So once again, I spent the entire week playing Xenoblade and doing little else in the world of gaming. However, I am happy to announce that I have beaten that game and normal game discussion services will resume presently. Until that time, I've put together ten short blurbs - observations, recommendations, derisions - about one of my favorite genres and how it's gone from a treasured niche genre to "the big thing" and then back to a niche genre again.
This blog turned out to be nine short blurbs and one large one after all, so don't hold that against me. It's not like I plan these things out in advance. But I've said too much.
I'm kind of with Jeff when he recently expressed his distaste of the name "JRPG". Though it's a term that's long been established in the gamer's lexicon to mean a particular brand of turn-based RPG with a particular set of philosophies, settings and gameplay features it often revisits, it's hard to nail down what exactly a JRPG is besides an RPG that comes from Japan. For one thing, a lot of Japanese RPGs aren't turn-based, don't involve crystals or Gaia or defeating the Pope and aren't based in a pseudo-medieval fantasy world (or, using more modern stereotypes, a magical steampunk world). Then you have all the Western RPGs that do have those elements: Anachronox is as western as they come with its cynical sense of humour and sci-fi trappings, but plays very much like a "traditional" JRPG. RPG developers from both the east and west have inspired and been inspired in turn by the other, with the impenetrable Western legend Wizardry directly influencing thepioneers of the JRPG industry.
In lieu of having any specific terminology to replace "JRPG" with, I'm content to just call them RPGs. Thanks to BioWare's heel turn, there's fewer true RPGs (that feels like such a Young Snider thing to say...) around these days, so splitting them up even further with sub-genre demarcations seems pointless.
FFX-2 was unfortunate for a great many reasons. To most, creating a direct sequel in a franchise that had previously been a consecutive series of original worlds and casts of characters was a clear indication that Square had chosen to sacrifice some of its credibility and creativity to focus on sequels that posed little risk of not making their budget back, which from Square's perspective was a necessity due to what the Final Fantasy movie had cost the studio both literally and figuratively. Fans were also put off by all the J-Pop, the "Teen Girl Squad"-style frivolity and oodles of overindulgent fan service: In effect, it pandered to a clique of Final Fantasy players to which they didn't belong, having originally been drawn to the franchise by its serious dramas involving spiky-haired PTSD victims, skewered flower girls and a talking octopus who hated opera.
So FFXIII-2 had to follow two ignominious precursors: That of FFX-2 and the critically-condemned FFXIII, neither of which had been particularly well-received by a considerable percentage of the fanbase. From the accounts I'm hearing, FFXIII-2 confronts the perceived flaws of its forebear and has fixed a lot of what made that game unpalatable for so many. People aren't too enamoured with the actual story and characters the sequel has chosen to follow, but are otherwise impressed with how much the game has improved itself while retaining what made the original great for its many apologists and secret admirers. As someone who was hot and cold about different aspects of FFXIII, I'm looking forward to seeing how my personal misgivings with that game have been addressed.
Of course, if they wanted a proper RPG, they could've just set FFXIII-2 in a post-apocalyptic future where the Cold War nuked the planet and everyone trades with bottlecaps. In a support role, I'd take a Pip-Boy mascot over a Moogle any day.
My History With JRPGs Part 1
So I guess I started with JRPGs in much the same way many of you did: With the SNES. 8-bit RPGs did exist, but were limited to Dragon Warrior and the first Final Fantasy, neither of which were particularly major sellers (given that the former was being given away by Nintendo Power at one point). There were also games like Legacy of the Wizard and Crystalis, but they were beyond niche. It was the 16-bit Final Fantasies, Chrono Trigger, EarthBound, Secret of Mana, Phantasy Stars and to a lesser extent the Breath of Fires, Lufias and Quintet trilogy that introduced the genre to so many, rocking their worlds with their deeply involved fiction in a medium so devoid of narration that you'd be lucky to be given more than "the clown has to run away from the boulders before he gets squished". Secret of Mana in particular is what captivated me for many weeks after receiving it one Christmas and from there it was safe to say I was a convert. Alas, being the dirty European that I am, I'd be hard-pressed to see many more JRPG releases that took my fancy for that particular era. To be continued.
I always pronounced it "Soo-ee-koh-den". Were the guys just being flippant on the Bombcast or were they using the actual pronunciation? Or does any of this matter? On the subject, the Suikoden games are absolutely fantastic. I'd recommend grabbing the second game off PSN if you're able, though I'm more partial to its latest entry Suikoden V. You can't really go wrong with any of them. Even that darned boat one.
