Malik  (12/31/04)

After a long hiatus...way too long of a break...I am finally back. While the news of the current week is just about as uninteresting as the news of the last few weeks, Xenosaga has given birth to an opening that I cannot neglect. 

It's not that I want to have to focus on something as small as just the impact of one game (and, as you'll soon see, it's not just one game), but sometimes when news is not present, other sources of frustration and confusion must be tapped. 

So, as I haven't been able to say for some time; once again, I'm Malik and you're entering my world. 

Going No Where Fast 

When Suikoden 4 came out back in January, the majority of reviews bashed it unfairly. The biggest of the complaints came down to two simple areas; one one hand you had what many people called an uninspired plot...well, I won't go into that since I've already handled it in my Suikoden 4 review, but I'll just say that's a load of bull shit. The other complaint focused around two issues in the travel system. You moved too slowly (only if you're too stupid to read the instructions and see that R1 makes you move fast...and after you find Cedric, you can change that to "hella fast") and you had too many random battles (which were annoying, but not quite disruptive). Together, these made a supposed problem of how long it would take to go from point A to point B. 

I bring these up not to bash Suikoden 4 (which was a solid game), but to transition into what so few people will say about Xenosaga 2 and a growing number of games are falling back on the old school (as in NES and SNES days) way of moving. That way is simply referred to as "slow". 

Back on the NES and the starting days of the SNES (and this overlaps with the Sega Mastersystem and Genesis, but on the Nintendo time line), you would usually move slow on most games. Soon the action games sped up, but other genres faced the same problems. Eventually the developers began to wake up with the addition of items or special powers to boost your speed (like the Sprint Shoes in FF6). However, this still only got the characters moving at a normal speed instead of slow as hell. 

Things continued to improve with the Playstation and the PS2 (and the Saturn and Dreamcast and XBox and N64 and GCN, blah, blah). However, with time, the RPG market has started to sink back into this pit of time waste. In KOTOR (I love the game, don't get me wrong), you move pretty slow until you use the Force Speed power. Link from the Zelda world has started to waddle along at a snail's pace. Overall, the average movement speeds on RPGs have been dropping as the world sizes have increased (which means you move slower to go's like having a 50MPH zone in downtown Seattle and then 25MPH when you get on the freeway, but without a risk of other words, it's cool when you're only in the smaller city and crapy when you're on the miles upon miles of open freeway). This problem has hit a particular peak in crap-tacularness with Xenosaga 2. 

In Xenosaga 2 you are given three main speeds of movement. There is the quickest of a character running. In an RPG only 2 years ago, this would be the same speed as a character walking in another RPG. Then you have the walking speed, which is only about 5% slower than the running speed. It is so small of a difference that you will never notice that the speeds differ unless you literally time it for yourself and do the math. Then, when you get into your 25 foot tall ES Robots (think mechs). You would think that something this big would move at a decent speed, right? I mean an ant moves slowly, but a human (which is much bigger) moves much quicker just because of the increased size of the human's legs. Well, in comparison to walking on foot, the ES Robots are about 75% the walking speed on Xenosaga 2. All in all, this means, with how large some of the areas are in Xenosaga 2, that if you are going to walk from point A to point B, you better make sure you have everything you need because you will not want to end up at point B and realize you left something behind at point A. 

On one hand, this could have been an accidental change in RPGs. However, if that's the case, then the real excuse is that these developers are a bunch of complete idiots. I mean games do go through quality testing (in theory, at least) before going gold. I'm sure a few people would've mentioned, "I'm moving so damned slow that I feel like bashing my brains out against a wall". Maybe not...but I have a feeling it would be brought up somewhere in the development process. 

On the other hand, it could very well be intentional. There are a few reasons this could be done. The most obvious choices would be either the developers thinking you move too quickly in other games...which seems quite doubtful. The other choices would either fall into you having to spend more time looking at the eye-candy of the backgrounds, which is a good ego boost for the developers after all the work that does go into the visuals of most modern RPGs, or it would be a good way to pad out the length of a game. I personally think it would fall into the second category. 

Too many RPGs are being called too short. Some of them are called that for a reason (there's a few too many 10 hour RPGs out there), but most are called this despite being a good 30 hours and having a fully developed plot. Personally, I think Xenosaga 2 would be the group that is actually too short (I've read about the number of locations you travel to, and...well, let's just say they are fewer than the number of dungeons in Zelda: WW). Either way, the true length of a game should ultimately fall onto how well the plot is developed. I mean if you want more, after finishing the game, because it was so damned cool, then it was long enough. If you wanted it to end earlier, then it was too long. However, if you want more only because nothing was concluded, then the game was not long enough. 

With X2, it probably all falls into that final group. The game looks short, it sounds short, and the time to completion is usually listed as far too short (despite how slow you walk to get around). This all together just means it's a short game. 


No matter what the reasoning behind it, the one thing we don't need in modern games is for things to slow down. There are far more good games released each year than in the days when a snail's pace was the norm. With more games, we all have less time to waste walking around a rather small area at a pace that would make a city block feel like a whole city. 

