isaiaheverin | Reviews (2023)

[EDIT 2 - Updated for proper context after initial writing, along with some details on how people who do like it have treated me. These occasions are so deeply indicative of why I often avoid talking to random strangers about subjective experiences of media, and why I'm seeking out healthier communities where complex disagreements can happen without conversations devolving into childlike behavior. As I explain in my bio, this is one of only a few "negative reviews" I'll leave on this profile as an indicator of my values (both in games and in socialization). I'm not saying this game is BAD, I'm explaining why this game does not appeal to me and many others like me.]

So for context, I played this for 20ish hours for the Action Button Discord game club. I spent a good amount of time on the server, there were some dope people, but, uh, stay away? It's a very toxic place. All you gotta know is the mods encourage bullying and have a thread dedicated to letting a clique of their favored users bully anyone they want on the server behind their backs (obviously myself included). If you ever visit and notice it feels weirdly hostile all the time, this is why, the clique at the heart of the server actively fosters an immensely hostile attitude because they think it makes them cool or something. I won't post the screenshots of the things they say there, it doesn't even merit attention, it's just a generic bad online community.

Anyways, I said "I have played several and I don't like any JRPGs, they're not for me," knowing JRPGs are quite popular on the server. In reaction to me (and many other users who felt the same), a LARGE number of users aimed to convince people who don't like JRPGs that they should play THIS GAME specifically. In retrospect, this was stated with ZERO context as to WHY -- no analysis of tone, gameplay, structure, themes, or formal qualities. Simply bold assertions that "people who don't like this ENTIRE GENRE should obviously play this because it's amazing." Also, some of them dumped on all other JRPGs while making this recommendation? Which was... Interesting. Among my friends, it's pretty normal to provide more context because we understand that, you know, we don't all like the same kinds of things?

What followed was me trying a game I knew was NOT FOR ME, yet I really wanted to go into with a good faith effort to understand why people felt SO strongly that they'd try to convince people who DON'T LIKE THIS KIND OF GAME to play it anyways. I also wanted to be part of a community and see how it went, obviously! Maybe I'd be wrong. I told my roommates and friends, "Well, I guess I'm trying this thing I know isn't for me because I want to at least try to understand why people might love it so much."

But after 20 hours, I had too many other games to play, and I started to get into making video essays, which didn't leave me with time to do things I wasn't exceptionally loving. Ultimately, I wrote all of this as lesson for myself and others regarding the immense lack of understanding people can have about why other people enjoy and love any given aesthetic experience and why some people DON'T. The reasons I didn't like this game were strong and multitude, and after being treated beligerently for months in a community I realized in retrospect was quite toxic, I really didn't feel like tossing them in the trash rather than laying them out at least for myself.

When it comes to JRPGs, I have fond memories of FFIX as a child, and then I played some subsequent FF games, I've tried many turn-based games and RPGs, but I don't think I've finished a single one. The only JRPG I've liked AS A GAME is FFXII because it let me script my party members and feel smart without the thing I hate most about the genre. I find turn-based combat without a grid to be interminably boring, I just cannot ever get into it (and with a grid, I think it's cool, but I also kinda suck at it or eventually find it too repetitive, so I still don't finish those either). I've now tried TWO of the "great contemporary JRPGs," DQ11 and Persona 5, and they're both still VERY boring to me, though for different reasons.

As for the combat of DQ11, I immediately turned on auto-battle and cranked the gameplay speed up to max. I tried taking control a couple of times, but every time it felt pointless, there were no decisions I made that weren't obvious, nor any decisions I saw the AI make that weren't the same as I would make. It took 20 hours for me to see a battle where the AI made a couple of odd decisions, only to learn that it was programmed to understand future moves the enemies would make so it could choose the right moments to heal. After 20 hours, I reached a point where when combat started, I would sometimes put my Steam Deck down and watch TV and just wait for the battle to end to pick it back up. The game plays itself flawlessly, the choices I made out of combat (gear, skills) also felt completely inconsequential, and I considered this all a boon because I would've quit trying to see what the game was about sooner if it was any other way. Some seemed to enjoy taking control, others thought it was a better JRPG because it played itself? Either way, this showed me that in gameplay, I'm fundamentally disconnected from the people who like such an experience.

