Terminal State ===>The Doldrums

In case you haven’t noticed, there really hasn’t been Jacqueline frackin’ poo-poo coming out in terms of console games lately. It’s almost like we’ve reached that stage where all that releases for the major platforms are movie tie-ins and half-hearted sequels that are too early for the next-gen boat. But we’re still a year or more out from the Xbox 720 Netflix Player, which will have a credit card reader attached for you to pay for every bullet you fire in Call of Duty, and the PS4, which will debut at a thousand dollars retail with a new Crash Bandicoot game designed to really show off that hardware. To quote Belgian EBM masters Front 242, we’re in the doldrums.

Sure, there’s a load of stuff coming later this year. Are you read for some football? Of course you are. There’s Borderlands 2: Bride of Borderlands, Call of Duty 7: Black Ops 2: Son of Black Ops., and Assassin’s Creed 3: Exio versus Frankenstein.  Do I want to play these? Sure. With a shrug, because there’s not much else shakin’. Maybe Dishonored. I hope it’s good. The only things I’m unapologetically excited for are Platinum’s Metal Gear brawler and Bioshock Infinite. And Anarchy Reigns, if it ever releases in the US.

Maybe it’s just my own ennui talking, but it seems like we’re hitting a wall, scraping the bottom of the barrel. Stop me if I’m wrong, but was anyone genuinely excited about Max Payne 3? Or the new Ghost Recon game, which I liked but almost completely lost interest in less than halfway through its duration? It’s as if The Witcher 2 Enhanced Edition appeared and made everything else seem terrible by comparison. I’ve come to really love Dragon’s Dogma, but it still feels like it’s in the shadow of CD Projekt Red’s masterpiece.  Looking over at my Forever Shelf, those are the only two 2012 releases I still own.

It’s almost like console games are done, stick a fork in ‘em.  But maybe that’s just me. One thing’s for sure, we’ve gone for months now without an “event” release. You know, The Game Everybody is Playing. What was the last one, Mass Effect 3? Lately, it seems like every release has been The Game Everyone Is Waiting to Go On the  Steam Sale. I’m actually relieved that I’m not professionally obliged to review any of the current trickle of tripe.

Oddly, I’m finding myself retreating into areas of video gaming that are pretty foreign to me. I’ve been playing- get ready for this- JRPGs.  Yeah. Even Final Fantasy XIII, which far more innovative than you’d expect and not nearly as bad as some have made it out to be. I’ve been poking around with Persona 3 Portable, Crimson Gem Saga, Yggra Union, and Xenogears.  Classic SRPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics and Front Mission 3. Even more marginal but potentially interesting titles like Resonance of Fate and Star Ocean: The Last Hope have my attention. I thought I had sworn off any game with random encounters and text windows with deet-deet-deet typed out dialogue. I thought that the story about the kid waking up in some backwater fantasy town with amnesia was over for me.  But now, I’m finding this genre terrible and terribly comforting in an age where console gaming is apparently in a steady decline, about to crash on a rock called Ouya in a ship commandeered by clueless game company execs.

Playing these old, frankly quite obsolete games is refreshing. There’s no hype, no marketing, no additional purchases required.  No online drama. No crybabies whining for endings to change and signing petitions. Just slow, meticulous pacing in an handcrafted world with completely unique rules and systems between each game,  occasional extraordinary art direction given the technical limitations, and the comfort of numbers popping out of pixelated monsters in camouflaged spreadsheet combat.  I’m relishing in the almost unfathomable depth and promise of tens of hours of play at the outset.  It’s totally reactionary to the video game design paradigm circa 2012, I know this.

These games- even some of the most recent ones- are reminding me of some of the qualities that are being lost in the march toward DLC everything and the decline of the Japanese games industry. Qualities that I cherished, took for granted, and now miss. I miss the weird esotericism of games, the idiosyncrasies of design and interface that have been refined out of existence. I miss the sense of craft and world building that games like Xenogears accomplished with simple not-Hollywood-at-all writing, ancient graphics, and memorable music. There was a handcrafted look and feel to some of those games that you just don’t see anymore when they’re stamped out of the Unreal Engine 3 master mold.

It’s also ironic in a way, diving into this very niche genre to escape the mainstream stagnation as we approach the terminal state of this console generation. There was a time when JRPGs were a major draw. But these days, they’re like bullet hell shooters. A very specific, very rigid, and very formal kind of genre that just isn’t as approachable to Joe Console as linear third-person adventures, golden ledge platformers, multiplayer shooters, or directionless sandbox games are. Hard, opaque, detailed…all traits I’m more interested in than polished, expensive, and accessible right now.

