The RPG is a genre of gaming that is slowly but surely becoming less and less distinct. Many action / adventure titles are borrowing RPG elements, like the character progression in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. In addition to this, many RPGs are shying away from the ideals that made them distinct, which is making the genre increasingly hard to define. If this trend continues, we as gamers may have to accept the gradual but inevitable death of the traditional RPG.
Role-Playing games are not an easy genre to define. Most traditional RPGs have certain elements such as character growth and evolution through the allotting of experience points, a fantasy of sci-fi setting, an emphasis on storytelling, a team comprised of characters with diverse talents, characteristics and origins, and a dilemma of epic proportions. Almost none of these elements are immutable, as some RPGs star only one character, have mundane, real-world locations, or even eschew experience points. Then there are genres that are obviously not RPGs that contain some of these elements as well. Almost all games nowadays support some form of character evolution, having the character grow in strength and abilities as the game progresses, even if this is simply through the introduction of new weapons and items.
Because RPGs are so difficult to define, they've also become one of the more malleable genres. As technology advances, RPGs seem to morph almost unrecognizably. In contrast, first person shooters don't change much from game to game. Consider the similarities between the original Doom and Doom III. Technology has allowed for the utilization of better visuals and better AI, but at its core the player is still required to defeat demonic foes by shooting them with a variety of weapons. Now consider the vast differences between Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy XII. There has been an alteration in the use of random battles, the experience growth system, and the overworld traveling. One could even argue that the Final Fantasy series is infamous for changing its series each iteration, but the argument stands when comparing Suikoden to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion or Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door to Mass Effect. Now compare Black to Duke Nukem or Resistance: Fall of Man. For the RPGs, each title is vastly different but can still be considered an RPG.
Therein lies the problem for RPG traditionalists. Because the parameters of an RPG are so flexible, developers are constantly pushing these limits in crafting new and fresh RPG experiences. Consider how infrequently random battles are included in new role playing games, and how altered random battles are in games that do include them. Or consider the trend towards real-time combat in RPGs and how some games even blend real-time combat with turn based to create hybrid battle systems. Technology is allowing developers to do more with their games, to expand the parameters of the traditional RPG, which is blurring the boundaries between genres.
Let's take a look at some of the upcoming high-profile RPGs. The most anticipated of the lot are Blue Dragon, Fable 2, Mass Effect, Final Fantasy XIII and Lost Odyssey. Of these five, only two sport traditional turn based combat and only one has traditional random battles, although we still don't have all the details on these games obviously. Clearly some consider traditional RPG elements to be archaic, and this is leading to these things being used less. We as gamers may need to ask if this is a good thing.
In all honesty, the origins of random battles were probably due to the limitations of earlier technology. Now, however, as consoles grow ridiculously powerful, random battles and turn based combat seem outdated, placed in RPGs for tradition's sake more than any utility. However, considering the success and popularity of Dragon Quest VIII, which used both RPG staples, it seems likely that these elements can still be utilized in entertaining ways that don't make players feel as if they've time-traveled back to 1994.
In using turn based combat, one thing that is essential is some form of animation or action. While Dragon Quest VIII's actions were relatively standard, what made it entertaining was the use of the beautiful, cel-shaded characters carrying out the orders. Turn based combat is much more tolerable when the player can actually see the on screen personas enacting the commands. In addition to this, a deep combat system makes the game feel fresh, as the characters constantly learn new moves and can do more than the conventional attack, run, magic, and defend. Another thing that was fun was the use of in-battle chatter, as seen in Final Fantasy X. Occasionally, when switching in and out of battle or before performing an attack, the characters would make random but relevant comments or boasts. This went a long way towards making the characters feel like actual living beings and not just digitized automatons and also made FFX a more absorbing gaming experience. However, in my opinion, one of the best examples of a well-implemented battle system was in Knights of the Old Republic, which was nearly a perfect blend of real-time combat mixed with hidden turn based commands. The player could even tailor the fighting to make it feel more turn based or more action oriented.
Conversely, perhaps the random combat experience needs to be phased out or at least altered a bit. FFXII's system of being able to see your foe afar off worked really well and still felt like an RPG, even though it all but abolished the randomness. Even though it was an action-RPG, Rogue Galaxy had a random battle system that didn't take the player out of the game-world, instead allowing the monsters to fade in wherever the protagonist was at the time. Again, one of my favorite versions of the "random" battle experience is from KotOR. The player is never taken out of the game world to a preset battle stage, and the player also has the ability to sneak past foes, surprise them, or fight them outright. The player can set traps like mines, and foes and allies react with one another, like when enemies actually duck under a lightsaber swing when the game registers a miss. Although it still appears hokey when you outright strike a foe onscreen but it is registered as a block or a miss, this system was among the best in most RPGs to date.
If tradition exists only to support tradition, it becomes limiting. Since we are no longer limited to blurred screens taking us to battle menus, should we force that trend to continue for tradition's sake alone? As much as it might pain the gamers that grew up in the early days of Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, old school gamers that remember static combat screens and simple commands, the traditional RPG might be dying a slow and painful death. And perhaps we as gamers should step back and silence our self-righteous purist protesting and allow the advent of growth and technology to redefine the genre, hopefully for the better. If that's what it takes for us to get more games like Knights of the Old Republic and the amazing looking Mass Effect and Final Fantasy XIII, then I'm definitely on-board.
CCC Co-Site Director