Breath of Death VII and the Problem with RPGs

So I’ve written on this blog before that I’m on an all-indie purchasing diet. Indie RPGs, it turns out, aren’t very common. RPGs are games that require an immense amount of time to make, due to the amount of content they usually contain. For a first-person shooter to be only ten hours long is nothing; for an RPG to be that long is considered a rip-off, criminal, sacrilege (I actually disagree with this gamer prejudice, but that’s a subject for another post.) So I was intrigued when I heard Breath of Death VII on the Xbox Live Indie Games Channel getting a positive buzz on popular and indie-devoted games sites alike. It’s 80 Microsoft Points, which amounts to $1 in real money.

It’s also terrible.

Let’s be clear up front. I like RPGs. I love RPGs. They may even be my favorite type of game, period. At their best (heck, even on average), they pack more depth into their systems and more emotion into their stories than any other type of game. The kind commonly made in the Western hemisphere are known best for how deeply they involve the player in the storyline, offering different outcomes for situations based on player choices. They take an ordinary narrative and do what no other medium can do; they make it personal. But even the variety of RPG most commonly found in Japan has its attraction. While the JRPG tends toward more linear storytelling, they scratch the exploration itch grandly, and tend to offer elegantly strategic battle systems accompanied by epic stories and gorgeous art. They are the sorts of games and worlds you get lost in, in the best way possible; they become a part of your life.

Breath of Death VII is in the JRPG vein, but it’s not that sort of game. It attempts to be a videogame parody, but aside from a few feeble, overdone jokes (seriously–how many times are we going to laugh when someone makes a “Master of Unlocking” reference? Stop setting the bar so low, gamers!) Its premise has potential: a great war killed everyone off, and so all the principle characters and NPCs are undead. This could be great parody material–you are essentially playing as the monsters in a typical RPG–but it’s wasted. The monsters you face are nonsensical and sometimes funny, but they aren’t united by any theme, and ridiculous monsters are too much the reality in regular JRPGs for them to register as funny. It might have been neat if you were fighting off nice living things, since you’re undead; but the creators of Breath of Death VII didn’t think beyond a few throwaway gags.

I could live with all of that, however, if the battle system wasn’t so poorly designed. Perhaps “Normal” difficulty isn’t the difficulty it’s meant to be played on, but on “Normal” difficulty, it is never, ever necessary to use any special abilities, basic spells, or potions. Just hit the regular ‘attack’ power and repeat. This is because your party members recover all of their health at the end of each battle.

Typically, in a JRPG (or any RPG), each combat encounter requires a delicate strategic balance: do you use up your mana on high-damage specials, buffs, or healing abilities that allow your party to claim victory depleted but relatively unscathed, or do you try to soak up the damage in hopes of saving the mana for when you really need it. Restoring all of the party’s health at the end of every battle eliminates this choice. Why use your mana to kill the enemy faster, if you can survive the battle without using your specials, and recover all of the health you’ve lost? And I don’t just mean the health of your still-standing party members; party members at zero health also are revived and receive their full health back at the end of every battle.

And it’s a shame, because the special abilities and the combo system that rewards using them in a particular order are immensely creative and I could see them as part of a very well-designed RPG. Well-designed enough, in fact, to redeem the lackluster story elements, if they were at all integral to playing the game. Certainly, you can choose to play the game as if strategy were necessary, and use the special abilities and appreciate it more (in fact, I suspect this is how most people who’ve praised the game played it–perhaps not even realizing it was unnecessary, simply because it’s a reasonable assumption of most RPG players that when special abilities are given, special abilities are necessary.) But if there is no strategy to it, then you are just pressing buttons, and it makes no difference whether you are pressing “A” for “Attack” or “Rain of Fire.”

You wonder: why eviscerate a game that’s just a dollar? Certainly even with its flaws, the game provides enough enjoyment for a dollar? You have a point. The art is well-done, and the game works, and you can probably derive some fun from it if you entertain the illusion that strategy is needed, or you enjoy seeing game references. My problem with it, and why I feel it necessary to point out that it’s just not very good, is that it’s not an ambitious “not very good.” It’s completely uninspired. It’s banking on an idea that I feel is becoming a dangerously common idea in RPG design, thanks to MMOs and Diablo and the like: that the act of pressing the same buttons, over and over, just to see some numbers go up and get some new shiny items is enough. The idea that a game doesn’t need interesting mechanics or story–it just needs to balance the the ratio of reward to challenge so that the player can get the most visceral satisfaction from the least effort, and then do that over and over again. It’s the same cynical sort of game design that drives games like Farmville, whose entire business model is built on the idea that people will pay for a few more clicks.

Now, I’m not sure that the designers of Breath of Death VII are that cynical: I more suspect they grasped the form of the JRPG without grasping its substance. But at the end of the day, I feel the need to critique the game not because I feel it’s not worth your dollar, but because I feel it’s not worth your time. Download Progress Quest instead: it’s free, it’s funnier, it requires much less effort, and it’s actually a satire.

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