JRPGs rely on randomness to alleviate the fact that you spend a lot of time doing the exact same thing. Random damage values, random enemy behavior, random success or failure of special abilities all ideally help the game to create different situations for the player to react to, starting from the same base components. That’s the good kind of randomness – “randomness you can make an informed decision about,” as my friend James Lantz put it. Conversely, there’s the bad kind of randomness, the kind that causes the player to feel like the game got away with something, and the criminal kind of randomness that causes the player to lose an hour of progress without their having made a mistake.
Atlus’ Shin Megami Tensei franchise and its spinoff series Persona are some of my favorite JRPGs, but I have a bone to pick with a mechanic introduced in the PS2 era that makes them susceptible to the terrible horrible no good very bad kind of randomness. In games like Nocturne, Strange Journey, and Persona 3 & 4, you lose when the Main Character reaches 0 HP – even if other party members are still standing, even if they could easily revive you, because the Main Character is Special For Some Reason. SMT games are more punishing than the average JRPG in the first place; when entering a new area, a random encounter against an enemy whose weaknesses are unknown can easily kill off a party member. Even relatively easy enemies can manage to knock out one character in a surprise attack where they get a free turn. Reviving a single party member is a negligible cost in the long run, but if that party member happens to be the MC, too bad.
This mechanic wouldn’t be frustrating if you had any control over the likelihood of the MC being targeted, but it’s pretty much entirely at the whim of the AI’s random number generator. Thankfully, Atlus’ designers are capable of balancing their games so that this design decision, questionable though it may be, doesn’t ruin everything. This is not the case with another game with a unrevivable protagonist, Okage: Shadow King, a very early PS2 game from Zener Works. So far as I can tell, Okage is Zener’s only RPG, only console game, and only game released outside Japan. It has a terrifically funny script, a charming and unique art style, and a broken-ass combat system that sucks every drop of fun out of the experience.
There are two kinds of battles in Okage: trivially easy, and you’re-dead-in-30-seconds hard. Boss fights comprise the majority of the latter; each boss is fairly powerful on its own, and also comes with several monster buddies whose job is to all attack the same character simultaneously and kill them before you can act. Time works in an odd way in Okage; there’s an Active Time Battle-y pause before a character can act, and while time stops while you navigate the menu (yes, somehow this game gets right the one thing Final Fantasy gets wrong) multiple combatants can act simultaneously, which means any number of characters can attack the same enemy at once, or vice versa. That vice versa is a problem. Okage’s party is only three members compared to SMT/Persona’s four, and the AI does nothing to compensate for how likely it is that one character will get ganged up on, and that 33% of the time that character will be the protagonist Ari. In fact, Ari is the only character with the ability to force enemies to target him. Zener. What. Are. You. Doing.
It’s interesting to observe how the Persona series has slowly added more and more workarounds to mitigate the bullshititude of this mechanic without getting rid of it entirely. Since instant kill spells are a staple of the franchise, wielded both by party members and enemy Shadows, in Persona 3 you can collect Homonculi, items that absorb those spells to keep the MC alive. Persona 4 gives your other party members the ability to each absorb one attack that would otherwise kill the MC and end the game – but only if the MC is the sole target of the attack. Unfortunately Atlus’ final bosses almost always have some effectively unavoidable random instant kill combo. For example, the final boss of Persona 4 has spells with a chance to inflict status ailments on the whole party, a spell that instakills any character with a status ailment, and two actions per turn. None of the mitigating effects mentioned earlier apply to that instant kill. Good luck.
Finally, in the recent spinoff-of-a-spinoff Persona Q, you have to specifically opt in to this mechanic by choosing the “Risky” difficulty setting (separate from “Hard”). If you voluntarily subject yourself to this nonsense, I don’t know what to say to you, except maybe you’d also enjoy life more if you rolled a die every morning and slammed your fingers in a drawer on a 1. Like the menu selection quick-time events of Active Time Battle, the unrevivable protagonist is a bad way of making the game harder. Meanwhile, SMT4 abandoned the gimmick entirely and was still really hard and nobody missed it, and I hope that continues to be true in Persona 5, or at least keeps it optional as in Q.
Of course, randomness can go wrong in the player’s favor as well. The instant kill spells mentioned earlier are normally a high risk/high reward option. Persona Q makes the player’s instant kill abilities far too powerful; not only can they be used repeatedly without the expected long term drawback (concisely described here by Robert Boyd of Zeboyd Games – who by the way makes very smart decisions with regard to random elements in his modern JRPGs) but for a good stretch of the game they are effectively guaranteed to work unless an enemy blocks that type of attack completely. In the entire fourth dungeon of the game I saw no more than five instakillable enemies survive my first attack, even if they supposedly were “resistant” to it. The success rate went back down somewhat in the final dungeon, but using instakill as much as possible remained the best strategy.
In other SMT games I consider instakill too unreliable to use regularly, but if I’m about to lose a fight I’ll take a gamble and hope to be pleasantly surprised. In Persona Q it became the only rational thing to do every time, even though it spoiled the fun, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in making that choice. Commenting on Destiny’s loot cave exploit last fall, Andrew Vestal quoted Diablo’s designers: “Players will always play the most efficient way, even if it’s boring, and they’ll blame YOU.” Of course, if the monsters in Atlus games acted rationally and efficiently, they would focus fire on the main character and win much more easily. So really the beloved heroes of Persona 3 & 4 only succeeded because Shadows are dumb as hell.