We've all heard the complaints about role-playing games. They're tedious and boring, the combat moves too slowly, all the characters inhabit the same worn clichés, and they simply last too long for busy gamers to complete. When I hear these complaints nowadays, I simply shake my head, because the RPG genre has never been less like the description tendered by these bashers. Take a little while to look around, and you'll see that the RPG genre is expanding and diversifying, offering something for just about everyone. RPG systems are continually being improved, with lots of innovation happening in the area of combat systems. Finally, RPG mechanics are invading other genres, adding depth and interest to games when done right.
Although there aren't a ton of sprawling, epic RPGs on this generation of home consoles, there are actually plenty of quality RPGs to be found. Perhaps you've even played an RPG without realizing it. Since the games from the Western and Eastern RPG traditions are so different, there are a lot of different ways that a game can be considered a role-playing game. RPGs have a strong system of character development, in which playable characters gain experience, learn new skills, and grow stronger as the game goes on. Characters also collect equipment and other kinds of loot to assist in their adventures. Many RPGs—especially those made in North America and Europe—also allow the player to make important decisions that affect the story and the game world. Others—especially Japanese RPGs and action RPGs—take the player through a fixed storyline, but still have the statistical character development and loot systems common to all games in the genre.
Within that basic framework, there is room for a wide variety of games, and the industry has been spreading that even wider. There are high-quality, interesting RPGs out there for just about every gamer, as long as that gamer is open-minded enough to look beyond the usual suspects of Final Fantasy and BioWare games to the vast constellation of smaller games out there. Looking for a classic-style RPG adventure with turn-based combat? Lost Odyssey and The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky are great picks. Short on time? Check out the world of downloadable games for quick gems like Costume Quest and Cthluhu Saves the World. Looking for something innovative and different? Try Nier or a game from the Shin Megami Tensai series. Enjoy open worlds? The upcoming Skyrim and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning should scratch that itch very well.
Not only is there a wide variety of high-quality RPGs out there, there's a large amount of innovation and improvement being made in the area of basic RPG mechanics. Even the good old turn-based battle system has seen serious improvement over the years, and players almost never find themselves clicking "FIGHT-FIGHT-FIGHT-FIGHT" through random battles any more. Action RPG combat systems are being improved as well, with many games featuring smoother, more-responsive combat than ever before. Even MMORPGs are hopping on the bandwagon: check out Vindictus or Dragon Nest for examples of some genuinely fun action combat in an MMORPG.
RPG worlds and stories are also becoming more varied, and though both Eastern and Western RPGs have their particular tropes, many companies have been playing with those tropes or attempting to avoid them completely. Be it with a gritty, mature world such as that found in The Witcher 2 or by creating a set of original races with unique cultures such as those found in the upcoming Guild Wars 2, developers are aware that gamers want something different and compelling and are working to make that wish come true. There are even comedy RPGs such as the DeathSpank and Disgaea series that poke fun at traditional fantasy stories, and of course there are series like Mass Effect, Fallout, and Deus Ex that bring RPG mechanics to the science fiction, post-apocalyptic, and cyberpunk genres.
If RPGs suck, why are so many other genres borrowing elements from them? Action adventure games have taken a page from pioneering RPGs such as Deus Ex, allowing multiple paths to success through game levels. Many shooters have added experience and level-up systems, or have created RPG-style loot systems. Games like BioShock have been implementing character development via ability choices or skill trees such as those originally found in Diablo II. Even the venerable farming sim series, Harvest Moon, has implemented an RPG-style quest system in order to spice up gameplay and give players a stronger structure of goals to complete.
Role-playing games are here to stay, and while some of them trod too much tried-and-true ground, that's no reason to tar a large and diverse genre with the same brush. The past few years have been great for the RPG genre, despite a lack of blockbuster Japanese RPGs on home consoles. We've covered plenty of great RPGs here at Cheat Code Central, so take a look through our review backlog and find an RPG that offers something for you. Even if you don't, you just might notice that RPG mechanics are creeping into the games you play, giving you character development choices or providing a deeper gameplay experience. We role-playing gamers would apologize for invading those other genres, but we're pretty sure you like the change.
By Becky Cunningham
CCC Contributing Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central. This week's is also purely a work of fiction*