Thursday, April 28, 2016

Fire Emblem 14's Downloadable Content

Well, the inevitable has occurred at last. Nintendo has finally decided to ease themselves into selling DLC packages for their more popular games, such as Super Smash Brothers, and more relevantly, Fire Emblem 14. Honestly, it’s just surprising that it’s taken the company this long to take the plunge in a major way. I mean, you know that I respect Nintendo as a company and as a creator of art, but let’s face it, a hard stance on the moral quagmire that is add-on game content is not something one would expect of the company behind Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles 1’s requiring one’s friends to have purchased Game Boy Advances to take advantage of the game’s multiplayer features, or the current Amiibo marketing push.

Anyway, Fire Emblem 14, known as Fire Emblem: Fates to most, is the newest Fire Emblem game, coming to us after the strong success that was FE13. I never did play FE13, myself, because I take issue with a game in which a major component and selling point is the opportunity to play matchmaker with the cast, yet in which there is a complete lack of homosexual romantic options. It’s the mid 2010s, Nintendo, and society is starting to slowly catch up to morality on this point: it’s not okay to thoroughly shun the gays. So, when the news came to me that FE14 actually includes homosexual romantic options, I leapt at the chance to support Nintendo finally taking a virtuous step forward, and bought the game and all its DLC.

I may have jumped the gun a bit on that point. More about Nintendo’s disappointing showing on homosexuality in FE14 in a later rant.

At any rate, this means that I’ve got every DLC package available to me. And that means it’s time for a DLC rant!

Note: These are all $2.50 to purchase and download, individually. Except for Before Awakening - I think that one was free.

UPDATE 09/28/16: Heirs of Fate DLC added.

Ghostly Gold: This one unfortunately sets the standard for a lot of these DLCs. The long and short of it is, you play a mission where you have to stop ghosts from making off with treasure, after a night in which some of your teammates didn’t get enough sleep. I guess if you’re enthralled at the prospect of hearing a quick 2 - 3 lines of monologue by the cast about how they did or did not sleep the night before, then, uh, it seems that Nintendo has finally acknowledged your niche market, friend. For everyone else, skip Ghostly Gold. It’s just empty time-wasting.

Boo Camp: Ghostly Gold was about farming money, and Boo Camp’s about farming Experience, and like GG, BC does not bother to make itself in any way more compelling than that. The premise is that the cast is trying to get stronger by taking part in one of those tests of courage that, going by anime, is some little cultural ritual of Japan’s most bored teenagers. Well, I suppose it beats what teenagers in the USA get up to when left to their own devices. Anyway, if you’re really hankering to trade the time and effort you spent earning your livelihood to Nintendo in exchange for the opportunity to see how the FE14 characters react to a spooky graveyard, then, well, you obviously don’t have enough of an appreciation for your money to deserve to keep it anyway, so you may as well just electronically transfer it straight into Nintendo’s wastebin. Anyone with a functional understanding of the concept of currency, however, should stay away.

Museum Melee: Difficult to believe, but this DLC about farming weapons is actually even less worthwhile than the last 2. At least with Ghostly Gold and Boo Camp, the in-combat monologues of the cast as they react to their situation are mildly interesting. Not interesting enough to justify spending $2.50, of course, or any amount of money at all, but the situations in those add-ons were different enough to make for some slightly interesting commentary. This, however, is just brawling with people with the intent of taking their weapons. How do you get interesting reactions for a situation like that? I can’t say I know. Neither does Nintendo.

Beach Brawl: Hey there, impressionable young target audience member! Do you want to see some of the pretty men and women of Fire Emblem 14 in swimwear, at the beach, doing beach things? Are you a traveler from the past, and don’t know what an ‘image search,’ ‘youtube,’ or ‘rule 34’ is? Are you just morally opposed to the idea of possessing money? Then BOY does Nintendo have the DLC package for you!

