Falling Out of Love

I might be done with JRPGs. Wait, let me back up.

Astute listeners have probably already figured this out. I grouse when we do them for the show, I've complained in asides. I've more or less said as much many times over.

I'm going to throw something out there: the grind is a bad mechanic. Non tactical battles that can be completed by tapping A, that exist almost entirely to empower you through XP are fucking obnoxious time wasters. When the best thing you can say about such things is that it's not distracting enough to interfere with listening to podcasts, that's a problem.

This is more or less a 180 from my attitude in childhood. I remember RPGs blowing my fucking mind as a kid. I loved Contra and Mario but a game where I could take my time and make slow, tactical decisions was a revelation. I was fucking hungry for RPGs. I played the bejeezus out of Wizardry, Might and Magic, Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, Paladin's Quest, Breath of Fire and Lufia. When I'd go rent games, I'd actively look for RPGs and the genre was enough. I played The 7th Saga for god's sake.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when I became disillused with them. The usual culprits are probably at work in some degree. I have less time now, my imagination is probably atrophied extensively and the plots of most JRPGs are no longer aimed at me. In addition to these factors, there are two more I can think of.

First, the above: I fucking hate the grind. I just don't get it. When I was younger, I would treat every slime and drakie encounter as if the stakes were through the roof and agonize over casting heal or harm or stop. At some point I realized that all of this mental energy was unnecessary. You just have to press the confirm button. Every single Final Fantasy up until 12 can be 70% completed by tapping A. You just spend so much fucking time tapping A! Confirm confirm confirm.

Games try to account for this weakness. The Super Mario RPGs famously have a timed hit system, as do the Shadow Covenant games. Bravely Default (which is sort of a garbage game, as far as I'm concerned) let's you do 4 actions and once and fast forward through battles. The developers know this is a boring mechanic. And yet...?

You can argue there's a sense of meditation to the grind. That seeing an unending wave of monsters fall to your battle acumen that may as well be a drinking bird perched over a controller can be softly satisfying. You get to watch numbers go up and afford better stuff. It's a skinner box and skinner boxes work.

But the second thing I ran into were western RPGs and to a lesser extent very adventurous JRPGs. Your Baldur's Gates and your Deus Ex throw this nonsense out the window. Battles are dangerous, each and every one. And you're making choices other than just tappa tappa tappa. And they couple these more robust battle systems with strong character progression that actually involves player choice. Cid is Cid, no matter what. But JC Denton can be what I want him to be. It's such a clear improvement that I'm sort of surprised JRPGs haven't just entirely died out.

I'm not saying there's nothing of value in your typical JRPG. Some do have really interesting character build systems (FF8 and FF10), many have stories that, while not always great, are at least charming (FF4, DQ8) and many more come alive tactically during boss battles (FF6, Bravely Default, weirdly enough). But the moment to moment, the majority of how I'm spending my time is important. I'd even argue that a game like FF5 has a party build system that rivals the complexity and satisfaction of Deux Ex. The difference is how you're building. In Deus Ex, my character gets better by achieving story goals and traversing the levels. In FF5, it's just random battles. Boring, shitty random battles. Yes, you're doing them on paths between story checkpoints but when you drill down far enough, it's just tappa tappa tappa.

There are some other egregious sins that the genre commits (dungeon design, other than solely in a visual sense, being a notable one) but the grind really does feel like a deal breaker for me. It's hard for me to imagine picking up a tappa tappa tappa style JRPG now, at 34 years old, with my myriad obligations. I don't write this post to say we'll never do another JRPG for the show. But from here on, they really are going to have to be the best of the best. Either they will need to subvert the grind or the aesthetics and story have to be top fucking notch. Otherwise, who really has the time?