So, J-RPGS are a dying genre, is this true?

Posted on February 19th, 2013 by Ryu Sheng | 2 Comments

So, this could potentially be a rather long post, but I’m hoping interesting. Earlier today I was looking around the net for research for an upcoming post on J-RPGS, when I came across this post over on the Official PlayStation Magazine site. After i finished reading it I was left with a sense that the author, Robert Pearson, really doesn’t know much about J-RPG’s.

Bellow is the original post Robert wrote, split into sections, with my comments on them; and a conclusion by me on my thoughts on the post as a whole.

A likeable protagonist

How many times have you looked at the lead character in a JRPG and thought; ‘Really? I’m playing as Androgyno McGoldilocks again? A 14-year old orphan from a sleepy hamlet in Leaf Valley with a secret power that will help him defeat the Dark Lord who’s actually his supposedly dead Dad?’ The incessant drip-feed of pure-hearted teenage leads has got to change, especially in an age where performance capture technology has lifted videogame characterisation onto near enough the same level as the silver screen. Give us a hero with a bit of bite – an honourable thief, a disgraced palace guard, a reluctant assassin, anything. And for chrissakes, give him some stubble or something.

Having a likeable protagonist is pretty much essential regardless of the genre. Frankly J-RPG’s do this aspect of gaming better than most western companies. Even the bad J-RPG’s I’ve seen tend to have better protagonists than western games. I can name pretty much every character I’ve played in J-RPG’s because they’ve left some sort of impact on me, they’ve evoked emotions on different levels. Western game’s I played though I could rattle off a list of games, but couldn’t tell you the name of the main protagonist. Western games are like McDonalds burgers, nice to eat but not filling and unmemorable. Admittedly there are a few exceptions to this, Batman Arkham City for example, Dead Space and Deus Ex series.

The complaints about the characters age and facial hair are a racial trait of Japan. Most games use teens because it’s easier for people to get attached to the characters and feel something for them. Also a lot of J-RPG’s have anime and manga tie-ins so they target the fans of the series they’ve either part of or are mimicking. We do get J-RPG’s with a more adult protagonist from time to time, but they’re rarely ported over to the western world because the general consensus seems to be they wouldn’t sell as well Pokémon styled games with kids/teens.

The facial hair comment really showed that Robert doesn’t really understand Japan very well. While it is something that’s slowly changing, facial hair in Japan is considered a no no. As such when your portraying good guys in J-RPG’s they tend to go with the clean shaved characters. Exceptions to happen of course, but they’re few and far between.

An intelligent story

No other genre can boast the consistently eye-drying run times of JRPGS, with most of them hitting the 50-hour mark (and that’s without any of the side quests). With such a broad gaming canvas, the potential for a sweeping, engaging and shocking narrative is right there. Why then, are we constantly off to stop the destruction of the world by some hell-bent maniac? Why is there always a bit on a boat? And why are we again chucking fireballs at sentient mushrooms for three straight hours? Games like Mass Effect, Deus Ex and Skyrim prove that rich, involving, open-ended narratives are the way forward, so take a hint, JRPGs.

I went bug eyed when i read this, Mass Effect is probably the most notorious of games for having an ending that was totally linear and pretty much ignored all the choices you made throughout the game. Didn’t matter if you’d been a good or bad character through out the trilogy, it all came down to the choice you made at the end, and the ending was rather lacklustre.

Deus Ex, I do agree with though. The way they did the story in the original Deus Ex was mind blowing and really drew you in. The subsequent two games not so much, but they were okay.

Skyrim, no just NO. I like Skyrim, invested a lot of hours into the game, but it’s story is shallow, weak, non-engaging and non-dynamic. With Skyrim you can stop the main story and go off and spend weeks doing anything and everything else, come back and the story picks right up as though you’d never left. On the surface it does look and feel like an open ended world, but it’s a dry shallow world with no depth or diversity to it. But yeah, it is fun to play and i do play it now and again.

Now, back onto the topic. Once again Intelligent stories are mandatory regardless of the genre or country of origin. A lot of western games have pathetic stories that you really end up not caring about. Western games are also significantly shorter than your average J-RPG, for example games like Final Fantasy can take upwards of 60+hours to complete, if you do everything. But then you have games such as Neverwinter Nights 2 (a game I’ve just finished playing) which took about fifteen hours. Of course there are once again exceptions to the rule, for example Kingdoms of Amalur, depending on your play style, has reportedly over 200 hours of gameplay.

