As usual, a conversation with folks on Twitter got me thinking further into the topic after virtually walking away. Nearly all games have gone in the direction of adding one in some form. Some thank RPGs for the incorporation of this leveling, while personally I think it’s just a natural evolution of games. I mean if you’re going to dump dozens of hours into an experience, the idea of losing everything at the end of your session just isn’t appealing. The depth being added to the experience creates layers of skill for advanced play while still being accessible when you first sit down. Imagine trying to sort through all the guns and mods in Call of Duty if out of the box you were able to select what you’d want. You won’t have a basis for what’s going on or be able to gradually grow into your play style. Are you a sniper by default, or more of a run and gun infantry player? There’s beauty in a progression systems let you slowly build into what you want from the game. The end result is a win for consumers and developers alike. As a player you get what feels like a tailored experience, and for developers you can widen your net of appeal to welcome new gamers into your world.
With progression systems abound though, what makes them stand out from one another? Just having a system doesn’t mean it’s going to improve the game. Personally the addition of advancement in the Halo series multiplayer starting with Halo: Reach actually turned me off from the series. The idea of prestige in Call of Duty terrifies me from playing; a reset button to completely wipe all your progress to gain a shiny star next to your emblem. Really they can come in a myriad of forms good or bad, but here’s a few notable experiences where the progression system really drew me into the game.
Final Fantasy 12 – The License Board
The Final Fantasy series has always been rapidly changing. Settings, mini-games, and more importantly leveling systems. Going back to the beginning of the series you would lock in each character’s class at the start of the game, with the only variance being a little wiggle room with what spells you’d choose to arm your mages with. Perhaps your White Mage wanted to learn spells to harm undead instead of improving your allies dodging ability? The series grew considerably from those roots with the inclusion of it’s Job System, which I’ll dive more into later. Evolving past that they tried classless systems where your equipment determined how you advanced. By the time they reached Final Fantasy 10 they opened the system up a bit with a large grid in which you moved your characters around like the game of Life… For the most part you had a track to follow, but were allowed to break course and focus on growth in a direction you wanted. Want Tidus to learn Black Magic? By all means. Think Auron would benefit from some thievery, why not send him to advance alongside Rikku?
Final Fantasy 12 blew this completely out of the water with the creation of the License Board. Each character has a starting grid of acquired skills and seeing what the surrounding squares unlock. Through slaying enemies and gaining License Points (LP), you can sculpt each character’s growth exactly the way you want them to grow. It was always exciting after a binge session to access the board and carving a path through of new equipment, magic spells, and various stat improvements to add to your character. It was always exciting to gather more points to see what new unlocks reveal with each advancement. Maybe you were working your way left when revealing a magic spell below your path you haven’t heard of… Suddenly you’re branching into a new set of spells that dramatically alter how you play. Between this and the AI management “gambit” system, the mechanics in FF12 are rock solid and makes it worth considering a play for those alone. Thankfully, you get a great war / conspiracy story on top of that as well.
Final Fantasy Tactics – Job System
In my opinion the best build of the established Job System within the FF series, Tactics provided most fans out of Japan the first taste of it after years of refinement. Originally debuting in Final Fantasy 3 and appearing in Final Fantasy 5 again, neither of those entries made it outside of Japan until ported to later generations. When FFT debuted back in 1998 in NA I had never played a game with a varied progression system. The idea that one character could jump from a squire to a knight to a paladin a chemist was insanity! It intimidated me for a bit and it was years before I returned to it… I’m so very glad I did. Aside from leveling up each individual job in order to switch to an advanced one, they let you learn and retain sub-skills from each class. So while I may be raising up a monk that primarily deals damage through punching things, I can equip old skills he acquired such as ignore height from being a dragoon to jump on top of trees or white mage spells as a secondary set to throw heals out from the front lines. You can keep it simple as you want and stick with knights and black mages, or delve into the deeper builds with the Calculator, Mime, and Dancer classes for some wicked versatility. Despite the continued use of the Job system in more recent offerings like Final Fantasy 14, you’d be hard-pressed to win an argument on a more interesting sandbox of class-mixing than in Final Fantasy Tactics.
