Role playing games' puzzle paradox

Modern Japanese RPGs have moved to handheld consoles for a simple reason: the genre, as created, requires both major time commitment and a dedication to the relatively mindless. While big budget JRPG’s have become cinematic experiences, games like Etrian Odyssey and the handheld incarnations of the Shin Megami Tensei series have affirmed that the “old school” Japanese RPG lives on.

This brings us to Penny Arcade: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3, recently released and reviewed by this very outlet, which takes the unique ideas propagated by Final Fantasy XIII and tries to turn the dungeon crawl into a puzzle game.

The traditional JRPG is a game of resource management and engine building: it has more in common with “engine building” board games like Dominion and Race for the Galaxy than it does with Halo or Dragon Age. Before a dungeon, you build a team of characters with skills you think can get them through the trials ahead. When you enter, your resources are slowly whittled down to nothing as you beat off a dozen encounters. None of these enemies are dangerous by themselves, but, given enough of them, the player can run out of firepower and be ground into defeat. Dominion works the same way: you build an engine, and you hope that this engine can drive you to victory. Success and failure are not quick, but rather gradual descents into finality.

Final Fantasy XIII tried to speed things up: you recovered all your resources after every fight. It removed all the resource management aspects from the game, and made it so that each individual fight could be a challenge. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the most well thought out change: most battles didn’t threaten you, so it lacked a hook. You weren’t managing resources, and you weren’t fighting enemies who could put up a fight. Why were there battles at all?

Penny Arcade takes this idea and builds it to its logical conclusion. Your resources recover completely after every fight, and there are a very finite number of battles in the game. You are given a number of ways to customize your character with an intricate job system. Many battles come with special modifiers, focusing your strategy even more. What this should do is create a tactical, puzzle-like system: where you get into an encounter, puzzle out how to win, and then execute: quick burn brain teasers instead of marathons.

It doesn’t quite hit the mark. I applaud Zeboyd for giving it a try, but there’s some ineffable element missing. Instead of puzzling mechanics, it approximates XIII’s tedium. Part of it is difficulty: if there’s a puzzle you cannot possibly fail, then it’s a waste of time. Penny Arcade is like that: build a capable engine, and it will solve every puzzle with only mild variation in tactics. Instead of the suspense of the marathon, wondering whether your legs will hold you up for another thousand feet, you’re running dozens of sprints while given ample rest in between, and you can confidently say you’re the fastest person in the room.

But it goes deeper than that. Difficulty is a crutch: some people, of course, could build less efficient engines and need to adapt. The problem is that no encounter is differentiated from the others. Even if you wished to build the most efficient engine for each encounter, you’re unable to make those decisions. In Penny Arcade, you wander the map, getting into battles with static sprites. One of these sprites must be in the battle, but you don’t fight them enough individually to know what each enemy does. Additionally, there’s usually one to five other enemies with the visible one who you cannot predict. Any modifier to a battle shows only when you enter combat, so you cannot predict them. Given no foresight, you’re left with one strategy: pick the most powerful classes in the best combination.

This works in a marathon, because you won’t know if your engine works until you’re out the other side: the suspense remains, and builds, with every battle. It doesn’t quite work with a puzzle-based RPG. Imagine a puzzle game where every puzzle was solved the same way, and where you weren’t even given the option of solving it a different way because you have to commit to a solution before you even see the puzzle.

It’s a holdover from the classical, endurance based RPG design. The difference between Penny Arcade and Etrian Odyssey is that Penny Arcade doesn’t have your resources whittle between encounters. There’s no difference in the dynamicism of the battles, or in the amount of preparation you need. In both you build an engine, and you send it out into a difficult stretch of terrain: the only difference is that Etrian Odyssey’s battles function as attrition, and Penny Arcade’s are hurdles. You can run out of gas in Odyssey’s epic Yggdrasil dungeon, while in Penny Arcade you’re leaping hurdles: so long as you can hop every one of them you win.

Then imagine the hurdles take a minute and a half each to cross, that most of them aren’t very high. It’s not an exciting race.

What a puzzle mechanic needs is a way for every solution not to be “Press A to kill the enemy.” There needs to be a deeper tactical consideration, a different, variable strategy required to beat the enemies. We need to be forced to adapt, to change our strategy, to make it function nonlinearly.

So while I applaud Zeboyd for giving this mechanic a try, for taking the ideas from their previous title Cthulhu Saves the World to their logical conclusion, in the end they don’t quite hit the mark. There’s something missing—I’m not quite sure what—that’s keeping the puzzle interpretation of the Japanese RPG from truly compelling in a way that doesn’t rely on the crutch of nostalgia.


  1. I think most of the appeal in this sort of game is in character building. The resource management aspect is there, but I feel like it’s kind of a joke in most Final Fantasy games because you can eventually afford more potions than you can carry. Yeah, you didn’t have to manage resources in FFXIII, but the goal was to perfect different sets of strategies to prepare for the increased difficulty of ensuing battles. I like the sprint/marathon analogy because part of their approach was to ramp up the speed of battle time. I thought it was a pretty ambitious undertaking, but yeah, it didn’t quite hit the mark. Final Fantasy Tactics had a pretty effective approach, in that it reset your party after every battle, but so much stock was placed on positioning and unlocking different character classes, the system avoided becoming tedious for a while. But then it became unbalanced later in the game when more powerful characters were introduced, so maybe it has that same problem after all.

    • TrueAxiom

       @apieschel Nothing about Final Fantasy Tactics was unbalanced!  Sure, I could build a character who could single-handedly win most battles in the game, but that’s 100% of the fun, there.
      Okay, it was pretty unbalanced. xD

  2. Videlais

    As someone who recently (i.e. yesterday) played through Episode 3 in one extended nine hour session — and to follow your metaphor of engines — I think it had too many gears at work. The class system, while interesting, had too many roles for the limited cast. The battle timeline (borrowed from Grandia) could have been given more love with more attacks, from both enemies and allies, using interrupts and stun effects, yet had to step out of the way to allow the different classes part of the spotlight. Even the different realms in the vaults, my favorite part, were quickly shown and then moved through to get back to the overall story.
    Consequences for failure is, I think, another part of the puzzle that both Episode 3 and FFXIII left out. If I can keep re-trying any battle over and over without consequence, then it loses meaning. It becomes that tedium you wrote about as I just try every single variation. Because I knew that there were a fixed number of battles in Episode 3, I only needed to swap out different classes until I had the correct combination it wanted. It isn’t strategic playing if I can brute force the problem over a few tries.
    The special modifiers only came up a handful of times and, honestly, I wanted more of them. They reminded me, as @apieschel talks about, Final Fantasy Tactics and it’s pseudo-sequel FFT Advance. The Laws and Judges of those echoed in small moments in this game, but could be dismissed more often than not. I almost want some DLC (or Episode 4) to add more to the Arena — which I personally got bored of fairly quickly — or place more challenging modifiers on the battles. As it was, yes, I could just “Press ‘A'” most of the time to win too.