I'm sort of intrigued about Square's mini-enterprise of Chocobo, Tonberry and Moogle toys (and, after the Enix merger, the Slimes as well). I'm not entirely convinced they were pushing those things during the time when Final Fantasy was at its peak, so I imagine the marketing is driven more by nostalgia than how cute they are. Even so, it seems JRPGs can't help but include their own adorable mascots. As I intimated last week with my Xenoblade comic, that game also has one in the form of Riki, a member of an exploration-driven race of furry ball things called Nopon. They all talk in broken English (it's not clear whether that was the localization team's doing or the intent of the original writers. I imagine what we got was some sort of linguistic equivalent), enjoy eating and sleeping and being curious, live in tiny cute hovels inside a giant tree and there's even a "Breaking Bad"-style drug kingpin sub-plot that several Nopon side-quests followed that ended in an adorable outcome where the criminal mastermind was sentenced to power a giant hamster wheel.
I couldn't really tell if they were being serious or not or if this is a thing that's endemic to a lot of JRPGs. Maybe it is and I just tend to pay it no heed. Maybe it's, like FFX-2, yet another indication of how teenage girls make up a sizeable portion of the audience for these games. Wow, that's kind of condescending. Moving on.
My History With JRPGs Part 2
So the next big step for JRPGs and, again, where a lot of JRPG fans jumped aboard, was the PlayStation era. I never owned an original PlayStation, so my fascination with FF7 - and, it should be said, greater fascination with FFT - came about due to a friend of mine. I'd hate to admit to being one of those people who are friends with someone because of the awesome shit they have, but children are fickle creatures in nature. I eventually ended up getting copies of the PC version of FF7 (which wasn't quite the great idea I thought it was) and an imported copy of FFT that I played through an emulator some years later. Though I wasn't yet playing the sheer volume of JRPGs I would in my later years, it's clear from the great measures I was taking to play those two in particular that I was still drawn to the genre. It still felt like I was fighting an uphill battle against the apathy the rest of the country felt towards those games, given how few were released beforehand. But FF7 really helped in that regard, perhaps more than any JRPG before or since. I got to play a considerable amount of the PS1's library of JRPGs, with only a few glaring omissions, thanks in some part to the success of that game. Even as it's reviled by major parts of the gaming community these days for being overrated or aging poorly or what have you, it deserves credit for opening some doors/eyes at the very least.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant or "What The Flying Fuck?!: The Game"
The quickest route to pariah-dom in this fine community is to recommend games for a future Endurance Run, based on what you think would create the highest calibre of amusing banter and reactionary hilarity that made previous Endurance Runs beloved by so many. While I'd never go out of my way to suggest content for a site that is perfectly capable of frequently trumping my expectations, Shadow Hearts: Covenant is perhaps the one game I would put forward if forced to at gunpoint.
That isn't to say that was the intent of this blurb. Rather, it's a game I would instead recommend to regular gaming peeps of this community by stating that it'd be ideal for a Giant Bomb Endurance Run, which would hopefully be perceived as short-hand for a game that is filled with exquisite weirdness, fun gameplay that successfully manages to avoid becoming completely enervating after several dozen hours, goofy and loveable side characters and a lengthy plot full of twists and turns to provoke all manner of incredulous reactions. I feel if more "games ideal for the Endurance Run" threads had that philosophy in mind - that they made it a point early on that it's in no way attempting to steer an actual future feature along those lines and that they have no business telling Jeff, Ryan, Brad, Vinny or Patrick what they should be playing (unless they themselves prompt the discussion, of course) - they'd be met with way less derision and revulsion. Maybe.
My History With JRPGs Part 3
The moment I got heavily into JRPGs was in college - the ideal period of one's life to spend a considerable amount of your time and energy towards something that isn't studying. I had a fairly mint PS2, no boundaries about when I should sleep or how well I should be feeding myself, a new group of like-minded buddies to refer (and occasionally defer) to about the subject and my own potential for future employment to completely ignore. Since FFX was the only thing of note to appear during the early months of the PS2, I spent a lot of time playing PS1 games with its backwards compatability, hammering out classics like FF9, the first two Suikodens, Breath of Fire 3, Vagrant Story, Grandia, Vandal Hearts, Wild ARMs and anything else I could scrounge up with my access to Amazon.co.uk and a city full of game stores with bounteous "pre-owned" sections. Likewise, I continued the streak once the PS2 JRPG revolution began in earnest and haven't really stopped since then. It feels like during this recent generation of consoles, the amount of decent JRPGs (or at least my enthusiasm of the middling ones available) has dried up somewhat, but as long as a game like Xenoblade comes along every once and a while I don't think I'll ever stop being a diehard fan. Talking of which..
