Home Editorial Phoenix Downs for a Genre: How to revive JRPGs

Recently, having taken a big break from Street Fighter IV and Dark Souls to do some real life stuff, I spent a lot of my in-between time playing a game I’d always meant to play but had never found the opportunity to obtain.

After Persona 4 Arena came out, it piqued my interest in the Persona series of games, and I nabbed Persona 3 FES from a friend.

You see, before I got into fighting games in the degree I’m into now, I cut my teeth on JRPGs like Final Fantasy, Breath of Fire, and the Mother series of games.

Nowadays, people prefer full-RPG type of games – Oblivion, Skyrim, and Fallout come to mind. There’s plenty of choice, a prominent replay factor in each of them, and huge, detailed worlds waiting to be explored. JRPG games tend to be more story-oriented, with style taking a precedent over substance, and traditional turn based or ATB battles being the norm over VATS or real time combat.

The fact that JRPGs have declined in quality is lamentable because I’ve always been a fan of JRPGs and, for me, they are not without their nostalgia factor, even if they’re in a polished or refined form like Persona 3 FES is. Of course, JRPGs didn’t fade away for no reason. There are a couple of factors that contributed to their receding popularity – but there are also solutions to those problems… ways future games can improve.


Where problems begin: no end in sight

First of all, the length. I’m 120 hours deep in Persona 3 and still haven’t beat it. I’m on the last boss, but after all that time I’m still not strong enough to defeat him. Totally unnecessary. It’s high time I moved on to different games and my motivation to play Persona 3 is nearly zero, knowing all I’m going to do is grind so I can be strong enough to beat the game. But I’m a masochist and I won’t be able to live with myself if I’ve started a game and haven’t finished it (and to Persona 3’s credit, I really dig the story and want to see the ending).

Final Fantasy XIII actually did grinding right. I never had to grind for any fight in the game and the last boss was challenging, but not a straight up level check. There’s no challenge involved in repeatedly fighting weak enemies for several hours just so a couple numbers are high enough for you to deal with some other numbers. Strategy and adaptation should be the basic principles of any RPG difficulty curve – this is to suggest that maybe traditional “leveling up” is outdated and should be replaced with something else.

Possible solution: Instead of levels being unlocked by gaining a gradually increasing amount of experience, they could be unlocked by completing challenges. Coupled with an in-game ‘suggested level’ indicator, you would be able to take on higher level challenges at a lower level, just like in traditional RPGs, but in the event story progression is locked by a difficult fight, you could level up to that point by taking on unique challenges instead of the same few groups of enemies like in RPGs of old.


… How was I supposed to know that?

Having to use a guide or playing through an already long game several times to 100% it and see everything is another factor common of JRPGs that I have to nitpick. Were it not for the fact that I had a lot of free time this summer, beating this game would take months, and when you use a guide basically all of the challenge and ingenuity you apply towards strategy disappears. And because of Persona’s day-by-day format, any time you do something during the daytime that lets you collect new Personas, that time is gone forever, as there are a finite number of days. You can’t take as long as you wish to go back and collect things you may have missed or finish quests that were left incomplete. It’s easy to waste time trying to figure out how the game works, quickly sealing away the possibility of finishing the game all the way through.

This isn’t a problem with games like Final Fantasy where you eventually gain something similar to an airship that lets you retrace every step you’ve taken in the journey, but it’s something to keep in mind when players want to platinum or 100% games. In my view, 100%ing a game should be less about repetition and more about completing difficult challenges and unlocking new content. In general, filling a game with obtuse easter eggs that could never be guessed without paying Prima isn’t the right way to create “content.”


Games can have good stories, too

Developers would be doing gamers a favor if they made more of an effort to establish coherent stories and interesting dialogue in RPGs, especially if they’re rife with cutscenes like FFXIII was. Too often I found myself making fun of Sazh, Snow, Hope, and the girls in FFXIII instead of sympathizing with their plight. Clearly that wasn’t their objective, but when everyone on screen continually muses about their feelings or makes melodramatic, meaningless statements almost as a rule, it’s hard to put yourself through the game. You can’t enjoy a jRPG for the battles alone. FFXIII had the battles going for it, but JRPGs are usually defined by both story and battle systems.

With that said, in games like FFXIII cutscenes are supposed to be a major part of the game, but if they’re all boring or insipid like in FFXIII they are basically dead space. Not every game can have a great story, which is fine – but it’s time for games to move beyond traditional put-down-the-controller cinematics and find a way to integrate them in a manner that keeps them interesting and allows them to be involved in the gameplay.

Possible solution:  cinematic fight cutscenes. To get a clearer idea of what I’m referring to, here’s a Resident Evil 4 “cutscene fight” that makes sure you’re still on your toes even during a part of the game that is heavily cinematic.

It’s out of the norm for JRPGs to feature fast button sequences, but since the genre is stagnant, can an attempt at moving beyond tropes really hurt? Cutscenes should find a way to allow inputs and actions to influence the dialogue or events taking place in the cutscene. For example, if in a traditional cutscene the party is sitting there talking, you should be able to do something other than just put the controller down and watch.

