How RPGs can avoid descending into early game hell

This is a column by Kat Bailey dedicated to the analysis of the once beloved Japanese RPG sub-genre. Tune in every Wednesday for thoughts on white-haired villains, giant robots, Infinity+1 swords, and everything else the wonderful world of JRPGs has to offer.

Whenever I want to get in some quality procrastination, I turn to one of two sources. Either I while away the hours messing around with my team on Pokemon Online, or I start hitting "random" on Television Tropes & Idioms. The other day, I went in for the latter, and I came across an article titled "Early Game Hell."

Early Game Hell, as you might imagine, refers to games that are really difficult at the outset, but eventually get easier. Fire Emblem, for example, is even tougher than usual in the early going due to the main characters' lack of hit points and skills. In fact, almost every entry in the Early Game Hell page is an RPG. That's not exactly a surprise – every fan has struggled through the early game of an RPG at least once. But I also wonder if an RPG can't be entertaining and deep without being excruciatingly difficult to get into.

To wit, as you may recall from my previous entry, I'm currently playing Persona 4 Golden – an RPG that is well-known for being a slow starter. It's a good 90 minutes before anything of note occurs; and when the action finally arrives, it doesn't pull any punches. For the unprepared, the Avenger Knight mini-boss is quite capable of knocking out the main character in one or two hits. And without the Fox to offer any meaningful healing, it's not easy to grind.%Gallery-165800% A lot of it had to do with under-developed Personas and the fact that the fourth party member doesn't join up until the first major dungeon is complete. The overall lack of flexibility in the early game of any RPG can make any individual challenge feel tougher than it really ought to be. But flexibility and customization are the two elements that drive any RPG; and when you're getting knocked out in one shot without much in the way of recourse, it can be frustrating.

In Persona 4, matters come to a head when you run into Shadow Yukiko, who is an order of magnitude more difficult than any enemy that's been encountered to that point. Yukiko doesn't hit quite as hard in the Vita remake as she did in the original game, but she's certainly not your average one-note RPG boss. She covers for her elemental weaknesses, inflicts multiple status effects, and periodically unleashes a vicious fire attack – Burn to Ashes – that hits the entire party. This isn't even the first time I've fought her, and she still manages to catch me off-guard with a Burn to Ashes and wipe me out.

I don't want to over-exaggerate Persona 4's difficulty. It is a tough game, but it's not exactly on the same level of pain as Dark Souls, or even Persona 3. And the writing, characters, and presentation are charming enough that you almost don't notice how long the intro really is (almost). But it is a worthwhile example of why a lot of people struggle to pick up RPG – a lot of them are agonizingly slow starters and unforgiving. And sadly, it's those two factors that keep a lot of people from fully enjoying (or even approaching) great RPGs like Persona.

Now, you could say, "Eh, screw them. They don't know what they're missing." I, however, prefer the egalitarian approach. After all, it's not as if it's that hard to smooth out an RPG's difficulty curve. Persona 4 Golden, for example, makes it possible to restart from the beginning of the same same floor after dying. I can't even begin to express how much that alleviates the frustration of the random instant deaths that pop up early and often in the first couple dungeons of Persona 4. That one new feature is basically the margin between me soldiering on through a dungeon and shutting off my Vita for the next three or four hours (or throwing it out the window).

Other RPGs tackle the initial difficulty curve in different ways. Fire Emblem provides a "Jagen" – a promoted character who soaks up hits early and kills everything in one hit. In that, they're extremely useful so long as you don't overuse them. Rely too much on a Jagen, and you'll wind up with one very weak promoted knight and a bunch of under-leveled protagonists. Still, Jagen is at least nice to have around when you want to put a dent in a tough early boss (or you can just pilfer his higher-level weapons and leave him in a corner somewhere).

Etrian Odyssey III takes the more direct route. Like its predecessors, it doesn't offer a whole lot of guidance on party building, and it's really stingy with the experience and the money early. But unlike the first two games, the early monsters are actually somewhat manageable. For that reason and more, Etrian Odyssey III became the first game in the series that I really enjoyed.

But you know what recent RPG did the best job of balancing its pacing and its learning curve? The Last Story. One of the first things you do in that game is run through a dungeon, but it doesn't feel overwhelming or even that intimidating. Instead, The Last Story takes the time to introduce its mechanics encounter-by-encounter while elaborating on its story and the world. I think a good rule of thumb is to introduce the first battle within twenty minutes of starting the game; The Last Story barely waits five.

If this approach does anything, its to rope people in and convince them that the game is going places. It doesn't force them to ride out the slow bits in the hopes that there might be something good waiting for them down the line. The best part is that games don't have to sacrifice overall challenge or depth by softening the learning curve and introducing the action earlier – they can just reserve the tough battles and the exposition for after the player has been roped in.

In short, it is in fact possible to make a good RPG that avoids all of the pitfalls of Early Game Hell – limited customization, unbalanced enemies, long exposition, and everything else. In fact, I would say that its preferable. I know that most RPG fans are accustomed to that early slog by now; but the old ways aren't always the best ways. As always, brevity is the soul of wit, and that goes as much for 100 hour RPGs as it does anything else.


Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.