The only credit I could give to the combat with MY values is the monster designs. For me, they're 3x better (more charming, more aesthetically appealing) than Pokemon, and I honestly wanted to befriend or capture them more than kill them. I actually found butchering them in the hundreds to honestly just be a bit tonally dissonant and bizarre. Why would I want to kill things that are cute and charming?

Exploration was fine, the levels are simple and easy to explore. There are some creative moments I found in exploring towns specifically, I would expect those to evolve further over the course of the very long game. But I found most of my engagements with the world to be relatively shallow and like anything I've ever experienced in a 3d game. It didn't do enough to awaken or even tickle the exploration addict in me, especially as the primary reward mechanism was tiny chests and smashing every single pot in the world (which, I get it, that's how these games have always been, but...I didn't like it then any more than I like it now). I don't assume anyone who loves the game would put level design at the top of the pillars of their conception of its greatness.

So how about the story? Kind of...the main appeal of RPGs? Welp, in this case, I felt more detached from the core audience here than I've felt from any game in a long time.

I got 60 hours into P5 because it has a mature and compelling story that focuses on adult and human problems, has generally relatable stakes, distinct and clear themes, a deep and IMMEDIATE focus on character relationships and character progression, etc. All the reasons people say it's amazing. I may even finish it one day!

DQ11 by contrast is best described as a children's storybook, and I cannot say that with the fond and loving tone that people who love the game do. Within 20 hours, not a single emotionally impactful moment happened. When the protagonist witnessed the burning remains of the town he grew up in, he stared at the wreckage dead-eyed and eternally silent, his companion made a blithe remark, and then I looted the wreckage of his childhood home for pots to break (full of worthless items). Whatever depth one might claim to occur in this game's first 20 hours could easily be argued not to be occurring in the text itself, any "deep" take I can imagine would just be interpretation weakly supported by the dialog or events of the story. Most I've seen who love the story evangelize its simplicity, I don't think I even saw a positive remark about these story beats (all the remarks I saw regarded how charming people found the companions and NPCs). Extreme storybook simplicity appears to be the explicit INTENT of the story.

But... Personally, I haven't read children's storybooks of this nature since I was 8 years old. I can't even really remember liking them, to be honest, even as a small child, I feel like they just HAPPENED to me. I didn't start enjoying or caring about stories and reading until my friend's mom read us the first couple of Harry Potter books, and then my brain EXPLODED with an OBSESSION for reading, sending me spiraling into Enders Game, which then sent me into that entire series, quickly picking up more adult fantasy/sci-fi fiction alongside YA fiction. By the end of high school, I didn't even read YA much any longer.

And that may come across like I'm trying to "I am very smart" about reading. But no, I'm 32 as of writing this, I really don't care what someone thinks of my (admittedly not even very good) reading history. I'm just clarifying what I enjoyed as a child and why that led to who I am as an adult. I wasn't 12 years old saying "Wow, I'm too smart for baby books," I just read what was on my mom's bookshelf. The "criticism" levied at me by uncharitable people who are bad at talking like adults was: "You should just get over yourself, it's really just a skill issue that you can't enjoy such delightful bedtime story vibes." Of course, that response is massively more insulting than anything I'm saying here about what I enjoy and value personally -- but I've come to discover many people who pretend like subjectivity is the highest moral good are also often the rudest and most insulting towards anyone who has a even slightly differing opinion to them and actually bothers explaining it with formal language. Oh well!

So... While I was fascinated to see a Discord server full of adults -- some I know in their 30s like myself, many of whom I know love esoteric cinema, presumably complex adult media, literature, philosophy, etc -- get incredible joy and comfort and warm feelings from the video game version of an epic-length children's storybook, I can't fundamentally empathize with what they feel. It's not a frame of mind I can EXPERIENCE, let alone enjoy. I tried my best to "get it" from their perspective, that's why I tried the game in the first place. I don't look down on anyone who can enjoy this, I can actually admit that seeing what other people could enjoy here opened my eyes to aspects of game interests I never really bothered engaging with and trying to understand, and I'm glad I tried. Still, ultimately the experience clarified the CANYONS of value differences between me and the demographic of this game.

