In Final Fantasy XII, players win or lose battles before they begin. Contrary to most conventional strategy game design, Final Fantasy XII charges players with devising a plan before combat which your party later executes. You choose instructions for your party of four adventurers in a menu based on simple ‘If’ statements; in battle each party member follows their own instructions to the best of their ability. Often, that might be as simple as attacking the nearest enemy. However, it’s also possible to give them more complex directions, like healing allies who fall below a specified health threshold, or attacking enemies who target the party archer. Fights are less about thinking quickly and more about testing out a machine you’ve already built. It’s as much Opus Magnum as it is a conventional RPG.
It is a tremendous idea which has potential only partially realised in game. Writing a battle plan is extremely fun, but the system can only work to the best of its ability if the challenges are serious and the options for overcoming them are numerous. Final Fantasy fails to meet both of these conditions. Combat is rarely difficult, and even when an enemy makes trouble, it’s usually cause for grinding in the wilderness rather than rethinking your tactics. The game also does its best to lock off options from players, to drip-feed basic instruction sets, and even to limit the number of instructions that can be given.
The harshest criticism of Fallout 4 has been from people who feel the game is insufficiently different from Fallout 3 or Skyrim. For anyone who plays singleplayer RPGs with a view to roleplay, though, it is the significant changes which have sabotaged the game. I should define what I mean by ‘roleplay’ since it’s a broad term, and it’s been broadened still further by being used as a descriptor for games like Fallout 4 and Mass Effect which traditionally have little in common with the genre. For me, at least, the defining characteristic of a roleplaying game is the ability to create a unique character who has particular skills and codes of conduct. Then, the game has to allow you within reason to play the character you’ve created, making the decisions they would make. If you want to play as a deranged wastelander in Fallout: New Vegas who thinks she’s a samurai, you can acquire a machete, wear makeshift armour and pick and choose which quests to undertake and which areas to investigate according to your imagined character’s feelings. In Morrowind, you might play an academically-inclined mage by selecting magic skills, joining the Mage’s Guild and choosing disdainful dialogue options with grubby warriors and thieves. These are relatively extreme examples, and merely playing a character who believes the world should be organised in a particular way qualifies (and is equally difficult to do in Fallout 4). For me and others who love to play this way, Fallout 4 is a disappointment. It rigorously circumscribes your role in the post-nuclear wasteland and allows very little player expression in building your character, talking to strangers or exploring the world.
Shadowrun: Hong Kong likely had an excellent script. It is an entertainingly written RPG with particularly vibrant companions in a spectacular setting which blends cyberpunk and fantasy. Its mystery is, conceptually at least, as compelling as its predecessor’s, Shadowrun: Dragonfall. In the translation from script to game, however, Hong Kong has suffered badly. Combat, an unavoidable and crucial part of the game, is at best simplistic and trivial and at worst infuriating. New additions to the series like stealth sections are appallingly barebones. A matrix system revamp was earned by the community when Hong Kong’s Kickstarter raised $700,000: the disastrous result will likely make fans wish the game had earned less so the old system would still be in place.
There are spoilers here for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion’s Dark Brotherhood faction here.
The first half of the Dark Brotherhood questline in TESIV, up to an including ‘The Purification’, and the player’s arc through that organisation is Oblivion’s strongest content. While most of its appeal is certainly down to its quest design (which is, simply, better and far more imaginative than the rote collection or killing quests seen elsewhere), it also distinguishes itself from the rest of the game by thoughtfully constructing a community within the Dark Brotherhood. In a game also featuring a Mages, Fighters and Thieves Guild – not to mention a lengthy Arena career – the Dark Brotherhood, alone, manages to make the player feel a member of an organisation rather than its sole saviour. Other guilds are acceptable vendors of quests, but the Dark Brotherhood exceeds them in one important respect: only there does the player become attached to the group’s NPC members, seek them out for advice and relish interactions in the Sanctuary, the Brotherhood’s headquarters. This is all the more impressive since the Brotherhood stands for the values most alien to most players, worship of an ancient, evil deity and taking pleasure and pride in murder. There is, of course, a dramatic shift in the quest line halfway through, after which it becomes much more of Oblivion’s standard fare, but is first half stands so far above the rest of the game’s content it’s worth examining why, and particularly how the player comes to feel they have joined, in a real sense, a ‘brotherhood.’