When thinking back to what else I've played recently, at one extreme you have the very conservative Tales series, and on the other you have the likes of Final Fantasy XIII, which tossed out numerous genre conventions in favor of a streamlined experience. Striking out on their own directions, you have the aforementioned Xenoblade and The Last Story, another RPG I'm hotly anticipating, which releases in August. There are a lot of differences in the details, but the big three that most impact my own experiences, and likely the experiences of many players, are how these games each handle monster encounters, character growth, and death.
Breath of Fire III was released in 1997 for the PlayStation and remains one of my favorite RPGs. I really miss these games—yet another series abandoned by Capcom that I still hope can enjoy a revival one day. I can dream, can't I? Breath of Fire III is clunky to play, as older RPGs tend to be, but the colorful cast of characters is as charming as any, and the main character is a dragon, which automatically makes everything awesome. Alas, replaying it also reminds me of what I always disliked about the RPG genre—conventions that I'm happy to see many modern games address with more player-friendly approaches.
The issue of greatest importance to most people is fighting monsters. After all, in an RPG this is what you do. The story may provide the hook and the interest, but mechanically it's an excuse to get the player to march forward and fight monsters, with the occasional puzzle or mini-game to break up the tedium. For the traditional RPG, this means monsters are randomly generated out of thin air, you don't see the fight coming, you just know it'll happen if you walk a few steps. The battles themselves are menu-based, with each action for each character in your typically-three-person party selected individually. Originally a necessity for dealing with the limitations of early computers and console systems, it became a convention of the genre, one which can make exploring the environments an exercise in patience, especially if the encounter rate is particularly high. Skies of Arcadia, another RPG I'll be replaying in the not too distant future, is notorious for this, combining an emphasis on exploration with a punishing encounter rate, making it frustrating to play.
Thankfully, RPGs are moving away from this old convention. Even Chrono Trigger, a seventeen-year-old game, mostly did away with random encounters. Final Fantasy XII was the first single-player game in that series to eliminate the random encounter as well as turn-based battles, opting for a more real-time approach mostly associated with computer RPGs at the time. Monsters wandered in plain sight, and could be avoided or engaged.
Yet, the random encounter isn't completely dead. It is an undeniably useful crutch, saving time in development that would otherwise be spent positioning hundreds of monsters and creating any programming associated with their movements and behaviors outside of battle. The most common sort of random encounters I see these days pop a monster up on-screen near your location, so at least you have the option to avoid it. But I most enjoyed the approach taken by games like Xenoblade or Final Fantasy XIII that filled their worlds with strange wildlife that minded their own business until the player walked by. A world with living, moving things in it is inherently more real than an empty landscape.
The second biggest issue I've always had with RPGs deals with leveling up the characters. All manner of numbers are associated with characters in an RPG, representing their health, strength, defense, agility, and whatnot. How survivable a battle is depends heavily on these stats which in many games lead to the dreaded level grind. Walk around an area to fight monotonous battle after battle to level up and increase your stats so you have some hope of walking through the next area where the endlessly attacking monsters are tougher than the ones you're currently grinding on. The challenge of the RPG is statistic-based, your character's stats vs. the monster's, and as such, I don't think level grinding is ever something that can be completely done away with. Note that I may have to amend this thought, as I vaguely remember Chrono Cross tackling the issue in an interesting way, and I invite examples of "grindless" games in the comments. Leaving that aside, the best way to deal with grinding is to hide it, and again I have to give Xenoblade a nod.
Xenoblade doesn't do away with the grind, but it does make it goal-oriented which, for me at least, makes the effort much more palatable. If you've played the game, you know it's loaded with NPCs who give you quests. Most are "fetch this" or "kill so many of these" but the best ones send you after a miniboss-like unique monster and involve you in a short side-story. They combine the world-building effort of engaging the player in the lives of the world's inhabitants with sending you off to kill monsters and thus, raise your level. Running aimlessly around an area fighting beasties is something I can only do for so long. But playing Xenoblade, I'd lose entire days on these side quests and happily look for more. Final Fantasy XIII had much the same grip on me during the Gran Pulse section. The fact that both of these games had fast-paced and engaging battle systems didn't hurt either!
The final subject I'm touching on concerns what happens when you die. Failure is always an option and older RPGs like Breath of Fire III punish you for it. Auto-saving was not a feature of older games and forgetting to save or simply failing to reach a save point could result in hours of slow progress gone in an instant. Whatever gear you collected is lost. Whatever levels you gained grinding monsters are gone. Whatever cut-scenes you sat through must be watched again. Old school RPGs could certainly make a player risk-averse! A long crawl through a tough dungeon, low on supplies and magic points, searching for the next save point, was an unnerving experience. This isn't necessarily bad, as building tension can be a desirable effect, but the downside of dying and having to recover all of that lost ground has caused more than one player to call it quits (but never me, I'm far too stubborn).
How a game deals with death should really depend on how it wants the player to behave. If the game is intended to challenge players with surviving intimidating, monster filled gauntlets, then death should carry significant consequences. On the other hand, if a game invites gamers to explore, satisfy their curiosity, and take risks, then death should carry no penalties. Other games have taken an even more experimental approach to dying. Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, the fifth and final game in the series, presented players with very tough enemies early on, gleefully killing them off to encourage restarting the game in a sort of new game plus mode. Some experience would carry over, new story scenes would unlock, and new areas of the game would even become available. It was an odd hit-or-miss approach to say the least, but at least it didn't feel stagnant.
Playing an old game like Breath of Fire III back to back with something as forward-thinking as Xenoblade shows clearly that RPGs are indeed advancing, experimenting, and smoothing out the rough edges of their experiences. The changes aren't consistent from game to game, and a whole 'nother case could be made for character and story tropes. Some experiments go awry, but the genre looks pretty healthy to me. I just want to see more of it.