Can the JRPG be Fixed?

July 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

It’s no secret that the Japanese Role Playing game, once the provider of some of the deepest gaming experiences around is currently going through a period of stagnation. Like the rest of the Japanese industry – aside perhaps from the looming Nintendo – the JRPG is facing a very quiet and yet very real crisis, trying to broaden its appeal with western gamers whilst retaining what made the genre great in the first place.

There are naturally still games in the genre that are continuing to do well critically as well as commercially. Dragon Quest IX was recently released to a fanfare of praise, even from gamers who’ll admit to never having played a Dragon Quest game before. Persona 4 also found great success recently, with its unique setting and art style that really helped to set it apart from the crowd. Final Fantasy meanwhile, once the king of the hill, fell into something of a critical rut with its thirteenth iteration. It may have sold well, but notable critics such as EDGE Magazine and Giant Bomb’s Brad Shoemaker panned the game for its insufferable hand-holding and lack of innovation.

Most criticisms of Final Fantasy XIII revolved around its length.

When considering how a genre can be reinvented, it’s always very important to keep what made it great to start off with. Storylines and battles of an epic scope have always appealed to the hardcore JRPG fans, and as such it would be wise to keep these features intact when trying to broaden the appeal of the genre. Likewise the emphasis on loot collection and equipping characters with the best possible gear is something that’s made those 100 plus hour saves in Final Fantasy X something to be proud, rather than ashamed, of.

Finally – and I realise this may be a controversial choice here – turn-based battles should remain a part of the JRPG formula. Sure, it may be annoying to have all your battles take place in a completely separate arena in the main game, and many may find it irritating to not have full control of the movement of your characters, but by taking movement control away from the player, a game’s animators can really go to town creating elaborate attacks and moves for your party members. The presence of menus is also a very useful tool to have in battle, without it you’re having to rely on only as many actions as your controller has buttons to perform.

Persona 3 broke new ground in many regards.

With these crucial features ring-fenced, let’s move on to what’s holding the Japanese Role Playing Game back – the problem of assumed knowledge. There’s just too much in these games that the player is expected to work out, with often little to no explanation. Character stats are a prime example of this; I couldn’t begin to explain to you what my character’s ‘Endurance’ or ‘Luck’ ratings do for them in Persona 3, and I’ve been playing that game for fifteen hours now. I just about understand the stats of attack and defense, but beyond that it’s just guesswork, and guesswork does not a fun game make.

A common method of trying to get all this information across is to include a character or shopkeeper with an encyclopedic knowledge of the game’s battle system. Theoretically the player then has access to all the information they could possibly want on character stats, weapon types, status ailments, and elemental attacks, but in practise these walls of text are uninviting, boring, and don’t deliver the information in a way you’re likely to remember for long.

Other genres have managed to work out how to explain their often complex mechanics to the player. Rather than bombarding the player with information from the outset, most games will wait until a relevant moment before explaining in as few words as possible what’s just happened. A JRPG could likewise wait until the player gets poisoned for the first time before having a character describe what being poisoned entails. Descriptions like this could ease new players in to a complex system, without the need for dumbing it down to appeal to the lowest common denominator. As always, players should have the ability to turn off these tutorial snippets, to avoid alienating the RPG literate. 

Many modern JRPGs really haven’t moved on much from the days of the SNES when you strip away their graphics.

As previously mentioned, a large part of the appeal of the genre comes from their huge storylines, often involving dozens of characters, and a plot that’s global in scope. Whilst these kinds of plots were once fresh and exciting, it’s hard to feel they’ve really moved on much in recent years. Yarns spun around the search for magical crystals or the quest to stop someone’s attempt to take over the world simply don’t cut it in today’s landscape of conspiracy and intrigue.

The same could also be said for the genre’s over reliance on cutscenes as a means to deliver its story. Final Fantasy XII’s story managed to break new ground in the genre by telling the story of a small nation trapped between warring superpowers, but its delivery method was frankly ancient, compartmentalising the game’s story and gameplay sequences into completely separate boxes. If we were to over-simplify the issue, we could claim the world needs to be struck by the Bioshock of JRPGs.

Finally, there’s the length issue to address. ‘Vanilla’ role playing games have, are, and probably always will be, long. This is especially true in role playing games of the Japanese variety, which manage to be long in an entirely different way to Western games. Whilst a player’s fifty hours spent with Fallout 3 likely saw them spending huge amounts of time exploring the game’s world, the same cannot be said for your average Final Fantasy save, made up of hours ‘grinding’ (running around the same areas fighting monsters purely to increase your own characters’ skill levels) as well as the inevitable slow start inherent with nearly every game in the genre.

Dragon Quest 9 is unlike any other game in the series, but this has lead to glowing reviews from the press.

Game length is not in itself a bad thing. Despite rumblings to the contrary, many gamers are still very happy to play a game for upwards of twenty hours. What is a bad thing is poor pacing and time that is for all intents and purposes ‘wasted’. Sitting through the opening hours of a game without getting to play anything is neither fun, nor does it serve any greater purpose. Likewise, having to fight the same monsters over and over again can very easily sour the best of games. Include these things if you must, but please have the courtesy to shield us ‘casual’ RPG fans from them.

The Japanese Role Playing game is a fantastic genre that more people should play. It has the potential to deliver the greatest storylines and battle systems in gaming, which is why it’s such a shame seeing this squandered on what are in many cases the same as what we were playing back in the nineties. A revolution is due, because this one won’t be going quietly.


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