Xenoblade Final Thoughts
I've discussed this game perhaps a little too thoroughly already during the past month: I added it to my GOTY 2011 list, I've created a list of modern features I appreciated about it, created several comics in the blogs I've written while playing it and a customary short - if not particularly helpful - assessment in my list of games beaten in 2012. Now that it's over, it's time to try and put into words why I appreciated this game so much.
I guess the chief complaint against JRPGs is how dependent they are on the hoary tropes of the genre, a perpetual act of auto-cannibalism that has seen diminishing returns over the years. A secondary complaint would be the lack of care and detail that goes into the protagonists, you who tend to be the same one-note archetypes you've seen a thousand times before.
I can't say Xenoblade completely escapes either of these problems, but I found the plot to be compelling, completely outlandish but in a far more grounded way than, perhaps, Brad was discussing as a problem he has with FFXIII-2. Though it deals with two giant dead Gods, the metaphysical origins of the protagonist's magic sword, a lot of twists that don't make a whole lot of sense until they're expounded on later with some post-event exposition and an entire tree village full of ersatz Ewoks, it's a story that slowly unravels and pauses for breath frequently, allowing you to absorb everything that was going on. It was also consistently gripping, which occasionally felt like a detriment to its open-world gameplay since I'd often abandon exploring a new area so I could hit the next cutscene and see what happens next.
Similarly, I found characters to be more appealing than those of recent JRPGs I'd played. No-one feels superfluous; each has their own reason for fighting, their own little sub-plot that they're following, their own moments of growth and reflection that flesh the character out and provide a reason for being there. This is enhanced further with the entirely optional Heart-to-Hearts, which play out similarly to Tales' skits in that you get a little more of the backstory of the characters and how their capacity to understand each other is progressing. They all have a unique role in combat that the player can experiment with if they're having trouble with a particular fight. On a similar subject, the way the affinity system works - it increases by cheering your companions in combat, picking the right things to say in Heart-to-Hearts and offering each other items as presents - will at times feel a little cloying and "Team Discovery Channel!", but generally helps establish just how close-knit the group is becoming, which sometimes feels incongruous in games where a guy might suddenly decide to follow you for the flimsiest of reasons just so you'll have one more member to fill out a battle party with.
I'll finish by discussing how much I enjoyed the combat, which deserves the same commendations FFXIII-2's battle system was getting in that recent Quick Look. Like that game, its combat is based on the MMO model, where battles happen in real-time and the player is given a palette of special abilities that require varying levels of cool-down time before they can be used again. Xenoblade separates itself from the herd both with its "vision" gimmick, where you're given a small time frame to either prevent or lessen the severity of a particularly brutal enemy attack of which you are given a preview, and the various curious streamlining decisions it makes to JRPG combat features of the past. For one, there's no items - or to be specific, no potions, ethers, phoenix downs or other battle accoutrements that are the norm. Curing a member of a status effect is as easy as walking over to them and snapping them out of it. Similarly, you can resurrect fallen members by helping them back up (to a limited degree). Healing is done entirely with specific Arts, so make sure you have someone in your group that has them. Battles tend to be measured in seconds rather than minutes and subsequently there's less emphasis on your tactical ability than there is on your situational awareness - if members start falling, pick them up and figure out how the enemy is overpowering them (usually for me it's because they've put up some sort of damage reflection aura). The AI of your team is generally pretty amazing, so there's no need to worry about the usual braindeadidiocy of AI companions - every character has their designated role in combat and follows it ably. Finally, the penalty for death is non-existent, as you're simply dropped off at the nearest landmark checkpoint with no penalty. If you die during a boss battle, you start a couple of feet away so you have a chance to check your set-up and equipment before jumping right in again. This isn't to say the game is too easy (as an open-world game rife with levelling opportunities, it's as challenging as you'd like it to be) but rather it subscribes to the Super Meat Boy philosophy of "don't worry, we've made it as convenient as possible to let you have another shot".
And that's about as close to a review as you're getting. This has gone on long enough, though, so it's time for some...
Because I'd be bereft of any other games to make comics about, I've taken the advice of Asura's Wrath demo. I've also crafted a commission comic for Gold Membership sponsor who found proof that Ryan's assertion that all Moogles talk in Brooklyn accents is factually accurate.to try out the
Final Fantasy XIII-2