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Thread: What Makes a Great JRPG Dungeon? - Editorial

  1. #1
    RPGamer Staff RPGamer Staff InstaTrent's Avatar
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    What Makes a Great JRPG Dungeon? - Editorial

    RPG dungeons can easily be a slog of repetitive combat and dull designs, but that's not always the case. There are some great examples of creative dungeons, and more of these would be welcome.

    "To tell you the truth, I like drinking tea and eating fresh vegetables, but that doesn't fit with my super-cool attitude. I guess I have to accept this about myself."

  2. #2
    I think there is something to be said about having good dungeons. I've always been a fan of Dragon Quest dungeons. Even in the early days, they often were mazelike, but not annoyingly large. I always feel like there is a destination and a goal with the dungeons. I even like how towers, in DQ4 for instance, you can jump from most of the floors and land outside the dungeon. They even used that in DQ2 with a cape attached to cross a channel. I also think it's important for a game to have an "Exit" like spell. I want to be able to leave from most any point at any time. I'm not really fond of the standard tropes as far as puzzles go, because they really take me out of the experience- I start thinking about who would put them in and why. Sometimes they make sense to hide important treasures, but when they are in some "ancient city" or in a dungeon that serves as a pass-thru, it makes little sense.

    I'm also fond of Elder Scrolls dungeons, as they feel like real places at least as far back as Morrowind (the first two games, not so much). Then again, not JRPGs.

  3. #3
    I really agree with this article. I'm a big believer that hand-crafted content - especially with good artistic direction and inspiration - is almost always superior to procedural generation. I've greatly enjoyed several games with PG, but never for compelling dungeon and terrain layouts that amplified the experience.

  4. #4
    is not declawed RPGamer Staff Ocelot's Avatar
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    Ha ha, I actually hated New Valmar because it was waaaaay tooooo loooooong. That said, I completely agree with your main point. Dungeon design matters. My favourite dungeons are the ones that have interesting atmospheres and cool puzzles, which is why I enjoy the Golden Sun games and approve of the changes made to Yggdrasil in Etrian Odyssey: Millennium Girl.

    I'm growing increasingly intolerant of randomly generated dungeons, even in dungeon crawlers. They just bore me. Give me one that's been designed with purpose (not one with endless corridors of blah designed by a bored intern or something, thanks) any day.

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  5. #5
    You and I remember Grandia 2's final dungeon very differently. I was playing the game on a rental, and I was already a couple days late so I had to rush through the final areas of the game. That included the final dungeon. I didn't explore or anything, and I certainly didn't have time to search for loot or grind. I remember breezing through the place and I remember the final boss battle being a write-off. Not saying the dungeon wasn't good. I'm just saying I'm scratching my head over the idea of it being difficult.

    I personally liked FF4's Magnetic Cave. It forced you to think a bit differently. I also liked the tool based puzzles in Wild Arms and Lufia 2.

    A lot of devs seem to content themselves with treating dungeons as big places with lots of monsters and loot in it. They forget a hazardous location can be more hazardous for other reasons, although those who don't forget can't seem to go beyond the odd trap or switch puzzle. Unfortunately, with the recent trend of turning dungeons into linear loot-filled gauntlets, I'm not so certain good dungeon design will survive. To be fair, level design is hard. You can test it for hours and still not get it right.

    Let's not exclude WRPGs from this discussion. Dungeoneering is a fair part of all types of RPGs.

  6. #6
    Member flamethrower's Avatar
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    A dungeon is essentially an RPG level, so I'll be using that term.

    Level design is roguelikes is really hard. FTL is a roguelike many RPGamers will recognize. One of its worst points is level design. Sure, you had more Mantis ships in Mantis-controlled sectors and even more in the Mantis homeworld sector, but that's about it. Someone made a mod that gives every sector a quest that you could do (given infinite resources; it's not always possible to complete the available quest), which added much needed design to the FTL levels. Another option for the developers was to map out the location of the shops in civilian controlled sectors, the battle zones of the hostile sectors, and the race homeworld if the sector has one, along with something fixed you could do at each of these places for every playthrough (or randomly select a location-specific event).

