Don’t you just love how after spending a solid two months talking about shooters, almost as soon as it’s over I jump immediately to its diametric opposite in JRPGs? And on more than one occasion, just 'cause?
You could argue that it’s “comfort food” or “getting back into my comfort zone” -- but I’d hope that you wouldn’t. I like JRPGs, but it seems like I’m being typecast as a guy who only likes Japanese games, or only likes Japanese things; anyone who’s read this blog for long enough should know that’s not the case. In all honesty, JRPGs aren’t even my favorite game genre. Granted I don’t know what that is, exactly, considering that my favorite games are all over the map. But let it be known that even if I can (and will) appreciate a good JRPG, I still think they’re not the be-all and end-all.
So let’s talk a little about JRPGs…as a way to compensate for the fact that I never really did go over a semi-comprehensive list of good JRPGs for every system. I admit it, I goofed.
If words aren’t enough, please accept a slew of Christina Hendricks pictures as an apology. But then again, why wouldn't words be enough? Surely we don't live in a world in which the written word has a thousandth of the worth of the average picture. That would just be ridiculous, and largely counter-intuitive to a society so reliant on verbal and textual communication. Simply outrageous. Simply, truly outrageous.
...You're not even reading this text, are you?
I’ve gone on about how games should strive to have better stories, and talked even more about how I think games should try to be more than just exercises in murder. If any genre had a chance of surpassing the medium’s expected limits, it’d be…well, role-playing games in general. Mass Effect has made a fine showing, and I have high hopes for Dragon Age: Inquisition, even with EA’s dark hand dipping into the mix. (I’ll have to be sure to make a female MC the next chance I get, because apparently that’s a stat that gets monitored and can send a message to devs.)
But more often than not, there’s something wild about the average JRPG. At its best, Japanese media has a “go anywhere, do anything” mentality, where even the most absurd concepts can find a healthy fanbase. Still, even if there’s a reputation for weirdness and “not making sense”, a good JRPG isn’t like some shifting alien starfish. It can still be -- and usually is -- grounded in some semblance of reality. There are basic concepts and mores that anyone can appreciate.
As always, the Tales games offer up a good example. Setting aside the fact that each installment goes to great lengths to flesh out its world(s) and conventions, it’s all based around the meeting, interaction, and synergy between disparate characters. To put it simply, they’re games that put the emphasis on heroes -- and friends, and family, and even lovers -- coming together, and just so happen to save the world. It’s a franchise self-aware enough to take jabs at itself -- and more seriously, put the genre’s prized tropes under the microscope -- but there’s an ideal, sincerity, and flat-out warmth that makes those games what they are.
Well, except for Dawn of the New World. But that doesn’t count.
For one reason or another, turn-based combat bears a cross the size of the average semi-truck amongst a lot of gamers. I’ve never had much of an issue with it -- which is why I’d argue that Final Fantasy 10 had some pretty satisfying combat, IMO -- but what matters is that each game differentiates itself from another by way of its systems. There are a thousand different ways to handle combat, and more often than not I find those answers of “How to make fighting fun” completely welcome. Real-time-combat; turn-based strategy; a hybridization; a mix of genres, from MMOs to fighters to shooters all the way to trading card games; there’s no limit to what can be done, and as a result it offers up plenty of chances for customization. You can create the experience you want.
And it IS an experience, more often than not. Not the “experience” so often spoken of by bigwigs at E3 presentations; I’m talking about a real adventure. You get to go on a journey, and see and hear things you never would have thought possible. Travel through a brave new world! Meet tons of interesting people! Learn something new! Take away lessons from a game -- a game, of all things! -- that you may never forget! In its purest form, I think that’s what a good JRPG is all about.
It’s just a shame that not all of them are good.
I’m going to take the high road and not pick on Final Fantasy, least of all its so-called Lightning Saga. But then again, I hardly need to. It seems like -- as with any given genre in any given medium -- the worst of the JRPG bunch are those that rely solely on clichés and archetypes without doing anything to break from the mold. Or if not that, there are those who hold those archetypes up as the gospel, and take them to extremes. It’s hard for a player to get grounded in anything when it’s occupied by a bunch of moon-people.
I’d prefer to leave the idea of otaku pandering out of it, but I’d be stupid to pretend that wasn’t a factor. Star Ocean: The Last Hope had some good ideas, but they ended up getting buried under a barge’s worth of stereotypical anime characters -- to the point where I can’t name a single female character that wasn’t utterly grating. Ar Tonelico Qoga was even worse, hinging the better part of the plot on what’s dangerously close to a harem…and certainly not helped by the combat revolving around stripping young ladies. And those are just some of the games I’ve tried, however unfortunately; there’s still a lot more out there that’s just as awful.
Record of Agarest War 2 comes to mind. I couldn’t even bring myself to finish the hour-long demo, because even if the game managed to rise above its tripe-filled beginning, I didn’t have the patience to sit through it. (It didn’t help that the majority of the game’s budget went toward making an opening sequence with idol-singing, with one of said idols being more than a little bouncy...and apparently, a solid two feet taller than her moe pink-haired partner.) But worse yet, it couldn’t even deliver on compelling gameplay. Oh sure, it had a bunch of inputs and gauges and options, but in my experience -- and based on testimony elsewhere -- you could safely ignore all of it and button-mash. It’s perfect for focusing on the built-in marriage mechanic, right?
Good gameplay can potentially save a bad story, and vice versa. But even so, if the gameplay of a video game isn’t up to par, then can it really be excused? I suspect not; otherwise, Phantasy Star Universe would have made much bigger waves than it did, and not be an embarrassment at best thanks to a double-whammy of bad gameplay and a bad story. (Seriously, does anybody remember that game? I just did, to be honest.) A JRPG that forgets that it’s about the journey -- about progression, and gaining something new and valuable with each step taken -- might as well leap straight into the bargain bin. Assuming that it missed the dumpster first.
That’s about where I stand. But I wouldn’t mind getting some fresh perspectives -- so the rest of this post belongs to you guys. Feel free to weigh in on the question at hand: what’s the deal with JRPGs? Why have they had the effect they’ve had on gamers? Is their decline deserved? What makes them good? What makes them bad? And if you dare, do you think even the best among them were good in the first place?
You know what it’s time for. Draw your swords, dear readers. Ready? Set…comm-
Yikesy mikesy. Green is such a cool color.
…You know, it’s gonna be weird, knowing that I’ve now got a folder on my computer filled with Christina Hendricks pictures. I guess I’ll have to counterbalance it with a folder full of Alyson Hannigan pictures. She’s the best ever, and I’ll field no debate on the subject.
Wait, why am I talking about this? Oh, right. Because I’m dumb and silly.