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Why the 'Retro Renaissance' is Great for Modern RPGs

Christopher Coke Posted:
Columns The RPG Files 0

In the last two years, the CRPG genre has returned from the dead and taken the roleplaying genre by storm. In June of last year, it was Divinity: Original Sin. In September, Wasteland 2. This year, Pillars of Eternity. As far back as July 2013, Shadowrun Returns kicked things off on the tactical RPG front. It’s the best thing that could have happened to modern RPGs and why we have crowdfunding to thank. Here’s why.

Plus, Wasteland 2 gets a console release date, Final Fantasy 15 gets a fresh (and emotional) Gamescom trailer, an update on the Final Fantasy 12 remake, and more!

When I first saw Divinity: Original Sin, I wrote it off. I’m ashamed to say that I honestly didn’t care about it until I heard other gamers raving about how in addicted they’d become. See, the game had two things working against it in my mind. First, it was part of the Divinity series, which never carried much clout with me. And second, it was a CRPG.

I’ve mentioned before that I missed the era of CRPGs. To my own detriment, I might add. My experience with them really only began when I purchased a computer of my own back in 2005. I dabbled in Neverwinter Nights, but that was about it. I had built the computer for one game and one game only: World of Warcraft. Any hours I spent with NWN were better spent roleplaying in a living world. Or so I thought.

It’s ironic, then, that the game I didn’t care about became the game that made me care profoundly. When I finally decided to see what all the excitement was about, I fell in love. Everything that appealed to me about Neverwinter Nights’ gameplay was there in spades, added upon, and felt modern instead of antiquated (as I had feared). More than anything, I loved how immersive it all was.

These games highlight roleplaying more than any game I’ve ever played. When I reviewed Pillars of Eternity last year, I was astounded at how willingly Obsidian threw out modern conventions and was better because of it. Rather than rely on fancy cutscenes and characters shifting from foot to foot as you choose your dialogue option, it presented its story in still-frame conversations and paragraphs of text. Imagine that, big story moments in paragraphs instead of animations! The world already felt huge, but tapping into the player’s imagination added a masterstroke of depth modern RPGs can’t even approach. The pulled back, isometric camera has a lot to do with that too, I think.

I think to games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, and I can’t say they evoke anything close to the same thing. Even though you can create your own character (mostly), modern RPGs feel more like playing through movies than stepping into the shoes of an actual character.

Of course, much of that can be laid at their action-heavy combat. It’s not uncommon to button mash your way through modern battles. Even when AAA games promise to “strategic combat,” they mostly just mean “if you want.” Dragon Age: Inquisition is so guilty of this it’s not even funny. Strategy there is a veil; you can pause-and-play, but you can also Ron Popeil out and “Set It and Forget It!”. The Witcher 3 is less guilty but still far easier than its predecessors due to this  “accessibility.”

Our current crop of CRPGs really doesn’t care about accessibility. They are unrepentant. You will set up your party in the proper formation, manage your members individually, choosing each move, and play it smart, or your will die. It’s that simple, because the games are that deep. And players love it.

Divinity, Wasteland 2, Pillars of Eternity, and Shadowrun all relied on Kickstarter because the gaming industry had given up on them. Publishers looked at CRPGs as relics of the past. We’ve shown them better. We’ve shown them that we appreciate what these games offer, we miss what we’ve lost on the march of upward technology. Newer is not always better.

These games are the best possible thing that could have happened to the RPG genre. The message that we’ve sent is clear: the designs that made CRPGs great two decades ago are still great today. We want a wider variety of games, not just AAA blockbusters like Skyrim and Fallout 4. We want real challenge and strategy, not just promises and lip service. We want to care about our party and own our decisions, because we’ve built that party from the ground up and had long conversations at the darkest of times. We want our imaginations back in own games!

We all love blockbusters. I adore Mass Effect and Dragon Age, The Witcher, and Final Fantasy. But as I researched my column this week, I saw that most of the year’s games are already out without much on the horizon. The success of crowdfunded CRPGs means that more of these games will begin fill in the gaps, maybe even from major publishers. It means that the AAA games we do get will have looked at the likes of Pillars of Eternity and tried to steal the ideas we were all  so crazy about. In short, they’ll start to get closer to what made RPGs so popular in the first place.

That’s a good thing for everyone.

Quick Hits

It’s confirmed, the Final Fantasy VII Remake’s combat will feature “dramatic changes.” Speaking to the Official Playstation Magazine (Gamesradar reporting), director Tetsuya Nomura tried to reassure players that they’re “not going to be turning it into a shooter or something like that” and that it will still be recognizable. Square previously stated that we shouldn’t expect concrete details for some time to come, but this is still compelling. Live long and prosper, ATB system.

Wasteland 2 is coming to Xbox One and Playstation 4 on October 16th in the form of a Definitive Director’s Cut. The re-release will feature reworked graphics, expanded voice overs, improved battles, and the new Precision Strike and Perks and Traits systems. This update will be free to PC players.

In honor of Gamescom, Final Fantasy 15 has received a new trailer titled “Dawn” (seen above). The trailer provides an introduction for the game, explaining how Noctis is actually a prince chosen by the stars to be their champion. I tell ya, the visuals in this game are… interesting. Soldiers with machine guns in medieval knight armor… the good guy still wielding a sword for some reason… modern cars and cities and fantasy gods looming in the background... This kind of weird is pure Final Fantasy.

While we’re on the topic of Final Fantasy, it turns out that FFXII is not getting a remake.

Interesting indie RPG/Rogue-like/Tower Defense hybrid, Dungeon of the Endless is coming to iPad! I previewed the game a little over a year ago and was impressed. There’s definite RPG goodness here but the blend of addictive rogue-like elements makes it a hard game to put down.

Finally, if you’re looking for a good RPG hybrid that will keep you coming back for more, look no further than Sorcerer King. Our editor, Bill Murphy, previewed the game and praised how well it blends RPG and 4X elements into a fantasy game with “hours and hours of gameplay.”

Until next week!


Christopher Coke

Chris cut his teeth on MMOs in the late 90s with text-based MUDs. He’s written about video games for many different sites but has made MMORPG his home since 2013. Today, he acts as Hardware and Technology Editor, lead tech reviewer, and continues to love and write about games every chance he gets. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight