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What Makes a Great JRPG Dungeon?

Trent Seely

Persona 3 is a great game. Social links add an extra layer to the events plaguing Tatsumi Port Island, the battle system is both strategic and challenging, and the darker themes of the game are fairly landmark as far as JRPGs though. Upon recently replaying the game, however, I began to notice something a bit alarming: I stated approaching Tatarus as though it were a watering hole, to be frequented periodically like a chore in order to feed my team's progression. The numerous randomized floors and lack of detail in the environment had taken their toll on my enjoyment of the dungeon, and realizing this made me wonder what qualities made dungeons great in JRPGs. In looking back on some of the dungeons that stuck with me, I came to a few conclusions.

One of my favorite JRPG dungeons is inside New Valmar — Grandia II's final test. Throughout the game, your party has witnessed numerous individuals become possessed by the body parts of Valmar, the "dead" God of Darkness. As you traverse the land, you defeat his tongue, eyes, claws, horns, body, and heart. Sadly, that doesn't stop those parts from reforming into a new iteration of the God. In order to stop the destruction of everything, you must go inside this gigantic being and kill him at his core. The interior of Valmar is gross, to say the least. Environments have a meaty feel to them, and in order to progress you'll have to cut through several ventricles and eliminate the reformed body parts that are blocking your way to the core. Aesthetically speaking, it very much feels as though you're stuck inside a gigantic being, and the design is such that I felt closer to the core with every room I passed though. Each room echoes the events of the narrative and the impact of the dungeon is made stronger as a result.

Kefka's Tower in Final Fantasy VI is another stand out dungeon. Outside of having epic music, this tower is unique in the way you have to approach it. Splitting your ensemble party in three, each group must go a different path lined with powerful bosses and switch-based puzzles. As with Valmar, the environments go a long way in emphasizing certain elements of the game's plot, however, there's a greater focus here on using your head. Groups will have to frequently swap out armor sets in order to tackle some ruthless bosses, and if you aren't well enough prepared upon entering the tower you likely won't beat the game. Exploration in this case is a test of patience, and you'll have to use your brain more than your brawn in order to progress.

The final memorable dungeon I'll bring up is the Hollow Forest from Persona 4: The Golden. In terms of design, I'll admit that it isn't terribly memorable: just foggy. The challenge of the dungeon, however, I'll never forget. Unlike the other dungeons in the P4G, which I feel are each delightful in design, the Hollow Forest features several special restrictions throughout. To begin, you can only use the items you find within the Hollow Forest. Everything you brought with you is gone. Secondly, you're limited in what you can use for equipment, which is troubling as enemy attacks are ultimately stronger and any equipment you may have had that resisted your weaknesses is gone. Thirdly, with every encounter your SP is halved and as a result you need to find a balance in how and when you choose to battle. Finally, a few of the bosses will have resistances to all elements — so if you didn't explore enough to find resistance nullifying items, you're pretty much boned. This challenge is harsh and flies in the face of your normal operating procedure in the game, but it also didn't feel cheap to me. To that point, conquering that dungeon felt like a legitimate achievement.

Looking back, I think the most memorable dungeons have a strong mix of aesthetic design, problem solving, and challenge. That isn't to say that every dungeon in every game has to be colorfully designed and exceptionally challenging, but I feel as though many JRPG dungeons could be bettered with a bit more focus on these elements. Hopefully, we'll see more of that in our RPGs as we move into the next generation of systems.

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