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Editorial

Fallout 4, ‘Western’ RPGs, and A Call For Diversity

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The ‘Western’ RPG market, it seems, is in a very good place, but the genre is in danger of falling into a rut. Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher: Wild Hunt have both been reviewed as being among the best games of the generation so far. Lords of the Fallen has reportedly kickstarted a new series and, looking forward, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Cyberpunk 2077, Kingdom Come: Deliverance, and the new Mass Effect all seem set to contribute to the standard of excellence. The most recent addition to the roster of anticipation is Fallout 4. Although a wealth of settings and gameplay styles is present across these different games, there is also an undeniable sense of homogeneity, which could leave the entire genre feeling played out within only a few short years.

As often as not, the role that setting plays in video games is negligible in terms of core gameplay design. First person shooters, whether they purport to be set in 1942 or 2142, are always built on a series of fundamental design principles. Broadly speaking, the same may be claimed of 4X strategy games, platformers, and racing games. Historically, RPGs have avoided falling into this same trap by utilising party-based gameplay, isometric viewpoints, turn-based battle systems, or dungeon-oriented design, but these partitions seem to be falling away in favour of a one-size-fits-all solution. Increasingly, ‘Western’ RPGs are being built within the framework of a third-person action game with an open-world design, populated by sidequests that can only be called padding. By accepting these design precepts, the developers are acting in a way that creates a peculiar dichotomy that rules many of the decisions behind AAA development today.

Their actions, even while making sound financial sense (at least in the short term), generate an aura of creative bankruptcy that can only lead to ill-health for the genre in years to come. In much the same way that many developers jumped upon the first-person shooter bandwagon as a result of the incredible popularity of Call of Duty and Battlefield in the previous console generation, WRPG developers are following a formula that has proven successful.

Although it would be erroneous to say that any one title acted as the blueprint for the new standard, the popularity of Oblivion and Skyrim (7.56 million and 18.21 million sales, respectively, according to VGChartz.com) certainly contributed. In many ways, those two Elder Scrolls titles benefited from a perfect storm. Oblivion launched early in the previous generation during a dearth of quality titles; it was regarded, among my circle of friends at least, as the one of only two games worth owning within the first few months of the PlayStation 3’s availability (the other, if you’re interested, was Resistance: Fall of Man), which contributed to high regard for Bethesda Game Studios, as the developers of the title.

Their reputation was further cemented by Fallout 3, and so high expectations, combined with stellar reviews and a strong marketing campaign, sent Skyrim to the top of the sales charts five years later. In addition to these external factors, the Bethesda RPGs feature a strong design ethos that attracted fans, and has seen other developers seek to copy the design principles. Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher: Wild Hunt have already benefited, critically and financially, from combining aspects of their respective franchises with the open-world ethic of Bethesda titles, but ubiquity of this design is simply not sustainable.

Not only does it result in a much larger drain on resources than more linear adventures, but it also threatens faster onset of design fatigue. Online gaming communities frequently feature comments lamenting the scope of the likes of Assassin’s Creed, GTA V, and these RPGs, as they feature so much ancillary content that it can easily take upwards of a hundred hours to see them through to completion. Knowing that each game can take so long to complete, and knowing that another similar title isn’t so far away can only reduce enthusiasm for the latest.

For evidence, one only needs to look as far the first-person shooter genre in the previous console generation. The unprecedented success of Call of Duty generated a leap in the number of FPS titles being developed, many of which languished on release. Battlefield and Call of Duty quickly rose to the top of the sales charts with the backing of consistently high review scores and strong marketing campaigns, while less prominent titles, such as Medal of Honor and Crysis, though garnering attention, fell to the wayside.

More recently, the first-person shooter genre has become centralised and insular with single-player campaigns being minimalised in favour of multiplayer innovation, which has resulted in an ever-increasing focus on games such as Titanfall, Destiny, and Star Wars: Battlefront. For me, at least, who is more interested in narrative-oriented shooters such as Resistance and Bioshock, this new focus has created a malaise for the entire genre, and the dropping annual sales figures for the biggest shooters only prove that the malaise is broader than this one editor. A lack of diversity can only result in diminishing returns for content creators and users alike, as the users grow tired of being fed the same thing on a regular basis, resulting in less of a desire to partake of the latest offering.

As the adage goes, variety is the spice of life. I like Fallout and The Elder Scrolls almost as much as anyone, but the idea of playing them over and again, with visual design and overarching literary genre as the only differentiating factors, does not appeal to me. As much as I like Bethesda RPGs, I also enjoy the more confined nature of the Mass Effect series, and the stealth-oriented design of Deus Ex because they offer something tangibly different. Although we know little of these two titles thus far, it would be creative bankruptcy for them to adopt the action-oriented open-world design aspects of Fallout.

Although it makes perfect sense to follow the trail of money, RPG developers need to be willing to retain their integrity and be brave enough to stick to the design principles that will make their game as good as it possibly can be, rather than seeking to adapt the game they want to make to a successful formula.

