Thoughts on Open-World RPGs and the D&D Lineage

Open-world RPGs have never really been my thing, though it’s less about genre preference and more about circumstances. I was never much of a PC gamer when RPGs like Baldur’s Gate were around, and by the time similar games (such as The Elder Scrolls series) emerged on more powerful console hardware, I didn’t have any of those systems. But from a distance, I find the branching paths of Western RPGs and Japanese RPGs to be such a wonderful story of diverging Dungeons & Dragons lineages—namely how the former has taken more from the customization and self-insertion aspects of tabletop roleplaying in contrast to the latter and how the latter has went on to emphasize the narrative and storytelling components by way of old Western computer RPGs such as Wizardry.

It might be my ignorance and unfamiliarity at work, but I see expansive open-world RPGs as putting less emphasis on defining strong characters through which a story unfolds. More often than not, my impression is that they are about putting the player in the driver’s seat and trying to convey a virtual environment where they can do “whatever they want” within the boundaries of a game’s programming. Even if they have set things to do and accomplish, these games are meant to feel like your story.

That being said, plenty of JRPGs have user insert characters, including Dragon Quest and Pokemon have audience insert protagonists, and the latter even allows for heavier aesthetic customization now. However, I do feel that there is a more defined sense of a default look and feel to these generic JRPG player characters, and the result is that they also end up feeling like someone you’re observing from a distance—like you’re in a dream seeing yourself from a third-person perspective.  For me, personally, I’ve traditionally preferred that direction.

Of course, I’m making certain assumptions and generalizations when I define Western RPGs as more expansive and open-world, as even those words can change meaning and significance depending on what players are used to and how they perceive the importance of those qualities. For example, it’s interesting to me that the prevailing online opinion on Pokemon Black & White has changed so drastically in the ten years since its debut. 

Back when it first launched, the games were criticized as being too easy and hand-holdy—you always knew exactly where to go next. This was a far cry from the original Pokemon Red & Blue generation-1 games, which gave far fewer explanations and kind of left a lot of things ambiguous. But now, Black & White are touted as being one of the gold standards of Pokemon, and its descendants inferior for their perceived lack of strong and focused storytelling. Red & Blue, in turn, are seen as cumbersome relics that don’t do enough to guide players. It comes down to a generational divide, but even within the specific realm of Pokemon—hardly what you’d call a premiere example of open-world gameplay—this debate about the two Dungeons & Dragons lineages takes place.

I feel that the success of expansive open-world RPGs on an individual level comes down to whether or not the inevitably less defined bits of narrative that are a consequence of heavy personal customization and gameplay systems that encourage defining “your” story as opposed to following someone else’s. Both it and the JRPG style are capable of capturing people’s imaginations, but it’s what we want to do with our captive imaginations that highlights our differences.

This post is sponsored by Ogiue Maniax patron Johnny Trovato. You can request topics through the Patreon or by tipping $30 via ko-fi.

“Tales of Eternia: The Animation” and the Adapting of RPGs

I was asked via Patreon to look at the Tales RPG series, which I have very little experience with. Given time constraints, I decided to focus my energy on an anime version, knowing full well that such adaptations often do not fully capture what makes the source material appealing. With that in mind, I chose to go in blind on the earliest Tales anime: Tales of Eternia.

My immediate feeling from the first couple of episodes was that the core cast is a fun and likable bunch, and that they stood out above all else. My favorite is Farah Oersted, the martial arts tomboy with an oddly familiar an appropriate voice—turns out she shares a voice with Videl from the Dragon Ball franchise. The show at times felt beholden to its RPG origins, especially during fight scenes, which is not helped by the roughness of the early-2000s digital animation.

But as I kept watching, I wondered just how much ground they were covering from the original Tales of Eternia. Halfway in, it seemed more like they were on their very first missions, when you’re still kind of learning the ropes. By the time a major plot twist comes in, it feels strangely paced—like either the story was moving too slow for something like this, or it had been skipping over too much. At this point, I decided to look at just how this anime maps onto the game.

The answer is that it doesn’t—at least not exactly. The central characters are more or less the same, except drawn in an early-2000s anime style as opposed to the softer designs of the game (or its squat sprites), but the story of the Tales of Eternia anime does not take place anywhere in the actual RPG. Suddenly, it made sense, and the feeling I was getting from the anime version was all too familiar: the Tales of Eternia anime is basically a filler arc.

The challenge of adapting an RPG is tricky because there’s not necessarily enough time to cover everything, so I can see why they took this approach. Shoving the game’s story into 13 episodes probably wouldn’t have done it justice, so going for a wholly original story is an interesting solution. However, the reason it feels so much like filler is because it straddles the line a little too much. The anime tries not to touch the main story so there are no real stakes, but it also seems to assume that this somewhere into it, so the anime isn’t terribly free to take liberties. All that remains is the charm of the characters.

