UPDATE: I went on a bit of a rant with the Powerless Power-Ups section and didn’t make my point very clear. I’ve now edited that.
I’ve been playing RPGs for a long time. I wouldn’t say I started playing this genre as a child, I really didn’t. I got seriously into RPGs with Final Fantasy VII when a friend loaned it to me—though that isn’t my favourite title in the series—and since then I’ve gone through dozens of titles in the genre in a variety of platforms, from the original NES to current gen systems. And my interest in RPGs goes beyond video game but also into tabletop. I play D&D and many other games—though not as many at the moment, sadly.
Role-playing Games, like any other genre have common elements between them. Some of these tropes are very good and even form the basis of the RPG genre in itself, but there are others that I wish I could forget and force others to do the same so we may never see them again in any video game.
This article is about the latter, the sins. Though as a disclaimer, I’ll say that this is my opinion only. They’re my beliefs.
Conditional Bosses: By ‘conditional’ I don’t mean puzzle bosses, those with a very specific weakness you need to exploit to win, nor do I mean those optional bosses that only trigger on certain conditions being met. What I mean are those bosses where you need to meet a certain condition just to beat them.
With puzzle bosses, as I like to call them, you can brute force your way through it, or the weakness is part of the mechanic and it’s something you’ll have to use during the fight. With Conditional bosses, on the other hand, once you meet the condition the fight is over, no matter how much health the boss has.
JRPGs are fond of this mechanic, with unbeatable bosses—yes those count too—that you have to fight for an indeterminate amount of time before a cutscene triggers and the fight is over. Another example is bosses you can’t beat unless you use that one special attack you learned recently. You unleash your special attack or Limit Break and the fight is over, even if the thing didn’t do nearly enough damage to take out the boss.
I hate this mechanic. It subverts the entire point of combat. It robs you of the payout for the adrenaline rush. You don’t get a victory jingle, you don’t get experience or loot. Instead, you get a cutscene where a character—the bad guy in general—talks to you in the most condescending tone possible and leaves you, having proven you’re worthless to them. With timed ones, the fight will usually end abruptly, even mid-attack. I’ve always felt confused when this happens, as my mind is still in the fight, still in the strategy.
Dark Souls is infamous for having the worst kind of Conditional Boss, the one where you need to die. You can’t beat Seath the Scaleless the first time you meet him. He’s impossible. You’re supposed to die there…in the process losing all your accrued souls, which is just astoundingly unfair. Same thing happens in Demons’ Souls with the Dragon God. The first time you meet him, he kills you in a cutscene. The game even has the audacity of ending the cutscene with “You Died.”
Xenoblade Chronicles (and X) does this a lot, setting you up on fights that you can’t win but just have to survive until a new scene triggers. Tales of Zestiria, I’ve discovered, does the same thing, sending you on fights where you have to use one of your new Mystic Artes to end the boss fight, even if the damage is frankly minimal.
Western RPGs on the other hand invert the order, first giving you the impossible boss in a cutscene, and then throwing you against the very killable challenge. I like this a lot more, because I get a real fight and a reward afterwards.
Powerless Power-Up: This is more common in western RPG than it is in JRPG. These are the skill trees, upgradeable abilities and level ups with barely any impact. It’s +1 damage at the end of a ten level skill, the 0.25% increase in a power-up.
The enhancements fail to make you feel more powerful when you get them. You don’t have that definite “man, I’m more powerful!” feeling with the individual level or skill-ups, even if by the end of the game you’re a god among men. You never feel epic until you get to that final plateau of power.
This has the downside of making you feel as if you’re always on the losing end.
Dragon Age: Inquisition takes this trope to a new level, becoming a RPG deadly sin. Spells never feel truly powerful, no matter how many side upgrades you find for them. Even your advanced classes lack impact, sometimes literally so. Yes, gear can make a ton of difference in this, but the skills lack punch on their own. While you can get the weaponry of the gods later on, at the outset the fights fill always take ages, because while you have levelled up, you’re only negligibly stronger.