There’s also the fact that I am increasingly disinterested in the direction that console games are heading in the next generation- the Casual Games Armageddon was greatly exaggerated, the problem is the sales models and marketing schemes that we’re about to be subjected to. As many industry folks have said, this longer than usual console cycle is at the stage where it’s squashing innovation and as profits tumble, the idiots in charge are looking for ways to monetize the garbage they’re already making. Instead of getting back to the notion of providing quality games, value for the money, and creating consumer loyalty.

I never thought I’d find a way out of these doldrums in JRPGs, let alone a Final Fantasy title. But there it is, and I find myself wondering if I’ll bother to pick up any of the Fall AAA releases, knowing full well that if I wait until Christmas I’ll be able to practically buy them two or even three for the price of one on launch day. But by that time, when the breeze picks up, I might be lost in a Ys game.

26 Responses to “Terminal State ===>The Doldrums”

  1. Slothboy July 24, 2012 at 5:50 pm #

    “As many industry folks have said, this longer than usual console cycle is at the stage where it’s squashing innovation and as profits tumble, the idiots in charge are looking for ways to monetize the garbage they’re already making.”

    That pretty much sums it up. The last two “Day one” purchases of console games I have made were Birds of Steel, which was a huge disappointment, and Halo: Reach… which was a huge disappointment.

    I loved the predecessor to Birds of Steel, the ill named “IL2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey” and was super excited to see their new iteration, but the whole thing turned out to be an experiment for their free to play model for their upcoming MMO. And don’t get me started on Halo: Reach.

    I picked up Dark Souls finally and that has been pretty fun, but even that isn’t all that unique. Get Sword – Kill Monster – Upgrade Sword – Kill Monster Faster. It definitely has some interesting gameplay elements that make it stand out from say, the latest Elder Scrolls, but at its heart it is just a third person action RPG.

    There really is nothing on the horizon that I’m anticipating with any energy in the console market. This makes me sad.

    • Ajax19 July 24, 2012 at 6:14 pm #

      Maybe because I play both PC and console games that I never really look at them as two distinct things. They are all pretty much just “video games” to me.

      Then again, I very rarely play console games by myself. I got “Batman: Arkham City” for Christmas and I haven’t even opened it yet. Almost all of my console gaming is done with friends, be it NBA 2K11, Gears of War, or some other type of co-op shooter. The last console game I played alone was over the Christmas holiday at that was “Heavy Rain.” The next console game I am looking forward to is “The Last of Us.” I will probably pick up “Borderlands 2″ on the console as well.

      I totally agree about “Demon’s Souls.” I never found those games special in anyway. Well, they do look amazing and the world and creature design is pretty sweet. But I never found the story – to the extent there was one – at all engaging and I found the writing and voice acting to be down right atrocious to embarassingly. Those games always felt empty to me. Just a grind towards better gear and more souls. A hack-n-slash.

      I have read many articles and stories on the Souls games and am amazed (and quite jealous) of what people are able to get out of them in terms of emotional impact, story, depth and all of that. For some reason whatever those games are “selling” in those terms do not resonate with me in the slightest. The role-playing aspect of the game just never clicked with me or engaged me at all, so, to me, it was just walking around and swinging over-sized weapons at very cool-looking monsters. That just doesn’t won’t hold my attention for any length of time. Add in the whole when you die you have to start all the way back over at the “fire” or whatever and… no. I don’t think so. Homey don’t play that.

      I have had many frustrating moments in games that I have had to do over-and-over-and-over again (Half Life 2, for example, among many others), but I have to find the game compelling enough to push the frustration aside and continue. I never found the Souls games compelling enough for that.

      Sorry, didn’t mean to go on a Anti-Souls Rant.

      Oh, and for some reason, despite loving turn-based games and RPGs, I don’t think I ever played a JRPG. I guess “Legend of Zelda” counts as one, but that might be it. Something about them just never appealed.

      • Michael Barnes July 24, 2012 at 6:27 pm #

        Guys, if Bill Abner hears you talking like that about Dark Souls…well, I’ll vouch for you in the hearings.

        You should really open that copy of Arkham City Ajax…that’s AAA done right. It’s a masterpiece.

        I had some fun with IL2 Sturmovik myself…but it just made me want to go back and play Lawrence Holland games.

        • Bill Abner July 24, 2012 at 8:14 pm #

          Nah. I fully understand when people say “screw this” and move on when tackling a Souls game.

          I thought I would be in that group…

          But I do love it so.

          Best game of this console cycle.

