Like many a game designer, I have always dreamt of making RPGs. I grew up playing games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, Ultima and The Bard's Tale. They were a big part of my formative game playing years as a young 'un. I've always wanted to try my hand at one, but one thing you quickly come to terms with when learning game dev is that even the smallest thing can be really, really hard to do, and RPGs are packed with thousands of small things that you have to do.
RPGMaker eases that burden in a lot of ways. It comes pre-loaded with a lot of systems that you can lean on. It's dead simple to draw out 2d maps, sprinkle them with scripted events (dialogue, locked doors, chests, etc.), spec out monsters, weapons, armor, characters...everything you need. Dialogue and cutscenes in particular are a real joy. I found it so fun to just throw down some characters and get them talking and walking. It definitely spoke to my inner playwright :)
There were some limitations to it that I found frustrating. There is not much in the way of API documentation. It's not totally absent, but it's a far cry from what you can find in other commercial tools. I think that is probably holding back the tool somewhat, as it makes it harder for more advanced users to break apart the engine and do more unorthodox things with it. You still can, but they just kind of put the ball in your court and hope you can figure it out. I hope that in the future the creators of the software get more serious about improving the developer experience.
The software seems to have something of a bad rap amongst players and game developers. It comes loaded with a lot of assets, which means a lot of the games made with it look exactly the same. But there are clearly some great titles that have been made with it, and really there is nothing stopping you from replacing all the assets in the game with your own, which you would have to do with any other tool anyways. I think RPG Maker just makes it easy to NOT have to do that. But I think to release a quality commercial title with this engine, you still have a lot of work to do.
And yeah, let me just say that again. You'll have a LOT of work to do. RPGs are HARD. There are so many pieces you have to fit together. You need to have the right amount of dialogue, plot, the right size of level, the right progression of levels, items, skills, etc...I built a dead simple 20 minute rpg, and it took me almost 25 hours of dev time.
Overall though, I was really impressed. The software is helpful and thoughtfully designed. I think even for something more outside the box, like a zelda style action rpg, using this tool would still be beneficial. You would have to code a lot of the engine yourself, but you'd still have to do that in another engine anyways. In some ways, RPGMaker feels like a very advanced level editor. It comes with some pre-coded stuff, but you can re-jig almost all of it and make anything you want, while still retaining the great editor.
That does mean that RPGMaker is definitely a top down sort of tool. You start with a finished engine and then break apart the pieces you don't like and fit them back in to the larger whole. With a straight up framework like Phaser or a language like Monkey, you can build everything piece by piece yourself, using some solid, base level components or classes. I think I work a little bit better with the latter type of workflow, as it gives me a hands-on understanding of each piece of the system, whereas with something like RPGMaker, it's hard to understand at first glance how each part of the engine interacts with all the other pieces. That ties back to the lack of good developer documentation. If that was explained and outlined somewhere, it would make everything a little bit smoother.
Regardless, I loved my time with the program. You can go a long way with it without doing any coding, especially if you are building a turn based RPG. if you are looking for a good tool to learn game dev with, have just always loved RPGs, or just like playing with creative tools, I definitely recommend RPG Maker. It makes one of the hardest game genres slightly less hard to make, and is a whole lot of fun.