JRPGs: The Long Trudge Towards Relevance

JRPGs: The Long Trudge Towards Relevance

by Max Gruber

For decades, we’ve all cherished and even worshipped video games as a powerful form of media which can draw people together to not only watch a story unfold before them, but to take part in that story as well. For many people, and I mean many, video games are more than just interactive movies; they’re a means to become connected to the characters on a much larger scale. They allow you to participate in conflicts with the character(s) on their quest to rid the world of evil, from rescuing the Princess in the vintage Super Mario Brothers, decimating Ares from God of War, to something as simple as exploring the barren, desolate and coarse wasteland of Journey. Video games have become far more than a way to waste time on the couch, playing games while you eat bags of Doritos in your parents’ basement; it’s become a form of interactive storytelling with rich narratives and worlds, and very compelling plots tying all of it together. And there’s one genre of video games that have taken this concept and played with it for the longest of times:

JRPGs.

Note: My knowledge of menu/turn-based JRPGs is very limited to Final Fantasy. Though I have played other games within the subgenre before, my experience with them is lacking compared to what I know, so I’ll try my best not to turn this into a parade for Final Fantasy. Tell you what. Let’s have a drinking game, shall we? Every time I write “Final Fantasy ‘X’ number” in this piece, you have to take a drink based on the number of the game mentioned. Oh, and by the way, I’ve written Final Fantasy thr–excuse me, four times, so take four drinks.

Let’s look back at a time before some of us, myself included. Back in the 70s, video games were taking their first steps out of the womb of media and slowly grew interest in the minds of the people. But it was a very niche audience, and thus was overlooked by the many people who preferred movies, television, novels, music and theater over the new kid on the block. At the time, RPGs in Japan were not as popular as they are now, most likely due to video games having their origins in the U.S. It wasn’t until the 80s that RPGs would take their first step into the world with games like Wizardry, Ultima, Dragons Quest and Final Fantasy. Take a drink. Now the former of these games are what you would call Western Role Playing Games, and the latter two are Japanese Role Playing Games. There is a distinct difference between these two subgenres that forms a strong divide between them, and it’s the decisive factor as to why JRPGs have fought an uphill battle in the West ever since.

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Doesn’t this take you back?

Image source: Wikipedia

Now the famous Internet show ExtraCredits had a long discussion about WRPGs vs. JRPGs and why the JRPG genre has fallen short ever since, so I’ll try not to quote them on everything, but the main point they talk about is this: The core reason you play JRPGs is for the narrative, while the core aesthetics of WRPGs focus on fantasy and expression, and this factor alone is the sole reason behind the current dominance of WRPGs. But, to discuss that, I’ll have to save it for later.

Since we’re talking about JRPGs and WRPGs, let’s look at games that fall into these genres, starting with JRPGs. Most JRPGs have, for the most part, turn-based combat. They were founded on this mechanic, and as of today many still contain menu-based combat. However, there are some JRPGs that are more “action role-playing games” that are a bit harder to explain. They retain the menu-based combat, but are not turn-based. Basically, you have a slew of abilities at your disposal, but you’re not restricted to turn-based mechanics. Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story and Kingdom Hearts are great examples of this subgenre. The more traditional JRPGs of today are, as I mentioned earlier, turn-based. They play sort of like chess or an old school card game like Pokémon, Yu Gi Oh, or Duel Masters. Games like Lost Odyssey, Pokémon, Ni No Kuni, Final Fantasy (take a drink), and Persona are some of, if not the best, examples of the more traditional turn-based JRPG.

With that in mind, let’s look at their weakest points. ExtraCredits mentioned that narrative is what makes the JRPG so great, and it’s at the core of the reason you play them. However, JRPGs are not without their own faults. The show crew asked this question: “What is habitually one of the worst parts of JRPGs?” And before you answer, it’s not the absurd number of buckles, the androgynous and/or extremely anime-centric characters. I know this is going to be very contentious for what it is, but they do have a point. The weakest part of JRPGs, for the longest time, has been their combat systems. Again, just hear me out on this. I’ll add to what they had to say about this.

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Gee, I wonder who the “inspiration” for Cloud was…

Left image source: Final Fantasy wikia. Right image source: Hobbygen.

