Fighting with Style!

I’m an RPG nut, of both the Japanese and American variety.  They aren’t the reason why I first got addicted to video games, but they are the main reason why I buy new consoles so quickly, and why I remain a devout fan of Sony’s PlayStation.  (Best RPGs on the market, peeps!)

I’m also a huge Final Fantasy nut, as I’ve alluded to in this blog a couple times.  They are the pinnacle of RPGs for a number of reasons: the long development cycles (3-4 years on average) allow for games with a high amount of polish, the cast of characters usually includes at least one with whom the player can relate, the characters are young, the music is often better than anything you’d find in an American RPG (except for maybe the God of War series), and because they have oodles of play value.  It’s no surprise that my Final Fantasy game saves often have 120-140+ hours on them.

One thing I’ve noticed over the course of dozens of RPGs involves the distinct weapon styles: swords, polearms, staves, rods, daggers, claws.  Sometimes these are affiliated with a character archetype: the courageous swordsman (and often hero), the fragile mage, the sarcastic thief, et cetera.  If RPGs are guilty of anything, it’s that they too often overuse these archetypes.

Final Fantasy XIII freshened things up a tiny bit by including some unique weaponry: a boomerang, a coat, and a fishing pole rod.  The coat was a more unique approach to punching, but these three weapon types got me thinking: how cool is it that I can attack people with my boomerang?  How enjoyable that my “mage” character has a magic rod that doubles as a razor-wire fishing pole?  These weapons, and their detailed animations, were amazing to watch on-screeen and even more enjoyable to use.

Except that you rarely get to use them.  That’s right: the cool boomerang and magic rod were weapons equipped to the mage-style characters, and in the case of Final Fantasy XIII, means that they lacked the “Attack” command (unless you went to 80 hours of game length to unlock it manually).  So why did the developers design such cool weaponry and rarely give you opportunity to use it?

To me, this question is no different than the most overused RPG cliché: why must the protagonist always wield a sword?  Is it because they’re always fighters with initial motivations based on revenge?  Is it because a protagonist has to be an aggressive character in order to move the plot and so the sword, by extension, suits his/her personality?

Let’s take a gander at Final Fantasy protagonists and their weapons:

Firion (FFII) Sword
Luneth (FFIII) Choice (default is a sword)
Cecil (FFIV) Sword
Bartz (FFV) Choice (default is a sword)
Terra (FFVI) Choice (default is a sword)
Cloud (FFVII) Sword
Squall (FFVIII) Gunblade (gun/sword)
Zidane (FFIX) Daggers
Tidus (FFX) Sword
Vaan (FFXII) Choice (default is a dagger)
Lightning (FFXIII) Gunblade (gun/sword)

For 6 of the above 12 games, the protagonist wields or is associated with a sword as for his/her primary weapon; for the remaining 6 games, the weapons are variations on a classic sword: the gunblade (half sword) or daggers.  How.  Boring.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the gunblade, but that’s because it’s the offspring of a gun and a sword, both significant weapons in their time that stand to epitomize one difference between high fantasy and modern fantasy.  But at the end of the day, that gunblade functions primarily as a sword and looks aesthetically like a sword.

[As an aside: I’m aware of the larger argument regarding the formulaic style and content of JRPGs, but I’m not discussing that here.]

If you don’t like Final Fantasy, you could choose another RPG game.  Protagonists that wield swords or sword-like weapons include those from the Prince of Persia series, the God of War series, the Legend of Zelda series, the Assassin’s Creed series, the Ninja Gaiden series.  The list goes on.

So what’s to be learned from this?  Swords are lame.  Well, not so much lame as overused.  Game developers and character designers could stand to innovate when it comes to weaponry in the RPG world.

What’s that you say?  Where are my bright ideas?  Well, here’s a few that I ponder over if I were making a video game:

  • A main character who wields a ranged weapon (e.g. bows)
  • A main character who is a mage and requires no weapon at all!  Or, the weapon might be elemental globes that s/he hurls at enemies.
  • A main character who has a key in his/her head that unlocks new areas of his/her brain, allowing him/her to recall new attacks or martial arts
  • A character who can turn shadows into any weapon or beast s/he desires (beasts would be particularly cool: shadow dogs or vultures, or giant plants)
  • A character who can command nature (the wind, leaves, vines, roots, trees)–don’t confuse this for a clone of Storm
  • Weapons that can transform: a sword that becomes a pike, or a crossbow that disassembles into daggers for short or long-range fighting!

Perhaps it’s just me, but it truly does get tiring to see game developers making the same character over and over with a new aesthetic.  Final Fantasy XIII taught me that some new life can be breathed into the series, and I think that there are many more games where the same is true (imagination is limitless, after all).

So come on, game developers.  Let’s fight with style!

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