I’ve been playing Pocket RPG for a quite a while now and – to be clear – I brutally resent it. I resent the fact that I can’t leave it alone despite its manifold shortcomings and despite the fact I have a whole load of much better games sitting ignored on my iSpork, mocking me every time I skip to the action RPG folder and touch the stupid little icon that takes me to a world of averagely cute graphics and mediocre twin-stick action. I have no rational idea why I’m still playing it, except that there’s a short circuit somewhere in my brain that won’t let me get on with anything else. I’m really hoping that I finish it soon because frankly if I spend more than another two hours on this thing then I’m going to have to start begging my friends for an intervention. I can just see them sitting me down and explaining how they all care about me but they don’t want to see me throwing my life away on a mindless grindfest. They don’t want to judge to judge, they even let it slide when I retreated to my cave with a copy of Super Mario World and refused to come out until video games were good again. Now however, they want me to know I have a problem. I’ve become addicted to the grind.
Grind is the problem. Grind is the soul of the new millennium, the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. Grind is behavioural science getting its cold, morose fingers on the entertainment medium of the moment and gently plucking the reward centres of the brain. “Just another level” whispers Pocket RPG. I bet you level up within the first thirty seconds. Look at that status bar growing, engorged with experience. It’s tumescent with all the killing you’ve done. Another few cubes and it’ll splatter golden XP all over you. You know it makes you feel good. Look at that chest. I bet there’s a fractionally better bow with a triple-barreled name in it. That’ll make you feel like the big dog in the park for all of thirty seconds before the enemies are imperceptibly inflated to make them tougher. That doesn’t matter though because there’s probably a dagger in that chest behind the next wave that’ll do the same thing. Or some gold. You like gold don’t you? Gold makes you feel good doesn’t it? Do you want the gold? Do you want it? Play the game then, you human worm. Play it. Play it. Play it.
Taking a step back this doesn’t mean that grind is always and uniformally a bad thing. I actually quite like a lot of fairly grind heavy games. But there are ways and means of doing it in a way that combines prodding the animal hindbrain with something that also appeals to the rational decision making elements of the brain. Pocket RPG doesn’t do this. Worse, it fails to do this under the guise of ‘developing for the platform’ of being kind to you because you’re choosing to play this action RPG on a goddamn telephone. Its trying to make out like it’s doing you a favour in the same way that Stabby Kevin tells people the first hit is on the house.
Pocket RPG is almost more of a twin-stick shooter than your actual RPG. You get a choice of 3 characters, all cute as can be, with oversized heads and podgy little hands. One is all stabby, one is all shooty and I’m hoping I’ll have deleted the app well before attempting to discover what the third one was good for. Each dungeon is partially randomly generated, filled with monsters and essentially designed like a series of small arenas which lock you in once you go through the gate (in classic twin-stick style). Each dungeon has a boss as well as a few sub bosses and in the interests of balance I need to point out that the graphics are well drawn, the visual style is quite appealing and the backgrounds are excellent throughout. Each dungeon manages to have a different feel, there’s quite a bit of variety and the random generating helps keep things a little bit surprising. So far so good.
The problems start and end with the items and the leveling system. No RPG is complete without an endless list of items filled with adjectives. Withering Booze-Addled Cock Ring of Lesser Minor Defensive Charm and so forth. Lots of the fun in an RPG comes from developing your own style of play and deciding whether to equip the toenail clippers that give the bonus against people born on a Friday or the hair straighteners that help you frighten sheep. In a really good RPG, these choices are then filtered through a leveling system that provides more customisation options which, and this is the important bit, drastically alter the way the game is played. Pocket RPG reckons you don’t have time for any of that decision making so helpfully takes the complexity out of it. Picked up a bow? Does it cost more than the last one? Use it. Does it cost less than the last one? Sell it. Picked up a ring? Same thing. This bow gives you some extra arrows. That bow fires a touch faster. Does this change how the game is played? Not a goddamn iota. You’ll still be doing the traditional twin-stick fandango, where you run round the enemies in circles with the fire button held down until they die. There’s some cosmetic changes but that’s about your lot. Obviously the bad guys level at about the same rate you do so any sense of having got the edge is entirely fleeting. This is the futile, gnawing emptiness at the heart of badly designed grind games, they exploit human learning contingencies to drip feed a sequence of constant, yet wholly illusory achievements. It works, it reliably works, it keeps people playing, but it doesn’t entertain. The kindest thing I can say about Pocket RPG is that if, like me, you hate being alone in your own head, it will at least block out the neurotic self-loathing for a while. It’s like video game Tamazepam.