As I mentioned earlier, most JRPGs retain the old menu-based combat that was created in the 80s. Because of the limited and, by today’s standards, ancient technology they had access to, they were unable to create anything more complicated than what programmers today can make while unconscious. Therefore, they had to create something very simple, which was inspired by things like chess and tabletop games like D&D. And, if you think about it, even then menu-based combat wasn’t that engaging. Fights really boiled down to exploiting an enemy’s weakness and abusing it with the strongest version of that attack. “Ok, this guy’s weak to Fire! Enfire Enfire Enfire, Firaga Firaga Firaga, Flamestrike Flamestrike Flamestrike.”

And I do realize that there are people who want a deep, creative turn-based JRPG, but it’s never going to happen. Why? Two concise reasons: it’s not only a massive risk for the publishers—especially given the state of the global economy—but also due to how niche the genre is. You could gain as much of an audience as you might drive away. I remember a while back when there was so much buzz about Ni No Kuni coming to the PS3 in the U.S., and how it would revive the withering JRPG genre. While the game was very well made, it didn’t sell well. Last I heard, it only sold ~500K units in Japan alone. Maybe it was a bit more successful in the States, but you get the point. Unless there’s massive demand for a high quality, turn-based/menu-based JRPG, we’ll never see one surface.

But back then it didn’t need to have the most amazing combat the world had ever seen. At the time, the JRPG was the one place you could find a rich, compelling narrative with emotional characters. And, for a while, it was working really well. But what’s happened over the years? Well the… hold on a minute. I’m being told that I forgot to discuss what the strengths and weaknesses of WRPGs were, and that I am a complete idiot for missing them. Sorry guys, but the answer to the underlying question will have to wait.

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An example of a JRPG, they tend to focus exclusively on narrative.

Image source: GameInformer

Now it’s time to look at RPGs from the West. I am very familiar with WRPGs, so this list will be easier to describe, and the games will be much more familiar to most people here than the games I detailed in the JRPG section. Firstly, let’s look at what they are. WRPGs, as I mentioned, are more focused on fantasy and expression. Expression is the ability to customize the experience you will be embarking on, like skills, weapons, what class you start off with, physically and aesthetically customizing your character to fit your tastes, and what play style suits you best.

Fantasy is the ability to become something you otherwise couldn’t be; to step into the shoes of an individual that you could never actually become. For example, being a rock-n-roll god in Guitar Hero, a super soldier in Crysis, a god-slaying Spartan in God of War, or a free running, backstabbing assassin in Assassin’s Creed. I could make a massive list of games that fit inside WRPGs, but I’ll constrain and limit it to a few games. The Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Borderlands, World of Warcraft, and Fallout are great examples of WRPGs.

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An example of a WRPG, they focus on the aesthetics of fantasy and expression.

Image source: PCGamer

Now for their weaknesses, something that ExtraCredits didn’t mention in the discussion. I believe that their weakest point is their narrative. While WRPGs have a decent narrative, it lacks one aspect that the JRPG relied on most: drama. I’ll use an example that I know everyone reading this will remember; something that facilitates my point that narrative is the kryptonite of the WRPG: Final Fantasy VII. Obvious spoilers, though I think I’m safe in saying this since it’s a sixteen year-old game. Also, take VII drinks.

Remember the death of Aerith by the hands of Sephiroth? Remember how shocking it was when he plunged from above, death carrying on his one wing, and drove Masamune deep into her abdomen? I bet everyone reading has seen this or even played it themselves. To many people, and even some gaming publications, that one scene has gone down in gaming history as one of the most emotional and shocking moments in any video game. A challenge, if I may add. Give me one WRPG—you know what, any game in general—that has stimulated as many emotions and galvanizing reactions from one scene as Final Fantasy VII did. Just. One. I’ll leave it at that. Oh, and by the way, drink seven more times.

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The first time I watched this scene unfold, I was in tears. I was only ten years old when I played VII.

Image source: Wikipedia

Now that that’s out of the way, it’s time we answer the perpetual question: In spite of these games being completely different in what the audience desires out of them, why are WRPGs wiping the floor with JRPGs? Well… it’s because they’ve become irrelevant. As I mentioned earlier, most JRPGs kept the menu-based combat for the longest of times, and, unfortunately, the old school combat system has gone out of style like the disco craze. Menu/Turn-based combat became hackneyed by how irreconcilable their combat was compared to what the West was coming up with. The JRPG genre has gone about like trains in America as a means of transportation: they’ve become vestigial.

As nature would predict, technology would advance and other means of narrative began popping up, like voice acting. Suddenly, JRPGs were faced with competition, in a space they had previously owned unchallenged. Not only that, but WRPGs began adapting the leveling system and quests that made JRPGs so great. Suddenly, everything you could get in a JRPG, you could get everywhere else.

