How to Write Reviews for RPGamer

by Michael Beckett

When writing a review, the first and foremost thing to keep in mind is this; you are not writing an advertisement. If you want to encourage others to buy the game, go join an advertising firm, but for the love of god, donít write a review. The purpose of a review is to say what you thought of the game, yes, but also things to keep in mind while playing it, and what kind of person you would recommend the game to. The phrase, Ďanyone would love this gameí is both reckless and ignorant. The amount of disparity between normal individuals is absolutely amazing, to say nothing of the difference between RPGamers. There is no game that absolutely everyone is going to enjoy.

But perhaps Iím getting ahead of myself. Introductions are in order. My name is Michael Beckett, a regular contributor to the Points of View section of RPGamer. I started reviewing games late last year, and Iíve recently made Gold rank. With all the new reviewers the section has been seeing lately, and perhaps to garner even more new recruits, I thought a short guide to reviewing games would be in order. There are a number of things to keep in mind when reviewing games.

To start with, do you really know exactly what your scores mean? The 1-10 ranking is fairly basic, but each number has a specific meaning. 1 is the worst possible score. It says, ďThis aspect of this game is so horrible I am in physical pain even talking about it. There is absolutely nothing good I can say about it.Ē As you can probably guess, 1s are very, very rare, or at least they should be. 1s should be given out with basically the same frequency as 10s - almost never.

A 2 rating says, ďThis part of the game is painful to be near. With problems like these, itís a miracle the game made it out of production.Ē A 3 says, ďThis aspect of this game has some very, very serious problems that make it extremely hard to enjoy it even a little bit.Ē Giving a category a 4 says, ďThis part of the game is slipping beneath standards pretty badly. The designers really should have put more thought into this part.Ē

5 is average. Remember that. Use it as your mantra, say it to yourself before you go to bed at night. 5 is average.

At 6, you start praising the game - cautiously at first. Remember that a 6 is only vaguely better than a 5, which is - what is it? - average. A 6 says, ďOkay, itís got some potential, but itís still got some fairly serious flaws.Ē A seven says, ďGetting better. This part is of higher quality than I expected, but still not perfect.Ē At eight, youíll be saying, in essence, ďThis is one of the best parts of the game. This aspect alone may be enough to recommend this game.Ē

When you start considering a rating of 9, start going over your reasoning again. Ask yourself if it really rates this high. List your logic for giving out such a high rating, and if you canít find a serious flaw within your argument, then go ahead. A 9 says, ďThis is quite possibly one of the best (insert category here) Iíve ever experienced.Ē

And now 10. Good lord, the 10s.

RPGamer is not IGN. It isnít RPGfan, and it sure as hell isnít GameFAQs, or any other site where a 10 is the operational equivalent of a 5. If you give out a 10, youíd better be damn sure you know what youíre saying, because a 10 means you canít find a single flaw anywhere in that aspect of the gameís design. A 10 is a perfect score, with everything that implies.

This brings us to the problem of under/over rating, one of the most common problems associated with new reviewers. Now that we know what the numbers mean, we can start to reason out our ratings. Itís important to remember that ĎBecause I liked ití isnít enough of a reason to give out a high rating. Compare your rating to other reviews of the game online, and take into account the opinions of those reviewers and the points they make. Then, come up with your own reasons for liking or disliking each part of the game, and base the part of your review that covers that part of the game on those reasons. People, I have found, will better respect an opinion that has sound logic behind it, even if they donít agree with it.

There are two different types of reviews available on RPGamer - reviews and retroviews. A retroview is a review of a game that was released more than six months to a year ago, and as such, this brand of review has unique problems associated with it.

First of all, the technological gap between new and old games are very, very obvious, and it only gets worse the longer ago a game was released. The technology associated with graphics, music and sound improves quickly, so that a game released as little as a year ago may have vastly worse quality graphics than a game released today. Therefore, when writing a retroview, you should take into account (one) when the game was released, (two) what system it was released for, and (three) how much of the graphics, music and sound are artistic choices and how much are technological limitations. Since the Music score is based primarily on composition, Graphics and Sound are probably the only two aspects where the score should be totally adjusted to the time frame when the game was released. The other parts of the review - Plot, Replay Value, and so on - should be put up against every other RPG out there, since these things rely less on technology and more upon design, skill and imagination.

