In this post, I ramble loosely about two of the JRPGs that I played this year. Obviously, this post will be full of spoilers.
— Is that soundtrack amazing or what? I’m glad I made Primrose my “main,” because her theme is absolutely gorgeous. At the end of her story, when she confesses that she’s still as lost as before, and then her theme starts playing… mmmhm, that’s some good shit. Honestly, if anything about this game makes me feel particularly nostalgic for the 16-bit era of JRPGs, it would be the soundtrack. The music in this game is the only thing, I feel, that is consistently good from start to finish.
— A big problem is that not all stories are made equal. Well, of course, right? Even if this was somehow possible, tastes will come into play. Nevertheless, I could barely keep myself awake during Tressa’s story. Oh, she’s cute as a button, but goddamn, I do not give two shits about her “quest.”
— Is it just me or does this game have daddy issues? Poor Primrose literally prostituted herself in order to track down her father’s killers. Ophelia’s best friend betrays her and nearly dooms the world in order to revive her father. Olberic wants to understand why his former comrade-in-arms had murdered their patriarch. H’annit wants to know what had happened to her mentor who may as well be her surrogate father. Alfyn is more or less following the footsteps of the man who gave him another lease on life. This same man, however, disappeared from his son Kit’s life, so the guy is now on a journey to look for his father. Unfortunately, this makes him a juicy target for Lyblac, the true mastermind of the entire story. And what is her aim? Why, it’s to revive her dark father, of course! Holy moly, you guys need to chill with this whole dead or missing father business. Thank god Tressa’s parents are both alive.
— Although I enjoyed Octopath Traveler overall, I have several really major issues with the game. First, it’s a full-priced game at $60, but it doesn’t really feel like one. Despite having eight interconnected stories, the sad truth is that your characters barely interact. There are some optional skits that you can view, but they’re really short and, well, mostly superfluous. No traveler has any major impact on another traveler’s journey. At no point does, say, Primrose help Ophelia arrive at a major, life-changing epiphany. The end result makes me feel like I’m playing eight separate DLCs rather than one cohesive game. Special character bonding moments are what make JRPG storylines truly special. Sadly, this game doesn’t have any of them.
— I do somewhat like the battle system, but it’s not quite fleshed out. What ends up happening is that even though you get all these moves, only a small handful of them are truly useful in battle. Also, the need to “break” your opponent’s defenses allows for boss fights to seem tactical, but early in the game, random battles can feel like a chore. Until the mage classes become strong enough to essential just nuke everything off the planet, it’s a drag to have to break every single enemy you come across even when you’re revisiting an old area.
— The “dungeons” are really bad. They’re only a few screens large at most, and if you equip a skill that reduces random encounters, you can honestly waltz right to the boss of any given chapter in a couple of minutes. Also, half of the dungeons are weirdly designed mansions! What the hell is up with that? What becomes readily apparent is that most of Octopath Traveler‘s playtime is due to grinding. Good lord is there a lot of grinding.
— For a game that is considered a finished product, which is supposedly why it won’t get any DLCs, the true ending is grossly rushed. For some reason, you have to warp to the final area even though it looks like you could just walk there on the map. When you get to the final area, there’s a whole lot of running and that’s it. The place is completely devoid of enemies. Finally, we get to the gauntlet where your party must face eight previous bosses. They’re slightly harder, but their movesets are still the same. Your team should have no trouble plowing through them. Unfortunately, there are absolutely no save points in the area. Unfortunately, you cannot leave the area. Once you’re in this final act of the game, there’s no turning back. Unfortunately, once you get passed the gauntlet, you must now face the final boss. And true to JRPG tradition, the final boss has two forms and a bag full of nasty tricks. If you lose here, you have to repeat the entire boss rush to get back to him. What a joke.
— So is the music the only thing I like about the game? Nah. The 2-D art is nice. I wish they weren’t so pixelated on my 4K TV, but it probably looks fine on the handheld screen.
— Against some of the optional bosses (assuming you didn’t overlevel), the battle system shines. You really do have to consider your next move carefully. Too bad you can count these boss fights on one hand.