J-RPG’s tend to have better stories to them because they’re treated like novels or anime series, and have more time spent on story writing and character development/creation. Where as in the west it seems to be the thing to focus on making it look and run nice.

Smart battle systems

There seems to be a misconception floating around JRPG developers at present that western gamers can’t think beyond ‘attack those things, constantly, in real time’ leading to the frugal dismemberment of traditional, tactical battle systems in favour lean, action-oriented combat with numbers instead of blood. The problem here (and Final Fantasy XIII is the major culprit here) is that you’ve got the worst of both worlds – monotonous sword swinging guff with tacked-on menus that further distance the player from any action they perform. What’s needed is a smart, tactical system with oodles of depth for strategists, but shorn of sludgy menus and reams of text. Surely a hotkey system where you can switch setups and equipment at the touch of a button is a no brainer?

I actually sort of agree with comment, but only to a certain extent. The new Final Fantasy fighting system is one I personally hate, I feel the old school methods worked much better. But this is where i also think Robert is wrong, button mashing, with blood and gore flying everywhere, doesn’t make a good game. It might look good, but it ends up just feeling shallow and the impression it leaves on the gamer isn’t long lasting.

This again seems to be a cultural thing, with the instant gratification being a western trait in gamers.

The thing is, the combat system he describes tends to be in games like Final Fantasy, and games similar to it; Xenosaga and Last Remnant for example. These style of games are a single niche of the genre, not the whole genre. You have games who have unique combat systems, such as the bump system in Ys I&II as well as the normal button mashing style of gameplay, Chantelise anyone?

Games like Final Fantasy have been the most prominent because Final Fantasy was such a run away success. As the game has fallen (and i freely admit the FF series has fallen to garbage, and I’m a FF fan) games have continued to mimic it, and thus are failing as well.

A true open world

The JRPGs of the PSOne era were more open than their current-gen counterparts, with scaled world maps providing a neat, explorer-friendly compromise between open-world gameplay and the then limited hardware power available for rendering a full-scale sandbox. With PS3 that’s no longer an issue, so why have JRPGs condensed instead of expanded in size? Again it’s largely down to Japanese devs looking to modernize the JRPG in all the wrong areas. We don’t want a linear, monster-filled corridor leading into another linear, monster-filled corridor. What we want is to explore off the beaten track and get lost in a beautifully detailed open-world. Please?

Firstly, stop blaming the japanese dev.’s and put the blame where it lies, on Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft. the PS3 and XBOX 360 are what, 7, 8 years old now? The technology dev.’s have to work with is really restricted. They (the console creators) spent millions, if not billions, telling the fans how great their systems are, making them seem like the ultimate super gaming rig; so fans in turn demand their games live up to that expectation. As a result dev.’s of games have to reduce the size of areas to increase the graphic fidelity.

As for the argument that we don’t want monster filled corridors, sadly that’s exactly what’s wanted in the west. This is proven by the success of COD which is nothing more that a series of on rails corridor shooting.

If you want open world and beauty then you need to give up the consoles all together and move to computers that have the power and capability to allow dev.’s to create worlds exactly like that. Sadly, even the next gen machines won’t be anywhere as good as medium level computer, and will cost more. Ultimately that’s where the problem lies, consoles just don’t have the power to create these vast open worlds with high graphic fidelity and amazing encounters. At the moment, only PC’s have the processors capable of doing that.

An original setting

The lush valley. The ice cave bit. The volcano level. The end boss’ lighting-wreathed castle. Blah, blah, blah. If the JRPG wants to modernise and strike a chord with current gen gamers, it needs to rid itself of those clichéd, fantasy trappings. As games like Assassin’s Creed prove, there are a staggering amount of potential settings for a rollicking good story – games don’t have to be set in Tolkien land for RPG lovers to get on board. Mass Effect has nailed intergalactic sci-fi, Dishonored and Deus Ex have aced steam and cyberpunk respectively – so come on, JRPGs. Get on the bandwagon, it’s where all the cool games are at.

To me this topic says the guy clearly hasn’t played a lot of J-RPG’s, or has probably played only Final Fantasy. Xenosaga that i mentioned earlier is a sci-fi, there are games that blend sci-fi and fantasy together into a pretty awesome game. Then there are the slice of life style games with magic style effects mixed into them. And of course we have the games like Persona which frankly are some of the best games ever made.

