My summer 2012 backlog run ended up bringing me to two RPGs, both of which had me locked in a grind-cycle at the gates of their final dungeons. This is the first time I’ve really started to think about which RPGs do grinding “correctly” and which ones exemplify why it sucks a lot of the time.
I think in most discussions on the subject it’s more or less generally agreed upon that if you need to grind to proceed in an RPG, either the player or the developer has done something wrong. In my view, either the player has avoided combat too much, or the developer badly paced the game’s enemy progression.
I always try to face every combat scenario that comes my way, but my personal problem is that I tend to get tired of this in RPGs where you transition from real time exploration to turn-based combat. I have no idea if this is why I’m currently sitting in the final dungeon of Final Fantasy IV with my party’s power twenty levels below where it needs to be. Having to grind in that kind of system just makes things worse I guess. I had to do this in Final Fantasy X and it literally almost put me to sleep, which ended my progress on the game for a while. I guess that’s just a problem of my taste in these games.
One of the main reasons why Final Fantasy XII is my favorite main game in the series is because it basically took all the pain out of grinding, for me at least. Making a combat system real time and seamless seems to do that. Though, that’s not necessarily required to make grinding less of a chore. For some reason I don’t mind grinding at all in Final Fantasy V or Tactics for instance.
One really cool thing the job system does in those games is give players very tangible goals to work towards – goals of their own choosing in whatever job roadmap they’ve laid out for each character. Grinding isn’t as bad when you’ve decided to in order to get this particular spell or that particular job you want. The same mentality applies to most loot-based dungeon crawlers.
I think the simplest way to make grinding less painful though is to put bars in the game. One of my favorite parts about Pokémon Silver when I first started playing it was that they added a bar depicting just how close a pokémon was to leveling up. It’s basically the whole reason why Call of Duty is so addictive now. I hate having to check “XP to next level” on the status screen after every battle.
The easy way out that most western RPGs seem to have taken this generation is to scale all enemies to the player’s level. Some people say that’s lazy and takes all the purpose out of leveling up but I think it presents its own pros and cons.
In a game like Elder Scrolls leveling up unlocks abilities for lots of things outside of combat, not to mention more options in combat. On the flipside enemies that scale to the player typically make games more difficult because they always present the same threat. A good example is the optional boss battles in the Gamecube version of Skies of Arcadia – whether you’re level 10 or level 50, you have to use some serious strategy in order to get past them.
Possibly the best thing to do however in order to take care of the grinding problem is to make sure there’s enough for the player to do while grinding. When I ran into this problem in FFIV the first thing I did was see if there were any side quests or extra dungeons I hadn’t beaten yet. Fallout New Vegas doesn’t scale enemies to you like Skyrim might, but if I run into an area with enemies way over my level, I can just go off and do quests somewhere else until I’m strong enough to come back (that’s a great tip for getting through Demon’s Souls by the way). It attacks the main reason why grinding sucks – it stops your progress in the game and transforms it from fun to work.
Generally, I like to think that if the battle system of an RPG is fun and the progression system is rewarding, then grinding isn’t a problem.
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