What makes or breaks an offline game?

What makes a perfect offline experience in a game? I could go into story and world development, and say that’s what truly makes a wonderful experience, but while I do find these elements to be essential, sometimes they just aren’t enough to pull the game along.

A personal example for me would be Final Fantasy VIII. I find that it has one of my favorite stories in the series, lovable characters, and a good mix between a linear and an open world. Yet, it is not an enjoyable game for me to play. This is due to the mechanics of the game and lack of customization.

One thing I love in any game is customization, and I am always sorely disappointed when I find a game that has little to no customizable elements. I notice I tend to enjoy just about any game more once I’ve learned that I can change outfits or hair color or anything like that, especially when they’re incorporated into the environment and world rather than just being a straight character creation. A good example of this would be how in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild you can ,and are encouraged to, equip different outfits based on weather conditions, such as when lightning strikes you for wearing metal

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However, they don’t even have to always have benefits for me to enjoy them, such as in Persona 4: Golden where you unlock different outfits based on the season, like your winter school uniform when winter comes around. Even if they don’t provide you with any extra stats or prevent lightning from striking you, they help give atmosphere to the world especially with how they are presented as the appropriate seasons or events happen throughout game.

While customizing your looks with outfits is always fun and can provide immersion, something I enjoy just as much, if not even more, is good stat and skill customization. Sadly, it’s actually something I find very rarely done in an enjoyable way. Usually I gain my levels, get points to allocate to some boring window that has stats and sometimes a small definition of what those stats do. To me, that isn’t fun. It always feels to me like it’s there only for variety, and not actually meant to be a core element of the game. Sort of like, it was tacked on just because the developers know it’s something people like. although, there are those few gems that do it very well. Two examples would be Final Fantasy X and Persona 5.

In Final Fantasy X the way a player customizes stats or acquires new skills is through a system called the Sphere Grid. Essentially it’s a giant board game like map. Which, the grid is absolutely massive. Every time you gain a new level, rather than just seeing a lv. 1 go to lv. 2, you get a point to spend on this grid. With each point, you choose which path you’d like to take and progress one step forward, however, the skills and stats are also locked behind items.

Say you really want that strength +4 you see on the grid, but don’t have a strength sphere to put into it, then you’re left wondering if you should wait for the sphere and keep racking up levels, or if you should maybe choose another path. This deepens even further as certain paths are locked by “key spheres,” some of which are particularly rare to find. These often unlock paths that put you on another character’s grid, as in the end, they’re all connected. It’s a system that’s easy to understand, but provides a fun and thought provoking manner to allocate how you want to build each character.

Now, I find the Persona series to also do it’s stat customization exceedingly well, but on the other side of the spectrum. Rather than being provided with a specific interface where you can see and plan all your skills out nicely, you enhance the stats by doing social interactions over a long period of time. You’re unlikely to get a raise in your stats very quickly and aren’t given much of an indication of how far away you are from the next level, so if you want that knowledge maxed out then you have to plan well in advance or hope that you’re not as far away as you may be.

Persona 5 not only has an intriguing way of customizing stats, but also of enhancing and learning skills. As your bonds with characters increase, you’ll notice that any personas that you fuse will start to gain more levels and thus more stats. You can also feed them skill cards that you might find, which you can also have replicated if you have a blank card. If that wasn’t enough for you, you can also fuse personas together and inherit skills - which the game encourages you to do in order to complete several side quests and social links. Everything just comes very natural as you play the game, and you may find yourself just thinking about everything as you go, rather than allocating time in order to allocate your stats.

While customizing is something I find to be important to any game, unique and new ways of doing it are something that I believe to be extra meaningful in an offline or single player game. For example, in an MMORPG, you generally have a character creation. I feel that a character creation has much more worth in an MMO than in a single player game, as you can see what everyone around you comes up with and it really helps add diversity to the world as everyone is made up of their own creation. However, that isn’t quite the case in a single player environment where you’re the only one. Because of this, I feel that offline games need to really work hard in order to provide an interesting and diverse customization system. One that can make you feel as though it really is your own, even when not comparing to other players.

There is a limit though. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is an example of what I feel focused too much on customization while also not focusing enough on it. Hear me out. The game uses just about every traditional way of customizing your character, such as skill trees, different roles (DPS, tank, healer), a wide variety of character customization, and stat allocations. Yet, none of these were revolutionary or unique from anything in the past, and it was often very clear that certain routes were just far more powerful than the others. It left me feeling as though the customization had become more of a hassle than a joy, as there was so much surrounding it, yet it had no interesting way of doing it

The game felt like I was spending more time putting in points then anything else, but I wasn’t trying to really figure anything out as everything already seemed so obvious to me and ended up just becoming what felt like a menu based game. I also felt that the story, combat, and world were just very lackluster which made me care even less about what I putting things into. I think they put a little too much focus on trying to be customizable, taking away from other elements of the game and even from the customization itself by valuing quantity over quality.

Overall, customization is something that I feel is often taken for granted and not really given much thought in most games, but can make or break a game and is sometimes even given a bit too much thought. It not only can help provide immersion into the world or to help make things feel as though they’re your own, but also helps you to think of things in a new light. In some cases, when it is done right, such as for me in Persona 5, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and FInal Fantasy X, I feel that it can become half of the fun of the game. I can’t wait to see more unusual and new ways developers come up with customizable options, rather than bland character creations and skill allocations.