— I also loved running around, stealing everything and scrutinizing everybody. With Oberic and H’annit, you can also challenge almost every NPC to a fight. Gameplay-wise, this is kinda neat but it does make you feel a bit jerkish from time to time. Why am I beating up a kid just to get inside a home just so I can steal from some old, sickly grandparent? If a poor woman can’t bear to sell her late husband’s fishing spear, why do I not feel any qualms about swiping it? Oh well!
Dragon Quest XI
— The only other Dragon Quest game that I’ve ever touched is Dragon Quest VIII, but I never got more than an hour into that game. But y’know what? After DQXI, I will revisit it. Hell, I kinda want to play through the entire series now. Too bad a few of them are ungodly expensive if I want a brand new copy. At the very least, I’ll give DQVII and DQVIII a fair shake.
— As always, I kinda want to get the negative stuff out of the way. Unlike Octopath Traveler, the music here is a mixed bag. I don’t mind the old school MIDI feel at all (though the fully orchestrated soundtrack would’ve been nice to have). Rather, it’s the lack of variety that really drags the whole thing down. For the vast majority of the game, it sure felt like there are only two goddamn tracks to listen to. Worst of all, the music doesn’t always fit the mood of the scene. For the most part, DQXI feels like a happy-go-lucky Saturday morning cartoon, so the upbeat soundtrack is more than adequate. But when it’s time to really get serious, the game doesn’t always succeed.
— For a long, long time, you have no goddamn clue who or why Mordegon is so evil. Even when you finally understand who he truly is and how he came to be, it’s really not that much of a revelation. Furthermore, his motivations never really go beyond cartoonishly evil. The same can be said of Calasmos. It’s just this evil void thing that has threatened the world in the past and is threatening the world again. This isn’t a game that dwells on its villains and their motivations. Considering how the main character is a silent protagonist, I guess it isn’t a huge deal if the antagonists don’t have rich backstories. Nevertheless, this makes for a somewhat less than compelling narrative. One of Final Fantasy XV‘s few saving graces is that Ardyn is somewhat decent as an antagonist. At least I kinda cared about his character.
— Like a lot of corny anime, this game is fixated on the ideas of forgiveness and redemption. Even if you’re practically a murderer, it’s fine! We’ll forgive you! Take, for instance, Vince from Octagonia. He is a famous battle arena champion who also uses all of his winnings to raise orphans. Wow, sounds like a saint! Well, it turns out he gets his strength from a very evil spider. And what does this spider want in return? It wants human victims, of course. Your party soon discovers that Vince has been kidnapping people and feeding them to the spider. So of course, you beat him up along with the spider. Time to put Vince in jail for his crimes, right? Nope! Vince was doing it for the kiiiiiids. As long as he promises not to be a bad guy anymore, it’s fine! He can go free! No hard feelings!
— The same can be said about Krystalinda. She literally freezes Frysabel’s entire kingdom. She also traps the young queen in a book. But after you beat the frigid witch up, there’s no reason to punish her or anything! Look, she’s harmless now! It’s cool! She can totally park her ass in the throne room right next to Frysabel and live the good life! To be fair, the game pretty much hints that Frysabel has a thing for Krystalinda, which might explain her lenient attitude towards the woman who nearly destroyed her kingdom. But god, I don’t care how much you wanna nail Krystalinda, because that’s still ridiculous.
— It’s a shame what they did to Jade, our kickass warrior princess. I don’t really mind the fact that the game plays up her sex appeal. Some women are hot, and they can use that to their advantage. More power to them. What’s disappointing about Jade is that she doesn’t get a fair shake. In the second act, pretty much every other member of your party undergoes some pretty major character development. Jade is the only exception (well, Veronica too for obvious reasons). When you find her, it turns out that she has simply been brainwashed and thus turned into a sexy, bunny-outfit-wearing demon. We’re told that she serves as a croupier. Despite the game’s obsession with puff puff, let’s just hope that dealing cards was all she had to do while under the monster’s spell, y’know? I’m sure the doujins have a different take, but let’s keep things clean for this post. Anyways, when you beat the culprit behind the brainwashing, that’s it. Jade’s back. No further backstory or character development to be had! Sorry if you were expecting more! But hey, if you ever want to turn her back into a sexy, demonic bunny girl, we’ve made into a usable ability! It’s even a self-buff that makes her even stronger in battle, so you kinda have to make her sexy all time! Seriously, I don’t get why the writer or writers had to do Jade dirty like this.