Royal Royale: This one is basically just the same damn thing as Beach Brawl (a preset battle between the royal siblings of the game), except it replaces insulting fanservice with the reward of stat-boosting items for the main game. I guess that’s better. If you want some schlock written within 30 seconds about Corrin’s royal siblings competing to send her an interdimensional care package, then, uh, I guess Nintendo’s just hitting all the right niche markets today. Well, if you’re just super hard up for the joy of another long battle virtually indistinguishable from the dozens and dozens of other ones in the game, then you could find a worse way to spend your money. Probably. I mean, I can’t think of one, but anything’s possible in theory, right?

Before Awakening: By the messy hood-hair of Anankos himself, could it be? A DLC for Fire Emblem 14 which actually is story-driven? It IS!

It also IS barely a step up from the garbage above. Now, yeah, I’m not the best audience for this one, because I didn’t play the previous game, so the only characters from Fire Emblem 13 that I have even a slight working knowledge of are those in Super Smash Brothers, and also Tharja, for Rhajat-related reasons.

But I suspect that even if I had any particularly strong attachment to Chrom, Lissa, and the third guy whose name I can’t even remember, this DLC still wouldn’t impress me. It’s empty fanservice that goes nowhere: you show up for a few minutes in the world of the previous Fire Emblem game, assist some of its characters with beating monsters from FE14’s world, you tell each other “Sick moves bra,” and you’re done. Riveting. Nintendo...just leave this stuff for Nippon Ichi next time, okay?

Hidden Truths: Oh, hey! This one’s actually good. That’s a nice change of pace. Yeah, this is another story-driven DLC package, split into 2 parts, which gives some background for 3 of the party members of FE14, as well as building some lore for the game’s history and a couple of its other important characters. All of this feels like an actual, honest bit of bonus character and setting development, too, so even though we’re talking about major characters’ background, it doesn’t come off like it’s content that should have necessarily been attached to the game. And honestly, this is a pretty decent little side story--it got me invested in it, it speaks to me in the right ways. Everything up to this point has been garbage, but I’ll recommend Hidden Truths: it’s a good aside to the game.

Anna on the Run: This DLC is a short-ish battle in which you get a new character, Anna, who is basically to Fire Emblem what Cid is to Final Fantasy--there’s 1 in each game. Unlike Cid, though, the Annas have the Nurse Joy/Officer Jenny thing going on, where there’s like a thousand of them who’re all identical members of the same family sharing the same first name and occupation. More dedicated Fire Emblem fans than I (I still feel like an outsider to the series, even after 5 titles) tend to be somewhat obsessed with Anna. So I’m sure a lot of them are pretty enthusiastic about this DLC.

I’m...not. The plot component here is pretty thin (you find Anna, you help her, she joins you, the end). That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, mind you--the actual process for getting, say, Javik in Mass Effect 3 isn’t much stronger an example of storytelling, for instance, and the same might be said for other DLC-unlocked characters in other RPGs. The problem is that those other characters, regardless of whether or not their recruitment was interesting, contributed to the game adequately in the interrelationship and character development department. Javik’s a well-developed character with a distinct personality, his presence affects many scenes in Mass Effect 3 (sometimes dramatically, such as on the Asari homeworld), and he has relationships with multiple other members of the crew (notably Shepard and Liara) which develop both parties as characters.

By contrast, Anna has no input on or reaction to the game’s plot developments that I’ve noticed, and she’s one of those annoying few characters in the game who only has a Support relationship with the protagonist, no one else. This situation is made worse by the fact that this sole chance for character development is pretty uninteresting. Anna’s conversations with Corrin concentrate on the fact that there are many, many Annas out there, and her trying to figure out a way to seem more individualized--and trust me, my description here makes it sound way, way more interesting than it actually is. It’s not a terrible Support in and of itself, but when it’s the only piece of character development Anna gets in the whole game, then all she amounts to is a mildly quirky gimmick character. And that just isn’t worth paying for. Pass.

Vanguard Dawn: Oh, joy, we’ve given up on story- or character-driven DLCs, and have returned once more to unimaginative one-off battles for gameplay reasons. This one’s the least interesting yet--just defending a spot from a wave of enemies for a while until the battle ends. If you’ve just got to have an item that gives 1 of your units the same job class as Ike from Fire Emblem 9 + 10, then you’ll probably buy this anyway, but if you’re looking for anything even remotely interesting whatsoever, look elsewhere.

