Skyrim, Mass Effect, and Fable are all modern day RPGs that are loved by millions and millions of people. Another thing to keep in mind is where they are made: the United States, Canada and England, respectively. These are what would be defined as “Western” RPGs and in each of these games, the point is immersion. These all have various commonalities between them such as being able to make your character’s appearance customizable and being more action game than RPG. However they are what they are which are great games, but, at least for me, I have hit a saturation point.
I recently finished a game much different from any of these, Final Fantasy XIII. Final Fantasy games have been on my game resumé for quite some time now, and FFXIII is an interesting one. The game has been mercilessly bashed for its extreme linearity and, at times, its story as well. Unlike Final Fantasy XII which was very open ended, Square Enix went in the complete opposite direction here. Story was key for FFXIII which is why so much of it was going from point A to B with little deviation in where the player could go. While the enemies were underdeveloped and there was no memorable major evil in the game, the relationships between the characters in your party are what counted.
These are trappings of a traditional Japanese RPG. The player has a party of characters that they take into battles that are (usually) turn-based in which commands given to characters are carried out. This is a much different style than the games mentioned earlier. Sure in Skyrim you can have a companion and in Mass Effect you can decide two characters to come with you but even with that, the characters just feel like they never truly bond with each other.
Also, especially with the Final Fantasy, their main characters are iconic. Cloud, Tidus, Terra, Cecil, Squall; all of these characters are who the player controlled and were integral to the story. Western RPGs with their blank slate protagonists never feel like they’re in the story, but just bystanders.
JRPGs used to be the quintessential RPG experience. Final Fantasy VII is always among discussions not only for best RPG but for best game ever, so why is it that JRPGs have gone from being commonplace on the last generation to almost non-existent now?
Western RPGs are the answer. This console generation has seen the dramatic rise of Western RPG development, something that might not necessarily have been expected. This was only compounded by the weak offerings that were available for the current generation of systems early in their life cycle. Examples like Blue Dragon, Enchanted Arms, and Infinite Undiscovery jump to my mind and, the even more confusing part is how they turned out how they did with who their developers are. Infinite Undiscovery was developed by tri-Ace Inc. who is responsible for the Star Ocean and Valkyrie Profile franchises. Enchanted Arms was developed by From Software who developed Chromehounds and the critically acclaimed Souls series (Demon Souls and Dark Souls). Lastly is Blue Dragon who was developed by Mistwalker Corporation who was founded by the creator of the Final Fantasy series! What is going on?
JRPGs had been sitting above the rest for so long that the developers who were making them became complacent. After such games as Final Fantasy X, Final Fantasy XII, the Persona series and the Kingdom Hearts series, it seemed like Japan could do no wrong. Unfortunately for them, Bioware and Bethesda, who had already made some great RPGs for the PC, entered the console market and took over. JRPG developers have seemed confused as to how to catch up.
There is an easy solution of what not to do: do not try to mimic Western RPGs. Was there JRPG fatigue toward the end of the last console genre? Possibly, but I’m quickly becoming tired of Western RPGs. I forced myself to play my character in Skyrim for three more hours the other day over break because I know that it is a game that I’m supposed to like, but I could only handle two hours. The thing is is that I could not get enough of Oblivion. I put so many hours into that and it never got old.
The combat system in Oblivion was first person melee/ranged/magic combat. This real time action-oriented combat has caught on and now the majority of RPGs utilize that style. Traditionally JRPGs incorporate turn-based combat with each character waiting to perform the action that was input by the player until it is their turn. I’ve heard many gamers complain that this is a boring and tedious style. Well yes it is a boring and tedious style to the stereotypical preteen boy who yells profanities and racial slurs while shooting people in the face every few seconds in Call of Duty. It’s true, in order to play a JRPG one must have an attention span. There is no problem with turn-based combat, and at times it is more exciting than combat found in Mass Effect or Skyrim. Using FFXIII as an example, the strategy of layering buffs on the party, debuffs on the enemy, changing one character to a class that will distract the enemy while the rest of the party heals up, all while constantly having to switch the roles of your party members is much more fun than any combat I’ve experienced in Western RPGs. Don’t even get me started on my love for the Legend of Dragoon combat system…and everything else about that game.
Also it seems as if Western RPG developers are hesitant about how to incorporate the classic RPG aspects into a game. The immediate example that comes to mind is the changes from Mass Effect to Mass Effect 2. Gone was the massive inventory with armor, weapon and tech modifications and in was several set upgrades and no loot. The amount of bionic powers was significantly cut down and were distributed to specific characters. Just as an example, the soldier class in ME had 12 different skills that could be leveled up with talent points. In ME2 it has half as many. Western RPGs are becoming more and more about action and less about the traditional aspects of RPGs. While I can easily acknowledge that ME2 is a smoother and better developed game, I’ve always enjoyed the original more and have been called crazy for it! Fallout 3 is another example. The thing everyone loved about developer Bethesda’s post-apocalyptic game was the snarky and dark humor of characters that the player came across. So naturally what is the first piece of DLC? Operation Anchorage holds that honor, an honor which was several hours of almost pure combat and sparse dialogue. Sure the VATS system was a fun gimmick for a while, but the game was not fun as a shooter. Yes there is under the hood dice rolling that is going on behind the scenes to determine whether or not your hits land harkening back to tabletop RPG days, but those are not what this is about. This combat heavy focus is now commonplace in RPGs which, for better or worse, seems to be here to stay for a while.
However Square Enix seems to be going back to their roots with Final Fantasy XIII-2. Being able to talk to NPCs and much more openness to the environments are a couple things that they are employing to try and fix the issues that gamers had with the original. This game is the key to the future of JRPGs. FFXIII-2 marks the first time that Square Enix has listened to its consumers and employed changes in a game. This is what needs to happen and what Japan has lacked for a long time. They may have felt like they knew how to easily make a game that their fans wanted, but times have changed and listening to feedback is going to be the crux as to whether or not JRPGs return to their place upon the RPG throne or slowly fade into the background.