Meanwhile, while the East was still doing its thing, the West was playing around with the notion that a game must allow the player to customize the experience they want out of the game. And, in order to do so, they experimented with the combat to come up with unique and innovative concepts that expressed the player’s freedom of choice. For example, in Fallout 3, have you ever gone through the game only fighting in first person? Were your perks centered on the V.A.T.S. system, such as Grim Reaper and Concentrated Fire? Depending on what your answer is, the first person shooting wasn’t implemented to convey the same emotional tension that you’d expect in a shooter. The V.A.T.S. system made it very clear that you wouldn’t be spending most of your time fighting in first person.

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Which one looks more innovative and has had a lot of thought put into it?

Left image source: MatchStickEyes. Right image source: Camera2CanvasAustralia

Rather, it’s a stark contrast between the two play styles, which makes the individual perks that much more distinct, thereby further reinforcing the player’s sense of expression. This is something that JRPGs really lacked. They were just interactive movies with a role-playing mini game, in the same sense—in a more satirical way—that Team Fortress 2 is a hat simulator with an FPS mini game.

As a result of this evolving genre, Japanese developers thought up different ideas to create gameplay that was pertinent to the games of the West, while keeping what made the JRPG so great. Because of this shift in style, games that came out of the East end up being “Western” RPGs that just happen to be made in Japan, with a Japanese audience more in mind. You know, games like Dragon’s Dogma, King’s Field, and its torchbearers Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, Monster Hunter, Nier; I’d even contend that the upcoming Final Fantasy game (take a drink), Lightning Returns, and the recent Persona games have taken a great many influences from the Western style, because they focus on expression by allowing you to be the protagonist, as opposed to operating one.

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Don’t be fooled. This came out of Japan.

Image source: TheBearAndBadger

As much as I loved the JRPG genre, I was weighed down by the realization that the olden days of the JRPG would be crushed before my eyes. But something happened that changed the view of my old childhood memories, a revelation that took my love for the JRPG and flipped it over. Back in 2008, I decided to pop Final Fantasy V (drink V times) into the old, dusty Playstation once more to relive my childhood days. I decided to load up from an old save I had when I last played; the save was some time before the first encounter with Gilgamesh. But something odd happened that day, something I couldn’t initially explain.

It started with the narrative. It shook me on the inside. Something was wrong with the narration, like it was altered from an outside party. It felt like the moment-to-moment dialogue was just… gray. “Ugh”, I dispassionately grunt, “This is so dull. Eh, whatever. I can at least enjoy the gameplay.” It was a bad omen from the start that things were going downhill because then the next, and hardest, realization hit me.

I kept playing on, determined to get some satisfaction out of playing an old game from my collection. But it didn’t last. I just snapped at one point while playing, entirely unsure why I couldn’t play it. It was the strangest thing to happen to me in a long time. Why am I even playing this? I turned off the PlayStation without even considering for a second to save the game. And then it hit me like a baseball bat slugging a baseball: There was nothing fun about the JRPG.

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Gilgamesh, you may be my all time favorite character, but your game just doesn’t cut it for me.

Image source: Final Fantasy wikia

If the narration was extremely childish, and the combat was analogous, what was the point of enjoying something that caters to kids—especially considering that most, if not all, JRPGs are either A) E rated or B) T rated—when I could be enjoying something far more enjoyable and mature than a genre that is meant for the young and naïve? That’s when I really started to appreciate the newer Final Fantasy titles a lot more (drink), because they were trying to do something different, not only with the combat but also with the narration. Now, I’m not saying that I hate Final Fantasy because of what I said (drink); I still love the franchise, I just think that they just need to move on and, like Alex mentioned in his Mindshare, grow up and accept the new trends in gaming.

I talked about this on the tenth episode of the Com-Cast, but I loved Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2 equally. Why? Firstly, take twenty-eight drinks for XIII and XIII-2 combined. Secondly, but more seriously, because they did something different with the gameplay and narrative, as opposed to sticking exclusively to the old menu-based combat and making the narrative way too overdramatic.

