What would make me go gaga for the JRPG again?

It's been a long time since I've enjoyed a JRPG on consoles.  While I love the great games to be found on the DS and the PSP, my real wish for the genre is to see it return to form on the console.  With the exception of the lone game like Disgaea 3 here and there, the traditional turn-based RPG is a rarity in today's market.  There's something ironic in the fact that as the Japanese push more and more towards Westernized themes and ideas in their games that they lose what made their games spectacular in the first place.  I've been playing Japanese roleplaying games extensively since Final Fantasy VII, Wild Arms, and Suikoden became my bread and butter on the PS1.  By no means does that make me an expert, but as a fan of the genre who has gone back to play games such as Final Fantasy III and IV, Chrono Trigger, and a myriad of older SNES and NES RPG's, I think I can safely say I know what makes a JRPG fun to me. 
 
So here's what I want to see in future RPG's, be it a classic design or something innovative.  Note that when I refer to RPG's at this point, I am referring to JRPG's and not Western RPG's, which are going to make for a completely different blog post somewhere down the line.  Don't take it to mean that I prefer one over the other.  Please, as always, feel free to share your own thoughts or call me bad names. 
 
I know the classic turn-based combat model is going the way of the dinosaur, and it sort of makes me a little sad.  We've seen gameplay innovations both good and bad over the last seven to eight years of JRPG's, including a focus both on trying to improve traditional turn-based RPG's (Final Fantasy XIII) as well as action-RPG's (Tales of Vesperia/Symphonia, Rogue Galaxy, etc.)  There are a few holdouts and classic throwbacks, such as Dragon Quest VIII and IX, Disgaea, and Persona 4.
 
In terms of how much I enjoy RPG's, the classic turn-based RPG is a staple.  I think the high point of this particular sub-genre would almost have to be Final Fantasy X.  What makes it so particularly good is that it managed to meld the best of the classic Final Fantasy elements with a new look and feel.  It made it easy to introduce new players, while still retaining enough of the old to keep long-time Final Fantasy gamers happy.  The combat system and exploration were particularly noteworthy.  Final Fantasy X's combat was manageable, mostly due to the fact that the player was never overwhelmed by the speed of the opponent blitzing them as they made a crucial decision.  It definitely felt a lot faster than prior entries, but it still managed to keep a sense of chess-like maneuverability and methodical pacing, if the player so chose.  And perhaps most importantly, the combat felt rewarding, especially in regards to its highly customizable (yet accessible) leveling grid, where players could choose from several types of upgrades for characters. 
 
Later, Final Fantasy XIII would try to further this game's combat by melding it with elements from Final Fantasy XII (I'll discuss that game in a minute), and try to make it both breakneck and far more difficult.  Unfortunately, it would ultimately fall short in that regard, mostly because it didn't properly implement the action-centered Westernization so many Japanese developers are trying for.  By making the game's combat and exploration go at a breakneck speed for the first twenty or so hours, the game lost its way as a Final Fantasy game and became a poor man's imiatation of both prior entries to the series and as a Westernized action RPG. 
  
Other turn-based games have lost some flavor as well by trying to appeal to a mass market.  Suikoden Terkreis is a fine example of an essentially good game made slightly worse by comparing it to its brethren.  It dumbed down the castle building aspect, the magic system, ditched its mini-game elements, and became just another turn-based RPG.  It kept the bulk of the series' best elements, however, like the 108 recruitable characters, the simple-yet-addictive combat system, and a sprawling world.  It's just too bad the Japanese publisher felt the need to dumb down the game to such a degree. 
 
Now, in terms of action RPG's, we've seen some great strides forward.  Games like Tales of Vesperia and Star Ocean have become standard bearers for JRPG combat and exploration.  There is just an absurd amount of stuff to do, find, win, craft, and beat the crap out of, and I love every second of that.  True, I'm not the biggest fan of their stories or characters, but at the end of the day, the backbone of the action RPG as defined by those two games in particular is fantastic.  And with games like Rogue Galaxy, Dark Cloud, and Final Fantasy XII, we saw some real innovations in blending genres and introducing new ideas.  It's a shame we don't see more games like those, or even sequels in very similar veins.  If Japanese developers can create an action-RPG with those elements as well as the story and lovable characters of a franchise like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, they will have gold mines in IP's.  
 
What's disappointing to me is that it feels like Japanese developers are almost half-assing it throughout this generation and ballyhooing the West for the downfall of the once mighty JRPG.  Games like Blue Dragon, The Last Remnant, Infinite Undiscovery, and the godawful-yet-great Enchanted Arms all scream "phoning it in," but we haven't seen the kind of development efforts put into RPG's from the last generation.  And that's really what's going to make or break the next five years of the genre - if we see developers like Atlus and Square put forth real effort into reintroducing the JRPG to Western audiences on their terms with the elements that made their games classics to begin with, then we'll see a turnaround like we've seen with the adventure genre.  But if developers and publishers continue to produce half-baked shovelware and push it to the West hoping we'll gobble it up, well... their sales figures will speak for themselves.