    Grandia's final dungeon is like this too as it's the interior of some large organism. That said, theme doesn't do much for me. I'm looking for good mechanics in level design.

    I like Half Minute Hero (and HMH2) levels because they have a lot of stuff that makes levels great: always at least one puzzle to solve, and most of the time, hidden treasure to be found. The title system encourages replayability and challenge runs.

  7. #7
    Final Fanatic Sandy's Avatar
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    Final Fantasy XII had some spectacular dungeons, especially since you couldn't explore most of them in one go, but had to find alternative routes in them later in the game.

    And of course Xenoblade Chronicles is worth mentioning, since the sprawling fields and dungeons leave an unforgettable mark on anyone who has played it (the themesong of Gaur Plains still plays in my head from time to time).

  8. #8
    Final Fantasy XII had some spectacular dungeons, especially since you couldn't explore most of them in one go, but had to find alternative routes in them later in the game
    The dungeons in FF12 were well-utilized and given lots of different ways to revisit them, but the disorganized nature of the questgivers and the weird way some unique loot had a small CHANCE of spawning just that ONE time in a particular chest really killed it for me, plus the hunting quests weren't exactly the epitome of quest variety. The dungeons were big, sure, but that's about it. I can't say I enjoyed any one dungeon in FF12 simply because that particular dungeon featured mechanics that were a joy to experience.
    Last edited by TG Barighm; 04-14-2014 at 03:44 PM.

  9. #9
    Under watcher LordKaiser's Avatar
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    I love to find hidden stuff like a secret entrance to a wall, waterfall etc. to find treasure, hidden items in pots, cabinets, etc. Puzzles that lead to secret items also.
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  10. #10
    RPGamer Staff RPGamer Staff 7thCircle's Avatar
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    Interesting topic, JRPGs with great level design. I think of all modern video game genres, JRPGs tend to have the worst level designs, and I don't mean that too harshly because I don't think JRPG developers put much effort into level design compared to WRPGs, shooters, and action games.

    My favorite JRPG dungeons are the Diet Building in Nocturne and the prison level in Demon's Souls. I'll assume everyone knows the latter. The Diet Building uses funhouse gimmicks to play visual tricks on the player. A wall in the distance might be painted to look like a hallway, so you run down there and doh, it's a wall. There are false doors and areas that look like distant turns, but again are trick corridors. The dungeon is late in the game after I thought I'd seen all the tricks Nocturne had to play, then this really interesting dungeon comes out of nowhere. Given this was early gen PS2, and 3D graphics had just gotten to the point where fun tricks like this were possible, I assumed other RPGs would rip off the idea, but I haven't seen it anywhere else. So it stays in my memory as one of my favorite dungeons.

    JRPGs try more when it comes to 1st person crawlers, and most of them have interesting levels. EO: Millennium Girl and Class of Heroes stand out as having my favorite 1st person dungeons.
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  11. #11
    The level design in Persona 3 was really really horrible. Not only was the dungeon random, it was also generated in the most boring way with only 4 different "tiles" put together. Every "make a roguelike in 1 day" contest roguelike has more interesting dungeon design.

    Does that mean that Persona 4 does NOT have randomly generated dungeons?

    I have plenty of favorite dungeons, but most are from past generations, unfortunately. My favorite dungeon design was in Phantasy Star 2, I really liked how complex the design was and how challenging it was to just find the correct path. I really do enjoy such a "find the correct path" challenge. Much more than challenge through battles (I'm aware that the encounter rate in PS2 makes the dungeons less enjoyable).

    I'm personally not too much into puzzles, but I can say that some ideas in the Lufia and Wild Arms series were quite clever.

    I really like exploration more than anything.

    FFXII indeed has some good dungeons, but you transversed through them way too slow with sometimes having no save point for more than 2 hours. That's just not good.

