Two Massive PS3 RPGs: Kingdoms of Amalur and Ni No Kuni
I’ve been mucking about on my PS3 rather a lot of late. Today I’d like to write about two massive (50+ hour) RPGs I’ve been playing. The first is called Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and is very much a traditional western single-player RPG. The second is called Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, and is an excellent example of a stereotypical JRPG. Both are well made and fun, though both also have some serious flaws.
For the sake of brevity, I’m going to refer to Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning as Amalur, and I’m going to refer to Ni No Kune: Wrath of the White Witch as NNK.
So, then. I’m about 40 hours into Amalur so far. The plot is very, VERY reliant on well-worn tropes: you play as The Fateless One, the only person in the world whose destiny is not preset. Well, to be fair, you once had a destiny like everyone else, but then you died. An experimental magical device managed to bring you back, but now you’re no longer connected to the tapestry of fate or what have you. While trite, this plot is well-enough handled.
From the start, Amalur encourages some flexibility in how one approaches content. A fairly flexible skill system allows some customization, but this more or less disappears as the game progresses. The problem lies in the fact that, over time, you’ll gain every skill at max or close to max rating. There is one element of choice in character building though; every level you get three points to allocate between might, finesse, and sorcery trees. Spending points unlocks new powers and also enhances existing powers. By around lvl 25 though (out of 40 possible), my character had already maxed out the sorcery tree, with max points in everything I was using. That leaves little room for growth outside of hunting for gear with slightly higher numbers on it.
Amalur’s story varies quite a bit in quality. The main story arc is about the fae (immortal magical beings). Collectively, the fae are going through some changes; they’re faced with their possible extinction as a race, and at the same time, and unrelated to the extinction plotline, a large group of fae are waging all-out war on the humans. A lot of things are “fated to happen” but then, as the Fateless One, the player is able to change things. Often, this feels fairly predictable, but on occasion Amalur’s writing has really surprised and impressed me.
The single best storyline I’ve yet encountered in Amalur was the plotline behind one of the factions players can join. This faction, The House of Ballads, is one of the first that players encounter, which is both good and bad for the game. Essentially, the House of Ballads is a collection of fae who hold positions corresponding to various stories. The stories recur time after time, century after century, and everyone plays their parts. From time to time, the generally immortal fae filling these positions die, and then a new fae joins the House of Ballads and fills that role, so the stories can continue. I felt there was an excellent juxtaposition of the main storyline about the Fateless One with this story about a group of people defined by predestined stories. I won’t spoil what happens but I felt the writing was top-notch and I was really drawn into this plotline.
Then it ended. Frankly, the game was not the same after I finished that plotline; in comparison, the rest of the writing has been fairly predictable and mundane. Don’t get me wrong; there’s still good writing in Amalur… but after something of that quality, spending the next 10 or so hours doing rote RPG tasks was really, really a drag. Other factions, while interesting, really have not compared with the House of Ballads. I mean, ok, so there’s the predictable group of soldiers, and the predictable group of thieves, and the predictable group of mages. If you’ve played other single-player western RPGs, then you know pretty much exactly what to expect from those groups and from their plotlines.
That’s a lot of my feeling about Amalur, really; I know what to expect from it. I’ll keep playing because the writing has surprised and impressed me a few times, but overall the basic design of Amalur feels just like any other western stock fantasy RPG. If I were to give Amalur a grade, it’d be a strong ‘B’ at this point. If you love oldschool western RPGs and are looking for something to do, hey, you could do a lot worse than Amalur.
So what about Ni No Kuni? I picked that up over the weekend and have been playing it almost nonstop since. NNK is a JRPG, with all that entails for good and for ill. It was also animated by Studio Ghibli, which makes the game simply gorgeous. Ever wanted to step into “My Neighbor Totoro” or “Princess Mononoke” or “Spirited Away”? Well, here’s your chance. All the art and animation is simply lovely. I can’t speak too highly about this; indeed, I feel that I ought to repeat myself several times just to emphasize how lovely the art and animation are.
And there’s the word that seems to sum up most of my experience playing NNK thus far: if a thing is done in game, it’ll repeat. Again, and again, and again. The repetition gets truly wearisome over time, and if the game weren’t basically a lot of fun (and also lovely to look at) I’d have long since lost interest. So what’s repeating? What bothers me so much? In order to make sense of the repetition, I’ll give an overview of the game.
Let’s start with the basic mechanics of the game. NNK is essentially a sandbox Pokemon game. You have a team of people (no spoilers here), each of whom can control pets. Each team member can have up to three pets ready for action at any given time, and you can have as many pets as you like in storage. Only the ones that are traveling with you get experience from your fights, and of course, you can only use the ones that are with you. Much of the game then involves fighting random monsters who wander around the world and its dungeons. You fight monsters to defeat a certain number for some quests; you fight monsters to get special drops from them for other quests; you fight special named monsters for some quests; you fight monsters in hopes that upon defeating them you’ll get a chance to tame them and make them pets for some quests (or because you want a pet of your own).
