BioWare Is In No Position To Criticize JRPGs

By Colin Tan on April 19, 2011, 7:37PM EDT
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First things first, I'd like to point out to all the flaming ragers with too much testosterone flowing in their flipping bloodstream that I do love BioWare and the games they make, especially the Mass Effect series. However, BioWare isn't really in any position to criticize their Eastern counterparts in the industry when it comes to innovation. Sure, JRPGs are pretty much all the same at this point, as BioWare's co-founder Greg Zeschuk was so quick to point out, but wait a minute, BioWare's fallen into the exact same pitfall with two of their biggest, if only two, series, Mass Effect and Dragon Age.

I can commend the first Mass Effect for the amazing role-playing experience it offered, it definitely had a lasting impact on me, admittedly moreso than any JRPG I've played recently. Then Mass Effect 2 happened. It was the exact same game - no, wait, it wasn't. I'll be fair, it would've been the same game, if not better, had BioWare not "streamlined" or, calling it as I see it, dumbed down the RPG elements, skills and ability trees and whatnot to something so simplistic that it might as well have been non-existent to begin with. Mass Effect 2 became a shooter. Not that the shooting mechanics were bad at all, no, they were very enjoyable. But I digress, Mass Effect 2 had most of what made the first game a great experience, an enjoyable story with an albeit generic faceless enemy, the good old conversation wheel and improved shooting mechanics.

Hold up, that conversation wheel, I'm sure I've seen it elsewhere now too. It's in Dragon Age 2, you say? Goodness, gracious me, it is. Some may say that I'm nitpicking, but give me a break, can you honestly say with a straight face that Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2 aren't carbon copies of each other? Take off the sci-fi and fantasy aesthetics and you'll see a set of core mechanics that function in the exact same way - the resemblance is truly uncanny. I'll use the PC versions of the game as an example, as those are the ones I've played. Mass Effect requires you to simply click and shoot at enemies, while giving you the ability to command your rag-tag squad by pausing the game, bringing up the abilities menu and selecting a desired skill to use. Dragon Age requires you to simply click and hack away at enemies, while giving you the ability to command your rag-tag team by pausing the game, bringing up the abilities menu and selecting a desired skill to use.

See what I did there?

Granted, Dragon Age 2 also lets you play as any character in your party, but other than that, how is it any different from Mass Effect? Now, in addition to Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2, BioWare's upcoming MMO based in the Star Wars universe, Star Wars: The Old Republic, will also be employing the conversation wheel to deliver a unique story-driven MMO experience. It's not so much a bad thing to recycle formulas that work, after all it's as the saying goes, "if it's not broken, don't fix it," and I'm all for that as long as BioWare delivers on the experience. Yet, I can't help but wonder what exactly they are doing to back their criticisms on JRPGs, which, if you think about it, are doing exactly the same thing: simply reusing what works while adding on to it.

BioWare has an opportunity with Mass Effect 3, which is due out by the end of the year. One thing that BioWare has over most JRPG developers is the concept of continuity, choice and consequences, that carry over into each sequel. This is what sets Mass Effect apart from most role-playing games. Then again, most JRPGs are singular games and aren't designed for mechanics like that. Each iteration usually offers a stand-alone story with improved core gameplay. Not to mention, many of the choices made in Mass Effect and Dragon Age are surprisingly superficial ones, with major decisions being very far and few between.

There's no doubt that Mass Effect 3 will be great, just as much as Final Fantasy Versus XIII will be great, or Disgaea 4, or any upcoming JRPG for that matter, but until BioWare does something game-breakingly different in parallel to their Japanese contemporaries, they remain in pretty much the same position: stagnancy, as Zeschuk puts it so eloquently.

Comic courtesy of Virtual Shackles.

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