Ballistician Blitz: There absolutely is nothing of substance to this. You go in, you hear a couple quips from Anna, you beat some enemies, you get a class-change item. That’s it. That’s everything. You pay money, you get fucking nothing. It’s the Fire Emblem 14 DLC business plan. If you told me that FE14 was a product of Capcom, not Nintendo, I’d be none the wiser.

Witches’ Trial: Man, Nintendo just stopped giving even a tenth of a fuck after Anna on the Run, huh? This is as completely empty and meaningless as Ballistician Blitz, but it actually manages to be lazier than ever before by having the map itself just be taken from another Fire Emblem game, FE Gaiden. Nintendo doesn’t even cover it up; it just outright tells us that it’s recycling battle maps at this point. I mean, how damn hard can it possibly be to make a Fire Emblem map, really? I wouldn’t be half surprised if the entire production cost for this DLC, from class animations to battle map to scant, trite Anna monologue, was covered with the DLC’s first sale.

Heirs of Fate: This is sold in 6 maps, but each map is a successive part of an overall story, so I’m just going to count it all together here. Heirs of Fate is...well, it’s alright, I suppose. The premise and plot are fine, and it does accomplish something rather important for FE14, that being that it actually gives some plot significance to the children characters of the game, which are, what, a full third of the game’s cast which are otherwise 100% superfluous? It also gives some much-needed development to a few of these characters. Unfortunately, the ones who get significant focus are mostly just the children of Corrin, Azura, and the Hoshido and Nohr princes, and with the exception of Forrest, they’re pretty much the least interesting and/or nuanced individuals of the game’s second generation. Oh, well, it’s still a focus on characters that the main game neglected, so it’s still a good thing. Is it worth the price of $10.50 (half a buck for the first map and $2 for each of the rest), though? Eh, I can’t really say that it is. It’s not a bad little what-if side story and heaven knows the kids in this game could use a little narrative attention, but...I really kind of expect more if I’m gonna pay 10 bucks for a game. I mean, think about it, that’s a sixth of the entire game’s cost! It’s a lot closer to being a worthwhile purchase than most of these other DLCs, I’ll give you that, but the price just doesn’t match the quality and quantity of what you’re getting. Maybe if the Heirs of Fates maps go on sale, like $5 or so for the lot of’em, then it’d be worthwhile, but that’s definitely as far as I’d recommend it. Not bad, just not good enough.

And that’s all of’em. The verdict on FE14’s DLC: abysmal. You even had to ask? Of 12 DLCs, only 4 even attempted to have something resembling story and/or character development, and of those 4, only 1 is alright, 1 is actually good, and the others being empty fanservice. I feel a little foolish that I leapt to buy FE14 on the premise I mentioned above (to support Nintendo’s first Fire Emblem foray into representing same-sex relationships) before verifying that the game merited that support, because FE14 has some major problems in that regard. But I feel ashamed that in my eagerness I also bought all of these DLCs. The Fire Emblem 14 downloadable content collection represents money I just threw away. No, that’s not an appropriate analogy. If I actually, literally threw my money away--went to my garbage can, took out $20, and threw it in--I’d only be doing myself harm. But by giving that money to Nintendo in exchange for the DLC I’ve described above, I’ve done more than myself harm: I’ve told Nintendo that it’s okay to charge money for fucking nothing. That putting no effort into its add-ons is acceptable. That selling utterly meaningless gameplay quirks instead of art is permissible. In my misguided, optimistic desire to support a level of morality that Nintendo doesn’t even properly achieve in the game (again, more later on that), I used my money to make myself a liar.

This is the second time I’ve experienced DLC for a JRPG. The first was Shin Megami Tensei 4, and if you remember, I was not happy with it. I had hoped that the next time would be better, but that was a hope in vain. This isn’t a step up, it’s a step sideways. Ugh. Look, bottom line: Get Hidden Truths, maybe try Heirs of Fate, only consider Anna on the Run and Before Awakening if you’re a hardcore Fire Emblem fan, and then do what I wasn’t smart enough to do: leave the rest of this crap behind.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Guest Rant: 10 Reasons Why You Should Give Shin Megami Tensei Persona 2 a Second Glance, by Nurjean

Another Guest Rant!  And less than a year after the last, too!  How totally awesome is that?

