Giving Up Early on Japanese Strategy RPGs

There have been two games in the past year that I have quit within the first hour or two of picking them up. Final Fantasy Tactics A2 and Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor. Both of these are Japanese-developed strategy RPGs on the DS. What did I find so off-putting about these two games? Actually, they more or less manage to check all three boxes I discuss in the Giving Up series of entries (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). It’s the speed at which they do it that’s remarkable.

Story-wise, Final Fantasy is essentially dead in the water. It has less going on in its opening than a typical pokemon game does. Boy gets sucked into magical world, joins mercenaries, does random quests. Devil Survivor’s premise is a little more high-concept (boy and friends get trapped in demon-infested Tokyo for a week) but it does a really poor job in selling it. Neither game gave any indication of having characters I’d give a damn about in a narrative context. Partly, I think this is a fault of the presentation. Between the top-down camera angle, small sprites, and the DS’s low resolution I had trouble even telling characters apart on the battle screen in Devil Survivor, and Final Fantasy wasn’t much better.

They’re a little better, both of them, in the gameplay department. I still find the way the cardinal directions on the d-pad are mapped to diagonals on the games’ isometric grids very disconcerting. Beyond that, there was, in both games, the promise of a very deep and rewarding character customization system. But they both start off so slowly, giving you access to precious few characters and abilities at the start, and making you grind for more. And both of them, though Final Fantasy in particular, are burdened with cumbersome interfaces that require too many button-presses to get things done. In particular, if I pick an attack, and only one enemy is in range of that attack, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that I want to attack that enemy, and so it should be targeted by default.

As for the breaking point, with Final Fantasy I think it was when I realized how slow the process of getting skills on to characters was going to be. To learn a skill you need to use the weapon that imparts that skill many times, which means you need to figure out the right weapon and craft it, which means you need to spend hours searching for the right materials to make the weapon. With Devil Survivor, the process of acquiring skills also seemed pretty cumbersome, but, worse, it seems like the game doesn’t deign to give enough experience to keep up with the difficulty of the story-battles, even early on, which put me in the position of having to grind after only the third story-battle. Grinding on random battles is tolerable in an RPG when battles take fifteen seconds, or when the battles themselves are strategically interesting. Having to grind by fighting the same 10-minute comp-stomp over and over is unacceptable. So I gave up on it.

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