Growing 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.
Really, 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!