My Favorite RPGs

Compared to many of my friends over the years, I’ve barely grazed the surface of RPGs. I remember in high school listening to my friends debate Kefka vs. Sephiroth, then going online and seeing my internet acquaintances gush over Lunar: Silver Star Story. My experience with RPGs is but a fraction of others, but in my limited exposure I do have my favorites.

Honorable Mention 1:  Dragon Warrior

Dragon Warrior (aka Dragon Quest), one of the granddaddies of Japanese RPGs, does not hold up particularly well. It’s a pretty long and tedious game where most of your time is spent walking around leveling up. However, the first time that you see the Dragonlord reveal his true self, and the entire fight with his dragon form, is such a memorable experience for me. What stands out, and is kind of hard to convey in videos, is that whenever the Dragonlord attacked the screen would freeze temporarily (instead of shake as it normally would), making it feel as if his attacks were different and more powerful compared to his minions. You might notice that most of my subsequent entries have something to do with how much I like boss fights.

Honorable Mention 2: Pokemon

In actuality, Pokemon as a whole is one of my favorite game franchises ever. From the thrill of discovery to the depth of competitive battling, it’s been a part of me for a long time. However, in a way I think it overshadows other RPGs because of its prominence, so I’m leaving it off this list.

Final Fantasy IV (Final Fantasy II)

In terms of SNES RPGs, I find that Final Fantasy VI gets much more praise, but I find that my heart lies closer to Final Fantasy IV. The two moments that I think really define the game for me are when Cecil becomes a Paladin, and the final battle against Zeromus. The thing I love about Cecil as Paladin is the way that his transformation is reflected in the gameplay. When Cecil is a Dark Knight, his special technique is to shoot a destructive wave of energy, but when he’s a Paladin he runs to cover his allies and take the damage instead. As for Zeromus, while his appearance in the plot is kind of dumb as a last-minute final boss, the actual battle is wonderfully intense. You have to constantly keep pace with Zeromus’s devastating attacks while music very much befitting a final battle plays. I could actually just fight Zeromus over and over and be happy.

Fire Emblem GBA (aka Fire Emblem: Blazing Sword)

My early experience with Fire Emblem is something I assume to be fairly common. I first learned about the series through Super Smash Bros. Melee, and then got to play a game for the first time with the Game Boy Advance release—the first Fire Emblem game released in the US. I’d heard stories about how unforgiving the series and its infamous permanent deaths were, and while the game was noticeably difficult, it was the satisfaction of seeing my characters successfully take down army after army, and seeing their stories as they interact with each other, which makes it one of my favorites. By the time you reach the end and Lyn, Eliwood, and Hector are in command of their legendary weapons, it makes you feel as if you’ve earned all of this power through your hard work.

Lufia and the Fortress Doom/Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals

Known as the Estopolis series in Japan, Lufia and Lufia II are pretty by-the-numbers RPGs, but I find them to be so incredibly charming and impactful. In The Fortress of Doom, your very first battle takes place in the distant past, when you and your fully decked out team have to fight the biggest baddies in the world, the Sinistrals. After your victory, you move to the present and control the descendant of the hero Maxim (whom you had just been controlling in that climactic battle moments ago), as well as a mysterious girl named Lufia. Seeing the story come full circle as you learn about what happened in the decades between then and now is immensely satisfying. Lufia II is a more refined game and a prequel which goes more in depth about the life and times of Maxim, but it’s the combined package that make them forever memorable.

Dragon Quest VIII

In terms of just standard RPGs that don’t really mess with the formula, Dragon Quest VIII is one of the most refined games I’ve ever played. It never feels like a slog, and the narrative twists are small but powerful. What stands out to me above all else (aside from Jessica Albert <3) is a way a major plot point is hidden throughout your playthrough in a simple and subtle mechanic. When you fight the first boss, it shoots a wave of cursed energy at your party. While one character gets hit by it pretty regularly, it appears to keep missing the hero. It’s an easy detail to forget as you play through the game, but when you learn that he’s literally immune to curses because *SPOILERS*, it really speaks to how clever the game is.

Super Robot Wars R

Does this count? In any case, it’s my first Super Robot Wars game, and the one that introduced me to so many cool and interesting giant robot anime. Getting to see in detail the various attacks and quirks of classics such as Zambot 3, Voltes V, and Gear Fighter Dendoh was such a big step in my further appreciation of the giant robot genre. Fun fact: my Japanese was still really rudimentary at the time, so it took me 65% of my entire play-through to figure out how to dodge. Ha ha ha.

So those are my favorite RPGs. I think it’s kind of an eclectic yet somehow boring list, but it’s straight from the heart.

This post was sponsored by Johnny Trovato. If you’re interested in submitting topics for the blog, or just like my writing and want to support Ogiue Maniax, check out my Patreon.