Any RPG that has characters gain levels to get stronger has a level cap, a point at which a character, upon reaching it, ceases to continue getting stronger (at least by means of leveling up). Most often the cap is set to Level 99, although with some games it can be higher. Star Ocean 3, for example, has a level cap of 255, while the standard for Nippon Ichi games is, I believe, 9999 (Nippon Ichi does love its stat extravagance). With some games, the level cap is set lower. This is usually the case in Western RPGs, such as Mass Effect 1, where the cap was set at 60, although not always--Fallout 2, a Western RPG, had a cap of the JRPG standard 99, while Super Mario RPG, a Japanese RPG, stopped at Level 30.
For most RPGs, this is not a problem. While it’s certainly possible to get to Level 99 in, say, Final Fantasy 6, you’re only going to do so if you spend hours and hours in random battles level-grinding, putting the game’s story on hold to do so. Obviously it becomes even more of an endeavor of time and patience with high caps--you can pretty comfortably beat Star Ocean 2, for example, at level 80 to 90, which is 115 to 125 levels short of the cap, and even if you want to pursue the optional ultra-bosses, a little skill and strategy will keep you from needing to go too close to the cap. But even lesser level caps can be fine in a well-balanced game. Those mere 30 levels in Super Mario RPG will take you pretty much to the game’s end, barring any extensive level-grinding, and if I recall correctly, you literally cannot hit the highest level of Mass Effect 1’s 60 without multiple playthroughs anyway, as there are a finite number of enemies and quests and such during the course of the game.
Unfortunately, the level cap CAN be a problem with some games that are not balanced well. And I hate to generalize, but I’ve found that this problem really only exists with Western RPGs. I cannot recall playing the JRPG for which simply going through the game’s plot and pursuing all its sidequests will, without specifically setting aside time to mow down random baddies to gain extra experience, cause your characters to hit the level cap significantly earlier than the game’s end. It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine. In fact, it just plain drives me crazy.
You take Fallout 3, for example. Now, Fallout 3 is a fairly mild case of this, because for most of the game, you’re pretty much all set. Things are generally pretty well balanced, so it takes a good while for the player to hit the original Level 20 cap. But if you’re going through Fallout 3 pretty thoroughly (exploring each location, using your Skills, killing whatever enemies you encounter, and completing the majority of the game’s quests), you’re gonna hit Level 20, and it’s gonna be before the game’s finale. It then becomes very annoying to me to keep playing the game as I have until that point. I mean, if I can no longer gain experience from it, what real incentive do I have to combat enemies and waste my ammunition when I have enough HP and restorative options to just walk by them through to the next area of whatever ruin I’m exploring? Why bother using my eyes to identify and Skills to disarm traps when I’m strong enough and have accumulated so excessively many Stimpaks that I can just skip on through a minefield without any problem? I admit I get a bit obsessive with that little “cha-ching” and experience ticker that show up whenever you get XP in Fallout 3, requiring their satisfaction to motivate me to do anything outside the strictly necessary, but still! A game like Fallout 3 is designed to reward the player’s involvement in its world in 3 immediate ways: Karma, Loot, and XP. And since Karma’s barely a factor and loot applies more to non-XP-giving situations than anything, it makes the game start to feel empty if you have to go on without it. Admittedly, the DLC packages increase the level cap, but they also provide enough content to cover most of that increase, meaning that you’ll still be hitting that XP wall too early.
It’s much worse with Fallout: New Vegas. Fallout: New Vegas had a level cap of 30 to 50 (depending on what DLCs you got; the original game, however, is 30), which is higher than Fallout 3’s, but they balanced the game much worse at the same time. In Fallout: New Vegas, there are a TON of enemies who give the maximum 50 XP upon being killed; in fact, I think there’s more that give out that max amount than there are enemies worth fewer points. With Fallout 3, at least, only a few enemies were worth that full amount, and they weren’t freakin’ everywhere. Even with the 10 additional levels that Fallout: New Vegas’s cap has over Fallout 3’s, I still hit Level 50 when I was only about 65% of the way through exploring the game’s content! Thank goodness for the modding community having more sense than the game’s actual developers, and releasing various mods to raise that cap to something reasonable.
And don’t even get me started on Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. A classic and impressive game in most ways, but good lord, if you’re fighting enemies yourself in that game,* you can be hitting the Level 50 cap before you’re halfway through it!
I don’t think I’m being unfair with my expectations. I think it’s reasonable to expect that an RPG’s level cap be set at a point where it’s only going to be close to being reached at the game’s very endpoint, going by the assumption that a player fights any and all random enemies they encounter along the way but isn’t just walking back and forth looking for more baddies to bash. RPGs are generally boring to play already--taking away the main gameplay-related reward for playing through them is not a good thing! And the fact that all the instances of game imbalance resulting in too low a level cap I’ve encountered have come from Western RPGs, ones that pride themselves on the draw of the player’s ability to direct his character’s growth, makes it that much worse. If, in Fallout and Arcanum and the other games that suffer from an inadequate level cap, character advancement is such an important feature of the playing experience, shouldn’t THEY, of all games, be the ones to get it right?
* Arcanum has this game mechanic where you get significantly less experience for slain enemies if your companions are the ones who do the slaying.