I’ve been playing a lot of console games lately. I finished Lord of the Rings: The Third Age a little while ago, then moved on to Suikoden III, and then decided to finally finish Suikoden V, and now am playing Shadow Hearts: Covenant. And one thing has bugged me about all of them: random encounters. Or, rather, the combination of random encounters and an underlying motivation to explore. Or, even more rather, the combination of random encounters, an underlying motivation to explore, and a dungeon/world design that makes it far too easy to get lost.
So, what’s the beef? Well, most console games — and some others, like Wizardry 8 — build their experience-gaining model on random encounters, which are enemies that you encounter at random just walking around. They have no real connection to the plot and are just there to be things for you to fight and get experience and so get levels. Games like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale and Knights of the Old Republic made these fixed, so in theory there’s a set amount of experience in the game. This means that in those games, once you clear out an area that area’s clear and you won’t have to fight anything else in that area unless the plot demands that new monsters move in.
But with random encounters, no area is ever clear. You could wander over the same area a million times fighting every step of the way and you’ll still have to fight things. Sometimes they scale with your level, and sometimes they don’t. But, ultimately, no matter where you go, you’re fighting things.
Which wouldn’t be that big a problem except that every fight takes some resources, generally. You use spells against them, or you lose hitpoints that require potions or spells to restore, or you use skills and lose skill points or whatever. And so when all you want to do is get to the end boss and move on, you have to fight through these things and lose resources that you might need for that boss fight. Which means that you have to stock up for more than the boss fight, but for the time and resources you’ll spend getting to him. And if they’re so easy that you won’t use resources, they’re just annoying (Oh, look, more evil broccoli. Put it on auto, wait for the battle to end, note that my XP went up by 1 (only 100,000 more to go!), move on to the next fight).
Well, okay, that’s not that bad. But now add in encouragement to actually explore every corner of every single area that you happen to be in. LotR: TTA had it so that you couldn’t buy any items at all, so you wanted to find every treasure chest … oh, and if you want perfect completion you have to do all the sidequests that required exploration. S3 and S5 let you buy items, but a lot of unique items were hidden in chests and in separate areas, as well as you sometimes running into recruitable characters in them. SH: C had all the same things as S3 and S5, and also added encounters with the Ring Spirit (okay, okay, Ring Soul! Ring Soul!) that are funny and give you things as well. So you want to explore every single corner to get all the encounters and things you want or need to. Fighting all the way, because again random encounters keep happening no matter how many times you run down the same corridor. Using resources all the way as well.
Which leads to the last addition: getting lost. So, you’re trying to find every corner, and then you get, well, lost. You’re studying the puzzles, looking for the right switches to flip, or whatever and you’re stuck. So you desperately run around trying to find some exit that you missed the first time. And while you’re trying to see if that path is really there or is one you’ve already walked down … you hit a random encounter. Which takes resources. Heaven help you if you’re understocked and get lost, because you have to worry that you’re going to run out of powers/potions before the boss … where you’ll actually really need them.
S5 was TERRIBLE for this. In one area, you’re in a forest that not only has increased random encounters, but the paths are obscured so you can’t actually tell where they are. So I got completely lost because I simply couldn’t see the path … and I play on an old Amiga monitor which is a heck of a lot sharper than your average CRT TV, which is what was the standard when that game came out. And so I kept thinking “Let me see if that’s … dang, another fight”;. In another area, I didn’t realize that I had to go through the other gate, and so got completely lost, having to save a few times and almost running out of healing potions because of the random encounters … and you couldn’t buy any other things to replace them. Or at least I couldn’t. The others are generally not as bad, but I got lost badly in every one of them except S3.
About the only good thing about that is that if you do get lost and have to fight over and over and over again just to find the path, at least you generally get to level up without having to officially grind.
Yeah, I understand that we need some challenge in the game and some way to gain levels. It just seems that there ought to be a less potentially frustrating way. Then again, those four games are games that I’ve managed to finish, except for SH: C. So maybe nothing needs to change at all