Once again Robert seems to have taken a rather narrow look at the J-RPG’s and decided they’re all like this. TBH i feel that japan does RPG’s better than the west because they have such a wide girth of material to draw on. their anime, manga and light novels are a great source of ideas and worlds for games. I also find they do their fantasy stuff to a better level than western games do.

As for Assassins Creed, sure it has a good story, not sure I’d call it great, but it’s terribly implemented. Not to mention that it’s not really a RPG, it’s more an action/adventure game. There are several j-games that do that style of story and character better, Phantom for example.

Respectful reinventions

While JRPGs undoubtedly need a damn good shake up, none of the changes I’ve mentioned should come at the cost of what makes the genre so special in the first place – namely sprawling narratives, enormous detailed worlds, memorable characters and battle systems you can really sink your tactical teeth into. Yes, modernising these elements is crucial, but modernising them doesn’t mean taking them away. A balance needs to be struck whereby JRPGs can be picked up and enjoyed by anyone, but where hardcore genre fans aren’t put off by tacked-on gimmicks that lose the essence of what it means to be a JRPG. We’re looking at you, QTEs. Get lost.

Not really much i want to say here, when it comes to reinventing the wheel there’s only so much you can do. Problem is when it goes wrong we end up with the current Final Fantasy games. Personally, rather than reinventing I’d rather see dev.’s going back to their roots, focusing more on story and characters rather than making it look nice. As for QTE’s, blame consoles for those. Restricted number of buttons meant dev.’s had to find ways of doing a lot of actions without the extra buttons of a keyboard, QTE’s were thus born. I do agree they’ve been way over used, but that’s a bigger issue in a lot of western games I’ve seen than in J-RPG’s. Kingdoms of Amalur for example had ridiculous QTE’s

Online connectivity

Team deathmatch with swords and thunderbolts? Absolutely no. But connecting with other gamers is a massive deal in the current gen, and JRPGs could do with embracing online culture. Dark Souls is a good example – other players can leave you in-game messages without ever infringing on that all-important single-player experience. How about setting up in-game shops and selling your unwanted loot to other players? Trading spells and equipment? Sharing battle strategies? And, if it has to be multiplayer – going on quests with one another? Level 5’s White Knight Chronicles dabbled in online connectivity without much success, but the potential is massive.

Why? Games like Dark Souls work purely because there’s no real interaction with the online aspects. It works in that particular game because of the nature of the game. Throwing it into every RPG is just wrong, and will make some feel clunky and weird. Selling gear and setting up shops just wouldn’t work. Games are to easy to cheat in gaining unlimited gold/money so having player run stores in a single player game would pretty much ruin the economy of the game. As for sharing battle stratergies, that’s what forums are for. A prime example would be Warrior Nation where game players form communities and pass around info and advice, and even weapons and stuff where the game allows. This sort of interaction works better on forums and computer because of the keyboard. It just doesn’t work well on consoles. Online connectivity is a very dangerous proposition these days, many RPG fans simply don’t want it. that was one of the largest complaints about Diablo 3, and even Kingdoms of Amalur. Leave SP games as SP, don’t just tack on a multiplayer because you think it’s what people want.

Expert localisation

A minor point, you might think. You’d be wrong. Translating a game’s every nuance from Japanese into English is a tough, time-consuming job, but is a necessary evil as – when done right – the results are brilliant. The upcoming Ni No Kuni gets it absolutely spot on, with a superb localisation resulting in a heart-warming and often hilarious story delivered by a comical fairy in a thick Welsh accent. It’s taken more than a year to achieve (the Japanese version released in late 2011) but ‘Mr. Drippy’ is destined for PS3 greatness because of it. On the flip side, nothing is more likely to turn off a western audience than wading through reams of badly translated text.

Rather than an expert localisation, I’d prefer a good localisation. This is one of the biggest complaints in anime and manga, localisation sucks. What turns off a western audience quicker than bad translations is  a bad localisation. Bad translations can be forgiven if it’s a good localisation. That’s why fan translations of J-RPG’s and Visual Novels do so well, they might not be 100% accurate, but they they’re acceptable because the localisation is done right.

Now, for my conclusion. Firstly, the guy who wrote this article, Robert Pearson doesn’t seem to realise just how much damage consoles have done to gaming in general, and will continue to do so. But what’s worse is he doesn’t seem to know much about J-RPG’s in general, which is disappointing.