In the 20 hours I played, I spent 99% of the time bored, frustrated, and confused, challenging the dialog, challenging the plot beats, challenging the world-building, and showing my roommates in bafflement to see if they felt similar to me. I think fans would say I shouldn't even TRY to analyze the plot, themes, or character writing in an analytical way, or "do so in a way that meets the product at its level," but that level is very explicitly... That of a child. I don't want to be in the frame of mind of a child. Frankly, I've almost NEVER wanted to be in the frame of mind of a child, even a lot of the time when I was a child!

The best the game may have done for me is to be funny, and it even didn't accomplish that to my taste. I consume tons of comedy from across the globe, and the humor here (such as a scripted event where you walk a dog up to a guard to make the guard who is scared of dogs run away, that's it, that's the whole joke) just made me feel like I was witnessing something made for a primary audience of 8-year-olds. I understand some people get something out of warm and simple comedy that exists more as a tonal effort than as an effort toward "clever comedy," but that just doesn't register for me as anything beyond "huh, this is for kids I guess?" Sometimes a work of media needs a BIT of comedy like that to get the engine going, but I can't enjoy it as the primary substance. (I have a sneaking suspicion that some adults who love this game because those elements are delivered with a JRPG would never touch a book or TV show or movie that has exactly the same tone or substance.)

The structure and feel of the towns were quite neat, but it didn't entice me the way similar areas in something like FFIX do. Something about the aesthetic here feels... Basic? Washed over with the storybook aesthetic and very little of substance or nuance beyond simple signals and symbols -- this is the city where we have a horse race, this is the city where we have a fighting tournament, this is the city where people speak in haikus. Again, I have this suspicion that maybe the story gets more profound or more serious dozens of hours in? (Spoiler: There is some huge twist in Act 2.) I don't know, but the world so far felt like it had less depth or maturity than even "Avatar: The Last Airbender," something still a bit too childish for me personally, which I know is a more controversial take than all this. (Note: Two of my favorite media products in existence are "Steven Universe" and "Adventure Time," and I've also recently rewatched early "Spong Bob" to confirm that it's a work of comedic genius, so I am not at all principally against children's media universally -- in those cases I specifically like them because the writing and comedy do not infantilize the audience. "Appealing to children" is not a negative quality, but to me "appealing PRIMARILY to children" doesn't leave me as a member of the audience -- escapism into a comforting frame of mind is not of value to me, I seek comfort in many other places.)

Some folks who like this game in that server had obvious acerbic, sarcastic, and/or dismissive responses to anything I've written here. Since writing the unedited version of this review, I've been thoroughly insulted by multiple adults for not liking this video game explicitly designed for <10-year-olds as the primary audience (they actually ended up so hung up on this review that they were complaining about it weeks later). I didn't bother expressing any of my opinions in their discussion thread until after abandoning it (to explore how receptive the community would even be to a differing opinion) because the thread was basically nothing but adoration and I knew I'd just be hit with an attitude of "you're not the audience, soft sweet cartoon games should not be analyzed the way your brain thinks, get out."

Regardless, I've done my best to filter my opinions about this game to be as charitable as I can while still being true to how I feel based on my own values, and to clarify the enormous canyons that can exist between value systems -- the lesson being that you probably know what you like better than any pushy stranger on the internet who can't properly filter their opinions into something useful for anyone who doesn't already feel the same way that they do. (Well, actually the REAL lesson is that if you find yourself in a community that's full of impolite conversations, constant sarcasm, a tone of endless insincere insulting irony from people who really should have aged out of that already, and passive-aggressive bullying, a lot of which is not only perpetuated by the mods but actively supported by them -- uh, maybe you should just leave and not try to figure out how to fit in! It turns out there are definitely communities where NONE of this happens.)

The closest I can get to empathizing with people who like this game is a realization after trying it out. If FFIX were remade, I would want it in exactly the same format as this. I love that world -- its stories, characters, dialog, aesthetic, coziness, complexity, and simplicity -- in the closest way I can get to the way other people love this one. I haven't been able to make myself replay it because I cannot tolerate experiencing that kind of JRPG combat, and so I'd love to get to "play" FFIX as a narrative adventure with combat that manages itself. DQ11 and FFIX share MANY of the same aesthetic principles, but FFIX has a stronger appeal to writing sentiments I care for, including a much more IMMEDIATELY deeper approach to character writing, dialog, and emotional adult storytelling that is requisite for me to begin to enjoy any work of writing of this kind.

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