Today's rant comes to us courtesy of Nurjean, a new but very outgoing, enthusiastic, and interesting reader to have joined our tiny, tiny flock.  A reader who has also played a very prominent RPG which I have not: SMT Persona 2!  It's always a boon to this blog to be able to offer some perspective on another Atlus treasure.

Disclaimer: I make no claim to own Nurjean's words below.  This guest rant does not necessarily reflect my own opinions and perceptions.  I don't see how it could, really, seeing as I have none for the game it's discussing.  But I'm eager to gain some, so let's read on!

10 Reasons Why You Should Give Persona 2 a Second Glance

March 28, 2016
Hi there! Nurjean here from A Creative’s Nook. When The RPGenius posted that he was open to guest rants, I immediately decided I would make one for Persona 2. My first Persona game is the Eternal Punishment PSX version. Despite that, I’ll try to incorporate its “prequel”, Innocent Sin, in this tribute.

Persona 2 doesn’t get a lot of credit.

Try to Google how Persona fans discovered the Persona series. Most of the answers will reveal it was the third entry that led them to embrace the series. Most of them will claim that 3’s the best.

I can’t blame them. After all, it was P3 that put Atlus’ series onto the world map of must–play JRPGs. It doesn’t help that Persona 4 followed the formula Persona 3 set in stone. With Persona 5 in the making, Persona 2 is bound to be shoved into oblivion.

Well, not really. After all, I’m sure there are a bunch of people out there who were introduced to the series by playing the second entry. Now what’s unique about the Persona 2 series is that the story’s broken down into 2 chapters: Innocent Sin, and Eternal Punishment. Innocent Sin never saw an English PSX release for unknown reasons. Fortunately, Eternal Punishment was given an English PSX release. The only disadvantage of playing the second chapter is you’ll have initial difficulty in understanding the game with its references to Innocent Sin.

But it’s not that much of big deal, unless you make it so.

I’m writing this positive rant to give tribute to a beautiful game that’s not your typical highschool-dungeon crawler-sim. While the first chapter gives you the reins to 4 high school kids, the second chapter allows you to play the game as adults with real life issues. Even though the portrayal isn’t perfect, it’s a different take from playing teenage protagonists.

So allow me to show you a couple of things that endeared me to the second entry in the series:

1. “You don’t like the bad ending of the first story? No problem, we’ll add a new chapter where the heroine lives, but wait, let’s add drama to make it fun! What if the hero fucked up in the previous chapter and has to suffer the consequences of his actions in the new chapter?”

This second entry in the Persona series actually refers to Tatsuya Suou’s mistake in the previous installment, Innocent Sin; the consequences of his mistake unfolds in Eternal Punishment.

The second installment of Persona 2 is told from Maya Amano's eyes (another protagonist from IS) who died in the Innocent Sin Timeline.

There are two things to keep in mind to understand Persona 2’s story:

1. Philemon & Nyarlathotep’s Bet. Basically, the good and the evil make a bet to see which side of humanity wins.

2. Tatsuya’s Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment. For the uninitiated, Persona 2: Innocent Sin tackles the story of five childhood friends. Due to miscommunication or some plot device the writer thought up, one of them, Jun Kurosu, believed he and his friends killed their friend, Maya Amano, when they trapped her in a shrine so she wouldn’t leave. Unfortunately, the Shrine was set on fire by Tatsuya Sudou. Maya survived, but developed a phobia for fires. However, Jun’s delusion is merely Nyarlothotep’s ploy to win a bet he made with Philemon.

To make the long story short, Maya is killed, thereby fulfilling the Oracle’s Maia, a prophecy where everything in the world, except Sumaru City, is destroyed. To revive her, the four friends agree with Philemon’s proposal to create a new timeline.

The catch? They never met each other.

