You know, there was a time when Japanese role-playing games were the toast of my gaming world; back before the market was inundated with a million zombie games and first person shooters and sequels were the exception and not the rule. Western RPGs were the domain of PC gaming, but consoles were ruled by the East and companies like Square and Enix (now consolidated as Square Enix for your convenience).
The differences between WRPGs and JRPGs were many, with Japanese games tending to trend towards more complex, linear stories and colorful characters influenced by anime while American and European ones were more likely to offer players freedom and medieval fantasy settings. All in all, it was a pretty balanced system with plenty of creativity to go around on both ends.
But at some point, our friends in the East seem to have stopped trying. In the last two console generations, Western role-playing games have surged to new heights led by BioWare and Bethesda while their Japanese counterparts have practically stood still resting on their laurels. As a result, their place in gaming culture has been reduced back to the cult status from whence they came after the PlayStation era saw a surge in mainstream JRPG acceptance. Why?
To me it really seems like the genre has fallen into a rut. As if they are just repeating themselves over and over trying to maintain the holdovers from the heyday long passed. I’m still drawn to JRPGs as a general rule, but I’m actually beginning to get a bit leery of them as I pick up more and more lengthy titles that gobble up my time needlessly and end up being something I do just to do out of habit rather than something I actively look forward to.
Even the titles that do almost everything right are kind of paling in comparison to the presentation of Western titles. I just tapped out on Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, which was somehow disappointing to me in spite of the fact that it’s refreshingly old-school and features the charm of the legendary animators at Studio Ghibli. The combat is fantastic and has a cool Pokemon element to it, I died a ton of times (a good thing), and the game does not auto-heal you after every fight making it the most challenging RPG I’ve played in a long while.
But the story is so full of fetch-quest clichés and hand-holding elements that are really out of place considering the level of challenge in the combat that it takes me out of it. Excessive grinding takes up too much time that I don’t just have anymore. Modern RPG’s have got to keep the story moving.
And then there’s the fact that the game is only semi-voiced. You’d think at this point that recording some audio would be the easiest thing to do in a linear story-based game. Look at what BioWare does in comparison with their endless combinations of dialogue from worlds filled with fully-voiced characters and nuanced performances. Going back to a AAA RPG that will have one or two lines of spoken dialogue and then revert back to minutes of text in mid-conversation complete with that teeth-grinding noise the letters make as they’re spelling out across a box has become an issue for me this gen.
Furthermore, there are games such as the Disgaea series, which prides itself on characters that level to 9999 and do quadrillions of points of damage in a single attack. And they don’t level particularly fast or do crazy high damage to begin with. It’s just that the game is designed for people who want a game that takes years of grinding to max out.
But what about those of us who just want something really damn good and memorable but don’t necessarily want to pour hundreds of hours in running back and forth and fighting the same battles again and again?
There was a time when these kinds of games EARNED hundreds of hours of gameplay. They didn’t need to bloat the story or force excessive grinding. You wanted to play it multiple times. The depth wasn’t artificially inflated with pointless features that are tacked on for the hell of it, the games were just deep to begin with.
Titles like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Ogre Battle should have revolutionized the genre, but instead seem to have broken it since I’ve spent all of the years since trying to find games that recapture the magic of those kinds of classics, but usually found only pale imitations if I’m lucky.
There were some other semi-bright spots in the past gen including great creativity of concept in titles like The Last Remnant, Record of Agarest War, and Resonance of Fate, but even these were marred by low production values. I finished none of them in spite of the fact that I really enjoyed them for the most part because I always ended up finding something else I’d rather play.
Some of them had last-gen graphics that were an eyesore in addition to the lack of consistent voicework, some had features that felt frustratingly unfinished and lacked overall polish while some were just too long to finish before weariness set in, and some had all three. There’s got to be a balance that can be attained.
Capcom’s Dragon’s Dogma brilliantly utilized gameplay elements from Shadow of the Colossus and featured a great new AI partner system to create one of the standout JRPG’s of the last decade while aping several Western elements. But it had an unimpressively smallish world that relied heavily on traveling back and forth across the same areas fighting the same enemies to stretch its length with few memorable characters along the way.
Titles like Elder Scrolls an Fallout offer massive landscapes that always have more for you to explore and great fully-voiced dialogue from tons of characters, showing that even the best current JRPGs have a ways to go before they are ready to reach the stars again.
So the question here is what can Japanese developers do to catch back up with the heavy hitters? I already mentioned that beefing up the presentation is a must. At this point watching animated characters silently mouthing words and gesturing as text taptaptaps across a dialogue box in a current gen title isn’t really acceptable. I’d even prefer the visual novel format with voiced static character images at this point.
Another thing that needs to happen is a reanalysis of the best games from the classic days of the genre. At some point the genre wasn’t broken and they tried to fix it anyways. Final Fantasy Tactics is the best example of this. Try playing the original and then play the portable sequels and newer games of the same genre like the Disgaea series to get an idea of what I’m talking about.They took a perfect and complex strategic battle system and stripped away a lot of the depth that made it outstanding in favor of shallow gimmickry and because of that, the classic stands alone as a true masterpiece.
It really seems like the least interesting titles of the last few generations are the ones that are getting endless sequels that seem more like new paint jobs on the same bland gameplay with redundant stories and cardboard cut-out characters that are there to fill archetype requirements more than anything else.
This production line approach is what is killing the genre. They choose to streamline where there should be depth and they add needless complexity where they should streamline, and even when they come up with a new and creative concept, they skimp on the production values.
It seems like most non-strategy RPGs are loathe to give you more than three characters in your party anymore, which is a shame. Final Fantasy has confronted the issue at times by allowing characters to switch combat roles, but this is the wrong approach.
Diversity is strength in a party-based RPG and making characters more functionally similar to one another is a huge mistake that robs the genre of something very special. Older titles in the series and games like Suikoden gave you dozens of unique party members and let you build teams of up to 5-6 characters with many other options.
In addition to the more complex elements of classic titles that need to make a comeback, obviously some fresh blood needs to come in. Dragon’s Dogma had the right idea with incorporating elements from non-JRPGs. More player customization is always a good thing, and open world gameplay is without a doubt the wave of the present and future, but I’d also recommend some new approaches to get ahead of the curve.
A new take on equipment, for example, could be something really beneficial. At this point, I couldn’t even imagine how much time I’ve spent perusing in-game stores and eyeing the merchandise, comparing it to my own equipment and trying to guess whether a treasure chest in the next dungeon will render an expensive purchase obsolete.
One thing I’d really love to see is less emphasis on constantly finding more powerful new items and more emphasis on choice.Having several varieties of equipment available with various pros and cons and letting the character decide which suits their play-style/character with the option to upgrade and improve or switch along the way would be preferable to the current status quo of having to equip whatever weapon is the strongest to keep up. This would eliminate some long-standing headaches with traditional RPG’s and possibly help revitalize a genre that seems to have become too mired in its own tropes to grow and evolve meaningfully.
It bothers me to see the country that revolutionized video gaming and whose pop culture has always been ahead of the curve fall behind and struggle to keep up when they could be upholding their tradition of innovation instead of forging a tradition of bland conservatism. The JRPG is a genre that still has a lot of potential, but to utilize it they are going to have to take chances and embrace some change. Here’s to hoping that the next generation of Japanese games for playing roles throws off the shackles of looming irrelevance and brings back the spirit of the 1990’s golden age for all of the gaming world to appreciate again.