          • Slothboy July 25, 2012 at 11:59 am #

            I’m definitely enjoying it and it is the game that brought me back to the console. My point was just that, at the end of the day, it isn’t breaking a lot of ground as far as innovation is concerned.

            I do appreciate that it hates me though. It is very nice to play a game that doesn’t hold my hand and guide me to the end. When I finish it I will definitely be able to say I “beat” Dark Souls. It isn’t a novel or a film, it’s an adversary.

  2. AngryOgre July 24, 2012 at 7:01 pm #

    Sorry about the following fanboy rant, but I couldn’t resist.

    The older Final Fantasy games were what got me into gaming, and I have loved the genre ever since. The quality that always stands out to me from playing a well-crafted JRPG is how they just feel like a video game and only a video game. Yes there are a lot of cutscenes, but you could never actually make these games into a movie. The budget would be gigantic, the story too convoluted and strange for an audience to reliably follow, and the running time would require theaters to insert intermissions. But with games, you can tell insane and long stories. The dungeon crawls give the player plenty of time to digest the most recent twists while keeping them entertained. Those same dungeons (and the character fiddling/tuning required to complete them) also serve to strengthen your bonds to what is an always a large cast of characters, some of whom will naturally lack for screen time. Special effects are not as prohibitively expensive because everything is animated anyway.
    Modern games discard these storytelling advantages by being shorter, featuring plots which seem more and more like they were gleaned from the trashcan of an action movie, and inserting hoops of pricing and/or DLC for the player to jump through. They also generally feature simpler gameplay, which reduces the immersion factor of playing them. Being able to tinker around with a deep character development system is great hook for a game, because all the time that you spend optimizing your setup makes you more and more invested in the game as whole. I’ve probably spent hours fiddling around with abilities and equipment in Xenoblade, but only minutes doing the same in Arkham City. Guess which one has made a bigger impression.
    The only way to get an experience like a JRPG is through video games, and the genre happily embraces this fact. Now if only the rest of industry would follow suit.

    • Michael Barnes July 24, 2012 at 7:21 pm #

      Interesting perspective- that’s a great point about JRPGs being very specifically video games. You see that in genres like run n’ gun and bullet hell too.

      But yeah, that immersion thing…it doesn’t matter if you don’t get what’s going on the story (hello, FFXIII). It absorbs you into its particular world with its art style, music, language, customs, unique items, and so forth in a very unique way. And I do think you’re right, there is a certain contemplative element that comes in there too…these are slow games that take their time to tell a story. And that means that there is that time to bond and absorb the characters, even if their writing is incredibly awful.

      When I started up Xenogears (I never played it back in the 90s), my first reaction was “no way, what was I think, $10 down the drain”. But once it started to immerse me, I really fell for it. Maybe some of the story beats, character designs, and ideas are worn out for longtime JRPG fans, but coming back to the genre I’m finding them refreshing.

      Something else that bears mentioning is that JRPGs tend to be more optimistic, colorful, and joyful than many modern games.

      • Mark E July 24, 2012 at 9:04 pm #

        If you’re grabbing JRPGs on PSN… Grandia is another corker. Graphics from the bottom of a shoe somewhere, but talk about a charming story.

        I’m really stoked that you’ve got Vesperia coming. Based on our JRPG discussions this week I suspect you’re going to enjoy the hell out of it.

        • Michael Barnes July 25, 2012 at 10:00 am #

          Don’t enable me! I’ve got like 9 JRPGs going right now. And Grandia is only $6…

        • Ian S. July 25, 2012 at 12:34 pm #

          And Suikoden… and FFIX… The PSN is a real bastard for decent old JRPGs.

          • Michael Barnes July 25, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

            QUIET!

            Suddenly I care about the Vita playing PSOne games…

          • McKay July 25, 2012 at 3:09 pm #

            I might need to check out PSN again. Had a real itch for Suikoden a couple months back.

          • Crimson Dragoon July 25, 2012 at 5:52 pm #

            No, PSN is a real bastard for including Suikoden but not Suikoden II (my personal favorite JRPG). And considering II is the rare game that would cost well over $100 to get a real copy of, I’m understandably angry.

  3. JonJacob July 24, 2012 at 7:19 pm #

    This is a slow time right now and I’m playing all sorts of things that have been left for later. I’m seriously considering ordering Anarchy Reigns from Japan as Platinum reccomended since it is region free anyway. I’m just not sure that it’s worth the 100$ and I’m also not sure how much game there is without dipping into the multi-player thing. Which might bog down playing overseas so often. Why oh why didn’t they release in July like originally planned, there is seriously nothing out and the timing would be perfect. I have never enjoyed JRPG’s all that much so I don’t get you there, except maybe Resonance of Fate and only for the amazing combat system. But I am doing a similar thing in that I’m just playing old games right now… metal gear solid 2 & 3 for the first time ever. Seemed like a good time to get ready for the Platinum title.