Although Lisa, Eikichi and Jun willingly gave up their memories, Tatusya chickened out at the last minute and failed to fulfill his part of the bargain.

In this new timeline, everyone forgot each other, Maya Amano lived, yet Tatsuya retained his memory of “The Other Side”. This was the Innocent Sin the game refers to.

Because his memories were the common denominator between both timelines, Nyarlathotep attempted to restore the previous timeline by pushing Tatsuya Sudou to become JOKER and rekindle the memories of the other 4 protagonists. That way, the new timeline dubbed as “This Side” would meet the same fate of “The Other Side”.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you a simplified diagram of Persona Story.
Honestly, it’s a beautiful yet melancholic tale of friendship gained and friendship lost.

It’s not Persona 3’s Minato, who pulled a Jesus Christ to save his comrades by crucifying himself. Persona 2 gives you the feeling of being with a “stranger” whom you once called a “friend” (most profound if you played IS before EP). It’s the feeling of pain when you know you had so many experiences together, yet you’re the only one who can recall that.

Even if I never played Innocent Sin, I could feel how sad it was to play Eternal Punishment and hear Lisa, Eikichi and Jun’s responses. “Excuse me, but have we met?” “Why do I have this feeling that I met you before?”

It’s like seeing your parents with Alzheimer’s Disease--except that Alzheimer’s unintentional.

Choosing to erase your memories to give your friend a new lease in life is intentional. And knowing that you didn’t fulfill your part of the bargain hurts more. Because you’re burdened with the memories that you were all once friends...yet they can’t remember anything about it.

Sad tale, huh?

Now try to beat that, Minato!

2. Hitler as Innocent Sin’s Antagonist

I’ve heard rumors that one of the reasons Innocent Sin wasn’t released for an English Port for the PSX was because of this dude. Anyway, now what’s a real life historic figure doing in a fictional story like Persona?

Well, that’s because Atlus decided to make him one of the main antagonists of this game! And you get to fight him at the final dungeon!

Oh, have I forgotten to mention that he has his own boss battle theme?

Or that his name is mentioned in the Madhouse-produced opening sequence for Eternal Punishment?

3. The Rumor System

I thought this was one of the brilliant features of this game! Even though it was part of the plot development, this feature was used to affect the gameplay. You could spread rumors to unlock powerful weapons, or unlock a quest. Though the protagonists weren’t the only one who used this: even the antagonists used this against the players!

One of the antagonists in EP, Wang Long Chizuru, spread the rumor that anyone who used the Joker Curse would become Joker themselves.

On the flip side, I wonder why the antagonist (Nyarlathotep) decided NOT to use this to his advantage. He could have spread the rumor that Lisa, Jun and Eikichi would remember “The Other Side”. That would have saved him time. But of course, Atlus came to present a story of redemption and the fight between good and evil. That would have been too easy.

4. The Joker Curse Urban Legend

Japan is oozing with excellent urban legends to scare the shit out of you. Who could forget the videotape that contained Sadako (The Ring)? Or how about the cursed house in The Grudge?

This is the perfect premise for a Japanese horror story. I wonder why no one thought of making a movie out of this?

The curse is simple: dial your cellphone number, and Joker will answer to grant your wishes (Innocent Sin) or kill someone for you (Eternal Punishment). The downside of this curse is that when you don’t have a wish, Joker will take your soul instead (IS); or you will become Joker, as mentioned above.

5. The in-game art is beautiful

No, I’m not referring to the mannequin-freakish art. I’m referring to the in-game portraits that pop up when you talk to relevant characters!

When I first played this game way back in 2006, my only high-end phone was a Nokia 6600 with a VGA camera. I remember taking pictures of every portrait I saw in this game. It was like capturing a rare Pokemon—every portrait was such a rare treat!

I was born in the early 1990s, and I grew up watching 90s anime. This lead to my fondness for cell-shaded art. I believe the artist who drew Persona 3 + 4 also made the in-game art for Persona 2. It’s vibrant, crisp and clean. It suits the overall mood of the story. I doubt it would have the same impact if it used moe-like style. (No, Just no).

