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ASK PHIL
Baldur's Breath of Fire
  July 16th, 2013

07/16- 7:00PM EST

Salutations! I apologize for not posting last week.  I spent the entire weekend in Seattle for PaizoCon 2013.  I love pen-and-paper RPGs because they do such a good job of putting role playing at the front of the experience, and coupling it with deep, thought-provoking combat.  It was fun and crazy, all at the same time.  Now, back home, I ready myself to answer another barrage of RPG questions!





The Letters
Breath of Bad Language

@falselogic asks, "Got a question for you! Why is BoF2 such a freakin' mess?"


Phil

Whoa!  The first question that pops up on my feed has language in it that I had to change to protect the not-so-innocent.  I have played a number of the Breath of Fire games, including the second in the series.  Unfortunately, I found nearly all of them to be uninspired and generic in both story and combat.  I would hesitate to call any of them a mess, but I can see how one might draw that conclusion.  Unless, of course, they are referring to the underrated and underappreciated Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter.  I adore that game!

RPG Pinacles

Drav writes, "What game represents the pinnacle of WRPGs , and what criteria do you use to arrive at this conclusion?"


Phil

That's a great question, and I imagine everyone has a different answer.  For me, Baldur's Gate still holds that position.  Now, the criteria I use to answer this question differs from many, I imagine.  In the late 80s/early 90s, we saw two large RPG subgenres rise up.  The Western RPGs were characterized by deep character creation systems, difficult tactical combat and, at times, trying to emulate realism by adding more mechanics such as hunger, armor durability and more.  The better ones also told a good story.  When done well, by combining these elements, it would draw players into their world.  At the time, I played the Gold box Dungeons & Dragons computer role-playing games.  When I wasn't thinking about the plot, I could often times be found thinking about party composition, spells, magic items, etc.
 
Baldur's Gate did not use the best gameplay systems. Dungeon & Dragons' second edition rules were really showing their age at that point.  But it was still deep, and the battles had to be carefully coordinated.  I, personally, disliked the move from turn based to a more real time approach, but eventually got used to it.  However, while it lost a few minor points there, I still found myself carefully choosing my members based on how well they would fit into my team as whole.
 
Of course, most people remember the game for the characters and story.  And I completely agree.  While I could come up with one or two examples that better represent the best that WRPG gameplay brings to the table, the characters and their interactions push this title over the edge for me, putting it in first place.  XCOM: Enemy Unknown, while not technically an RPG, comes close.  I cannot tell you the number of stories I heard from friends regarding the characters they created.  As they poured time in their creation and growth and carefully considered each move, they became attached and immersed to their characters and the world.  When one of them died, you saw players moved in ways not seen since Aeris bit the bullet.

I recognize that for some, especially more recent games, like Fallout 3, Mass Effect and Skyrim better represent WRPGs.  The move to a more actiony first or third person style of gameplay is not new.  We had games like Eye of the Beholder back in the 90s.  However, while I recognize that style as WRPG, and enjoy some of those titles myself, the more tactical approach will always appeal more to me.  I almost wonder if these two approaches should not be split into different subgenres of their own.

Drav writes, "What about JRPGs? Do you use a similar criteria for those, or different?"


Phil

When I played Final Fantasy I in 1990, I was quickly struck by the stark contrast in its approach to my beloved genre.  I did not appreciate those differences, however, until Final Fantasy IV.  JRPGs typically (though not always), use a more simplified approach to character creation, gameplay and battle systems than their WRPG counterparts.  They focus on graphics, music and character interaction to immerse the player in the story the creators want to tell.  They also tend to feel more 'high fantasy' than their WPRG counterparts.
 
Final Fantasy VI represents those characteristics best utilized in drawing the player into the world and story.  At the time, the graphics were absolutely some of the best ever seen.  To this day, I still remember (and can hum) most of the music to those games. Coupled with a great plot and awesome characters, the game absolutely drew me in and refused to let go until the end.  During the fifteen-plus minute ending, this grown man was shedding tears. 

