ron, Sep-27 2008

Convenience is convenient

RPGs are huge, generally speaking. The bar for expected play-time lies somewhere above 40 hours, 50 hours if you dabble in any side-quests at all, and way above 100 for genuine completionists. It's a pet theory of mine that the RPG genre isn't really as popular as sales numbers ostensibly suggest, but rather that the average length of RPGs, in tandem with completionist's guilt, keeps the trade with used copies much lower than in other genres.
The point being, if you spend such a long time with one game, it becomes really important that the game is convenient. A few seconds of delay here and there, unnecessary animations, slightly inconvenient menus etc are generally not a problem for games that end after 15 to 20 hours. 50 hours later though, if and because you like the game enough to stay with it that long, these tiny annoyances will grate on you. Thousands of repetitions can do that.
It's good to see that the contemporary RPG market doesn't consist purely of dadaism, but that there are still a number of RPG development studios who care about delivering good, pleasant gaming experiences. Level 5 is one such developer, and Rogue Galaxy is one such game.

Rogue Galaxy is all seamless, all the time. 1)Unless you travel between planets, every environment is just one huge space that gets streamed in in the background without ever involving a loading screen. 2)The environment you explore and the environment you fight in are one and the same.
Let me point out again that this image is just one of many Rogue Galaxy screenshots. You can click the image, too, as usual.

The biggest culprit versus convenience is usually the load time for the battle arenas – for any RPG that has them, that is. Final Fantasy IX is the first example that comes to my mind, as I absolutely love the gameplay systems and the world and its aesthetics, but simultaneously loathe its battle load times and long "cinematic" camera swoops so much that I just can't bring myself to play it past disc 2.
The battle-delay issue is often lumped in with hate for random encounters per se, but that's quite imprecise. More often than not you can trivially run away from anything but special event battles, so you don't have to fight if you really don't want to. The actual problem is that by the time you regain control, after the transition into battle mode, you've already lost such an awful lot of time that running away feels only marginally faster than staying and winning and taking the spoils.

Mio understands. Efficiency is the final frontier.

Rogue Galaxy does have random encounters. Whenever you're exploring outside of pacified zones, enemies may literally drop from the sky, right into your current environment, and the battle commences. A quick, half-second change of character stances later (unsheathing of swords etc), you're back to full control. If you keep running and get far enough away, the game will prompt you if you want to escape, and if you confirm, the enemies vanish while you remain where you are. Thus you can explore and cover actual distance even in encounters you have no intention to tackle, and lose maybe a second.
Even the usual battle summary, where your experience points and loot are tallied up after you win, is a mere transparent overlay to the exploration perspective. The second it fades in you can already move your character and get on with business.

Together with certain other facets of Rogue Galaxy, it seems clear that convenience for the player must have been an actual design priority during its development. E.g. the game world is littered with teleport pads, which once discovered allow free, instant travel across the current planet (or to the bridge of the ship, from where you can go to any other planet). All cut-scenes can be paused and skipped. The revelation board, which lets you invest various loot items into new combat skills for your characters, automatically highlights characters that can be advanced with the loot currently on hand, and automatically places the cursor on an applicable spot. The crafting systems can be used anywhere and automatically keep track both of recipes you should try, and of combinations you already have tried. The game is just generally fast, inviting and easy to use.

This nice little desert planet is only the starting point for a no-holds-barred space opera.

I reserve full spectrum mumbling for the eventual review, but I will say now that it's not just the general efficiency I like. The game, overall, is definitely solid if not spectacular. The basic combat system works well. There's a blocking mechanic that interacts with an action-point mechanic, all characters have primary and secondary weapons (which gives you melee and ranged usually) where a recharge timer makes sure you make more or less balanced use of both. You can also pick up and throw dazed enemies, some enemies can only be damaged mid-jump etc. It's to some extent playable as stupid button-mashy fun, especially when you're overleveled, but you'll be significantly more effective if you play with care. Masochists on the look-out for really convoluted side-quests/minigames should also be able to satisfy themselves profoundly with the "factory" and "insector" aspects. Though I have to stress it again: those mini-games aren't demanding due to terrible interface design, but rather because the player needs to perform lots of different little actions over a long time.

It's quite heart-warming when the games I choose to play actually turn out to be good. A number of terrible RPG-like experiences I endured for far too long lately, let's given them the code names Oblivion and Valkyrie Profile 2, really wore down my will to spend time with more specimens. Rogue Galaxy is reeling me back in, and I'm glad I finally bit.


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