I've been playing Tales of Xillia recently to get my JRPG fix. I could speak on it in terms of its merit in comparison to other games, or hold it against some artistic standard but even though that may be what we like to read about games, it's not why we play games. At least not how I play games. 5/10 or 9/10 sometimes you just want to turn a game on, grab the controller, and play. There's something compelling on a deeper level that has nothing to do with a game's relative value or quality, it's a part of every person who calls themselves 'gamer.' The reason why even the most elite of gamers with the most well-manicured libraries has downloaded some shitty phone game and played it. This isn't a conversation about that though this is about a thought that came to my head, and is addressed in some form on a recent Kotaku article by Jason Schreier.
I haven't decided whether I think they belong or whether they are outdated and I wanted to explore that thought process aloud as I found myself hacking my way through a battle heavy game like Xillia.
Now, to be fair, the Tales series uses battle in a very different way that most other JRPGs do. By injecting local multiplayer into what is typically a single player affair is brilliant. I have a very distinct memory from my video game art school days in California. A group of friends had the tradition of, whenever a new tales game came out, dedicating hang out time to playing the game as a group. It was one part being a poor college student, and one part human connectedness. I had never really seen anything like it before in my life. Everyone was invested in the stories and characters, everyone participated in the frequent random battles, players took turns walking around the game world, everyone picked a character (something decided before they even started playing) and managed that character's equipment and stat progression. They were a team, and everyone was the master of their specialized character and his or her unique abilities. If anything, more games could stand to incorporate a model like that. I would argue that rather than a slider that dictates the frequency of battles, every RPG should allow local or chat-supported online multiplayer in exactly the same way that the Tales series does it locally. I'm not sure what the structure of that would look like, because one blaring fault is that most JRPGs start the game with few party members and gradually builds the roster as the game progresses. But I could see a future where say, an RPG is released onto the PS4, player 1 live-streams their gameplay, as other players watch and eventually join in. I think that it's one way in which the tedium of random battle could be turned into a more interesting mechanic.
On the other side of the coin, part of me just doesn't like the concept of the random battle. Some games (see: Ni No Kuni, the Shin Megami Tensei series, Pokemon, etc.) make battles tied to a core game mechanic. But in general I wonder if the whole system could use an overhaul. Here's my line of thinking:
Why do we do random battles? At the most basic level its functions are to allow people practice in using the characters and abilities, some kind of experience for character building, signal environmental change, a source of income, and an opportunity for item acquisition.
I wonder if all of those needs could be served by other methods. Don't remove battle entirely obviously but change the nature of RPG combat. I would like to see a battle system that's more meaningful. I want context around my enemies. I'm no longer satisfied with how random and uninspired battles have often become. The whole concept of level grinding is absurd to me. A game should be designed in such a way that you feel competent at every stage without a concentrated effort to do so. I get good at it by just playing it. I have too often felt a separation between what I'm doing on the battlefield and what's happening in the game universe. I don't like feeling like I've stepped outside of the story so that I can spend the next 30-45 minutes cutting my way through random enemies to be 'rewarded' with the game experience I want to have. When I walk into a desert biome, why are there skeletons and treestump monsters? Is it enough to have a bestiary that says "Reanimated bones of dead travelers?"
I want to advocate for well thought out universes, and an end to the legacy of games that pit you against hundreds of meaningless battles. Battles that in most games are not even challenging. I would like to see RPGs take a page from 3rd person adventure games like Uncharted or Assassin's creed. Enemies are placed with intentionality and belong in the places they live. And more than just wandering around a field waiting to be attacked, they're doing something and living in that space. Maybe fewer battles mean more experience and money are rewarded. Maybe it means that you scale boss battles appropriately, such that experience levels are less important. Instead of dropping a boss in front of you that is just a high HP tank, teach the gamer something about the world then give them a boss battle that requires they use what they've learned in an intelligent way. Games have toyed around with this in different ways, Final Fantasy VIII for example had a 1000 point level system. The distance between every level was 1000 points, and enemies scaled to the character. The higher your level, the higher the enemy level, which meant that enemies sometimes had different abilities, items, or tactics. People may argue about its success but squaresoft was trying something new, and I appreciated that.
I know that there are those who love the current model and I'd really like to hear more from that perspective. I personally have just had an increasingly more difficult time reconciling the large amounts of time spent mashing the X button in games. Because more often than not, it's not a thought provoking, strategic, tense, or particularly entertaining affair and I've began to wonder why.