Journey – Of Cloaks and Scarves
A peculiar choice you’re probably thinking. That’s exactly why I wanted to highlight this. In Journey you mostly experience the game through wandering a vast void, filled with naught but sand and ruin. Occasionally you’ll come across other life and it’ll extend your scarf. The first time it happens you think you saw it… but you weren’t sure. By the third or fourth upgrade you notice a long flowing scarf trailing behind your wanderer. Each extension increases your flight time; the primary means of traversal through the game. At the game’s close you’ll be marveled at how long it’s gotten without your realizing.
So why Journey then? Because the progression system ties in so seamlessly to the core experience that most don’t realize what it’s doing until you lose it. For the final feather in the hat, experienced journeymen are distinguished by their cloaks slowly being emblazoned with a gold pattern climbing up. Those fortunate enough to unlock all the games secrets don a white cloak bearing the completed gold pattern. For a game with no communication between players beyond a simple audible ping this creates the instant recognition of how well versed your mute partner is with Journey. For that I think it’s completely commendable.
Crackdown – Powering Up
Crackdown was expected to be garbage out the gate due to it being bundled with a Halo 3 multiplayer beta access key. A common misconception that if it needed a carrot dangled in front of consumers to get a purchase it couldn’t be any good. So a demo was released and it was fun. Running around as a supercop, you would power up your skills like agility allowing you to jump further, faster, and higher. The system isn’t treading new water in the sense of use it to raise it. What it does right though is make it rewarding. The rise of strength and agility from level to level opens up new means of access and survivability.
One of my favorite parts is collecting green agility orbs hidden on rooftops scattered throughout the city. The harder they are to reach, the more they level up your skill. So while you might start just jumping on top of Joe’s Crab Shack, eventually you’ll find yourself vaulting over entire apartment buildings or scaling pseudo-New York’s skyscrapers by bounding from roof to roof with your own blue super trooper. Good times were had with simple intuitive designs thanks to an incredibly rewarding system to back it up.
Rogue Legacy – The Castle Keep
I’m by no means a fan of “roguelikes”. The whole idea of not having a way to advance my character that carries through all my time with the game creates feelings of irritation for me. So when Rogue Legacy introduced the Castle for advancement between lives I was thrilled. The idea that I can continuously upgrade my characters despite constantly losing them was a great boon to this game. The nifty part about progressing this way is once you slot a single point into a trait, it unlocks new branches to grow and visually enhances the keep. As with Final Fantasy 12 on this list, having the option to express your style as a player is fully supported with the branching advancement system. If you prefer using magic you can completely ignore improving your physical melee traits of critical chance, sword damage, or downstriking. Favor running in like a loosed train plowing through enemies? Why not just boost your armor and health? Everything from new class types to improved gold drop rates are available through upgrading your castle.
And sure enough, after finishing off the final boss you can opt to play the New Game+ and continue to improve your heirs by leveling the keep still. Enjoyable beyond the campaign itself, I can’t recommend Rogue Legacy enough to those interested in a platforming action game with layered accessibility.
Transistor – Memory & Functions
Rounding out my list of systems is Transistor. With it’s abstracted story it’s hard to recommend for the narrative… The combat and function system is an entirely different thing altogether though. For starters, each of the functions (skills) you get are exaggerated powers generated by personalities of citizens absorbed by the transistor. A good example of this is a professional sports player gives you the ability to rush through enemies and damage through through tackling. Where the system really shines though is through the combination of various functions on top of each other, limited by your current memory.
After spending some time getting familiar with the system it really opens up for you. A second function allows you to shoot fireballs when chosen as an active skill. When you arm the footballer rush function and modify it with the fireball function, now your rush will leave flame trails… Then you also have the option to put either one of those as a passive upgrade for Red, the protagonist. Slotting the rush into passive and suddenly any enemy you touch takes damage. The connectivity of these skills with each other allows for some truly insane builds that will keep you toying with all the possibilities just to see how they react. The only limit is memory, which acts as a cap to keep you from dogpiling the best functions on top of each other. So while the basic slash attack requires one unit of memory to install, a nova bomb will require four.
Here’s a video of a combination that causes enemies to spawn every time something is hit, then charms it to fight for me. It created an infinite loop that spawns dozens of waves of charmed enemies in an instant – To the point of nearly overheating my PS4 and dragging down the otherwise flawless frame rate to a crawl.
As you can tell… I’m a nerd for systems. All of these provide something unique for the player which is why they’re memorable. The flexibility to allow complex builds without requiring it to succeed, intuitive nature of exploration, or rewarding the player for their investment. I hope to see a trend of these design traits appearing in more games going forward.