— It’s also a shame that you can never un-lolify Veronica. When you meet the girl, you learn that monsters had tried to steal her magical potential or whatever. Unfortunately, this had the curious added side effect of de-aging her physically. Thank god she didn’t also mentally revert into a child. Nevertheless, even after saving the world, beating Calasmos and all that, Veronica is still a loli. Lame.
— If you want all the trophies, you pretty much have to marry Gemma, your childhood friend who never accompanies you on any of your adventures. Hell, even if you don’t care about trophies, if you just want the recipe book for some of the best weapons in the game, you must marry Miss Crikey. Plus, if you’re going to pigeon-hole me into shacking up with the most boring waifu, at least let me see the actual wedding. In reality, all you do is make a wish, and voila! When you return to your home village, Gemma has magically become your wife. She’s even moved into your house! It’s magic! In said house, there’s actually a photo of the wedding hanging on the wall. The developers just didn’t bother to let you see it, I guess.
— Look, if I could un-lolify Veronica, she’d be my pick. Jade seems cool, but maybe too cool. She can seem a bit too aloof from time to time. Serena is your boring, typical maiden of purity. Yawn. On the other hand, I always like sassy girls who can blow stuff up with a snap of her fingers.
— I do think they pretty much nailed the rest of the cast. Erik is your typical thief, so he’s not all that exciting. Still, for the longest time, I thought he might somewhat betray the hero, but it never happens. Good for him, I suppose. Anyways, Sylvando is such a precious boy, and even though I wasn’t too thrilled with Henrik at first, I warmed up to him eventually. He especially excels in his interactions with Sylvando. This is what I’m talking about, though. What makes DQXI so endearing is that your party truly feels like a tight-knit group of friends. They help each other grow throughout the journey. Plus, you can pretty much pause at any point during the main story in order to chat with every member of your team and they’ll have some new commentary to offer. It makes them feel truly like living, breathing characters.
— So at one point in the story, you save the world but it’s kind of a World of Ruin deal. Sure, Mordegon’s dead, but he still spent the last few months fucking the world over while you were in… a coma, I guess? Anyways, tons of people have lost their lives, there are cities literally in ruins, and most of all, precious Veronica is dead. Look, this isn’t good enough, says the hero. I want it all. This is my game, so I want the perfect ending. So he goes back in time and basically achieves the best possible ending. No dead world tree! No ruined cities! No dead Veronica! No dead Miche…lle?
— A little context is necessary. There’s a tragic mermaid subquest rather early on in the story. You meet Michelle, a mermaid who is waiting for a human by the name of Kai to return to her. Once he does so, they can get married and live happily ever after in the underwater kingdom. Unfortunately, he’s been gone for quite some time. Michelle thus asks you to go look for Kai. You can tell where this is going, huh? Well, you soon learn that Kai had died a really long time ago. Now, you have a choice. You can return to Michelle and tell her the truth. If you do so, the poor mermaid will visit Kai’s grave then commit suicide. Ugh, my heart. On the other hand, you could lie and tell Michelle that Kai is eventually coming. This keeps the mermaid alive, but… I mean, she’ll eventually realize that you had lied. She’ll also eventually be broken-hearted over the fact that Kai is never coming back. Obviously, I chose to tell the mermaid the truth.