Lastly, when finalizing your Overall score, try to avoid giving out a score based on nostalgia. Gamers playing the title you are reviewing for the first time wonít have any nostalgia to fall back on - theyíll see the game more based on how it would do against todayís games.

Now we come to writing the review itself. The current requirements for a review submitted to RPGamerís Points of View section is thus; minimum 300 words, suggested maximum of 1200 words. You must have completed the game to write a review (this part is basic logic. How are you going to write a comprehensive, intelligent review if you donít play the whole game?). No plagiarism, no emulators, no shirt, no shoes, no yard apes. Lastly, be nice to your Review Gurus. Theyíre being nice to you already, getting your stuff posted on RPGamer. Send them cake and ice cream.

Anyway, the review. I prefer to write at least one separate paragraph for each category that gets a rating, but thatís just my personal style. The Review Gurus state more than once that you donít have to do it that way, and in fact, lumping certain parts of a review together may make the review flow better. Remember, whatever else a review is, it is first and foremost an article - that is, something you want people to read. Make it easy on them.

Anyway, the basic format I use is thus; first, the opening paragraph. Say right off what you thought of the game, what itís best and worst points are, and donít shy away from sticking in any bits of history that are associated with the game. Did the lead designer go mad after making this game? Is the title a bizarre allusion to Carmen Miranda? Talk about it!

Next, the battle system. Is it original? Did it influence any other games? Did you like it or dislike it, and why? Itís also usually a good idea to give a brief overview of the mechanics of the combat system. It gives the reader a chance to form his or her own opinions about the game. Since the Battle System is one of the two most important parts of an RPG, you should spend some time on this subject. Donít be in a hurry to get on to the next category. Was it too fast? Too slow? Did it fit the feel of the rest of the game?

Okay, interface. The best interface is one you donít notice. If you notice the interface to an undue degree, itís either because itís irritating or confusing, and frankly neither one will get it a good score. Interface covers not only the menu system and controls of the game, but also the hit detection, dungeon and town layout, and the ease of moving from place to place. If a game doesnít tell you where you should be going next to move the plot along, thatís a negative mark in interface. If the controls or menus are confusing, thatís a negative mark in interface. As always, weigh the pros and cons before choosing a score.

Music and sound are actually two categories squashed into one. So, music first, sound later.

Music, for me, refers to the gameís soundtrack, itís composer and composition. When writing about this, ask yourself who wrote the music, and what else have they done? Does it fit the gameís overall atmosphere and feel? Is the composition interesting or not? Which tracks stand out, and why? There are a number of sites online that allow you to download and listen to music from various games, so it may be a good idea to give the music a re-listen outside the game.

Sound, on the other hand, covers sound effects and voice acting, if there is any. Think about all the various sounds you have heard during the course of the game. Which stood out as good or bad? Were there any sound effects missing, or any that struck you as odd by their inclusion? Now the voice acting. Were there any big names involved in the voice acting? Which ones were good, and which ones were horrible? Did the voices fit the characters? How about the characterís lips?

Originality has to do mainly with how new the game feels in each and every aspect. Was the music and sound different than the norm for itís setting? How about the battle system? Who does this game borrow from in its design, and what does that do to your enjoyment of it? Why do you say that? Was the idea behind the plot original?

Itís important not to go easy on a game, especially in the Plot category. One of RPGís main purposes is to tell a story, and while no RPG has yet reached the level of, say, Shakespeareís Romeo and Juliet, that doesnít make the RPG equivalent of The Head that Wouldnít Die acceptable. A game with a plot that is too background (like Castlevania; Harmony of Dissonance) or too devoid of originality or meaning (like EarthBound) should not be given above a 4. To be a worthwhile story is to have depth and meaning, theme and a decent cast of characters. An RPG without these things has no more right to be called an RPG than 90 minutes of blank screen has to be called a movie. When reviewing a gameís plot, think not only of the theme of a story, but also of its setting and characters, its pacing, style and grammar.