My Mage inquisitor was a Knight-Enchanter but I rarely used the sword attack because it was absolutely terrible. I felt cheated, even if the ability has some nice secondary benefits. I was promised by the lore a Melee Mage, and didn’t really get one.
The problem is one of scale. Most of these games deal with stats in dozens or hundreds, so a small boost is always small. The boosts should be appropriate for the number scale, so you feel the power boost when you get it.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning suffered from this, as it used the long Skill tree design they once used in World of Warcraft and other MMOs, where you had some active skills and a wide array of passive ones to empower your abilities but didn’t really do anything. Amalur made you feel more powerful, yes, but not because of skills, but because you usually out-levelled most zones by a fair margin, so most enemies couldn’t touch you.
The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim had a variation on this problem, one where skill-up had no effect whatsoever until you passed certain thresholds. With Stealth for example, you didn’t feel invisible until you hit a certain skill level. After that, you were a shadow, but it’s not the gradual and palpable increase in effectiveness it should be. It’s the same for all other skills in the game, as well, including your shouts. Dark Souls and in general the From Software games have the same issue. Upgrades only feel effective when you hit that magic number but before that…not so much.
I was playing Grim Dawn recently and in it every skill upgrade is a big boost in effectiveness, and in a game where you’re constantly surrounded by legions of enemies, this is not only welcome but also necessary.
The Ys series bases everything on character level and a single level-up can mean the difference between getting pancaked by common mooks or slicing and dicing your way through them in a dance of death. I dig it.
In the end, it’s all about the perception of power.
Grinding: Level grinding is almost exclusively the domain of JRPGs, but Western RPGs have recently introduced their own grind to the mix: Resource grind.
Grinds happen when the expected progression, your journey from one story point to the next, isn’t enough to overcome a challenge, when you effectively hit a wall and have to stay in the area or backtrack to fight enemies until you have levelled up enough to overcome the challenge: sometimes it’s one level and sometimes it’s twenty.
Grinding kills the pacing of a game. You push on, engaged by the dramatic tension the last major plot point created but then you hit the wall, grind and the tension evaporates. Most times when you do overcome the challenge you’ll wonder, “What was I supposed to do next?”
Bravely Default is to this day the game with the greatest and most annoying amount of level grinding. The game has a few issues, the biggest being that its circular plot forces you to revisit and fight the same bosses over and over but with a sharp power increase. At first, you can succeed with the meagre power you have, but at some point you have no choice but to max out the party to barely make it out alive. And this can take days.
Mass Effect 2 on the other hand is the one with the worst resource grind. To ensure your party, crew and ship survive the dangerous missions you need to scour planets for minerals, metals and other materials, probing them until they’re barren wastelands. Mass Effect 3 continued this trend but using Military Strength as the resource to grind. Bioware even had the audacity to include a multiplayer grind to the game, making it impossible to finish the game perfectly on the single player campaign, if you didn’t grind the multiplayer enough.
Tales of Zestiria, so far, is the anti-grind for me. By just having the occasional fights, I can level up once or twice per area and that is enough to fight the major story bosses. The optional ones are all one-hit killers, so levelling makes very little difference as it’s all in the dodging and skilful playing.
Encumbrance: This is something that is slowly disappearing. Encumbrance means lowering your characters’ agility and/or movement speed if they’re carrying around too much crap. If their equipment or inventory load hits a certain threshold, then they can’t run, or can’t regenerate health, or can’t dodge.
In RPGs we love to collect, we love to pick up a new item, a new spell, a bit more lore, so penalising us for doing so too much feels unfair. Equipment encumbrance is not so bad but still feels unfair at times, as the heavy armours provide negligible protection against direct hits, so their effectiveness doesn’t offset the slow movement.
The clearest example of this one is Dark Souls, where high encumbrance turns you from a graceful ballerina in the battlefield to the Jabba the Hutt, sluggish and defenseless against chained slaves in bikinis.
But The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and The Witcher games have the worst forms of encumbrance. While Dark Souls’ version of equipment load only affected you in combat, and only your equipment weight mattered, in these two games everything you had in your inventory counted against you. In The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, you can’t even dodge when you’re overweight, you lose all agility and grace and walk at the slowest pace imaginable. Funnily enough, you can still attack and move quite swiftly in a straight line while doing so.
