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RPG Maker MV (PC) artwork

RPG Maker MV (PC) review

"Modding and its community are RPG Maker MV's greatest strength."

What do you do with a tool that does what it's supposed to but falls short of its purpose so that you have to augment its features and/or behavior with other tools? RPG Maker MV isn't a suite, but it tries to be and even comes close while falling short on functionality that most users would consider basic. Particularly for software trying to fill the role required by a developer, which can be diverse and varied.

Why don't I just get what it doesn't have out of way first: There's no built in a sound editor, pixel editor/drawing program or dual-panel code editor. RPG Maker MV cuts the fluff by focusing on the task of bringing pre-built resources together into a playable form with the least amount of coding knowledge possible. It is successful enough at this that someone who stumbles around in BASIC or even HTML can put together an event driven adventure that is as complex as Chrono Trigger. That fellow is me, and yes, even intepreted languages throw me for a loop. I dig logic, not code, though the concepts do fascinate me.

RPG Maker MV is the latest installment of a franchise that spans nearly two decades of releases with the slant of providing an environment that not just makes things easy, but has everything you need to build and publish your RPG. "Everything" is assets, which take the form of music, art, code and plugins. As technical requirements go, your butt is covered, and if you have the talent, or the right team, you can supply your own. Everything else is up to you: Creativity in the form of story content, writing, musical compositions and instrumentation, character sprites for map and battle, and pixel art for the world and everything else you require.

That does sound like a lot, doesnít it? Make no mistake, game development, even with a software tool such as this, is still large scale task that grants no immediate satisfaction. Even though RPG Maker MV is a good provider, it is not an effective educator, and that can throw off newcomers. Not that it doesnít try: Ten tutorials do a reasonable job of teaching you how to create movable rocks, save points, switches, interactive NPCs, quests and dialogue, basic navigation and finally, the nuances of database editing. Unfortunately for me it seemed to give up the ghost when it thought that was enough.

If RPG Makerís halfhearted tutorials and HTML reference guide were all I had to go on, Iíd not have gotten very far. Lately Iíve been bringing up the subject of community in a few of my reviews, and that community has formed the basis of RPG Maker as a staple development tool for the Indie scene. If its basic functionality is all youíre going to employ, then youíll do fine as long as you have the requisite patience and time. That doesnít guarantee youíll make an excellent product, but that isnít the purpose of the software.

A good tool makes an otherwise impossible or improbable task manageable, and in some cases efficient and cost effective. Being that RPG Maker MV costs more than the average Triple A title on any major gaming platform, Iíd say it does that, for the most part. However, taken as a software development suite it lacks functionality that rank as more than quality of life features. For instance, there is an abject lack of keyboard shortcuts, and most interactions are dependent upon the right click context menu. Just a handful of commands have been mapped to keys of any description, even though they are the most frequently used. Can you imagine a modern software without a fully functional Undo command?

Donít look now, Ďcause here it is. For most of RPG Makerís lifespan, it was a little known Indie product itself until its popularization in its previous interaction known as RPG Maker VX Ace. Itís good that the company hasnít interfered with the developerís plans for the software, but when basic functionality like this is lacking, the relatively expensive product appears to be a tad overblown. Even so, what does this software bring to the table and execute effectively?

The first thing most people will do is mess around with the Character Generator. Selecting from a list of component body parts, such as hair, eyes, mouth and markings like scars - because of course - you can create the bust of your hero, or NPC, of your dreams. Or fantasies. Itís usually fantasy, especially since the default assets are specifically mid-18th century fantasy in style. You can buy asset packs that have different themes, and download some good ones from a few resource sites, but the default set has a preconceived notion that puts a slant on the final result. That pedigree has given RPG Maker games something of a bad reputation for games that are non-too-dissimilar, one rightly deserved, in my opinion.

You may notice right away that children are woefully represented, and have but one set of assets as of the latest version. If you want kids in your RPG, youíll have to buy the theme pack, find the right resources online, or create them. I found it strange that children are so under represented by default, but given what developers put them through, I think I understand the decision. While we're on the topic of character design, do yourself a favor and look up Expanded Character Generator, since it allows you to use assets across both genders available. Who says guys canít have gorgeous hair, I mean really?