    As for current generation the only games that really had enjoyable dungeon design for me were Infinite Undiscovery and Star Ocean The Last Hope.

  12. #12
    Valkyrie Profile maybe has my favorite collection of dungeons in an RPG game (when you play the game on hard mode, at least). The game features a nice mix of platforming and puzzles that distinguishes it from the typical fare. Other favorites of mine include Narshe (World of Ruin) in Final Fantasy VI, Memoria in FFIX, the Dead Sea in Chrono Cross, and Moonside in Earthbound.

    Perhaps my favorite dungeon in a Japanese RPG is the Shinra Headquarters section in Final Fantasy VII. It featured (for the time) a nice subversion of the then more typical medieval castle invasions in RPG games, where you're infiltrating a modern-day equivalent of a castle, a corporate building. The dungeon offers the player some choices about how to infiltrate it (head-on assault or tedious stair climbing). It has a number of secrets and puzzles to keep it interesting, and the minor stealth aspect of the section makes it feel different from every other dungeons in the game. On top of all that, the game introduces a number of key story twists throughout the section. I don't think the Shinra HQ section really does anything individually exceptionally well from a design perspective, but it features a lot of variety within it to make it unique from anything else in the game. I'd say it's the sense that I'm doing something different that really makes me like climbing up the Shinra Headquarters.

    The reason why I got sick of Tartarus in Persona 3 and most of the dungeon crawling in something like SMT: Strange Journey was that I got sick of doing the same kind of thing all the time, to the point that exploring felt tedious. Variety is nice, and I think I favour interesting aesthetic decisions over exploration within a dungeon. Perhaps what I like least is when treasure chests are randomly-generated--I liked the dungeons in Final Fantasy XII but hated how I always got useless crap from chests (and the methods of guaranteeing awesome weapons from some chests are absolutely absurd in that game).
    Last edited by ultraness; 04-15-2014 at 12:32 AM.

  13. #13
    That Guy You Hate RPGamer Staff omegabyte's Avatar
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    The best dungeons in JRPGs are the ones that aspire to be something more than just a place to fight monsters. Being big and open is nice, but kinda pointless if there's nothing to do there other than fight. This is why I wouldn't hold FF12 OR Xenoblade up as an example of good dungeon design. They're a lot of flash with no substance.

    Some of my personal favorite JRPG dungeon designs:

    Legend of Zelda series - The Zelda series always utilizes amazing level design, not only in the dungeons but in Hyrule itself. You can't get much better than this series when it comes to level design.

    Golden Sun series - Golden Sun works in a way that's almost the polar opposite of typical JRPG design - the combat system is about as barebones as combat systems can get, but the dungeons are incredibly complex and intricate. The dungeons in Lost Age will make your head spin.

    Tales of Symphonia - The Tales series is actually generally pretty bad at level design. The areas are pretty enough, but they rarely encourage you to do anything other than fight. ToS is still my favorite entry in the series because it doesn't do that. The game is filled with puzzles to solve, making use of the Sorceror's Ring in ways that no other game in the series does. Even in towns, there are surprisingly little puzzles to solve to get extra items.

    Wild ARMs 4 - While the Wild ARMs series as a whole usually has some cool puzzles to solve, Wild ARMs 4 in particular stands out to me thanks to its combination of challenging puzzles and fun platforming segments. Valkyrie Profile could also be mentioned in this vein for the same reason.

    Pokemon series - Although these games doesn't really involve puzzles or anything really special in terms of player interaction in the levels, they nonetheless always feature great level design. The combination of well-placed trainer battles and tall grass areas means players have to choose the best route through an area, and pokeballs are always placed in areas that can be tough to get to. Exploring these areas can be surprisingly fun.

    Demon's Souls/Dark Souls - The Souls series takes another route to making dungeon design interesting, and that's by placing pitfalls, traps, and other hazards in the player's way. There are hidden passages and hard-to-reach items to discover, and the games encourage exploration and caution above all else.