Most JRPGs provide you with a protagonist whom you name and give some basic characteristics, but for the genre to be revitalized the trope of the set-in-stone traditional hero should evolve into something more unique and flexible, and cutscenes where your character can either listen attentively, contribute to the dialogue, or go off and do his own thing would be fresh for the genre.


Optimistic about the future

What I’m suggesting is a game that does away with the tedium involved with grinding, slow cutscenes, and drawn-out length. The elements that really make JRPGs great can remain intact – interesting dialogue, characters, and story, with engaging battles, and unforgettable music (I adore JRPG music).

Some of the changes, like dynamic cutscenes and structured challenges would also provide new room for experimentation. A greater problem is that JRPGs are still typically made by Japanese companies, who are usually pretty reluctant to change, but I use JRPG as a means of distinguishing games into their own genre, not to specifically label them as ‘Japanese’. An American company can make a JRPG as good as any; the problems and possible solutions are inherent to the genre itself.

With that said, I’m passionate about this topic and while I understand most people don’t typically have JRPGs on the brain nowadays, I’m interested to hear what people have to say about the genre. So come at me, bros! Let’s talk. Make a comment with some other suggestions and let’s see how we can bring the genre back to prominence.

13 replies to this post
  1. I agree. Grinding needs to go out the window. I don’t know who first got the impression that punishment and monotony are fun, but I do not subscribe.

    However, I feel like the cutscene problem is less the fault of the mechanism and more the fault of writers and translators. I have no problem with setting the controller down and seeing some exposition, and I appreciate that the cutscene, unlike other methods, ensures that the player has the information s/he needs to understand the rest of the story. But JRPGs have the (arguably) bad habit of having their cutscenes play out like soap operas. Throw in the translation to English and bad voice acting, and you’ve got a recipe of disaster.

    That said, I can eat up a good bit of the soap opera sap with a sturdy voice actor. I went totally, balls-out gay for Snow in FFXIII. And FFXIII-2. But, of course, even he was laughable at times. On the other hand, Vanille was atrocious, and I felt somewhat insulted that someone really believed my palate was so unrefined as to accept that crap through the rest of the game without complaint. (I did.)

    Having not had much experience with JRPGs recently, outside of FFXIII(-2) and Folklore, the main problem these days seems to be in character development. A major arc in FFXIII was Hope staring daggers at Snow and getting fussy about it to anyone else who would listen, yet I spent most of that time trying to figure out what he was so irritable about. When I did, I was… underwhelmed. Hope, man. Seriously? That’s it? Your mother got blown off a bridge by the FUCKING GOVERNMENT. Don’t blame Snow. Blame the man.

    In Folklore, the characters, both main and sub, lacked color. Most of them I couldn’t keep distinguished in my head which forced me to infer, every time a new conversation started, who my main character was talking to. Likewise, you have the choice, in Folklore, of changing between the two main characters after each chapter. I chose to play through solely as Keats for my first playthrough, and I found that Keats often assumed facts that had never been introduced. It was only when I played through some of the story with the other character Julia(?) that the holes were filled into the plot. They expected me to either play through as Julie first, or alternate between the two. Character and story development are so pivotal in JRPGs, yet the genre is simultaneously trying to be less linear. Which is fine. But the writers need to be conscious of the limitations inherent in non-linearity and accommodate them.

    Then, there are the FFX-2-esque changes made to FFXIII-2. Somewhere between FFXIII and -2, the designers lost sight of their audience. FFXIII, by-and-large, had substance and integrity in its exposition and characters; they had appeal for an aging audience, despite the cheese. FFXIII-2, though the gameplay is nice enough and the story isn’t terrible, makes use of story telling elements that don’t resonate with that same audience. In fact, they make me want to barf into Mog’s mouth and stuff his plastic ass so deep into Serah’s skanky snatch that I don’t have to see him or listen to his nails-on-chalkboard voice or letter-perfect pronunciation of “KU-PO” ever again. Somewhere along the line, someone got the impression that everyone interested in playing Final Fantasy sequels is a prepubescent girl. WHICH I AM NOT (anymore).

    Finally, your link to that RE4 video: (Spanish accent) I do not think it links what you think it links.

    • Nice use of colorful language there.

      Yeah, I agree with most of what you have said. The Hope thing in FFXIII was poorly done. And I agree with you – there’s a certain amount of soap opera stuff that I can deal with but after a certain point the game is making a parody of itself. By the time I beat the game, I was playing with my friends and we were basically just kicking back with some beers and making fun of everything. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to enjoy it otherwise.

      You do make a fair point though that writers and translators are partly to blame. That’s part of what I’m saying though – games can have good stories too. Where are the good writers? And can’t agree more with the blend of linear story-telling and less-linear gameplay that you alluded to. Another thing I think FFXIII did right – I don’t think it’s a bad thing to present you with a finite number of obstacles on your way to an objective in a totally linear path. This way, you can take down several diverse groups of enemies, each of which are for the most part different, allowing you to not only use a bunch of different strategies and get better at the game, but do enough battles and gain enough experience to have no trouble fighting subsequent bosses. “Free-roaming” in games like FFVII is pretty much an illusion. Stuff gets locked away or is otherwise too far beyond your characters’ levels to even think about going there.

