There was a time when I enjoyed grinding. I can remember sitting down to play through the entirety of Secret of Mana, both with and without my brother, at least three times, looking to ensure that this time, I’d be ready for the boss. I remember scoffing at the people who left their SNES on overnight with a turbo controller taped down, running through the rafting section of Final Fantasy VI so as to “power-level” and thinking that they were missing out on the joy of actually building an unstoppable character all on your own. (To say nothing of Game Genie, et. al.) Even as recently as Final Fantasy XIV, I found simple pleasures in the zen-like repetition and mathematically precise charts I’d create in order to maintain and maximize high-quality item supply chains. But then again, I quit FFXIV soon after–as it turns out, creating the lists (which, in this Information Age, others had already done, more eloquently, on Wiki sites) was more enjoyable than actually doing all the work, even if I could watch television at the same time. By the time I played the Bravely Default demo, which had stripped out story in order to demonstrate the fully customizable battle system, I had realized that building a character wasn’t what I got into games for, and maybe that was part of being in a routine of playing a few rounds of Dota each night to decompress, but I simply wanted to play and be challenged by the game itself, with no flourishes.
The Guided Fate Paradox isn’t the most ridiculous game I’ve ever played, even though the first dungeon opens with you becoming “God” (albeit a God who is bossed around by supposedly subservient angels, and threatened with imminent “consumption” if he doesn’t cooperate) and attempting to grant the wishes of the masses–but not actual masses, because that might not be too serious, and Persona-like, but characters like a mermaid, a zombie, and, oh yeah, Cinder-fucking-ella, rebelling against her own narrative. That said, it is one of the most frustrating, because you can’t simply play it: you have to grind it. For some reason, developer NIS appears to think that running the same dungeon over and over again won’t be so bad so long as the layout is randomized (see the devolution of Disgaea for more on this): in fact, the opposite is true, because it’s even harder to go on auto-pilot for these sections. And you’ll want to: because your level resets to 1 at the start of each set of dungeon floors (five at a time at first, then ten, and let’s not even talk about the post-game and extra content), you have to keep replaying areas in order to increase your “total” level–minute increases to your overall stats. Furthermore, you can’t simply run these floors–you have to keep swapping out equipment: using it just enough to “burst” it and get additional stat increases. The lesson may be that being God is a bit of a chore, but the outcome is that I quickly switched off and uninstalled the game.
On the other hand, I was quite looking forward to Final Fantasy XIII-3 . . . and was demoralized to find it so incomprehensible. There’s a ticking clock, but unlike, say, Majora’s Mask, failing doesn’t reset time (and maintain certain checkpoint statuses): instead, it leads to a New Game +, in which you can begin everything over again. The game doesn’t do any hand-holding with regards to where you can find side-quests (and, more importantly, because there’s a day/night cycle, when those quests are active), and the four zones are so massive that finding things to do is often a matter of chance. It’s hard even to keep notes, since you can record only when you actually did things, rather than efficiently track when you can do them. Worse, the game only ever hints at the difficulty of the quests (one, two, or three stars), which means that you may waste time chasing down content that you’re nowhere near able to accomplish. I get that Square-Enix is still trying to compensate for the accusations of linearity that the original Final Fantasy XIII carried, but this is too far in the other direction–especially since Final Fantasy XIII-2 had already done a fairly good job of allowing for branched paths and optional content. That is: if I’m not going to be able to complete a quest without the aid of a chocobo, I don’t want to be tempted with it in the first place . . . or at the very least, I want some sort of in-game notification.
Both of these games offer unfair and overwhelming amounts of information: Final Fantasy XIII-3 deluges you with items whose functions can’t be learned until they’ve been bought, much as you’ll never know if you can handle an enemy until you’ve not only fought it, but tried out several different combinations of abilities on it. There’s nothing worse than learning you could’ve been stomping enemies if you’d had access to an ability that you overlooked on account of having not traveled to a different zone yet, or to realize that the boss you’re fighting is normally challenged far later in the game and shouldn’t be such an eke-fest. As for The Guided Fate Paradox, information and abilities are often only offered to you after you’ve failed several times (for example, the bank), and it’s impossible to properly optimize since you’re never sure what’ll be coming next. Your character’s God power is pitifully explained, and both items and traps are anyone’s guess. Both games genuinely expect you to be happy about replaying large portions of the game (unless you’re using a FAQ from the beginning), and while I understand that the players of RPGs are notoriously hard to please with regards to game length, this is an unacceptable compromise.
Don’t get me wrong: there are games that are built around frustration–Dark Souls and Dragon’s Dogma, for example, both expect you to die, and die often, especially as you make sense of their systems and worlds. But everything you need to know about the game is there, and the replays are less about grinding and more about perfecting your approaches. But life can be frustrating enough without a game rubbing that in, as I’ve learned from my brief forays into games like Warframe and Payday 2, where your skill is less important than the size of your wallet (in-game or out-of-game). I can manage to fuse demons in Shin Megami Tensen in a way that I can’t bring myself to in Pokemon, because at least there’s an original story in the former, but I think for the most part, I’ll be sticking to complete packages like Monaco and Guacamelee (both conveniently for sale in this month’s Humble Bundle 11), where I at least know I should be able to do everything the first time through, if only I’m good enough.