Meanwhile, map editing is one of my favorite things to do. Any map you design takes the form of a grid, consisting of 48x48 square blocks of pixels called tiles. In the database of your game, you assign png files with artwork arranged to work with RPG Makerís autotile system. Then you choose the size of your map, grab a pencil or brush and start laying down those tiles. The autotile system does a stellar job of applying the right tile to create the shape you intended, even though most of those are rectangular in presentation. Unless, of course, youíre a pixel wizard capable of pushing the engineís limits. That is to say, designing and arranging your own tiles to give the impression of an isometric or pseudo-three dimensional viewpoint.

You can choose background music to play while the player roams your environment, apply a background that can loop and/or optionally scroll, or with plugins apply a sun ray style effect as an overlay. There are a few other options and a field for extra code that plugins can and will utilize for things like region restrictions, which can restrict NPCs from wandering - for example - in front of doorways. Perfectly useful. That database I mentioned is where you configure absolutely everything: Weapons, Classes, Actors (Player Characters), Skills, Magic, Abilities, Items, Title Screen, and so much more. Plugins can expand and manipulate your options in the database as well to your preferred liking, but can require some knowledge of Javascript to implement.

Which brings me to the fact that coders can dig right in. The underlying language employed here is - as mentioned - Javascript, which is slow, being an interpreted language, though it is commonplace and well understood. How easy it is to learn I couldnít say. From what Iíve gathered, once youíre in modifying the behavior of nearly everything can be done with just a few lines of script, and modification is RPG Makerís greatest strength.

For the first time ever, RPG Maker MV ships with extensible script files that can be loaded into a Plugin menu and ordered on a list for loading before or during gameplay. Ordering plugins is important because they can conflict with each other, and you may just need one to make a specific modification before another does. These plugins range in functionality, from full size character portraits not unlike visual novels, to advanced in-game survival mechanics or just basic interface tweaks. The choice is yours, and the community has made many popular gameplay mechanics from retail RPGs available for pennies on the dollar, or even free.

The community is the saving grace of this software, since on its own it decides that ten lessons are enough. Why? Because you should explore and discover its capabilities for yourself. That may be ... er ... adventurous, but is also in my experience debilitating for fledgling developers who barely know their way around a word processor. Once again to the rescue is a very active community of helpful developers who operate primarily on Discord as of this writing. That doesnít excuse the absurdly sparse tutorials and lack of any live help engine. Perhaps that is out of this productís price bracket, but Iíve used free software, such as OpenMPT, Audacity and Twine which all have better documentation and tutorials.

There is one major consideration that a lurking developer will want to be aware of: Other software products can produce a superior end product if you have a modicum of coding skill, by no small margin. The tradeoff for accessibility is performance, as I've alluded to with regards to Javascript. RPG Maker MV is not built to take advantage of accelerated graphics features. It is this lack of functionality that is the primary cause of RPG Maker products that have absurd hardware requirements, while RPGs with custom engines can turn out far superior results on the same hardware. Contrariwise, if your CPU is fast enough, your game will run on it.

This blow is softened somewhat by publishing options that include Steam and the ability to export your game so that itís playable on PC, Mac, Mobile and web browsers that support HTML 5, though youíll want to be sure to test thoroughly. That's right - you can head right out and start selling your dream project, but be forewarned that competition abounds like frequent random encounters and can leave you wanting to reload your last save.

Oh, what, there's no saving your progress in life? That's a shame. Another thing to bear in mind is that adding plugins takes a toll on performance, some more than others. Itís not uncommon to have a dozen plugins and still be looking to add more to integrate Yanflyís journal plugin for quest tracking. This is another case of a community that takes better care of the product than its developers do, even though they continue to provide updates and improvements.

If a powerful but watered down development experience sounds like your cup of experimental, indie tea, then youíll probably want to wait for RPG Maker MV to go on sale before grabbing a copy. Iím inclined to agree with the consensus that it is too expensive at full price, failing to deliver what other suites will give you just for signing up for free. Be warned that the trade off for convenience is indeed, underwhelming performance. That said, this software stands alone as the most flexible development suite for RPG gaming. Especially when you don't know what a variable is.

hastypixels's avatar
Community review by hastypixels (April 10, 2019)

At some point you stop justifying what you play and begin to realize what you're learning by playing.

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