    Etrian Odyssey: The Millennium Girl - I'm not usually a fan of first person dungeon crawlers, but this game really did it for me, and that's mainly because of the terrific way the levels are laid out and how easy and fun it is to map the dungeons as you go.
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  14. #14
    News Director/Reviewer RPGamer Staff Severin Mira's Avatar
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    I'm a huge fan of Xenoblade's areas because I was always doing going through them with other goals and tasks than to just fight enemies, and it was always felt easy enough to avoid most enemies. Admittedly one of them does revolve around being a bit flashy, but I loved just exploring every part of the locations and the visual design in Xenoblade made that a worthwhile goal. The game wasn't exactly short of side-quests to do in all the areas either. Whether the areas really constitute "dungeons" is debatable, certainly not in the original sense of the word, but RPGs do a fantastic job of making sure such things are blurry as heck.

    Definitely agree on the overall point that dungeons need to have more than just defeating the next monsters, even if it's just providing an alternate route or nooks and crannies to explore, and on the specifics you've mentioned that I've also played. It's one of the main reasons why Symphonia is still my favourite, one reason I don't really hold the more recent titles in as high regard.
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  15. #15
    You guys don't really get the sense of exploration then. Because even if there is no reason to go into that cave in the mountains at all, just going there and exploring it is already a positive experience. At least for me.

    Xenoblade's areas were fairly boring to explore, though. They were too big and open in many regions (the caves and ruins were good, though). But maybe that's just me hating open grassy plains. I want caves, ruins, temples and pyramids or something that doesn't even exist in reality.

    Valkyrie Profile had really cool dungeons indeed. The exploration instinct was really high in that game, especially the big pyramid themed dungeons. It also has a few really boring dungeons that were just following a linear path, though.

    Some games are just really good in the "exploration" feeling. I can't really explain it too well, but in them exploring places is simply super exciting even if there is no "substance" as you say.
    The SaGa games are really amazing at this. Even in Unlimited SaGa were dungeons don't even have visual input except for "board games-like tiles put together" it just felt so incredibly exciting to explore the places and reading the descriptions of your surroundings and imagine how that underground lake inside the mountain cave looks like and how the big fish monster comes out of it. But all the other SaGa games feel like that too. There is often no reason to explore dungeons other than for fighting monsters or finding some useful equip in a treasure, but all the locations felt so exciting, even the incredibly huge dungeons in The Last Remnant just felt worth exploring just for exploration's sake with a few exceptions, even though many of them had no "substance" at all and you couldn't even find anything useful in them.

  16. #16
    RPGamer Staff RPGamer Staff InstaTrent's Avatar
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    I'm also a big fan of most of the Lunar dungeons and any area in Chrono Cross or Baten Kaitos. Anything incredibly colourful stands out to me and tends to feel memorable -- especially if the environments have been hand-painted. I guess it plays into my childlike sensibilities.

    I suppose I could have also mentioned the effect of music on dungeons. As I alluded to, Kefka's Tower has some pretty swell music to accompany the exploration. I know sound design can feel like a minor detail, but I definitely think it can impact a dungeon's presentation.
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  18. #18
    RPGamer Staff RPGamer Staff GaijinMonogatari's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rya.Reisender View Post
    Because even if there is no reason to go into that cave in the mountains at all, just going there and exploring it is already a positive experience. At least for me.
    You would love Linda^3 or the later Metal Max games then, Rya.

  19. #19
    Member Zeboyd Games's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rya.Reisender View Post
    Does that mean that Persona 4 does NOT have randomly generated dungeons?
    Persona 4 does have randomly generated dungeons but they're more sophisticated than Persona 3 (and not as mindnumbingly long). Also, some floors in the dungeons are handcrafted.
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  20. #20
    Quote Originally Posted by GaijinMonogatari View Post
    You would love Linda^3 or the later Metal Max games then, Rya.
    Probably! The videos I found on Metal Max looked good at least. Linda is impossible to find on youtube, too generic title.

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