I think J-RPG’s (and frankly all gaming) would do well if they moved from the consoles to the PC. Develop the games for the PC first, thus allowing the for the sort of environments and gameplay that PC’s are capable of; then you can tweak it down to work on consoles. at the moment it’s the other way around, with consoles coming first and then PC’s. That’s a pipe dream though, consoles are to big money at the moment, though i think as people come to realise just how bad the next gen machines are, and their over charging prices, we’ll start to see a shift……i hope Open-mouthed smile

Finally, contrary to Robert’s comments, J-RPG’s are not dying, there’s no chance of them dying.

2 Responses

  1. wow that was long, but nice. OK down to business the writer who wrote the original article has some points and so do you Ryu. the first part about the likeable protagonist Robert is wrong for putting such heavy judgement on characters in a jrpg. the characters in jrpgs are generally likable and interesting to keep us fans interesting or has he never heard of Neku (TWEWY). the Jrpgs he must be playing must be a select few or he must be caught in a time bubble that doesn’t allow him access to modern or unique jrpgs. like other mediums or genres the gamer has the choice whether to buy the game or not, and if you are not a fan of a genre why suggest changing it to suite you. that’s like saying all people who drive and love nissan cars should get a ford because you drive ford and think it’s great.
    the point i’m trying to make is don’t suggest Multiplayer to a single player experience the reason i bought a single player jrpg is because i don’t want to play it with other people getting involved or bothering me. i want to get immersed in the story and lore not be bothered every 5 mins by people messaging me or seeing spoiler post on walls to spoil a first experience for me.
    the setting in jrpgs are some of the best with sometimes large unique worlds like to giant mechs stuck in battle with huge savannas, towns and lakes on their backs as in (xenoblade chronicles) or small separate but equally interesting towns or cities filled with shops like (the world ends with you).

    the guy who wrote the obviously had not played a jrpg before and was reading wiki snippets or has not played one in such a long time that his concepts of the genre are warped on a bad way.

    Ryu on the other hand bro i don’t think that PC’s are the only way to go i say to each their own. the reason not all jrpg’s have huge open worlds and not just shiny graphics have nothing to do with the consoles lack of space or resources but the fact that a lot of developers are trying to do what Robert is suggesting and try to appeal to everyone at once. if size of a disc or HDD was a problem then games like golden sun, Radiant historia and Glory of heracles could not possibly exist because they are all DS jrpgs, and as we know the DS has not got much storage space or much power to speak of. what devs need to do is stop trying to please everyone and focus on the what made people like the genre in the first place, platform doesn’t matter as steam has proven. games can be made for either pc or console and ported both ways, with the only consideration being graphics and controls.

    in the end those looking for a great Jrpg will always find one and those who don’t like the genre will always exist so lets just do what we do best;play games and forget about the nay Sayers.

  2. Nuu says:

    I was thinking about this the other day. Since you already wrote about it ill have to skip it for now lol, but yeah I really do feel like JRPGs are a bit pase these days. Back in the late 90s, early/mid (even late) 2000s it was really really good for them…but things just died.

    Honestly, after Disgaea 4 or 5, I was like, this is just ridiculous. The Ar Tonelico series was supposedly shit and I was really hyped about that…other games seemed ok, but just ok and never had RAVE reviews.

    And of course Kuni comes out and I don’t have access to my PS3…-_-” the irony. Even so, I don’t feel so incredibly eager to get a copy. I have a little irritation with Ghibli that I’ll write about later, but I still am pining for something new and different. Something along the lines of NO GRIND. And something that’s fairly replayable.

    RPGs are infamous for being a one-way trip. FF12 was cool because there were a SHITLOAD of side missions and really sweet weapons and espers and such…but literally for the REAL final boss, I had to leave for a bit to do something and with my Gambits all set up…my team killed the final boss without any help from me. I still think the gambit system was epic and even after the boss battle, i still liked it. Just thought that maybe the game would toss you a different scenario based on how many side quests or which side quests you did.

    In the era of incredibly visceral games like Dead Space, Blazblue, BioShock and other games, I think people don’t care that much anymore. Reason being RPGs aren’t the only things that know how to deliver story. A story like Bioshock is almost way more memorable than any RPG i can remember (NOT saying its “better” or worse). People don’t have to suffer through 120 hour games to get a good story anymore. And actually I wouldnt event mind if there were a good RPG that could deliver, but besides Kuni, which I don’t really see myself liking just from personal preferences…I don’t see myself playing an RPG ANYTIME soon.