I’m going to go on a short rant, but I know everyone is saying, “Ooh, why do you love a game that has been marred by the community?” That’s the thing. I don't mind linear games. I'm not some fussy fanboy who will only accept their own, very specific type of game that I'd expect a company to make. Sure, it wasn't very open, but the story was great in my opinion. I’d punctiliously explain how it is so, but that’s for another time. Then XIII-2 comes out and people bitch and moan about how TOO open it is and that they were making a sequel for a game that didn’t deserve to be made. See where I'm getting at here? The fans don't know what they want. It's because of THEM that Square Enix is on the brink of failure. So don't blame Square, blame the idiots persecuting them. And I’m sorry if that doesn’t fit your needs or standards, but all that bitching and crying that you expect from a ten year-old is going to get you nowhere, and it won’t help them make the game you want made.

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If you pay attention to the image above, you can get a great view of an everyday Final Fantasy “fan” moaning and contumely posting comments about why they want a Final Fantasy VII HD remake or the release of Versus XIII. These species are known as Inflexibilem auto-reflecteretur Capra.

Image source: Cotoznaczy

Now that my diatribe is over, as the title of this Mindshare astutely says, we have to talk about what it takes for the JRPG to become relevant again. All of these ideas are subjective, and are based on personal opinion, so you don’t have to agree with me on everything.

Firstly, they really need to focus on experimenting on the play-by-play combat, something that the West has been doing for so long. The major issue with the traditional JRPGs was that they never openly experimented on any new aspects of combat that had a shot at competing with the West on even grounds. JRPGs have been stuck in the past for long enough. It’s time for them to grow up and understand that the times have changed.

Second, make the worlds a bit more expansive. And by “a bit more”, I mean a metric shit-ton, like Skyrim sized. The player should be able to fully explore the world around them, while taking part in the story. That way, the player has multiple paths leading to the end, as opposed to going along a long, convenient pathway to the end boss. Many people in the gaming community say that games like Final Fantasy (take a drink), Mass Effect and Persona are open-world, but I’ve never bought into that. I always considered those games to be “guided exploration”, where you’re in an arena with multiple exits, with those exits leading to other arenas with exits leading to other arenas. Yes, you had side-quests you could embark on and had many ways to farm, but at the end of the day, you were on a linear path to the end of the game.

Third, they need less graphical fidelity and cutscenes, more drama and gameplay. I mean, come on now. It’s completely ridiculous, embarrassing even. I took the liberty of finding a video of every single cutscene in Final Fantasy XIII (take thirteen drinks) and tallying how many cutscenes, in general, was in it. I only watched about five and a half hours of the video before I said it was enough. Of those five hours watched, the video had a grand total of 19 CG cutscenes, 162 regular cutscenes, and 60 in-game cutscenes, totaling at 241 cutscenes. Yes, there’s more than that, but the data shown makes the message that much clearer. Japan, this has to stop. While I was completely blown away by how amazing the graphics were, and probably still hold up very well today, there’s no need to show us how awesome a game is by ramping the game’s graphical qualities to the max. Unless it’s Crysis, then it doesn’t matter.

And I know every ardent PC gamer is angrily pounding on their keyboards, declaring that graphics can make or break a game, but there’s a flaw with that thinking: They’re really not that important. Yes, a game can look pretty to add to the immersion, but that doesn’t make a game great; it’s the gameplay that matters, because these are video games, not video graphics. You could have a game with the worst graphics and it could have the greatest gameplay ever.

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This was the result of five hours, thirty minutes and twenty-seven seconds of my time tallying EVERY cutscene up to that point.

Speaking of gameplay and drama, we have the second half of the third point made, which is to add more gameplay and drama to the narration. As mentioned above, the role-playing aspects of JRPGs were very sterile, barren even. Yeah, you’re acquiring new abilities and upgrading your abilities, and then using those upgraded abilities in the next encounter, but that’s all it was. There was no depth, just upgrading or acquiring a new ability. It’s like Bioshock in that you aren’t really leveling up your character, but rather you’re upgrading your Plasmids/Tonics/physical characteristics. That’s not really leveling up now, is it?

There’s a reason why Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect have received so many high marks over the years. It’s because it combines the tense drama of the JRPG with the creative gameplay and role-playing mechanics you’d expect from a WRPG, without any of the drama feeling out of place or just flat out wacky. If JRPGs took a step back from their glamorous, ornate ivory tower for a while and decided to focus more on the narrative and gameplay, I can easily see the JRPG making a comeback in all this.

