Re-spec Options Need to be in Every Western RPG
(This is another edition of </RANT>, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
I’ve spent the past week playing with Kingdoms of Amalur, a game that not many people had been paying attention to but has lately begun to dominate headlines and gain some serious buzz. It’s great that Amalur has been building its public image, because it’s truly an enjoyable experience that I think a lot of roleplaying fans will love. The biggest reason for this is the pure, distilled focus that 38 Studios has placed on player choice. This game’s plan is simple — drop players into a fantasy world, give them a weapon, and let them feel powerful. It’s a rudimentary, shallow, power fantasy at heart, but the simplicity of it is what makes it so delightfully compelling. All of this would have fallen apart, however, were it not for one simple feature that goes unsung in many other games — the ability to reset a character’s abilities and reinvest all the leveling bonuses earned up to that point.
The re-spec option has appeared in a few games over the years, but Amalur turns it into an art form. Players can go from sword-swinging warlord to stealthy thief within seconds, just by paying a sum of gold to a Fateweaver and placing their ability points elsewhere. Kingdoms of Amalur encourages experimentation and allows players to refine their characters, without having to worry too much about making a mistake and getting stuck with a character they don’t like. I’ve used a Fateweaver four times so far, usually just to remove a skill that wasn’t working out or put more points into something I felt suited my playstyle further. The freedom to shave off wasted skills while enhancing useful ones is immensely rewarding, as players feel like they get to artfully shape and sculpt their perfect hero.
It’s such a simple idea, and one that I’ve been grateful for in every single RPG that has it … so why the Hell do some games still refuse to use it?
As far as I’m concerned, any Western RPG that revolves around player freedom and the acquisition of personal power should have a re-spec option as standard. Even my favorite WRPG, Skyrim, forces you to stick with the choices you made, despite being an open world game where players are encouraged to be who they want to be. The trouble is, most human beings are prone to change their minds or make decisions they later don’t agree with. Maybe I was excited to be a summoner at one point, but begun to thirst for something more hands-on and in-your-face. Perhaps my bloodthirsty barbarian has grown tired of melee combat and wishes to pick enemies off with arrows from the shadows. In games that can last upwards of eighty hours, having a change of heart deep into an RPG is something that can severely impact one’s enjoyment.
Not to mention, sometimes abilities just aren’t as good as they look on paper, and the player only knows that after they’ve wasted the skill points. In Two Worlds II, I was instantly drawn to necromancy, as I’ve always loved the idea of forcing my slain victims into brutal service. Unfortunately, necromancy is utter shit in Two Worlds II — a conclusion I came to after spending way too many skill points trying to make it better. Fortunately for me, Two Worlds II also has a re-spec option, so I was able to spend some gold and reconfigure my character into something far more capable of holding his own in combat.
I’ve appreciated the ability to re-spec in Star Wars: The Old Republic as well. My first attempt at building a hybrid lightning/madness Sith Sorcerer didn’t go too well. It was only after I smashed him down and plotted a more careful course through the skill tree that I found a Sith worthy of bearing my name. Were it not for that freedom to start over, I’d have been forced to continue playing with a failed experiment or start the entire game over from scratch. Neither of those options really work in a game that asks for so much of a player’s time.
When I’ve mentioned my demand for more re-spec options in the past, some gamers tell me that they don’t agree. They claim that it would remove the idea of there being consequences for our actions, and that it’s a good thing to encourage careful investment and planning. There is certainly an argument to be had for consequences — but only in games built around the concept of actions and reactions in the first place. Sure, in a game like BioShock, where the entire aim is to make players think about consequences, there’s merit in keeping player choice static. Similarly, when it comes to story-based choices, such as saving Little Sisters, fighting for the Empire in Skyrim, or deciding whether or not to murder an important Jedi, I can see the need for decisions that stick. That’s fine and dandy.
However, in games that are about limitless potential, unfettered choice, and making players become the hero they’ve always wanted to be, then a re-spec option for personal stats is an absolute must. Since power fantasy is such a huge part of every Western RPG, then it is imperative that every Western RPG includes the option. Sure, it doesn’t have to be free — an expenditure of gold or experience sacrifice can add an element of extra consideration when it comes to rebuilding a character — but it should be there, included as an option somehow. Otherwise, you set your “go anywhere, do anything, be anyone” RPG up to be a potential honey trap — luring players into situations where they regret wasting hours and hours of progress on a character that sucks. I still remember how Oblivion could let you actively fuck your character up to the point where the game was miserable, and you wouldn’t even know about it until at least twelve hours of play. That’s not cool in the least.
Western RPGs are built around making players feeling powerful. The lack of a re-spec option can undermine that entire goal by making players feel utterly helpless. I don’t want to be afraid to try something in a game because I might regret it twelve hours later. I don’t want to feel like my character is not all it can be, because of some wasted skill points that could have been put to better use elsewhere. I want a character that feels refined, perfected to my playstyle, and thoroughly personal. I don’t think that’s possible in any game that doesn’t allow one to have a do-over.
Re-spec options need to be in every Western RPG. Otherwise, you’ve taken a huge amount of power out of the power fantasy.