As recently as a year ago, I would contend that my favourite RPG subgenre would be the turn-based JRPG. While everyone else had moved on to Oblivion and Fallout, I stuck with my Final Fantasy and Pokemon. I liked the sometimes nonsensical, fluffy stories, the patient menu-based battle systems, and even the thrill of random battles. But having worked through Pokemon Black 2, Penny Arcade’s Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3, Final Fantasy VII, and now Final Fantasy Dimensions all this year, I suddenly realized that these games don’t hold the allure for me that they once did.
For a lot of ’90s JRPGs and retro-styled indie RPGs of today, this is due to one fatal flaw: a brutal combination of lazy map design and a high encounter rate. In any JRPG of yesteryear, you’re often faced with a choice when dungeoneering: go one way to get the treasure chest, go the other way to progress through the dungeon. A completionist like myself wants to always get the treasure first, then take the other path and inch closer to the end of the dungeon until I’m presented with another forked path. This is the much-vaunted “non-linearity” that people who decry modern game design love to champion as an example of why the old ways were so much better. But when I’m presented with a forked path, nine times out of ten my view of the ends of those paths is deliberately obstructed, making me choose at random. If I find the floor exit, I know I’ve missed out on the treasure, and I have to go all the way back to the other path, then get the loot, then trek all the way back to the exit, fighting random battles all along the way. In a game like Final Fantasy where your party’s health and MP don’t regenerate after battle (even a little), this wears down on your mages, who are constantly struggling to keep the party’s health up without having to resort to expensive healing items. And if there are more than two available paths, that’s just cruel. The game becomes a slog, with what should be healthy exploration bogged down by a combination of too many unknown paths and too many random battles.
When this design pops up in games today, I feel punished for wanting to explore the game world. I want to see every nook and cranny and make sure I haven’t missed any loot or any secret shops/conversations/party members, what have you. But my desire to explore goes down once I realize that means fighting through another series of battles every few steps, which can take anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes depending on the game.
I’ve currently sunk 25 hours into Final Fantasy Dimensions and I’m only about halfway through the game, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the game is a deep classic JRPG experience. The dungeons aren’t long by any means, usually only about five or six floors with only two or three forks per floor (one to the treasure, one to the next fork, then repeat), but the game’s taking me so fucking long to get through because I’m fighting a random battle every time I twitch. There’s no way to reduce the amount of random encounters, and running can take up to twenty seconds and allows the enemy to get plenty of free hits in before that. Hell, I’ll just give you the skinny right now: the game is a neverending sequence of forest, cave and mountain dungeons (the mountains are the worst, as you usually go up the mountain and then back down…yeah, no boss battles at the summit in this bad boy) broken up by the occasional town where nothing special happens beyond allowing you to buy new pieces of armour, with the only story progression usually occurring at the very end of each chapter (often after a town-dungeon-dungeon-town-dungeon sequence).
Zeboyd’s retro JRPGs (Breath of Death VII, Cthulhu Saves the World, Penny Arcade 3) are prime examples of this kind of map design, except their branches take even longer to find out whether you chose the treasure path or the exit path than in Final Fantasy Dimensions. However, one large plus is that after you fight a set number of random battles in each dungeon, the random encounter rate will drop to zero and require you to manually enter battles via the menu screen. This allows you to explore to your heart’s content without fear of getting jumped by a bunch of slimes, while simultaneously acting as a levelling tool (once you hit the max number of random battles, it’s suggested that you’re done grinding in that area, and you’ll have a chance against the boss). Penny Arcade 3 does away with random battles entirely, placing enemies on the map in scripted positions and regenerating your party’s health completely after each battle; progressing through the dungeon is more like clearing away barriers in the form of enemies until you have a clear path to the exit/treasure. I like the latter more than the former, but both are acceptable alternatives to traditional JRPG design, and the former in particular is kind of innovative.
Nowadays, I think I’m losing my patience for JRPGs that have this kind of design. I find myself gravitating more toward stuff like the Tales series, where the enemies are visible on the overworld map and avoidable, there is no penalty for running, you get a small amount of health and TP back after each battle, and you can usually explore to your heart’s content without fighting an endless series of battles. Or even stuff like The Last Story, where every battle is scripted and there are no random enemies whatsoever. Or, hell, even Western RPGs, where combat might not even be broken down into discrete “battles.”