I am a child of the era of Pokemon, Final Fantasy VII, VII and IX. Now before you bash me for lacking Final Fantasy IV under my belt, hear me out when I say that in the era of Fallout 3, God of War and Starcraft 2, it is extremely hard back to go back and play a heavily pixelated game filled with (now) tired genre tropes without a lager and a heavy dose of nostalgia.
I generally avoid standard turn based RPGs these days for the same reason I avoided them when I was 7 years old: They are really just massive grind-fests filled with repetitive gameplay centered around accumulating the stats necessary to kill a boss. The turn based combat system lacks the sense of immediacy that other games offer, and unlike chess, there is really no need to strategize. Just grind and then roll over bosses. God of War offers the pleasure of lobbing off limbs and eviscerating organs by perfectly timed strikes and split second decision making; classic RPGs offers the compelling feature of hitting the “X” button mindlessly until your opponent falls. As you can tell by now, I am not a fan of the genre, which is a fact that I should have remembered before plopping down $12.99 for Chaos Rings.
I recently got an iPod Touch and like any other child with anew toy I wanted to know it can do. Aside from the obligatory download of Angry Birds and several other (more productive) apps, I decided to take a leap of faith on the fairly universal praise of Square Enix‘s foray into the jaws of Apple. The graphics seemed quite good in the trailers and it had been years since I last played such an RPG, so I reasoned maybe, just maybe, this could turn out to be a compelling experience.
Boy, was that a bad idea.
To Chaos Rings’ defense, it had gorgeous graphics, a riveting soundtrack, a decent story (which actually became quite memorable by the end), and a streamlined combat system with some depth. In other words, the game has some good components, but it made the unforgivable mistake of being a classic RPG. The fights were long and repetitive. All the characters heal to full health after each battle so there is little tension of running out of potions or even dying.
Playing through the game, I began to wonder why I ever enjoyed RPGs at all. Pokemon I can justify as a phenomenon that I shared with my friends. Final Fantasy has riveting stories as well as, once again, the friends component. However, there were countless hours I wasted on other games that was essentially just about boosting stats. Perhaps, I found these games challenging because I added the additional burden of never using potions out of fear I may need them in the future (by which time the potions were so weak they were worthless), and when I entered my late teenage years, I realized that I could pretty much create beer-hats out of all potions I collect so the games then became quite easy. More likely than the use-the-goddamn-potions theory, I was addicted to the joy seeing stats go up by one point… even for five hours of work. I believe that the long stretch of time didn’t seem to onerous since grinding is incredibly easy. Unlike most things in life, all you have to do is mash “X” and you get crap done.
I recall it taking a good 7 hours to level up once in my first MMORPG Maple Story; I recall leveling up twice in one five minute battle in Chaos Rings. Yes, I do realize that MMORPG intentionally slow down the leveling process to a snail’s pace so that the game company can sell all the gimmicky weapons, scrolls and spells to make the whole thing easier, but regardless, the leveling system in Chaos Rings is still laughably easy. Now, I’m thankful the game didn’t stretch out its 4-7 hours of gameplay by forcing people to grind. Being a game on the iPhone, I presume this was made for a more casual audience who can play it a few minutes a day; however, the game could have had a difficulty option for people who knows how to play an RPG. It’s not a big gripe, but one I would like to point out for the more hardcore gamers out there.
I believe that developers of turn based RPG should approach it less as a bunch of statistics clashing (or in Square Enix‘s case) a glorified movie with gaming components, and more as a puzzle game. There should be some real problem solving that is not too complex but challenging enough to engage the player beyond simply learning what element a creature is weak against and spamming spells. Such a combat system should be more fun since each battle becomes a genuine challenge that requires a player to actually make full use of the game mechanics instead of just hitting the attack command. Furthermore, grinding may still be a solution for some, but the game should make it sufficiently cumbersome to level up that it’s actually better to just learn the finer details of the combat system. Sadly, Chaos Rings does none of this. It’s just another pretty Square Enix game using the same old formula from the 90s. Both the company and the genre needs to evolve or else the lukewarm sales of Final Fantasy XIII are going to look like blockbuster numbers in the future.