Where Have All the JRPG’s Gone?

lost-odysseyGrowing up, gaming was all the same thing to me. Things were either platformers, brawlers/shoot-em-ups, or fighters. That’s all that gaming fell into, and I was happy with it for a time. But then something magical happened. I played a Japanese RPG, and my world changed. I didn’t know that gaming could tell a story. I had no idea up until that point that I could care about a game’s characters or miss them when I had read the last bit of text. It was truly an eye-opening experience.

Since then, I have played a lot of JRPG’s. Probably too many, to be honest. In college, I remember I would rent anything that looked remotely like a JRPG, and played it until my eyes bled. I loved the concepts, the stories, and I really liked being able to level some guys up and fight through hordes of baddies. It was all extremely appealing to me. However, somewhere along the line, things have taken a drastic turn southward in JRPG-land.

So what makes a Japanese RPG like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest so different than a Western RPG like Mass Effect or Fallout 3? Apart from the geographical location of the development, the main difference is one in design. Whereas Western RPG’s tend to allow players freedom of movement and seemingly unlimited options, JRPG’s have a more narrowly focused story, force you to follow a particular path and place lots of emphasis on grinding out to new levels.

Both of these have their own merits, but sometimes, Western RPG’s almost give me too many options, personally. I like starting a game and rocketing along towards an epic conclusion, without being allowed to run anywhere and do everything. In some ways, it’s almost comforting to know that I only have a few options, mainly because I enjoy stories and dialogue so much. Beyond that, JRPG’s usually have bigger and more vibrant locales, as well as unique characters and grandiose plots. Recently, more Western RPG’s are more developed on this end of the spectrum, but for many years, JRPG’s took the cake. However, things change.

ff12Really, I can’t think of a truly great Japanese role-playing game since Final Fantasy XII. I hear that Persona is great, but it’s on the PS2, and Valkyria Chronicles is more of a strategy role-player than a true game in that genre. Where have all the great ones gone? They certainly can not be found in this generation, as far as I know. Games like Eternal Sonata and Tales of Vesperia are reportedly decent, but nowhere near elite. I’m talking about the games of old, the Suikodens and the Tales of Symphonias, or the Final Fantasy VI and VII’s of generations past.

Unfortunately, JRPG’s have become stagnant in their conception and stale in their delivery. Each story is mostly the same, and the characters are carbon copies of Final Fantasy games. And not even the good ones. For every new JRPG that is announced, I grow less and less hopeful that I’ll play something good this generation. I’m not trying to be a downer, but we can only wait so long for Final Fantasy XIII while everything else stays mediocre and “blah”. Meanwhile, Western RPG’s continue to grow in popularity and in number. So what can JRPG developers do to compete?

Get new stories. This is key. We can only take so much of the young angsty hero that is on a quest against the empire. Or a young rogue that gets caught up in a story bigger than himself while protecting a young lass, who usually turns out to be a princess. I get it. I’ve played those games. And they were better on older consoles.

Get new characters. Mix it up a little. Does my dude have to have a bunch of clothes made entirely out of leather straps and belt buckles? Find some new designs, find some new personalities, just find something new. What about a handicapped main character? Or someone from a noble and wealthy family? What about playing as one of the bad guys? Any of these could provide great role-playing opportunities.

Get off the rails. While I’ve always enjoyed linear stories in JRPG’s, the times they are-a-changin’. Clearly, gamers want more choice, and they love being able to dictate the story on their own terms. JRPG developers tend to make big beautiful worlds that I don’t ever get to see, so let me go exploring on this adventure, and I just might have a little more fun.

So, what do you guys think about the current state of JRPG’s? Do you agree that this generation could use some better ones? Sound off!

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I write about samurai girls and space marines. Writer for Smooth Few Films. Rooster Teeth Freelancer. Author of Red vs. Blue, The Ultimate Fan Guide, out NOW!

10 thoughts on “Where Have All the JRPG’s Gone?”

  1. This generation definitely needs more JRPGs – some (most) of my favorite games from my childhood were from Japan. Unfortunately, it’s probably not economically feasible to bring too many of these games over to the US right now, considering that they usually don’t sell too hot. Maybe following in the footsteps of Virtual On and bringing them to XBL and PSN is the best option.

  2. I need something new, too. FF is my favorite series and it is still amazing every time, but I really would like to see the other guys step up their game.

    Angsty heroes are old and done.

  3. Great article. I agree with you that these Western RPG type games give you too much freedom; I’m also one who plays for the story and characters. But I have found in Fallout 3 that often if you go off the beaten path, you can find some really great sidestories that often tie into other characters, not just meaingless quests for a little bit of XP or items.

