Let me be clear before I start this post: I love JRPGs. I have been a fan ever since I was 7 and was completely baffled by Final Fantasy 1 at my grandparent's house. I was too young to really understand what was going on, but something about the roles each character played, the world exploration, and the fantastical monsters really grabbed my imagination. Also, the grindy aspects of a JRPG feed my complete and total video game addiction.
That being said, I also hate JRPGs with a passion that burns hotter than Valeria Golino's stomach in Hot Shots Part Deux (Obscure reference, I know, but I watched that movie last week). Quite a few of the things I dislike about them can be chalked up to cultural differences, in that being an american I am obviously stupid, fat, and not cosmopolitan enough to understand Japanese cultural tropes. Many of them, though, are complete and utter failings in the basic mechanics of JRPGs that have been around for a decade or more and refuse to go away.
1. The Dialogue - This has been a long running debate among many JRPG fans. Many people enjoy the awkward English, strange sentence structure, and poor word choice. Others, like me, truly hate the fact that localization teams haven't figure out, after almost 30 years, how to effectively translate Japanese stories into English without tons of inaccuracies, idiosyncrasies, and ridiculousness. It completely ruins my immersion when I hear or read a sentence that would NEVER exist in standard English conversations. Yes, there are Japanophiles that wouldn't have it any other way, but when I buy a game in English, I expect it to be in English. Periodically poor translations will result in absolute gems, like the ubiquitous "All your base," but I would give all those up to avoid the far more common quotes that just make me turn the game off in a rage, like this one:
To be fair, I think this exact sentence every time I see Jersey Shore. Is it plural or singular? I can't tell!
2. The Storytelling - Western RPGs are generally character driven stories about defeating a particular evil or saving someone dear to the main character. A great example of this is the original Dragon Age. You go from your origin story to becoming a Grey Warden who's goal is to unite the people of Ferelden, stop the Blight, kill the Archdemon, and dethrone the usurper Loghain. All easy to understand motivations, and the dialogue, story, and decisions your character makes all are generally logical within the universe of Dragon Age. The path your characters follow is focused, sensible, and always moves your forward. Even on side quests that have nothing to do with the main story, your motivations for completing that quest are clear. In contrast, Final Fantasy XIII's story is so muddled, with so many logical fallacies, stupid decisions, strange dialogue choices, and co
nclusions that are reached without and factual backing, that I constantly am forced to pause the game and walk away to give myself some time to get over the ridiculousness. For example, in an early part of the game, Sazh, Lightning, Hope, and Vanille are stranded in the Vile Peaks after their plane was shot down. Lightning decides to push on without her party members even though the logical course of action would be to stick together. The frightened, frequently tongue-tied Hope makes the decision to follow Lightning, even though Vanille has been his emotional rock and he has stuck by her side thus far. Until this point in the story, Hope has been frozen by fear and indecision, only able to push forward with the urging of Vanille. It's a small decision by the character, but when he goes against all precedents set for his character thus far, without any particular catalyst, it broke my immersion in the story. As they are leaving, Hope asks Lightning what they should do about Sazh and Vanille, to which she replies "They'll catch up eventually." They'll catch up? Really? A child and an old man will somehow find the stamina to move more quickly through the wasteland than an experienced, in shape soldier and a boy who's too scared to let himself fall behind? Again, it's small and mostly inconsequential, but it makes no sense and bugged me. Almost every JRPG story is laced with these types of logical fallacies and leaps of faith, which says to me that the writers are simply lazy and force their characters into the story they want to tell, instead of writing a story in which motivations and decisions make sense.
JRPG stories are often high concept, philosophical tales that beat you over the head with morality, questions about theology, and often examine governmental and corporate corruption. In examining all these high concepts, the game developers often forget to infuse their characters with personality and give them believable motivations. Mostly the story starts with someone being kidnapped/disappearing, and then in the process of saving that person the main character ends up saving the world for some reason, without a whole lot of plot connecting the two.