[alert style=”grey”]This article is an opinion editorial and reflects the views of the author and may not represent the entirety of OnlySP as an organization [/alert]

Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

Editorial

Three Single-Player Games to Watch Out for in July 2019

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Three Single Player Games (July 2019) - Sea of Solitude, Fire Emblem Three Houses, Wolfenstein Youngblood

July, the middle of winter down here in Australia. Even in the bizarre New South Wales climate, the biting cold makes for a great excuse to stay inside and play games. 

Weirdly for single players, quite a few prestige games this month include additional co-op modes. With acclaimed designers behind them, such games will hopefully avoid the pitfalls of accommodating multiple players, as too many games have done in the past.

Sea of Solitude

Release Date: July 5, 2019
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One

At first blush, Sea of Solitude looks like yet another story of a young adult struggling with questions of identity and mental health while exploring a beautiful but harsh fantasy world.

Actually, that’s what it is. ‘Quirky, life affirming indie adventure’ is a whole cottage industry these days, but the fact that such games are now more prevalent should never dismay.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was a masterpiece of refined design and storytelling, and Sea of Solitude appears be something similar—this time dealing with a fantastical vision of depression that turns ordinary people into literal monsters.

Players take charge of Kay, who has sought out the eponymous Sea—or rather, a flooded city based on Berlin—in the hope that there is a cure for monstrosity. However, despite its name, she is not the only person in the Sea. Avoiding the other monsters of the Sea seems to be a major part of the gameplay. These tense encounters are likely to provide rhythm and variety to the adventure and keep it from being a just walking simulator. (Not that being a walking simulator is inherently a problem.)

Although published by EA Originals, one would do well to remember that EA the company does not actually profit off the Originals that they publish. With a focused story and themes that still are not often explored in bigger games, Sea of Solitude should be of great interest to single player fans in a month otherwise dominated by multiplayer titles.

 

Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Release Date: July 26, 2019
Platform: Nintendo Switch

Almost certainly the biggest single player release of the month, and tied with Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 as another massive Switch exclusive, Fire Emblem: Three Houses might be exactly what single players need right now.

Lately the Fire Emblem franchise has exploded in both its popular profile and sales success, buoyed by a hunger for both deep anime RPGs and polished tactics games. Three Houses seems to have doubled down on exciting trends and features in both genres: particularly a Persona/Harry Potter inspired magic school setting and an even deeper tactical battle system that ditches the rock-paper-scissors for more nuanced character progression options. As with many Japanese RPGs, the story is also a major focus and hinges upon a time-jump.

The early part casts the player as a teacher at the Officer’s Academy, situated in the center of the game world and attended by students from the three most powerful nations. Five years later, the second and likely larger part concerns the drama between the player’s teacher and their former students, whose nations are now locked in a massive three-way conflict.

As is to be expected for a series finally coming back to consoles after a long time on the 3DS, Three Houses is a massive technical leap over its predecessors. The game boasts better realised battlefields, more detailed armies, and a slick animated style that appears much more consistent compared with the three or four different art styles on the 3DS.

With such improvements, as well as the overall pedigree of the Fire Emblem brand, Three Houses should have no trouble satisfying single player fans looking for a meaty middle-of-the-year RPG.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood

Release Date: July 26, 2019
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One

The recent Wolfenstein revival series is such a remarkable achievement in traditional shooter design and great, if goofy, sci-fi worldbuilding that the co-op focus of this latest instalment is somewhat disappointing.

Yes, as with F.E.A.R. 3 and Dead Space 3, following a well-received second chapter the Wolfenstein series now pivots to a co-operative focused chapter. Though the game is not a mandatory multiplayer experience, combat encounters and puzzles have been redesigned to accommodate the two player mode, giving single players an AI-controlled partner and bullet sponge enemies.

However, all hope is not lost for Wolfenstein: why else would it be the third game on the list? The narrative has been pushed forward in time, as B.J.’s twin daughters are now in their adolescence, now giving players a glimpse at the 1980s of Wolfenstein‘s skewed universe. Additionally, the level design itself is more freeform thanks to development assistance from Arkane, the developers of the Dishonored series.

Will Wolfenstein: Youngblood successfully deliver more of the series’s goofy charm and crazy alternate reality? Almost certainly. On the other hand, will the game be as fun to play alone as in multiplayer? That remains to be seen. Last month’s E3 demo that raised such concerns was naturally only a snapshot of a game in development, so MachineGames and Arkane have had plenty of time to resolve these potential downsides to a co-op focused game.

Those are our three big single player games to look out for this month. Other interesting titles coming soon include Stranger Things 3 on July 4 and Attack on Titan 2 on July 5, both games hitting Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

On July 12 we will see the sequel to an almost-fantastic Minecraft-like RPG spinoff, Dragon Quest Builders 2 on Switch and PlayStation 4, as well as the Switch port of “anime Monster Hunter”, God Eater 3

The week after, July 19 brings us Switch-exclusive Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order, and at an undetermined time during the month Klei Entertainment’s anticipated survival-sim Oxygen Not Included will finally leave early access on PC.

Have we missed anything that you’re looking forward to? Let us know in the comments below and be sure bookmark OnlySP and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. You can also join the discussion in our community Discord server.

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