6. The Music is a hit or miss, but when it hits, it HITS!

I have to admit, there are some tracks which are lackluster and repetitive. Yet there are tracks which are brilliant, heart-warming and memorable. The music isn’t Yoko Shimomura’s sweeping pieces, nor Nobuo Uematsu’s epic compositions. But it does match the game’s paranormal-horror and occult feel.

Take this dungeon theme for example:

Or the world map that has that Rhythm and Blues Vibe:

Or how about a boss fight that gives you that adrenaline rush?

Or maybe you like chilling in a bar with your significant other?

Or when your significant other is about to dump you?

There are several pieces worth listening in this game. My Top 10:

Map 1 (PSX & PSP EP version)
Map 1 (PSX & PSP IS version)
Maya’s Theme (PSX & PSP EP-IS Version)
Aoba Park (EP)
Parabellum II (EP)
Main Theme Side A (IS)
Change your Way (EP)
Boss Battle Theme (EP)
Knights of the Holy Spear (PSX & PSP IS Version--the Dual Mix Version is great as well)

7. Did I forget to mention that you can talk with demons?

I promise you’ll meet some of the most mercurial to the most gullible enemies in this game. And I promise you’ll read excellent short horror stories when you have Ellen in the Party. Where else can you find a game where you can scare demons by telling horror stories?

8. Glitch #1: How to cast every spell in the game for 3 SP

This worked for my EP PSX version. It was my ex-best friend who discovered this glitch.

When selecting a magic spell, press the R1/2 and L1/2 buttons while the cursor hovers over the spell.

To illustrate, let’s start with Katsuya’s basic Persona attack, “Agi,” that costs 3 SP. Press the R1/2 and L1/2 buttons, and you’ll notice Agi will switch to its stronger spell, Agidyne. Keep on switching until you access other spells...and even enemy spells!

You’ll also notice that as you shift through the spells, a certain code appears on the upper right screen. Each code corresponds to the spell’s name.

Six Advantages of This Glitch:
-You can cast stronger spells at the cost of 3 SP;
-You can cast Armageddon to instantly kill all enemies. Boss monsters are susceptible to this spell, too;
-Leveling up is easier (You’re like God with the Armageddon spell);
-You can speed through the game;
-Saves your time;
-You can cast enemy spells, such as Joker’s “Old Maid”.

Five Disadvantages of This Glitch:
-You’re labelled as a “Cheat”;
-The challenge is gone;
-The game hangs as you try to access stronger or enemy spells;
-The game infrequently hangs whenever you try to cast “Old Maid”;
-You cannot access stronger spells when you’re looking for the 100km/hr Hag at the CD store. If you’re heavily dependent on Armageddon, this glitch spells trouble for this dungeon since you’re forced to use your brute strength.

I don’t know if this glitch works with the PSP port.

If you’re the type who wants to play the game for the story, please do use this. If you want to be challenged without feeling robbed, please don’t use it.

9. Glitch #2: How to teleport and decrease your chances of enemy encounters

This worked for my EP PSX version. My ex-bestfriend also discovered this glitch. I can’t exactly recall the special buttons.

Either press the “Select” or “Start” button. Either button you press should show you the area’s floor map. Drag the cursor to the location where you want to teleport to. Press start again.

Voila! You have learned how to teleport!

Three Advantages:
-Fewer enemy encounters;
-Helps you beat the timer in the Burning Museum part of the game;
-Saves you time.

Two Disadvantages:
-You can’t use this while looking for the 100 km/hr Hag side quest;
-You find no reason to explore the entire floor area by foot.

I don’t know if this glitch works with the PSP port.

If you’re the type who wants to play the game for the story, please do use this. If you want to be challenged without feeling robbed, please don’t use it.

10. Japanese Paranormal-Horror-Occult-Mythology-Jungian Psychology Power-of-Friendship Experience in a Japanese-Based Setting

These are the hallmark signs of a Shin Megami Tensei game. Can you imagine if Squarenix (formerly Squaresoft) created a Final Fantasy game like this? What if Namco-Bandai made a Tales series game with this in mind? No? Never? It feels wrong?