3. The Characters - Before I get into this, let me say that there are so many memorable, awesome characters from JRPGs that I kind of feel bad writing this section. Robo from Chrono Trigger, Cloud from FF7, Geno from Super Mario RPG, Yuri from Tales of Symphonia, are just a few of my favorites. That being said, characters in JRPGs are generally terrible, annoying, and mostly forgettable. I hate to pick on Final Fantasy XIII, but it is the JRPG I played most recently, so I will. Hope drove me nuts. He was the most unlikable, obnoxious character in recent memory. He harbored an unreasonable rage for Snow for killing his mother, even though he was there for every event that lead to his mother's death. He watched his mom volunteer. I repeat, VOLUNTEER, to help fight off PSICOM soldiers. He watched Snow try to save her, watched Snow fight to save her while hanging from a precipice, watched him yell in anguish as she fell to her death, and then watched Snow fall himself, even after she forced Snow to let her go. Hope watched Snow's utterly selfless attempt to save his mom, and yet blamed him for his death. It was an illogical, unbelievable motivation. Even someone as young as Hope could figure out that Snow made every attempt to save her, and would realize at some point that she volunteered instead of being coerced into service.
The mention of Hope's age leads me to another point about JRPG characters: why do they all have to be children? From Secret of Mana to Legend of Heroes to every Final Fantasy EVER, your main character is generally a fifteen to nineteen year old guy. Having recently been a fifteen to nineteen year old, and by all accounts a guy, I can say that people that age are not physically, mentally, or emotionally prepared for any of the burdens they endure in these games. What is the Japanese fascination with the child hero? Every time I play a fifteen year old that has no qualms murdering hundreds of beasts, making decisions that will affect the entire world, and having a pretty serious romance with another fifteen year old, I'm completely taken out of the game. I just sit there and ponder how this high school sophomore has enough worldly experience to decide the fate of the world, and everyone around him doesn't stop and say "Wait a second, why are we letting children do this for us?." On top of almost always being too young to be believable, these characters are most often androgynous guys with feathered, multicolored hair and excessive belts and buckles. I really don't understand the obsession with buckles. I don't agree with the hyper manliness of, say, Marcus Fenix from Gears of War either, but at least give me a strong, decisive, masculine character. This is a perfect example of a character I can believe would be part of a campaign to save the world:
as opposed to this:
By far the worst development in JRPGs is the recent advent of voice acted characters. For some reason JRPGs have a propensity to make their characters overly emotive. They voice every sigh, moan, groan, and noise of wonderment. The thousandth time Vanille made a "oh? oh. ohhhhhhhhhh." noise at something that happened in the game, I threw my controller through the window and smashed my PS3 with a sledgehammer. Not really, but I definitely had daydreams about doing that. The melodramatic emoting just destroys any tension in the scene and all investment in the characters. Characters in a JRPG emote like characters in a daytime soap, as opposed to good entertainment like Breaking Bad, in which the characters react and emote to the current situation in surprising and realistic ways. Instead of letting the player get invested in the characters and think about their emotions and motives, the JRPG writer basically takes every scene and turns it into a reddit "explain this to me like I am a 5 year old" post.
The last point I will make about characters in JRPGs is less about characters and more about differences in storytelling between east and west. In a JRPG, the idea of comic relief is most often embodied by ridiculous characters or enemies like karaoke robots in Chrono Trigger or cactrots in Final Fantasy games. JRPGs depend on their characters breaking out into stupid dances, saying something out of character, or breaking the fourth wall for a little bit of comedy. Again, this immediately breaks immersion for me. Comic relief in a game was perfectly done in Portal 2. Wheatley was the funniest, most interesting character in any game I've played ever, and even GLaDOS had her moments. It should be built into the story, and not shoe-horned in with some ridiculous moment that breaks immersion in the story.
There's so much more I could cover about the characters, their personalities, and character designs, but this post is already tl;dr so I will just end it by saying this: Japanese character design seems to be like someone wildly throwing darts at a board as hard as they can. That person hopes that they hit a bullseye, and every once in a while buries that dart so far in the center of the board that he will have a story to tell for years, but most often it ends with the dart hitting the wall, bouncing off, and hitting an innocent bystander in the eye.
This is my first entry in a series of posts about why I hate JRPGs. I will be covering many other reasons that I hate these games in the future.