Although there was a time when I was a big JRPG fan, as a 29-year-old with a 9-to-5 job, I just don’t have the time to devote to them anymore. The most recent example I’ve played is Square’s experimental iPhone outing Chaos Rings; it’s an okay game, but it’s very much by-the-numbers. I’ve been trying for weeks to write up a review of it that didn’t boil down to a bulleted list, but it’s hard. The game is like Macaroni and Cheese- tasty and filling, but ultimately too bland to have any kind of reaction to. The graphics are very pretty, rivaling or exceeding some of Square’s later PSX games. The big ideas of the story are interesting, but the writing and characters aren’t strong enough to support them. The battles and character development systems have perhaps one idea that was’t cribbed from one of Square’s older, more notable products.
Like Final Fantasy 8 before it, Chaos Rings has relatively few enemy types, each of which has a “level” associated with it. You can tweak the strength of enemies in a given dungeon before you enter it- if you’re aggressive about this, it actually makes combat a fairly intense affair, where you’ll need to think carefully before every move and give some thought to what enemies will do and how you’re going to survive the round. These are the moments when the game really clicks, and you have to be concerned with the otherwise-ignorable intricaces of the battle system. Do I want to have my characters make conservative single attacks, or make a pair action- doing more damage but exposing both characters to attacks at once? Should I risk casting a fire spell on this ice-elemental enemy, knowing that doing so will make me more susceptible to the wind-elemental attacks wielded by the other enemies?
These periods don’t last long, though. Sooner or later, you’ll gain a couple levels, and then most battles become a cake walk- a simple matter of tapping ‘attack’ until all enemies are dead, then collecting your gold and exp and moving on.
This seems to be the sort of thing that happens to a lot of JRPGs- I recall Tycho of Penny Arcade observing about Square’s The Last Remnant that “I’ve never found a “boss” or “rare spawn” enemy in the game that I could defeat purely by stratagem – only by more levels.”
Shouldn’t we be beyond these shenanigans by now?
It always disappoints me how frequent this sort of thing is in the JRPG world, especially in a market where there’s less and less excuse for it. I don’t think it’s an unreasonable suggestion that combat should be meaningful- that you should have a chance at dying (however small) in any given encounter, it should be part of a greater resource management challenge (as in most 8-bit-era Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior games, most of the Shin Megami Tensei games, etc), or fun enough to stand on its own as a game. I’d even go so far as to suggest more drastic solutions, such as eliminating levels and character development as a reward for random encounters entirely.
I realize that this is one of those things that every game blogger harps on at one point or another, but it boggles my mind that having pointless, mandatory stops where you tap ‘fight’ a couple times and then move on isn’t universally recognized as a bad idea.