What endears me to the second entry is how it blends the paranormal-horror-occult with Japanese-Greek Mythology, Jungian Psychology and the theme of friendship. I can never find another JRPG like this (unless you tell me).

Most JRPG worlds are reminiscent of Medieval or Industrial Europe. But a modern-day inspired Japanese RPG with a mix of the occult? Couldn’t they have published a manga version for this entry as well? Persona 1 had one, but its story pales to this entry.

It’s true that it’s not the best Persona entry for most Persona fans. Either the story doesn’t really stick with them, or they just prefer good old high school drama mixed with action. But I hope that by pointing some of the entry’s finer qualities, you can give the game a second glance, and go see what’s it all about.

Friday, April 8, 2016

General RPGs' Storytelling EXP

I like it when RPGs employ Storytelling EXP. I wish it happened more often.

What do I mean by Storytelling EXP? I’m glad I pretended you asked! Storytelling EXP is when you receive experience points for writing-related feats in an RPG, rather than gameplay-related ones. Most of the time, we associate experience points as rewards for defeating enemies, or sometimes using non-combat character skills (such as picking locks in a Fallout game, or disarming traps in Dragon Age 1, and so on). And with a lot of RPGs, I daresay most of them, that’s the sole extent of the experience point, er, experience. The only way you level up your character(s) is by beating bad guys, usually over and over again. But sometimes, there are other, more plot- and character-related ways of getting experience points, and those are what I refer to Storytelling EXP.

The most common form of this comes as a reward for completing quests. Once you follow a quest through to completion in, say, Fallout New Vegas, whether it’s a main quest mandated by the plot or an optional sidequest, you’ll be awarded a sum of EXP, the amount of which is almost always sizable, and sometimes varies depending on how well you did the quest. This is a pretty common occurrence in western RPGs like Dragon Age, Fallout, Neverwinter Nights, Pillars of Eternity, The Witcher, and so on. Heck, quest-reward EXP is basically the only kind you ever get in Mass Effect 2 and 3, and almost the only kind available in the recent Shadowrun titles. Also, there are some games where you’ll be awarded a bunch of Storyline EXP not so much for finishing specific quests, as just for reaching certain points in the plot, such as with Celestian Tales 1.

This is a pretty sensible approach which calls back to the roots of the genre: the tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, which follow this general idea by and large. Quest experience points encourage you to finish the tasks you start, and to experience all that the game can offer, which is good. And of course, since most of the story of an RPG is usually told through the characters and narratives involved in quests, Storytelling EXP for completed quests is providing an incentive that betters the chances that a player will see and take in all the ideas and story that the writers wish to convey. And it even helps on a level closer to that of gameplay, since getting an experience point reward for a quest gives an extra level of satisfaction at having seen the task through to its completion, a satisfaction which I personally find money and items and so on not to give. And besides, if we say that gaining levels is indicative of our characters growing as adventurers and individuals, wouldn’t it make more sense for them to achieve that growth from more aspects of their adventure than just beating the bejeezus out of bunnies that randomly cross their path?

There is, though, a form of Storytelling EXP that I like even more. The quests that you get experience from completing, after all, don’t HAVE to be particularly strong in the writing department or have an especially strong tie to the story and its themes and characters--it’s only that that’s possible. But there’s also the Storytelling EXP that you get from directly investigating and pursuing the game’s plot and characters--and you know me, that’s the stuff that I really value in RPGs, the aspects of the genre that I think make it worthwhile to play. Planescape: Torment is an excellent example of this. Yes, in PT, you get experience for fighting monsters, and completing quests, but there’s also a significant wealth of experience points to be had simply through pursuing dialogue options and seeking to gain as much knowledge and wisdom about the game’s world as you can. There are many huge EXP rewards in Planescape: Torment for when you persuade NPCs through conversation options, for learning as much as you can from important plot figures during your dialogue with them, for exploring every lore-significant part of the game’s setting, for learning the protagonist’s history and piecing together the clues to his identity, and for coming to know, understand, repair, and greaten the party members.