Ultimately, Drav, for me, the bottom line criteria is the same for both subgenres.  I want to know which game draws me into its world the most and makes me feel a part of it.  Which game makes me give a flip about its world.  Most importantly, which games draws me, the player, into the role most pivotal in the story?  Each of these subgenres take completely different approaches to reach that end, and mature gamers can appreciate, and enjoy, the differences.

For Future Reference

Ironmage writes, "What do you consider to be the "reference" RPGs? I don't mean the ones you like the best, or the ones which you think have the highest objective quality. I mean the games which define the genre, the kind where, even if you play them for the first time many years after they first came out, you immediately recognize them as original, as influencing many of the games that came after."


Phil

That question is tough.  For WRPGs, Curse of the Azure Bonds is a great reference. Way ahead of its time, this open ended game featured deep character creation, tactical combat, and an open world (to an extent) long before games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown or Baldur's Gate hit it big.  While times have changed, and the formula has changed a lot, Gold Box games are my reference for Western RPGs. 

For JRPG, I default to my favorite mentioned above, Final Fantasy VI.  It just does such a great job of setting the bar on every element of what makes a JRPG fun, outside of its now dated graphics.  For me, it defines the genre, and while it doesn't do much that I can consider terribly original, it's a clear influence for many games to come.

Tales of Annoyance

Riulyn writes, "What are things that people say about RPGs in general, RPG subgenres, or specific RPGs that really annoy you?"


Phil

Since I happen to be a fan of retro gaming, as well as pen and paper, I get annoyed when people tell me that newer RPGs will be more action oriented and homogenized (with other genres) because that is what sells.  Ironically, I know that's a fact, specifically on consoles where you have to make millions on a game to break even, but I don't like it!  Thankfully, there are some interesting things going on in the subgenres I like the most, especially on the iOS and PC.

Action Adventure Platforming RPG

lolwhoops  asks, "What action, adventure and/or platforming series(es) do you think would make a great RPG or SRPG?"


Phil

For some reason, I want to say Final Fantasy XV but that wouldn't be fair!  This is a tough question because action games are usually short stories and plots that would struggle to fit a ninety minute movie, where RPGs (the ones I really enjoy, anyway) have numerous deep characters and more involved storylines.  I appreciate both, because sometimes I want a summer flick, and other times I want Lord of the Rings

Yet, Super Mario RPG showed me that if done right even the most shallow story and characters can be turned into a fun RPG experience.  Along those lines, I vote for Ratchet & Clank.  They've slowly built a stable of characters over the course of the series, introduced light RPG mechanics (leveling of weapons, really...but it added a lot to the game), and it's ripe for a lot of humor.  Furthermore, they actually have a few good plot ideas going that would lend itself well to a longer RPG experience.

What an RPG Wants

Aurian  asks, "What does the RPG genre need the most? Is it better stories? More variety in settings (ie more sci fi)? The next FF7 to make it more mainstream again?"


Phil

People who listen to RPGBacktrack know what I think of making RPGs more mainstream!  I jest!  In all seriousness, I believe you hit the nail on the head.  Better stories would make a huge difference.  I see companies spend thousands and millions of dollars on the graphics, but few are spending nearly that much on the writing.  Quietly, games like The Witcher hit home runs.  I really, really enjoyed that game, despite not liking the gameplay or the graphics.  The writing was just spot on.  Now, do not get me wrong! Developers will waste their writing talent if the gameplay stinks. But while I personally prefer a great game system over all else, I cannot deny that when it comes to computer and console RPGs, the story and plot must excel to make the game memorable and sell well (which, in turn, boosts sales).
IN CLOSING

Wow, I got a TON of questions, and was only able to get through half.  This post is over 1,500 words, so I better stop here before I put too many more people to sleep!  I have to prep another Pathfinder RPG that I am running tonight.  So, until next time, happy gaming!

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