Giving CRPGs a Chance

Disco Elysium

I love RPGs of all kinds. Whether it’s a JRPG, Western RPG, or Action RPG, if it has some sort of progression system and a strong story, I want to give it a shot. There is one subgenre that has always eluded me, though, and that is the CRPG. This genre, often known as the Computer RPG, is known for its high learning curve, ease at which a player can mess up a playthrough to the point of needing to start over, and dense lore that requires hours of reading. As someone who didn’t grow up with these titles, it’s a little intimidating.

That said, there are a lot of content creators that I follow that sing the praises of CRPGs, so I really want to give them a fair chance. Thankfully, I already own quite a few due to various bundle deals over the years, so I’m going to give some a shot and see which ones feel more and less accessible based on my initial venture into them.

Cultist Simulator

I’m not sure that I would have called this a CRPG, personally, but I’m going by the rules of “what has the CRPG tag in my Steam library”, so I guess I’ll go with it. Cultist Simulator is best described as a roguelike card management game with a distinctly Lovecraftian twist. Using cards labeled for all of the various needs, from health to wealth, the player uses these cards to build a cult empire. It’s an interesting game and I can honestly say that I’ve never played anything like it before, but there were definitely some drawbacks. A major one for me is that almost everything is on a timer, but there is also a lot of lore to read. I can pause the timer, but I would sometimes forget and get frustrated that I felt like I had to skim everything to keep up.

Additionally, as the game warns you on the Steam page, this title does not have a tutorial of any kind. People who like roguelikes may love this, but I found the lack of a tutorial to be a frustrating experience of trial-and-error, constantly combining cards and using them for different purposes to see if I could unlock a new pathway that I hadn’t seen before. I think I will continue to pick this game up for a round or two every now and then, but playing it consistently would quickly become an exercise in repetition and frustration for me.

Tyranny

Now this is closer to what I think of when I picture a CRPG. Tyranny is made by Obsidian, and since Fallout: New Vegas is one of my all-time favorite games, my hopes were high here. First of all, I do want to say that the world-building here was excellent. I loved getting to know the lore through a short board game of sorts where I got to make some decisions to help shape my starting world state. It really made me feel like I was skipping the buildup to a battle and jumping right into the war, which was different and fun. The couple of companion characters that I’ve met so far are also interesting, and I found myself taking a lot of my playtime so far just talking to them and learning their backstories.

Unfortunately, there’s one major issue here, and it’s one that I worry will come up a lot in the other games in this experiment: I hate time limits in games with a passion. Very early on, a time limit is set to complete a set of tasks. Some research online does assure me that this single time limit is the only one that I will run into throughout the story, but I’m still not certain about my feelings towards it. As someone who likes to relax when I game and take my time exploring the game world and doing some level-grinding in my RPGs, setting a time limit is stressful and makes me immediately want to quit. I’m not saying that my journey with Tyranny is already over, as I did have a fun time getting to know the world, but I’m not a fan of being hit with one of my least favorite game mechanics right at the start of the story.

Fallout

If I was irritated about Tyranny having a part of the game built around a time limit, then I’m sure you can imagine how thrilled I was to play Fallout, a title where the entire premise is based on the protagonist needing to go out into the wasteland and come back to the vault before time runs out. While this is not ideal, I knew this going in and still wanted to give it a shot because Fallout is one of my favorite modern franchises. Overall, after a few hours of playtime, I came out with mixed feelings.

The good news is that this is Fallout. Everything I love about the later games is present here. The character customization is great, allowing me to pick S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats to create my build, as well as smaller perks and traits to really make my character my own. Additionally, the lore and characters are memorable and interesting. Everything about this franchise is immersive, and the fact that this game was made around 25 years ago doesn’t matter from a storytelling perspective.

Unfortunately, there are other aspects of Fallout that didn’t age quite as well. Everything about this game is slow. Doing anything takes way more clicks and buttons than it should, with horrendous menu and UI placement that makes it really hard to keep track of which button does what. Combat seems to use a classic dice roll approach where I may only have a 40% chance of hitting a rat immediately next to my character, which leads to every encounter feeling like it drags on forever. With some levelling, this would probably improve, and I’ll likely be able to find my way around the menus better, as well, but I think I may want to play some more modernized CRPGs first to get more comfortable with the genre before I come back to the classics.

Divinity: Original Sin 2

This was a suggestion from Twitter, and I’m so glad I gave it a chance because Divinity: Original Sin 2 is my favorite CRPG so far. I’ve tried the first Original Sin a few times before, but I have never been able to get into it because the beginning is too light on story and too heavy on tedious gameplay. When I play a game, I care about story first and gameplay second, so I need a narrative hook that keeps me engaged in order to push through the learning curve of the gameplay. The sequel nails this, as my character started off on a ship as a prisoner for unknown reasons and everything just continues to get crazier from there.

One aspect of Divinity that I’m really enjoying as a relative newcomer to the genre is the ability to pick a predefined character instead of creating my own from scratch. While character creation is fun, some CRPGs have creation systems that feel like a game all by themselves. Being able to pick from a group of characters that already have backstories relevant to the plot allows me to jump in and just start playing, while also teaching me a lot about how to plan out a well-crafted character for when I eventually finish this game and want to move into another title in the genre that may be a little less welcoming to newcomers. There are some other titles that I still want to try, but this one is likely to be the “winner” of this experiment by a mile.

Disco Elysium

Disco Elysium is a game that I have been interested in for years. In fact, the first time I heard about it was when I was writing a piece on the PAX Indie Megabooth titles that I was most interested in playing and this detective adventure made the cut. Still, the release date came and went and I never actually picked it up. Mostly, I think I was intimidated by its CRPG roots because, as is made clear from my experiences thus far, this is a genre that isn’t known for being particularly user-friendly.

Nothing confirmed my initial fears quite like starting Disco Elysium, building my character, dropping myself into the game world…and finding two separate ways to die within ten minutes of starting my new adventure. I nearly quit right then and there out of sheer frustration, but thankfully, I didn’t, and kept on moving along the narrative. Suddenly, I looked up and realized three hours had passed and I still wanted to keep going. It’s not frequent that a title immerses me like this, but still, as I write this, I just want to dive back into the world.

Explaining why I’m so impressed with Disco Elysium is difficult, though, and may be a topic for a larger review once I finally roll credits on it. The plot isn’t fast or even particularly novel so far, as it seems to be a relatively straightforward murder mystery as of when I left off in my save file. None of the characters are especially endearing or memorable yet, either. I think the differentiator here is the overall lore and history behind the world. The world of Disco Elysium feels like a strange parallel of our own, with just enough pieces changed around to leave me wanting to know every ounce of history this game will give me. It’s amazing and I can’t wait to keep playing.

Final Thoughts

I set out to try a few CRPGs just to see how I feel about the genre as a whole. Is it really as difficult to get into these games as I imagined it would be? Do I actually enjoy reading the amount of text that I have to get through in order to move the plot forward, or do my eyes start glazing over after a while? Admittedly, while I went in with an open mind, I didn’t have a lot of confidence in this plan. Surprisingly, I think this went really well. Of the five titles that I tried, the only one I’m not sure I will go back to eventually is probably Cultist Simulator, which is also the least traditional CRPG of the group. I can’t promise that I’ll get to all of these games soon because my backlog threatens to drown me at any given moment, but I do hope to do a follow-up to this post in the future that further details how I have progressed in my CRPG journey!

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