By Sparky_Buzzsaw 6 Comments
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.