It is not hard to speed up movement in characters on a game to a good rate. It has been done since the middle days of the SNES. Considering how the bulk of an RPG's appeal lies in the plot, we should not be left with a bad taste in our mouth because of spending too much time walking and too little learning the plot. Hell, even a battle could be more fun than just walking, since walking is a standard required part of the game, but not an interesting part of an RPG. 

This is why there have been codes since the days of the original Game Genie on the NES to speed up movement in games. These codes are always some of the first ones published for a game. It's not because they are easier to find (it's just as easy to find almost any other code), but rather because they are so desired. In fact, I'm waiting to find a code for Xenosaga 2 for the Game Shark to make my guy move faster than an RE zombie. It might be the first step in helping such a crappy game, from such a good franchise, look like anything beyond crap in my eyes. 

Movie Time 

After the release of FF7, RPGs started to rely more and more on the style that this game pioneered. That style would be having larger and more drawn out cinema style cut-scenes to tell the plot. This was, at first, a good transition from the limitations of older technology to the abilities that newer technologies (such as CD or DVD based games, and improved graphics engines) allowed in a game. 

With FF7, these scenes were small enough to not interfere with the game too much, while giving a more realistic impression to the gamer of what these characters were going through. However, Square decided to push things further with FF8. In FF8, the cut-scenes started to reach longer times, and the game play in between started to diminish in order to make room for these larger down times (down time meaning the time when a player can drop the control and just watch the game rather than play the game). 

This trend of pushing the size of cut-scenes kept up for a while. Jokes were made about how such a game was a good "movie", or how "that's a good movie" when people discussed a given RPG. This actually wasn't too bad of a situation as compared to what we now have in the form of such games as Xenosaga 2. Yup, I'm back to this let down, again. 

In some more modern games, especially Xenosaga 2 (although Xenosaga 1 did pretty badly too), have relied so much on the cut-scenes that the game play has not only been scaled back, but it has suffered. In Xenosaga 1, at least the game was fun to play when you weren't watching a cut-scene. In fact, Xenosaga 1 was so heavily based on these many cut-scenes that Namco released, as a pre-order bonus for Xenosaga 2, a video DVD of all the cut-scenes of Xenosaga 1. The DVD is giant (a good several hours long) and it covers the entire plot of the game. You can literally watch this DVD and know all important details of Xenosaga 1. 

However, while 1 had a decent enough game play engine for those hours that you weren't watching the game, Xenosaga 2 has even thrown this away. The standard RPG elements, like unique characters (in terms of their battle abilities), money, equipment, novel innovations that use old-school techniques, and fluid movement from one part of the game to another, have all been thrown out. Xenosaga 2 is only a game on it's exterior that is really filled with eye-candy and nothing more. 

This trend, sadly, doesn't look like it was just a one or two game fluke. This is one of the two waves of the future for RPGs (the other being MMORPGs). RPGs on high end consoles, as we have known them, are a dying creature. Playable movies are the real future of RPGs, whether we like it or not. 


The solution for this problem is not going to happen. It's too simple and unoriginal to catch the attention of the RPG developers. While many games are based on using tried-and-true methods and mechanics, RPGs are now based on an ill conceived concept of "if it's not innovation, it's crap". This innovation, while good in theory, is slowly choking out all of the concepts and mechanics that made RPGs what they are. 

Until the majority of developers start to make more traditional RPGs, the poser companies (such as Square Enix) will not follow. While some companies, like Bioware, have not lost sight of what RPGs are about, too few of the "leaders" (the companies that tend to set trends...and no, Square was a leader, while Square Enix is a following poser) are doing so. If enough publicity and attention is given to an old school RPG, we could expect the "followers" to do what they do best; follow. 

So, the real solution is what caused this problem to begin with. Someone, besides Bioware (who, for some weird reason, is too rarely imitated) needs to step up to the task of making an awesome RPG that uses an older style of design. Yes, that means smaller cut-scenes (if it runs long enough that a pause button and a "skip" button are implemented out of necessity, it's too long), more defined and thought out battles, more control on the customization of characters (like equipment, unique skills, etc...and there is such a thing as too much of this), more planning into the basics of the game's engine (like eliminating overly slow movement), exploration (none of this "you can only go from point A to point B to point C..." crap), wider assortments of characters (including monsters that don't use one of 5 standard shapes), traditional battles that take place with a single player controlling a party of 4 or 5 (no more 3 people or less, and none of this "player controls one person while the other two get raped by bad AI"). In other words, we need to stop pushing forward with "innovation" when we have so many neglected game components as it is. 

Nintendo has mentioned the right attitude (but with developing their new console; The Revolution) for this problem. With The Revolution, Nintendo has said that they will change the way we look at video games with something completely original...but instead of using a new device or idea, they are supposedly planning to use old technology in a new way (who knows what this ultimately means...we'll find out at E3). This is what the RPG market needs; stop innovating new technologies when good ones already exist and are just waiting to be brought in with a new incarnation. 


It felt good to be able to bitch again.  While I would like something more current eventish, Xenosaga 2 does fit the bill a little...after all, it is one of the biggest selling games right now (for some sick and twisted reason...I know, I did buy the game).  Anyway, hopefully this will only be the first of a series of new Malik's Bitchings for 2005.  So, like I say at the end of all of these; if you have the need, you can write me or put your thoughts to the forums