The role playing game, as a genre, falls into the role of the grandparents of video gaming these days. They are often well respected and their influence seems to be everywhere you look but, they are far from their glory days of the past and, it’s painfully obvious that their time will be coming to an end fairly soon. Though many games now openly use RPG elements at their core, the genre itself is seeing less and less complex role-playing, and more XP bars tacked onto action games. It is thus that I wanted to take the time to stir up some debate on whether the RPG genre is still relevant in our contemporary gaming, and if it has a future.
I was fortunate enough that my formative gaming years took place during the 3D revolution, with systems like the PS1 and N64. Many of the top quality titles of that era were RPGs, with the likes of Final Fantasy 7,8 and 9 and Zelda: Ocarina of Time (it’s an action RPG but it still counts) defining that whole generation of gamers. For a brief decade or so, it seemed like the gaming public couldn’t get enough questing, looting and grinding, with many high profile RPG titles starting to see releases outside of Japan.
We now live in a very different society where many core franchises seem to have abandoned their RPG roots. Final Fantasy XIII stands to rights as a prime example of a game in recent history that failed to live up to its pedigree. Most of the things I disliked about the game, such as the monotony, linearity and shallow characters were things that were designed to be a departure from the role playing elements of the franchise. Needless to say, the game seemed much weaker as a result of this. The other key franchise for the traditional JRPG, Dragon Quest has also taken this direction to a similar extent. Though not as overtly and with more pleasing results, Dragon Quest 9 on the DS focused less on the story driven single player experience and opted for a multiplayer co-op focus instead. I felt the game was weaker for it overall, (as you can read in my full review of the game) but at least the idea of a multiplayer RPG is in keeping with tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, even if it is a league away from the console RPG experiences that core gamers are used to.
Whilst these games of high renown seem to reject their role-playing traditions (for better and for worse,) other modern titles that embrace the form seem to be sidelined by consumers and critics. Does anyone remember 2008’s Lost Odyssey? It was one of my favourite games of that year and, in my humble opinion, one of the best examples of a traditional JRPG that was well executed on our current generation of hardware. Yet, despite its many good points, critics seemed generally unsatisfied with the game’s traditional aspects and it has since been forgotten. Contrasting this are Tri-Ace’s many unique current-gen RPGs that subvert and build upon many conventions of the genre. Yet, these games too share a similarly lukewarm reception with the recent Resonance of Fate and the equally enjoyable (though poorly named) Infinite Undiscovery going under the radar for many. And don’t even get me started on Magnacarta 2. It might have had a clichéd story, but that game may as well not have ever existed for the minimal amount of attention it received.
This list of modern gems that have been lost is very Japan-centric however, and it is important to note how western RPGs still seem to be going strong. Bioware’s many franchises and the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series from Bethesda have all been well received critically and commercially, and these games are definitely deserving of their success. Despite their excellence in the field of RPGs they have slowly departed from what I love about the genre; and there is one game that seems the most likely culprit of this: Mass Effect 2.
I realise my criticism of ME2 will sound like sacrilege to many. It was inundated with praise upon its release early last year, and we even went as far as to vote it our game of the year for 2010 here at Gaming bolt. The irony here is that my problems with Mass Effect 2 have little to do with its quality. The problem, in fact, is that it was such an excellent game. The gaming industry is highly reactive these days and, when a game is as highly praised as Mass Effect 2 was, other developers and publishers tend to take note. Unfortunately for the RPG genre, ME2 removed many of its inventory managing, quest gorging RPG components, and I can only fear that other games will now follow suit. Thanks a lot Mass Effect. If only you’d been rubbish like FF13, then I wouldn’t have anything to worry about.