The fourth, and final thing that I personally believe the JRPG needs to do to be reborn anew is going to be extremely debatable, but I believe that they should try to focus on what made WRPGs so successful: focus on fantasy and expression, while retaining the narrative troth the JRPG promised from the beginning. This is going back to the Mass Effect discussion, but Bioware managed to give the player a bond with Shepard, without it seeming like you were operating him/her and your other party members—something that JRPGs did very well at the time to capture the drama of the group. I bet you were all devastated when your Shepard was obliterated during the Collector attack at the beginning of Mass Effect 2. I was.

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Mass Effect did a great job of balancing narrative and gameplay together.

Image source: Galeri

Just allowing the player to play as the character, rather than operating one, can impact how attached you are to the character you’re playing as, especially if the character in question is one that the player themselves can easily bond with. Giving you a sense of control, instead of playing god with three or four other characters, is an easy and effective way to get the player attached and engaged to the game, so why can’t JRPGs do the same?

With all that in mind, we should look at what games seem to be taking the initiative with these ideas, be it games already out or coming soon. Personally, two games come to mind, both of them I mentioned in this Mindshare. One of them has already been released, while the other is being released later this year. The first one that comes to mind is Xenoblade Chronicles. It does focus on expression by allowing you to play as a character with a sidekick tagging along to aid you in battle. What I really liked about Xenoblade Chronicles was how it was set in an open world environment, which really made exploring much more enriching to be free from the guided exploration that plagued the JRPG genre. While I enjoyed the game, I think it had too many knots on the JRPG leash of tropes, in that it didn’t really do much to experiment with the gameplay. It still felt like the traditional action-JRPG from the past, to be honest.

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Xenoblade would be the best competitor in the JRPG market, if not for…

Image source: Zero1Gaming

Now, the other game that appears to be doing this is actually a game I put on my list of “Most anticipated games of 2013” for the Com-Cast, and I really want to see more information of it—even though I already know so much about it from Famitsu and Gamasutra. Before I say what it is, though, I’ll let everyone get it out of the way. Drink thirteen times folks, because that game is Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been reading along, but I am so eager to see what Square does with Lightning Returns. I love innovation in any industry, but this one is standing up for itself for the JRPG genre. While I acknowledge that it was in development during XIII-2’s development, which means that it was probably in conceptual standby/development in either 2010 or 2011, I’m still interested to see what they have to offer. For one, it’s set in a massive world with different environments and themes for each major city in Nova Chrysalia—which floats in a sea of Chaos, a thick, black, miasmic substance that can manipulate anything it touches, from time, to the environment, to even insulating an individual’s biological ability to age (I know! I’m a lore buff, so get off my back, will ya?!)

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There’s a reason why Lightning Returns is up there in my list of “Most anticipated game of 2013”, and it’s not just the character Lightning.

Image source: NovaCrystallis

Moving away from the lore of Fabula Nova Crystallis before I make someone’s head explode, the gameplay is really the highlight of Lightning Returns. Remember how in most JRPGs, you were accompanied by a group of characters fighting alongside you? Well, in Lightning Returns, its just Lightning, no one else. Well, except for Hope feeding information to you via earpiece, but you get the point. I really loved Lightning’s character design, both aesthetically and personality wise.

The game focuses on expression by giving you only three “paradigms” that are meant to compound a wide variety of garbs meant to fill in those roles with exclusive abilities that exist throughout the whole continent. I love this aspect so much, because you aren’t playing God with a massive list of abilities at your disposal; you’re very limited by what you can use, and the fights focus on whether you’re using the right setup or not, as opposed to exploiting an enemies weakness by spamming the strongest version of Firaga or Double Meteor in your arsenal.

And those abilities mentioned earlier are now applicable to the face buttons—X, Square, ∆, O, A, B, X, and Y—while maintaining the old turn-based combat, which I find fascinating. In addition to that, you can now move while fighting, which seems to have been adapted from Xenoblade Chronicles, but that could be me speculation. Along with that, they’re reworking the Stagger system into being a literal “Stagger” system, which means that enemies are not only weak against a specific element, but are much more prone to being crippled from an attack on a specific point on their body, kind of like Fallout.

I’d explain more, but I’ve reached my limits, and they have certainly been exceeded. But, in truth, if a JRPG manages to combine the strengths of WRPGs and the strong narratives of their past, there is huge potential for a truly amazing game. Perhaps even, dare I say it, a groundbreaking one? Actually, the word “breaking” in groundbreaking is a bit of an understatement. How about “groundobliterating”?

I’ll sign off with a quote that ties all this together into a neat package. See you, Space Cowboys.

“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”

Mary Shelly, Frankenstein

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