Planescape: Torment isn’t the only game to do this, of course. There are many instances in the first couple Fallout titles which reward the player with experience points for exploring the games’ characters, setting, and lore through exploring dialogues, and the more recent Fallouts also give a little experience here and there as a reward for exploring extra dialogue paths that require certain stats and skills to access. Knights of the Old Republic 2 has almost as much of an EXP priority on exploring its writing’s depth and brilliance as Planescape: Torment did. The Witch’s Wake DLC for Neverwinter Nights 1, short and incomplete though it is, provides numerous little experience boosts for thorough exploration of all that characters have to say to you.

Still, though there are several games that employ this nuanced Storytelling EXP, it’s still pretty uncommon. I’ve played almost 290 RPGs as of writing this, and think I’ve seen this idea used in maybe 10% of them, certainly not more than 15%, and probably actually less. What a shame that is--and how strange! Being so strongly story-driven as the RPG genre tends to be, it seems to me like it would only make sense to tie one of the biggest driving forces of gameplay to the elements of the game’s story. It really seems like a waste of an opportunity, especially when you consider how terrifically well it usually works out.

I mean, look at some of the examples I mentioned above. Planescape: Torment is nigh-universally considered to have one of the most brilliant, deep, and rich stories and casts in all RPG history, and I myself would certainly go a step further and claim that it’s one of the greater works of storytelling art in human history, period. How incredibly important it is, then, that the game makes it a major point that your greatest source of power comes from knowing that terrific story and interacting with its countless thoughtful nuances. The case is similar with Knights of the Old Republic 2--such an important part of that game are the ideas of knowledge, wisdom, and the ability to sway others as being the true mark of power, and of seeing the universe from a higher perspective and understanding its workings of cause and effect, that having a reward for exploring these concepts and learning all you can from the game’s characters and world is symbolically essential! And hey, the whole idea of Witch’s Wake in Neverwinter Nights 1 is that of trying to learn the truth of yourself, the battle you survived, and the mission you’ve been charged wouldn’t it make sense that you’d get a gameplay reward for seeking the answers to the questions which define this side story’s plot and purpose? Getting experience rewards for finding out as much as you can in a story that is about exactly that, creates a better immersion in the tale!

I especially wish that JRPGs would pick this idea up. I mean, I want to see more RPGs use this dedicated Storytelling EXP, period, but as you might have guessed from my examples so far, this is definitely more of a western RPG thing. Still, some JRPGs have used Storytelling EXP, or at least, something similar to it, to their benefit. Sakura Wars 5, for example, is a combination tactical RPG and dating sim (I still wonder who came up with that idea), wherein the characters in your party become more powerful combatants not through defeating enemies, but rather through having stronger personal relationships with the protagonist. Well, 70% of the game’s a dating sim, so it makes sense, right? If your actions in getting all your teammates to like you didn’t affect the battles in any way, then you’d wonder what the point was; this way, the character relationships that the game wants to focus on are properly emphasized by the gameplay. Similarly, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and 4 have a system where you gain most of your experience points from defeating enemies, but advancing your Social Links for each Tarot Arcana provides level up bonuses for the Personae you create and use in battle, with a complete Social Link giving any Persona of its type several level-ups instantly when that Persona is created. This is a great idea, because a huge amount of the story and characters are explored through the Social Links in each game, as well as a ton of the thematic ties with the Tarot, which is at the heart of the games’ meaning. It’s especially important in SMT Persona 3, since that game, at its core, is about our connections with others and the ways that we enrich one another through them, so powering up your Persona, the powerful and monstrous manifestation of your psyche and soul, through furthering these connections is a perfect use of gameplay to underscore story. So yeah, definitely possible to incorporate Storytelling EXP in a JRPG with good results.

And that’s about it! I like Storytelling EXP, especially the kind that goes beyond just basic quest rewards, and nearly every time I’ve seen it used in an RPG, it’s really benefited the game overall. It doesn’t have to be the only source of character advancement in a game (though Mass Effect and Sakura Wars 5 prove that can work just fine), but I’d at least like to see more RPGs factor a significant amount of their experience points to come from storytelling sources.