Etrian Odyssey III came out this past week, and once again, it's another game that will probably sit on my shelf for months until I get the time to really play it. Years after the fact, I'm still not sure if I like Etrian Odyssey. I like the feeling, conceptually, of getting lost in a maze and beating up stuff to awesome Yuzo Koshiro music, but then I realize it will require hours of dedication I just don't have, and then I'll go off to pursue something more immediately gratifying. At least, contrary to this completely wrong RPGamer review, it's got an outstanding soundtrack, easily next to NIER and Scott Pilgrim for Best Video Game OST of 2010.
I still read threads about Etrian Odyssey though, and there's a recurring sentiment that I also see about any old-school type RPG. There's a lot of resentment towards reviewers that claim that there's too much focus on grinding. No, the fans say, you absolutely don't need to grind in Dragon Quest or Etrian Odyssey or any of these games! If you fully explore the map and do all of the subquests and farm all of the supply points, you'll never need to sit around and build levels! Well...that's kind of grinding right there.
The disconnect, it seems, that people can't agree about what constitutes "grinding". Its general definition is mostly "any repetitive aspect which I find tedious", but that bar is completely different for every player. Me, I like the feeling of constant progression. I don't like doing subquests, or anything that strays away from the main goal - I never have and probably never will. But these sort of RPGs aren't built for that mindset, and are definitely for the people who like to explore and take their time.
The concept of leveling up is such an integral part of an RPG that to remove it completely feels like ripping out a spinal cord, but I think there are a few ways to, psychologically, get the player to enjoy this concept, so it doesn't feel like "grinding". (1) Provide more content that's part of the "main" game, and (2) deliver better player progression feedback.
The reason why I'm talking about this is because I'm still embroiled in Ys Seven at the moment. The only real criticism I can dish against the game is that there's almost too much of it. The previous Ys games were pretty short, with minimal weaponry and fairly small areas. Ys Seven is a much, much larger game in every regard, and that includes level design.
All prior Ys games have had copious amounts of grinding, because they're all based on a game that came out in like 1987. Most fans never really minded, because Falcom made it fun, but it's still a valid criticism towards them. In Ys Seven, they tried to fix that. If you break it down to percentages, you probably spend as much time killing enemies in Ys Seven as the previous games, but instead of simply running back and forth between the same few screens, it's spread out over the course of much longer levels, giving a more natural sense of progression.
For this to work, the "checkpoints", the boss battles, need to be well balanced, which Ys Seven is pretty good at. Although there are a handful of difficulty spikes (that stupid bird on the tower), for the most part, if you fight every enemy along the way and don't run past them, then you'll be sufficiently leveled up to take on the boss at a reasonable difficulty. There's no need to branch off and do anything else.
In the cases of Etrian Odyssey there's enough content there so the player just isn't running around in circles, but it's all presented as "optional". It isn't, really, but to people who like to play their games in a straightforward manner, they feel more like roadblocks than anything else.
Dragon Quest always felt the same way to me. If you charge through a dungeon and get to a boss, even if you've fought every random battle along the way and maybe returned to town once or twice to get new equipment, it doesn't always feel like you're QUITE ready for it.
This may actually not be true, which brings me to my second point - random-battle, turn-based RPGs do a TERRIBLE job of communicating to the player how powerful they actually are. Maybe you are well equipped to defeat that boss, but he pulled off that really powerful attack twice in a row on the same character and set you on a course to defeat. When the player dies, they are left to wonder - did I screw up, or am I simply underleveled? Luck plays a reasonable part in the proceedings, and players are aware of this, so I think the general assumption is that they aren't strong enough, which leads them to believe they need to grind some more. Maybe they don't though? But the game isn't making this message clear. One could argue that this feeling of uncertainity is a central aspect of an RPG, especially given how easy it is to liken Dragon Quest to gambling, but it's also not one I'm a fan of.
Ys Seven (and most other Ys games) don't really have this problem, because they're action-based, and it's clearer that you failed because your strategy is flawed or your reflexes aren't up to snuff. Or, if you're only doind single digit damage against a box with 10,000 HP, there's probably a character development issue. Whatever it is, the player has a better idea of what they're doing wrong.
There are numerous other examples of things done right or wrong. Nippon Ichi games, for example, everyone complains those are grindfests. I'm not sure I agree, but given how many options there are for character development, combined with their generally poor balance, makes it easy for them to come off that way. Again, it's all about perception and how it's presented, and these things go a long way towards improving player enjoyment. Maybe they should hire some actual psychologists to look at these things.