    Not always the case, but its awesome when it is. And I agree with you wox, about bringing the games over might be expensive. But this is why I think STEAM is great, if they could get content that’s difficult(or impossible) to find here, they would solidify their rightful role as ContentGods

  4. The last JRPG I played was probably FFX or X-2 (I can’t remember which one I finished first) and I played Oblivion and, WOW. The west has really got the whole idea (in my opinion) on how to spice things up a bit. Really I haven’t been interested in the slightest on JRPGs recently. Also, I like the whole too much choice at the beginning and being overwhelemed with a ridiculous amount of choice. Oblivion blew me away. I couldn’t decide what to do first! Then I built up a small fortune and levels and then took on the main quest at my own pace. Not being hurried along doing the same thing over and over again. Oblivion and Fallout give me so much variety that they’re hard to fault. FFX was great though. I loved it.

  5. i cared for the characters of the monkey island series even though it’s not a JRPG but i found myself saying things not to hurt them…..the first time anyway!

  6. You’ve pretty much nailed it: JRPG’s need to EVOLVE. Maybe Japanese developers are too afraid to have such a creative plot as “play as the villain”, but honestly I doubt it. Eventually, someone will create the next big RPG that is like a new Final Fantasy, but without all that empire and young annoying city kid or silent angsty kid. I think that it’s a matter of time.

    I actually had an idea for an RPG that I created a couple of months ago. The working title is “Mind’s Eye”, and you play as a paralyzed man with amnesia. You begin in the hospital, can’t remember who you are, and slowly you recollect what happened to you and rediscover family, locations, and other stuff. The cool thing is that you can…interact with people’s minds. At certain points in the game, the screen might flash with a color, small ambient objects might reflect a certain symbol, and this would prompt the player to press a corresponding button (i.e. The screen flashes blue and X’s appear, so the player would press X.) This would trigger the Mind Sequence, where you might read the person’s mind, enter their dreams, have a vision, or something else. I want to begin the game and introduce it as a rather straightforward and innocent setting, but then slowly reveal the character’s thoughts, emotions, and what happened to him. He is permanently paralyzed in both his legs, by the way, so he needs a certain character to push his wheelchair for him. It makes the player always feel vulnerable and dependent, even though they have this incredible ability. I think it would be an intriguing and truly unique thriller that delves into questions about the human condition, philosophy, and such.
    So maybe it isn’t a conventional RPG where you have stats and such, it’ll be more of an Adventure game. But as you progress in the game and use your Mind’s Eye Ability more, your skills will become more advanced in terms of using the Mind’s Eye Ability and doing things whilst inside the person’s mind.
    I have some working titles I’m throwing around, my favorite being “Mind’s Eye”, “Pyshce”, and “Trapped in a Cage”. “Mind’s Eye” has to do with his ability, “Psyche” just sounds cool, and “Trapped in a Cage” refers to the main character being paralyzed.

  7. I love the potential Cossack. Having a main character who is incredibly adept mentaly, but always depends on someone physicaly is a great concept; says a lot about the true heros today.

    Most of our genious is squished into conformity and the intelligence is lost in what *most* people deem “important”. Maybe our generation will change things; if we can recruit enough people to the right side…


  8. Have to say Cossack that that is a kickass idea. would need a very compelling plot though. I think a game like the movie frequency would be interesting, playing both in the past and present.
    I personally never played a “good” jrpg but those random battles in dragon warrior pissed me off. Maybe if it was like in kotor were you walked up to the enemies and could see them coming. oh and i can’t stand the combat in most jrpg’s they should evolve away from the turn-based combat that takes forever.
    rant over

  9. I have never been to big of a fan of JRPGs. I did like Final Fantasy, but the stories are all the same, whinny teen saves the world, or the noble rouge.
    I also hated the level grinding, I mean sometimes it was just to boring.

  10. Suikoden..oh man. That game. Well, Persona is definitely awesome, thought strangely childish in a way that I am too entirely sure how to describe. I’m messing around in Baten Kaitos: Origins now. Though, it’s exactly how you say Eddy. A boy gets caught up in something bigger than himself: goes off to fight the empire. Though I have to say, the intergration of the Umbras/Wings Of The Heart/Underworld/etc. and the presentation/unfolding of the story makes this game just short of awesome, sans the ever present card system, of course. Along the lines of Cossack, I also have an RPG storyline that I thought up a while back. I also have another one now, thanks to cossack. I’m thinking that it could have a main character along the lines of Heroes Sylar, who has the ability to transform and meld with his world and the people in his world, kind of like Sylar’s shapeshifting, except he’s not evil. He just wants to create a persona for himself, and he ends up building up (or losing parts of) himself by intergrating himself with other people’s bodies/minds. Another story I was thinking of, and that I have partly written out, is a story that I based on the idea of FFTA/Baten Kaitos: Origins, suddenly being transported to a magical world (or at least, a world different from the real world). That’s all I’m going to say about it, but it’s a pretty epic and heartfelt story, mainly about identity and the things one finds important in life. Level grinding is fun in a way in RPG’s, but it’s also fustrating. A better system would be one like the Artifact system in FFCC, where you found items that you got to keep permanently to raise stats/gain abilities. Leveling would still have a purpose (strengthening techniques) but for basic stats, leveling is a chore.

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