So, I’ve been playing Suikoden V for a while, and for the first time, I think, I’ve played it pretty much right after playing Suikoden III (skipping the reportedly not very good Suikoden IV), and I was struck by one thing: how much better S3 is compared to S5.
Graphically, S5 might be better. The menus, though, aren’t. (Hint to UI designers: technically powerful does not always equate to useful or pretty.) But ultimately, the problem is that they made changes to the gameplay and mechanisms that are annoying and don’t seem to add much. They replaced the “point-and-click” movement to certain areas in S3 with a return to the standard “Wander around on the world map” idea, and that leads to me getting horribly lost (right now, I can’t remember where to go to find Sable and as far as I know the game won’t tell me). Add in that they added uncrossable rivers but then added a boat that takes you there by actually wandering down or up the river in an uninterruptable trip — you only get an encounter once, and it’s scripted — and it’s just, well, annoying.
But it doesn’t stop there. Now instead of picking up runes — the main sources of magic for the game — you get dropped pieces that you can assemble. And all magic is driven by the same skill, whereas each of the runes had its own skill in S3, meaning that you could have magicians who were good with certain runes but not others, adding to the strategy of selecting characters (and with 108 characters, that’s useful). Recruitment is harder. Battles have changed to a more free-flowing battle — you can and have to move everywhere — but you have a silly “rock-paper-scissors”; resolution with weaknesses, compared to S3 where the composition of the party mattered more. It’s also moved to real-time instead of turn-based, which can make it really annoying when you have to deal with a land and sea battle at the same time. The story isn’t as dramatic, but it is good and funny … but the main character has no personality, unlike S3 who had three main characters with distinct and interesting personalities.
Okay, so after that rant, let’s start to get towards the point: the sequel changed, at least in part because someone decided it had to. S3 was a popular game, S4 was not as highly regarded, and S5 could have gained by sticking with that. But there’s this odd impression that RPGs cannot simply take the old gameplay, tweak it a bit to fix the problems, and then add a new and interesting story to it and be a good game. Which is odd in a world where EA makes tons of money effectively selling roster updates with minor tweaks every year.
This isn’t the only RPG to do it. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2: Sith Lords did the same thing. It added the prestige classes and a new type of card game and lightsaber stances and some other goodies and then couldn’t actually finish the game. I’d have rathered they finish the game and leave some of that out, to be honest. And Final Fantasy X-2 changed the combat system from Final Fantasy X so that I couldn’t play Final Fantasy X-2, despite being able to do combat okay in FFX. The shift that started in X-Men: Legends 2 towards having boss fights with special things having to happen — like having to, say, toss bombs back at a boss — as opposed to a straight fight reached its culmination in the insanely complex specialties of Marvel Ultimate Alliance, where there was no boss that you could just hit until they go away (minor underlings, yes. Bosses, no).
Now, some games do manage to do this well. Icewind Dale and Icewind Dale 2, based on D&D, managed to add a new story with some minor tweaks. But the best in my opinion was Persona 3 to Persona 4. There were some differences that were annoying where it tried to be too cute. But for the most part those were just tweaks, aimed at making it more interesting. Their big additions were fixing it so that you could control all party members directly — much desired in Persona 3 — and incorporating the Margaret Social Link into the already existing fusion quests. They also combined the physical damage into one category from three and forced the MC to use the same weapon (which was annoying). They made it harder by not allowing returning to the entrance to restore SP, but added a Social Link to restore SP in exchange for money and S-link brownie points. So they didn’t revamp the system but instead simply tweaked it in good and not so good ways.
Instead, the designers spent time making a new and interesting story, linking things from the previous game in, adding interesting jokes and character moments, and generally worked on making the story work. Whether they really succeeded or not — I found the S-links inferior to those of P3, in part for those reasons — they basically said: what we’re going to do is tweak the game based on complaints and add all the story-type stuff that you wanted and liked in P3.
And this, I think, is what RPGs should aim for. It isn’t the gameplay that sells an RPG; it’s the story. So if you make an RPG with the exact same gameplay but a new and interesting story, it should do well. Sure, some people might grumble, but those people aren’t actually interested in an RPG anyway. They’re interested in your gameplay, and you can then go off and make a game with the tweaks in gameplay to make them happy. But most people who really want to play RPGs will be more than happy with a game that provides them the gameplay they got used to but adds in a new and epic story and world to play around in.
Unfortunately, the vocal reviewers and posters will not be them. They’ll be the ones arguing that the gameplay has gotten stale. But the instant you hear that, you know that they’ve missed the point of an RPG. If you notice the gameplay, either you have amazing gameplay — and good on ya for that! — or you don’t have an engaging story. If you have an engaging story, no one should notice stale gameplay … or the gameplay at all.
For an RPG, the gameplay is the means to an end. Game designers have to stop treating it like an end in itself