Lately, ever since i picked up my Vita, I’ve been playing J-RPG’s like there’s no tomorrow. I’ve also picked up a couple of other, standard RPG’s and after playing them for a while i started thinking about what makes a good RPG. While the emphasis in this post will be on J-RPG’s, since that’s where a lot of my experience lies, the points i raise can and should be applied to all RPG’s.
So what makes a good RPG?
Honestly, only one thing is needed to make a great RPG, and that’s a kick ass engrossing story that grabs you by the throat and drags you into the game by force. Frankly, J-RPG’s beat most western RPG’s hands down in this regard.
So what about art, music, mechanics and voice acting? Surely a good RPG needs those elements?
With the exception of music, the answer is no, none of the stuff listed are needed. They add icing to the cake definitely, and increase the enjoyment of some games. But the only thing that’s really needed is a great story backed by a killer sound track.
J-RPG’s such as Final Fantasy, and the Ys series are prime examples of this. Many of the early versions of these games look like they were done in the RPG maker software with sprite characters. Yet these games can take well over 80hours to finish, some of the Final Fantasy series has taken me over 100hours to complete, and i still replay some of those games again and again.
What makes these games so desirable, and so repeatable, is that they have amazing stories that draw you in and make you feel for the characters in ways many western games don’t. These are all told through dialogue, that initially wasn’t spoken, but read through subtitles. The music backing the dialogue was usually highly emotive, drawing you on and adding emotions to what would otherwise be dry text. This combination of story and music is what created the franchise that would become one of the biggest selling franchises of all time.
The thing about the Final Fantasy series is that up until the later games (FFX i believe) none of the games had full voice acting. At best you had the odd voice over, most were text based music driven 2 or 2.5d art.
Other games, such as Xenosaga, Phantasy Star and others all followed a similar style of design. Truth be told even today we get games made using similar styles of art and mechanics to the early Final fantasy series, by that i mean sprite based games. Recently for example Disgaea 3 that I’ve been playing uses a sprite system, lending itself to the old adage, if it ain’t broken don’t fix it.
Western games by contrast however tend to focus more on flashy graphics and game mechanics to sell the games. As a result a lot of western RPG’s are significantly shorter than their japanese counter parts. There have been a few exceptions to this, for example way back in the day Baldur’s Gate became beacon all western RPG’s tried to mimic. However these days RPG’s tend to be shorter, taking anywhere between 8 and 30 hours to complete. Even games that are heralded as the best western RPG’s ever, The Witcher series and Kingdoms of Amalur: The Reckoning, all could be completed within 20-30 hours.
Part of the question i think is what do the consumers expect from their games. Sadly, western fans tend to be happy with shorter games. In a culture of consoles, and multiplayer games such as CoD. Open games that are story heavy don’t do so well. Again there are exceptions, Skyrim for example, however even these games have a number of problems that for a lot of people make the game dull. for example Skyrim has a very shallow story that’s non-dynamic, the game has no sense of urgency to it. Which is a shame since the game story is all about the end of the world sort of thing. You can literally spend years going off doing side quests and doing your own thing, and come back to the main story and pick it up right where you let off.
Games such as Final fantasy have changed over the past few iterations, starting from X and up they introduced a lot of changes. These changes did make the game more appealing to the western player, since we tend to enjoy games that hold our hands and stuff. The past few games have been exactly like that, however fans of the franchise have watched the changes with dismay. I personally haven’t played any since X-2 because the games lacked the spark of the previous games.
The voice acting has frankly gotten worse with each release since X, which was lauded for it’s english dubbing. I’ve never really understood that, since i found the english dub tolerable at best, and cringe-able at it’s worst. The past few games, frankly the english dubs made me want to cry they were so bad.
For me, it boils down to this: The only thing an RPG really needs is a killer story backed by a killer sound track. Graphics and mechanics are nice deserts, and dubbing is frankly un-needed, especially english dubs