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Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

It's been a long time since I've enjoyed a JRPG on consoles.  While I love the great games to be found on the DS and the PSP, my real wish for the genre is to see it return to form on the console.  With the exception of the lone game like Disgaea 3 here and there, the traditional turn-based RPG is a rarity in today's market.  There's something ironic in the fact that as the Japanese push more and more towards Westernized themes and ideas in their games that they lose what made their games spectacular in the first place.  I've been playing Japanese roleplaying games extensively since Final Fantasy VII, Wild Arms, and Suikoden became my bread and butter on the PS1.  By no means does that make me an expert, but as a fan of the genre who has gone back to play games such as Final Fantasy III and IV, Chrono Trigger, and a myriad of older SNES and NES RPG's, I think I can safely say I know what makes a JRPG fun to me. 
 
So here's what I want to see in future RPG's, be it a classic design or something innovative.  Note that when I refer to RPG's at this point, I am referring to JRPG's and not Western RPG's, which are going to make for a completely different blog post somewhere down the line.  Don't take it to mean that I prefer one over the other.  Please, as always, feel free to share your own thoughts or call me bad names. 
 
I know the classic turn-based combat model is going the way of the dinosaur, and it sort of makes me a little sad.  We've seen gameplay innovations both good and bad over the last seven to eight years of JRPG's, including a focus both on trying to improve traditional turn-based RPG's (Final Fantasy XIII) as well as action-RPG's (Tales of Vesperia/Symphonia, Rogue Galaxy, etc.)  There are a few holdouts and classic throwbacks, such as Dragon Quest VIII and IX, Disgaea, and Persona 4.
 
In terms of how much I enjoy RPG's, the classic turn-based RPG is a staple.  I think the high point of this particular sub-genre would almost have to be Final Fantasy X.  What makes it so particularly good is that it managed to meld the best of the classic Final Fantasy elements with a new look and feel.  It made it easy to introduce new players, while still retaining enough of the old to keep long-time Final Fantasy gamers happy.  The combat system and exploration were particularly noteworthy.  Final Fantasy X's combat was manageable, mostly due to the fact that the player was never overwhelmed by the speed of the opponent blitzing them as they made a crucial decision.  It definitely felt a lot faster than prior entries, but it still managed to keep a sense of chess-like maneuverability and methodical pacing, if the player so chose.  And perhaps most importantly, the combat felt rewarding, especially in regards to its highly customizable (yet accessible) leveling grid, where players could choose from several types of upgrades for characters. 
 
Later, Final Fantasy XIII would try to further this game's combat by melding it with elements from Final Fantasy XII (I'll discuss that game in a minute), and try to make it both breakneck and far more difficult.  Unfortunately, it would ultimately fall short in that regard, mostly because it didn't properly implement the action-centered Westernization so many Japanese developers are trying for.  By making the game's combat and exploration go at a breakneck speed for the first twenty or so hours, the game lost its way as a Final Fantasy game and became a poor man's imiatation of both prior entries to the series and as a Westernized action RPG. 
  
Other turn-based games have lost some flavor as well by trying to appeal to a mass market.  Suikoden Terkreis is a fine example of an essentially good game made slightly worse by comparing it to its brethren.  It dumbed down the castle building aspect, the magic system, ditched its mini-game elements, and became just another turn-based RPG.  It kept the bulk of the series' best elements, however, like the 108 recruitable characters, the simple-yet-addictive combat system, and a sprawling world.  It's just too bad the Japanese publisher felt the need to dumb down the game to such a degree. 
 
Now, in terms of action RPG's, we've seen some great strides forward.  Games like Tales of Vesperia and Star Ocean have become standard bearers for JRPG combat and exploration.  There is just an absurd amount of stuff to do, find, win, craft, and beat the crap out of, and I love every second of that.  True, I'm not the biggest fan of their stories or characters, but at the end of the day, the backbone of the action RPG as defined by those two games in particular is fantastic.  And with games like Rogue Galaxy, Dark Cloud, and Final Fantasy XII, we saw some real innovations in blending genres and introducing new ideas.  It's a shame we don't see more games like those, or even sequels in very similar veins.  If Japanese developers can create an action-RPG with those elements as well as the story and lovable characters of a franchise like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, they will have gold mines in IP's.  
 
What's disappointing to me is that it feels like Japanese developers are almost half-assing it throughout this generation and ballyhooing the West for the downfall of the once mighty JRPG.  Games like Blue Dragon, The Last Remnant, Infinite Undiscovery, and the godawful-yet-great Enchanted Arms all scream "phoning it in," but we haven't seen the kind of development efforts put into RPG's from the last generation.  And that's really what's going to make or break the next five years of the genre - if we see developers like Atlus and Square put forth real effort into reintroducing the JRPG to Western audiences on their terms with the elements that made their games classics to begin with, then we'll see a turnaround like we've seen with the adventure genre.  But if developers and publishers continue to produce half-baked shovelware and push it to the West hoping we'll gobble it up, well... their sales figures will speak for themselves.

