by ThunderSlash (1369 posts) -

I liked how the Dragon Quest games do it. When your party gets wiped out, you lose half of your cash and respawn at the latest church. The thing is you don't lose anything else, this means that even though you've failed you still get to keep all the items and experience that you've gotten since your death. Thus as long as you keep playing, successfully or not, you are still progressing in the game. Of course losing half your gold might be a problem, but the games usually have a way to offset that; the most prominent being a way to store your cash in the bank, ensuring that you won't lose that money.

#8 Edited by Chop (1965 posts) -

Charon kinda sucks though;. I mean, it's faster and easier to just save scum seeing as how it takes like five goddamn minutes to actually get through that shit. SMT IV is better than most but it's still got a lot of those clunky trappings jrpgs fall into over and over again.

#9 Posted by Eirikr (1006 posts) -

Man, if you don't want to waste time for no reason, stay the hell away from SMT IV's optional content. For some of the monumental steps forward the game features, there's a few regressions to states worse than in previous games. It's weird.

And on the topic of Charon, I think it was a good idea but in practice far inferior to just saving anywhere and everywhere and every single damn time you do anything.

Good blog, though!

#10 Posted by Zeik (2114 posts) -

@chop: It takes like 8-10 seconds if you bothered to pay him once and hold down the X button. And save scumming is really the worst side-effect of being able to save anywhere. I wish there was a better middle ground. Some way to make saving convenient without letting you just save scum through anything that goes wrong.

I suppose I shouldn't really care. It's basically the same as including easy mode. If people want to play that way I suppose it's their business.

#11 Posted by Aegon (5118 posts) -

I like the way xenoblade handles it. Save anywhere and frequent checkpoints without losing anything after you die (including exp)!

#12 Edited by SatelliteOfLove (1369 posts) -

You missed the four real problems of SMT4's loss handling in the desperate scramble to avoid any or all setback (without either preparing for it or getting over it):

Massive difficulty spike at the begining.

No choice of Easy or Hard at the beginning.

Playcoin offer made the grim Macca cost moot.

Save anywhere lays all blame on the player. Can't cite the last save location being 30 minutes ago as being why you lost 30 minutes of progress...

#13 Posted by MKXellos (7 posts) -

About 26 hours in, and I always restart from last save, IF I die.

I just make sure I don't attack them with repel or drain attributes, and do a lot of grinding to make sure I can get rid of mobs within first wave.

#14 Edited by DonutFever (3515 posts) -

I thought it was a cute way to contextualize it, but I rarely used him, and even when you fast forward through the dialog it takes about a minute to load one of your saves, when it should ideally only take a second. But maybe this is their way of creating further punishment for death? All I know is that it got really annoying on some of the late game boss fights.

#15 Posted by Zeik (2114 posts) -

@donutfever: You should have have used it at least once, because it significantly cuts down the time it takes to speed through it. If you reset every time then you've got to go through the initial encounter every single time, which is a lot longer than a repeat encounter. The latter takes like 10-15 seconds, maybe.

#16 Edited by DonutFever (3515 posts) -

@zeik: Oh, my bad. Should have used "rarely", because I did use him once or twice in Naruku.

As for the time of the encounter, I was including the game cutting to main menu, loading the save, etc.

#17 Posted by Zeik (2114 posts) -

@donutfever: Well, then there's no way it took a whole minute to speed through.

#18 Edited by DonutFever (3515 posts) -

@zeik: Maybe it seemed longer because I only died at boss fights. I guess I had to speed through their dialog, and the animation that pans up from from the bottom of their sprite. Overall I just feel that it takes way too much time to get through that stuff, but maybe I'm just impatient and spoiled by games like Mirror's Edge and Trials.

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