Which brings us to Localization. In the past few years, Localization of RPGs has taken a light-year leap to go from Wild Arms 2nd Ignition to Kingdom Hearts. Think about the number of errors in the grammar and spelling contained within the game, and consider what got localized. Was it just the text, or did the graphics get edited as well? Characterization must also be considered, as well as the cultural difference between Japanese and English - certain body movements and statements have vastly different meanings across the Pacific. It would be a good idea, though not necessarily essential, to have at least a basic idea of Japanese culture and language.

In all honesty, Replay Value doesnít play much of a role in RPGs. The most important parts of an RPG are Plot, Combat System, and, to a lesser degree, entertainment value. Replaying an RPG isnít usually an issue, but try to keep an open mind. Are there a lot of side quests? A lot of characters? What about a New Game + feature?

Visuals are supposed to be less important than other aspects of RPGs, but letís face it, if the graphics suck, youíre not going to be very interested in any part of the game. Visuals provide a link between the world the RPG is taking place in and the world the gamer is in. A great deal of information comes out in visuals, so take into account the detail of the graphics in addition to the style and culture revealed by the design. How cohesive is the graphic style? How well does it fit the story and the music? Think about the character, mechanical and architectural design, and ask yourself if it all works together. Also, compare the level of quality between FMVs, field and battle graphics. Does it all mesh well? Is one more detailed than the others, and is that a result of technical limitations or artistic choice?

Okay, nearly done now, I promise. Difficulty and Time to Complete can usually be lumped together, unless something about either one is seriously whacked out. I normally use seven levels of difficulty - Very Easy, Easy, Medium, Hard, Very Hard and Variable, to be used when the difficulty level is selectable. Time to complete can be any number of hours, as long as itís a fair estimation of how long a person would take to complete it straight through.

Finally, the conclusion. Restate your thesis statement if you used one, and give your reasoning for your Overall score. Talk about the gameís best and worst points, and say who, if anyone, you would recommend the game to.

After you finish all this, do not, I repeat, do not immediately go online and submit your review. Bad idea. What you have in front of you is by no means a finished product - itís just a rough draft. Go back through the review; look for phrases that donít sound right, words that donít work well, and sentences that are unnecessary. After that, go back through again. This time, look for errors in punctuation, grammar and spelling. It may be a good idea to take a break before starting the editing process, however. I prefer to wait at least 24 hours before I edit, but if youíre feeling up to it, go for it.

It might not be a bad idea to pick up a style guide or a book on writing. Like I said, you want people to be able to read what you write. To that end, itís never a good idea to dumb down your writing for a lesser audience. I see this all the time. Assume your readers have intelligence, or, failing that, access to a dictionary. Try not to write exactly to the outline I described here. Try your own method as soon as you feel confident in your writing. Follow your own style, and make it interesting, and people will read what you write.

As soon as youíre done editing, select a title for your review. It doesnít have to be terribly witty, but it should be something that sums up your feelings about the game. Next, select 1-3 pictures to be featured in your review, and write captions for them. Thereís even a special place for them on the template.

Oh, right, the templates. The PoV section offers two templates, one for those of you who know HTML, and one for those of us who canít tell our asynchronous transfer protocols from a hole in the ground. The templates have little categories so that you donít forget anything, so make sure you donít leave anything blank.

Try to review a wide spectrum of RPGs, balancing Retroviews with Reviews. Donít just review games you like, or just games that are popular. Start out with the goal of reviewing every game you play, and reviewing them harshly. Donít be tempted to give a game a passing grade if it doesnít deserve one. When reading reviews, remember that they are opinions, and not meant to upset anyone beyond the massively uptight. If you donít agree with what a review says, write your own review, or write a rebuttal in the Editorials section. Or even email the author to have a discussion.

Remember this; video games have the potential to become not just a form of entertainment, but a new form of art. RPGs in particular are moving towards deeper narrative, more interesting characters, and more artistic design. When writing a review, remember the kind of feeling you get when you first saw your favorite movie. Think about the way you feel when you first listen to a song, or read a book, and you just know itís going to be your favorite for years to come. When and if you get that feeling from an RPG, thatís when you give out a 10, and not a moment before.

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