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Posted by dankempster

Great blog, Sparky. Not much more I can say other than that I agree with you on most of your points.  I'm not sure gameplay overhauls are really what's needed. Although I do agree that the introduction of new gameplay elements to the JRPG formula is never a bad thing (think golf, Georama and weapon synthesis in Dark Cloud 2), the core exploration and battle mechanics of most JRPGs have never been crying out for radical refinement in my eyes. Where I'd like to see more time taken is in crafting a memorable story and interesting characters, and using them in ways that defy the oft-derided cliches of the genre. I personally view the Squaresoft development team responsible for Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy Tactics as being brilliant at this - shunning stereotypical androgynous heroes in favour of more isolated stories of political conflict, and genuinely complex character relationships. Those two games defy just about every single JRPG cliche there is, and they're a hell of a lot better for it.
 
I'm one of the few people in the camp that thought Final Fantasy XII was a brilliant game, for similar reasons. Sure, the gambit system was a bit exploitative and could have used a little more refinement, perhaps, but I thought the overall package was exactly the direction that the franchise needed to go in - a return to renaissance- and medieval-inspired settings, a grand story on a sweeping scale that nicely meshed imperial politics with personal drama, some great characters in Balthier, Basch and Fran, and an innovative approach to combat that was still heavily rooted in RPG tradition. I still have yet to finish FFXII, but I'm hoping this will be the year. 

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw
@dankempster:
I don't want sweeping changes made to battle systems, but I'd like testers, developers, and publishers to take a longer look at what they have created and check that against what's been both successful and unsuccessful in the past.  The Last Remnant and Final Fantasy XIII are eerily similar in battle system functionality, and while FFXIII is miles better than Last Remnant, I still feel Square could have learned a few more lessons from that particular game's shortcomings.  I think had Final Fantasy XIII contained a true option to allow the player true turn-based combat as opposed to the speedy twitch RPG elements they introduced, it would have gone a long ways towards making me happier with it.  I genuinely like some of the elements of the gambit system from XII that they brought over to XIII, but XII was a more methodically paced game which I greatly preferred. 
 
And while I agree with you that the political aspects of games like FF XII and Tactics are a breath of fresh air, I wish they had more of a grasp on the human side of things.  If the politics are to have any weight, they need to bring it down not just to the NPC's, but to the player characters as well.  FF XII almost had this right, but I didn't feel the player characters' story had enough weight to it until the last act of the game.  I definitely agree with you on the characters, though - Balthier in particular was a staple in my party.  
 
And while we continue to see the refinement of the story in RPG's across the board, Square has yet to release a politically-centered game that hasn't suffered greatly from confusing storytelling.  Final Fantasy Tactics (the original) is probably the prime example of this, as both a mangled translation and a genuinely confusing storyline merged to make me scratch my head and spend several playthroughs trying to interpret just what the hell was going on.  This is something I think Final Fantasy XII, XIII, and Last Remnant all improved upon, but it's still yet to reach the delicate balance of intricate political intrigue and humanity that I'm searching for in a game.  Maybe that's a lofty standard for a medium not known for such things, but I have to keep hoping someday the storytelling will catch up to the mechanics.
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Posted by dankempster
@Sparky_Buzzsaw: My experience with Final Fantasy Tactics stems from the PSP port, The War of the Lions. The PS1 version didn't see release here in the UK, but from what I've heard, the game benefits greatly from an improved translation. Even so, I found some aspects of the plot difficult to get my head around. That, coupled with the steep difficulty level and complex game mechanics, meant I never actually saw the end of Tactics back when I played it. Between FF Tactics, Vagrant Story and FFXII, maybe I'm destined never to see the credits roll on any game set in Ivalice. 
 
Out of interest, have you played Lost Oddysey? It's an Xbox 360 game by Hironobu Sakaguchi, the 'father' of Final Fantasy, and it's much more a spiritual successor to Final Fantasy X than either XII or XIII ever were. The combat strikes a nice mix between traditional turn-based and reflex-dependent button presses thanks to its ring system. The 1000 Years of Dreams flashbacks are also incredible. It has a few questionable moments, some annoying characters and a pretty lousy villain, but the game's strong points made it an enjoyable experience for me. If you haven't played it, I highly recommend it.
Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw
@dankempster:
Oh, damn, how could I have left out Lost Odyssey?  That game showed a ton of promise for Mistwalker, and I'd hoped we'd get news of the Next Great Thing coming from them.  It had its problems (I agree with your complaints 100%), but it was a huge advance from Blue Dragon.  The game should have been proof that the JRPG could do very well on the system, and it makes me wonder what sort of political shenanigans happened at Microsoft to quell that developer.  Or maybe their contract just ran out.  Who knows?
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Posted by RenegadeSaint

I am just now returning to the JRPG after many years away. We'll see how FFX tastes when I get to that shortly.