So what happens in act 3 when the hero goes back in time? Uh, for some reason, Michelle has come back to life. The problem here is that she died in act 1 before the big tragic event at Yggdrasil. Since you only went back in order to stop the big tragic event, there’s no reason for Michelle to still be alive. At first, I thought that lying to her might have been the canon choice. But when you talk to Kai, the descendant of the original Kai, he gets that deja vu feeling of the girl committing suicide. So… yeah…
— It’s actually kinda funny, really. Several bosses also come back to life (like the evil spider), and the game attributes their resurrection to the dark lord’s power. Maybe Michelle also came back to life thanks to Calasmos…
— One thing I will say is that I don’t mind the hero’s ability to go back in time and pretty much get the perfect ending. In a movie or a TV series, ending the story at act 2 makes sense. Your party perseveres through tragedy and come out even stronger than before. In some sense, going back in time pretty much renders all of that struggle moot. But in a video game, this doesn’t bother me too much. As a player, I do want some semblance of control over my hero’s fate, and if I want to put in the time and effort to grind out a perfect ending, so be it. This is where I feel video game narratives should be somewhat distinct from other forms of media. I would totally balk if a show gives us some iteration of DQXI‘s act 3. But here? Eh, I don’t mind it so much.
— Anyways, I guess I can’t really spend all day talking about the story and its characters. What I really loved about the game was the feeling of truly exploring a vast world and everything that it had to offer. Every town feels so different and unique. There’s a village that speaks only in haiku for some odd reason. Oh, they can speak normally. When the kids in the village aren’t paying attention, they goof up and speak normally. But otherwise, it’s haiku all the time. But really, all the different towns and how their inhabitants also have different accents is what truly makes me feel nostalgic for the older JRPGs. Modern JRPGs are quite a different beast. Take Final Fantasy XV, for instance. It has such a huge game world, but oddly enough, very few actual cities to explore. There isn’t really all that much to discover in those cities either. Likewise, I love Persona 5‘s setting, but obviously, you only have Tokyo and its various districts to “explore.”
— DQXI probably has the smoothest difficulty curve in recent memory. It takes the game forever to get hard. I don’t understand why so many people struggled with Dora-in-Grey (I love the game’s puns). Maybe this is babby’s first JRPG or something, but as far as I am concerned, act 1 is a complete breeze. I waltzed through that entire chapter pretty much on auto-pilot. Well, literally auto-pilot, since you can set your party to AI and have them go to town. There were very few encounters in act 1 that required me to step in and take over the reins, and yes, I did make the game harder with the Draconian Quest thingamajig. From a design standpoint, that’s pretty bad, I suppose, but the game does get a bit more challenging in act 2. Finally, things do finally get serious in act 3. Sure, you could overlevel and make everything easy mode again, but to the game’s credit, it does make you sweat a little as long as you try to proceed through the main story naturally. It’s just no Shin Megami Tensei. In fact, DQXI is still pretty easy overall all things considered. The hardest fights are only hard because you have to complete them within a certain amount of turns.
— Minor nitpick: I really wish I could use my mini-forge anywhere and anytime. Having to run out into the wilderness and setup camp just to craft is kinda silly. Hey guys, I know we’re right next to a city, but let’s sleep on the dirt because I want to craft.
— Another minor nitpick: why can’t I rest on my goddamn ship? Can we literally not anchor the ship and just take a nap?
— And yet another minor nitpick: since I can avoid random battles normally, I really wish I could have done the same while at sea. Sailing anywhere sometimes felt like a drag since I kept being forced into battles I didn’t want to bother with.
— There were too many goddamn quests that require pep powers. So pep powers are kinda like this game’s version of limit breaks. And like Chrono Trigger, your party members can team up to unleash some pretty creative moves. Unfortunately, since pep powers are like limit breaks, going into pep mode feels like it’s completely random. I’m sure there’s a hidden meter behind the scenes. Nevertheless, forcing me to build up pep on certain characters just to complete missions is really annoying. Any reliance on RNG is going to be annoying in any game. Yes, I know about the items that instantly put you into pep mode. Those aren’t really available to you until you get pretty late into the game, though.
— But for the most part, the game’s charm heavily outweighs its faults. I can’t help but always smile when I see people get to the part where the hero dons the Mardi Gras costume and starts marching with the rest of the parade.
— Anyways, for this JRPG fan, Dragon Quest XI is my game of the year. We still have a little over three months left to go, so this may very well change. I don’t see any major JRPGs on the horizon, though.
I was going to talk about more games (like Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age), but this post is long enough. Maybe another time.