Because the basic gameplay is about collecting and training pets, and because there isn’t any good way to tell which pets will grow up to be big and strong and which pets are from useless species that will never be remotely useful, there’s a lot of guesswork involved in making your team. That also means you’ll come to points several times when you’ll decide the pet you’ve been training for the last 30-odd levels just isn’t worth your time, and you’ll replace it with another pet. Then you’ll have the joy of grinding levels for the new pet. Pets have three life stages; when they get to a certain level you’ll have the option to feed them a special treat in order to upgrade them to their next life stage. This comes with higher stats, slower growth, and of course a reset to level 1… so for each of your pets that you actually like and want to keep, you can expect to level it up, start over, level it up more slowly, start over, then level it up again yet more slowly. No, seriously. Each team member can have up to three active pets, and you’ll want to level them all up. Plus there are the false starts/mistakes, so that’s yet more leveling.
The takeaway here is that I often find I need to stop “playing the game” (that’s how I think of it) in order to grind for a couple of hours so my party will be strong enough to continue. While I understand the reasons that designers include grinding in games, that doesn’t mean I approve of or appreciate those reasons. Here, it’s very much a question of just buckling down and doing something many, many times in order to profit.
The combat itself is also quite repetitive. On the one hand, at any given time you’ll have a pretty high number of options in combat. You can switch to any team member or any of their pets, and every one of those individuals will have several combat options. In theory, then, combat is pretty dynamic… you need to consider positioning, and you need to select the right person or pet, and you need to balance your health and mana pools against various combat options including healing and offensive spells. Practically speaking though, I’ve found that once I build a decent team, I can just tell them to attack (basic stock-standard attack) whenever they need orders, and do almost nothing else for the vast majority of fights. Yes, I can burn magic to kill foes faster, and yes, bosses require far more advanced tactics (those fights are fun and challenging, to be sure), but that doesn’t change the fact that a typical game session features dozens or hundreds of very similar fights that are in actuality very simple. Adding to the grindy feeling, there’s an unskippable cutscene after every fight, where you learn how much exp every team member got, and what items/money was gained. Every area that has monsters has randomization and very very very fast respawn, so if you fight your way down a hallway and turn around, new monsters will be there. That means that backtracking and exploring tend to lead to a lot of very similar fights.
On the other hand, my main character and his team continue to grow and change over time, so my options continually expand. Unlike Amalur, where my character has literally learned every spell he’ll ever use, in NNK I can expect to find new pets and new magic. That absolutely does help ease the pain of the grind.
The game features a great deal of fully animated cutscenes, which are very much like watching a Studio Ghibli movie in every respect except the dialogue. Good lord, the dialogue. Don’t get me wrong; a lot of this is simply cultural bias. I know that Japanese movies and animation tend to feature a different approach to dialogue than western movies and animation, but NNK really hits me over the head with the difference. Essentially, if a thing can be adequately expressed in two sentences, NNK is likely to use 5 or even 10 sentences. Well, really, it’ll be the same two sentences repeated several times, with minor changes for emphasis. That is to say, in NNK, sentences that were already said will be said again, only slightly differently. Why would characters in NNK say the same sentences again, with slight differences? For emphasis! Sometimes things can just be said outright, then repeated. Is it also possible to repeat things by asking questions? It is.
It’s not that the writing is bad; it absolutely is not. I LOVE the story. Although several of the main story beats have been predictable, I’m still very immersed. I like and care about the characters. I just wish they’d learn to express themselves far more efficiently, because after the first couple of dozen hours, the sheer inefficiency of the dialogue’s repetition wears at me. I am not exaggerating when I say that some scenes that take five minutes could be done quite well in one minute. I’m studiously avoiding spoilers so can’t present actual examples from the game, but believe me when I say that EVERY conversation could benefit from some serious editing. Every single conversation in the game could be shortened. All of them.
It’s not that I mind the cutscenes; they’re a central part of JRPGs after all and I knew what I was getting into. I just don’t like hearing the same thing several times. When something goes awry and I have to repeat a cutscene, I skip it every time, and whenever I can, I typically will rush through the unvoiced dialogue, because, again, the same sentiments will appear several times, slightly rephrased. There’s also a tendency for characters to grunt instead of talking. Again, this is simply cultural bias; I’m not saying grunting is bad or anything. Grunts though are generally treated as invitations to repeat what was just said with minor alterations. Ergh. Oliver (the main character) grunts a lot, in addition to saying “Wha…?” and “Huh?” more times in an hour than a healthy child will in a month. I’m just saying.
Here’s the rub: NNK is truly a remarkably good game. If they’d tighten up the dialogue (a lot), and increase EXP rewards by, say, 50% to 100% (to significantly lessen grinding), the game would be vastly improved. As it is, I would strongly recommend NNK to anyone who likes JRPGs and Studio Ghibli. Anyone who’s not deeply enamored with the JRPG model might find NNK pretty grindy. Right now it’s probably a strong “B+” but this game is a hair’s breadth away from being a nigh-perfect “A+”.
One other thing I ought to mention; NNK’s questing gameplay involves a very clever concept. In addition to the typical RPG quests where you a) go kill things, b) go fetch things, and c) craft things, there are also a fair number of quests where you’re tasked with fixing an NPC’s broken heart. One of the game’s Big Bad Guys has been stealing bits of people’s hearts, leaving them unable to function, and so you can set out to right those wrongs by taking extra bits of heart from people with a great deal of kindness, courage, restraint, and so on… and giving those bits to people who lack them. It’s a lovely idea and is quite well-executed. Instead of the typical RPG escort quest, where the NPCs wander off and get into continual trouble, in NNK an escort quest generally involves someone joining your party. That means you either control them directly, or they’re completely out of the way during combat. In either case, you don’t need to worry about NPC AI leading them to do idiotic things while you swear at the monitor. It’s a pleasant change.