    • Michael Barnes July 25, 2012 at 10:03 am #

      Yeah, I don’t know if we’ll actually see that in the US…partially because it’s multiplayer. That means server costs,and this is a marginal, cultish game that may not have enough of an audience. It’s also Sega so there’s that.

  4. Michael Manchel July 25, 2012 at 1:55 am #

    Barnes I saw this coming a 2 years ago. Get a pc that plays games (hell just get one so you can play indy games). It feel that I no longer will be getting a new console when it comes out. Everything I here about the new generation seems to me to be only a holding pattern. We may be going from one of the longest generations for consoles to the shortest depending on how the economy is doing in 5 years.

    • McKay July 25, 2012 at 9:18 am #

      I agree that might just skip the next console generation. PC gaming has it’s problems to be sure, but I’m not sure the next generation is going to warrant a purchase. We’ll see.

    • Michael Barnes July 25, 2012 at 10:12 am #

      That’s a good point- if the new generation flounders- and there’s signs that it could if the majors are looking at continuing the $60 plus DLC model- it could be a short cycle. All it would take is for people to say no and to do their gaming elsewhere.

      No room, no money for a PC.

      • McKay July 25, 2012 at 11:39 am #

        Hell, I thought I heard there was an accidentally linked image somewhere recently that showed the next Battlefield (or one of those types) is going to be $70? Eff that.

        • Michael Manchel July 25, 2012 at 1:02 pm #

          There was some misinformation on that front. The special edition is 70 the normal is still 60. Frankly just a terrible ea ad job is what that was.

          • McKay July 25, 2012 at 3:11 pm #

            Ahhh, ok. Yeah I saw the picture and it didn’t look like that at all. That’s silly.

  5. McKay July 25, 2012 at 9:20 am #

    Going to have to disagree with you on FF13, but I do enjoy a nice JRPG from time to time. That was my main preference for many years, so it’s like a warm blanket every so often. I like to go back to FF6 and/or CT every couple years. I haven’t played a new one in a while though — maybe after I get through some of the games I just bought in the Steam summer sale.

  6. Robotlazer July 25, 2012 at 10:40 am #

    Ah, the doldrums. They happen to me every summer (also porch sitting & mountain biking get in the way) but this year it’s particularly bad. I just sort of listlessly stare at my Xbox. I haven’t even finished ME3 despite my best efforts. It seems like the joy of gaming is currently missing. Although I did make a list of old games I want to play that are under 15 bucks and I’m slowly chewing my way through them, much like your current JRPG fascination. Mostly action games (Bayonetta), guilty pleasures (Tron, Force Unleashed II) and arcade games (Outland, Bastion)that I never got around to. It’s surprising how long that list is.

  7. fring July 25, 2012 at 4:39 pm #

    Barnes, seriously don’t waste your time on Star Ocean 4. While I did actually enjoy the 3rd one, number 4 is just lazy and insulting. I played it all the way though and it never redeems itself. If it’s the battle system that you’re messing with, it’s really just a poor man’s Tales battle system and I’m sure you’ll find that Tales of Vesperia shows off a real-time JRPG battle system without the terrible story and characters. That is all.

  8. coyote_blue July 25, 2012 at 5:12 pm #

    I’m gonna make the “Nickelback Rocks” statement and say I really liked Heavy Rain. The gameplay sucked at many a point, and everyone had suspiciously French accents, and everyone seemed to think the word “wasteland” was American for “empty lot”…

    But then they strapped a character to a slab and forced you to escape while a crazy dude threatens to drill holes in you. No superpowers. No inventory management. No health bar. No zombies. Just immersion and a true sense of panic and helplessness. And if you got the character killed, they’re not there for the ending.

    Limited, to be sure. But trying hard to be something specific. Pushing more than just a technical envelope. Not feeding me tapioca, then “improving” it by feeding me MOAR tapioca.

    The problem with AAA polish is when the thing you’re polishing isn’t shiny in the first place.

    • Jonathan July 30, 2012 at 11:36 am #

      I’ll join you. Nickleback rocks! Err…

      That’s what I enjoyed about Heavy Rain as well. The early game scene where you are at home taking a shower late at night was so much more than a naked chic in a shower scene. It built up this huge sense of vulnerability right before your flat gets broken into. As a 30 year old man, I would be terrified if my house was broken into while I was home. I felt at least a slice of that terror since I had put myself in the place of the character on screen.

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