Skyrim was a similar case to the above, where encumbrance left you almost immovable. This was particularly annoying as you would often end this way after a dungeon or killing a dragon and taking its remains with you, both of which were very common occurrences. And much like in the Witcher, there was something you could do to somewhat ignore or lessen these conditions, and it was turning into a Werewolf.
In both cases, I highly doubt the developers wanted this to happen.
I said this was going away, right? Dark Souls is getting rid of it in the third game and From Software already did so with Bloodborne, and they were better for it.
Useless Dialog Branches: This one is Western RPG only and it really gets on my nerves. It’s primarily on Bioware games, because they love to do this kind of thing. It’s where you have multiple choices in a given conversation but not matter what you say, the NPCs will reply the same thing.
This isn’t apparent the first time you play the game, but if you ever return or have to reload and want to give another option a shot, you’ll soon realise that the multiple choices are an illusion, they all get the same replies, with at most a slight reprimand beforehand if you chose the evil conversation option. This is because the NPCs have to give you exposition and will do so regardless of what you have to say.
It happen in Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age, Jade Empire and pretty much every game in the Bioware catalogue has this problem.
This goes against the Role Playing part of RPGs. If you can’t give me proper reactions to my every question, if you don’t write them in, then it breaks the immersion. I stop feeling the connection to the character and the story.
Instead of this, I prefer the way other games do it, where you don’t have many choices, two at most, and they’re polar opposites. Also, every game needs the option to blow off the speaker. Sometimes you really don’t care about them or what they have to say. As much as I dislike The Elder Scrolls, they do this very well. The Witcher games also have this, with clearly defined options and important differences between them.
Horrendous Warped Blade of Banality: Another western RPG exclusive. This is when you get tons of weapons and most are complete trash. They come with cool names but are as effective as a Nerf bat.
Dungeon crawlers and action RPGs like Diablo revolve around this. The Wticher 3, Dark Souls, Elder Scrolls and many more games also have this, where you find dozens of swords and other items that are barely an upgrade. You spend most of the game discarding trash until you find that one weapon that really does improve your stats considerably, at least until it becomes ineffective against the current enemies and you have to start the process from scratch.
This is a sub-trope from Grinding.
The opposite is games like Final Fantasy or the Ys series, where you have a limited selection of items but they are meaningful upgrades. Genji Armour to the Crystal one and Longsword to Masamune, are some of the examples of items in Final Fantasy, and they’re all big upgrades.
Tour du Monde: Most RPGs under the sun are guilty of this one and it’s the most common of tropes/sins. This is where the game’s story takes you all over the game world, no matter if it’s an actual world or just a massive country. You will start in one village and then explore the entire kingdom, sometimes even moving to other countries and do the same.
JRPGs love this one and every Final Fantasy ever released follows the Tour du Monde trope. There has yet to be a Final Fantasy title where you don’t trot the globe.
But it also happens in Jade Empire, The Elder Scrolls, Fallout and many more, so it’s a global thing!
I understand that as developers you want to show off the wondrous landscapes you’ve created, you want me to meet the strange beings and alien cultures in these regions, but the problem is that by doing so you make the story progression predictable and if I know that I still have three more zones to visit before the end of the game, then I won’t feel the dramatic tension before that, because I know nothing will happen.
Tales of Zestiria actually surprised me with last week’s episodes. It is a tour but it killed off one of my major characters. We’re still not done, and there is still more to see and find, and while a recent episode I recorded had the main character and villain agree that it wasn’t time for their last battle, the game showed me it could still surprise me. Final Fantasy VII is famous for this. It’s one of the epitomes of Tour du Monde RPGs but that death, you know the one, is the biggest curve-ball in history.
Those sins are the most common ones for me and while they don’t ruin a game, they do make certain things predictable or tiresome, depending on the case. Undertale proved you can shake up the foundations of the RPG genre and still have a great game, so I wish more developers did this.
But as I said above, this is my opinion. Do you agree or disagree? Are there other tropes we should consider? Let me know!