      If JRPGs want to expand in terms of having games be less linear, then equal attention also needs to be paid to the story. Too many games invoke the sense of “time is running out” yet allow you to go and do whatever you please for as long as you like. Another game I’m going to talk up briefly – Mother 3 – does this properly because there is basically nothing else to do by the time you’re ready to beat the game. There’s pretty much 0 replayability in Mother 3 beyond no-heal challenges and etc., and all of the games’ content lies in its (superb) dialogue. Any “replay” you do of the game should just be you talking to anyone you didn’t talk to before, because they have great things to say, and besides, there isn’t a sense of “time is running out” (meteor in FFVII anyone?) so much as “once you get there, things will really begin”.

      It’s interesting to talk about because the facts are there – JRPGs in terms of innovation are a totally stagnant genre. Another game I played recently was Xenoblade Chronicles, which I have to say is a freakin’ amazing game but not necessarily in terms of groundbreaking new content – it’s just a solid JRPG and as I stated in the article I’ve got a soft spot for them. It’s extremely rare to play JRPGs that really open up new possibilities beyond character customization.

      Two more things: Yes, Snow in FFXIII was one of the best characters. Never really figured out his fascination with Serah but he was a pretty cool HERO type whom everyone basically shut down all the time. Poor guy. “We gotta win this!”

      And, yeah, haha, the link is being addressed and should be fixed soon. Thanks for the detailed reply!

  2. JRPGs are one of the oldest genres, so it’s no surprise there is no innovation at this point. They had already done most that they can do without making it a whole different type of game by the end fo the PS1 era.

    I agree with most of your points. Grinding should not be required to beat the final boss. There are a ton of interesting things you can do with levels to make it possible to win at low levels of exp.

    Length wise, I feel like a game should be beatable in 20-30 hours. Any longer than this is overkill, you don’t need that long to tell a story or to make it interesting. Once it starts to get longer than that I feel any replayability is gone; it’s just too much time to replay a game that is 60 hours long. On the flip side it seems most developers have taken the approach with all RPGs lately that if you can squeeze 100 hours into a game then it’s fine that you’ll never want to play it again.

    Japanese style RPGs will always be predictable, but what I feel makes a game good is:

    Good use of artstyle and other aesthetics
    SOundtrack (so important)
    gameplay feels solid and battles are engaging
    Side quests available steadily through out the game (I’m looking at you FF13)
    not too long and not too many cutscenes (no cutscene really needs to be longer than maybe 3 minutes)

  3. I played through Star Ocean 4 on 360 a while back. The pretty solid and fun battle system was the only reason I stayed through it. My favorite character in the end was the robot guy, because he had no personality. The storyline and characters were abysmal, and I hated everyone else in that game violently. This is coming from someone who kind of liked Tidus in FF10, even for all his derp moments and stuff. It’s probably because it was nice to get another hero (along with Zidane from FF9) who isn’t the quiet badass with a tortured soul.

    Anywho, I think JRPGs should be focusing on adopting a more strategic version of the Kingdom Hearts battle system. KH is fun, but it’s not really anything difficult, just fast-paced button mashing. I’d love to see the system slowed down a little and given more depth.

    • Sure enough. Tidus was a great hero. Not only was he not brooding, but he also was kept in the dark with the audience, which made his enlightenment all the more profound. The writers did a really great job making him relatable, if not likeable.

      On the other hand, nothing has ever made me lol like Squall yelling, “I’m not having anyone talk about me in the past tense!” then storming out of the room. If the slow-clap had been a thing back then, he would’ve gotten one from me.

      The battle system in KH was pretty rad–a bit simple for other games, but it made sense in a game that was intended to appeal to a wide audience. That said, I honestly spend most of my time, while playing modern FFs, wishing they would return to a turn-based system. FFXIIs gambit system was fun for a bit, but towards the end of the game especially, it was autopilot, and FFXIIIs paradigm system, while it can be fun in some of the more difficult fights, is usually dull and superfluous. (I’ve played through most of FFXIII-2 at this point using Com-Rav-Rav with no problems. I rarely need a Med or Sen, and Sab and Syn have proven almost completely useless, even in the harder fights.)

      I suppose KH worked because the combat system wasn’t really revolutionary; it was an evolution of the prescribed system. It’s like the designers thought, “Let’s make FFs combat real-time, and THAT’S IT.” And it worked. The same should probably be done for all (J)RPGs. Take what works, modify it slightly, so we don’t feel like we’re playing the same game over and over again, and ship it. You don’t need to blow our minds; just keep us entertained.

  4. For me Jrpg died with ff7 and ff8… Still waiting to see a remake in HD of ff7 and remaked textures and models, maybe with some extra content as well. Ff7 digged a good story and amazing gameplay like no other. Call me nostalgic but For now i stick to traditonal rpgs, quest based system till i see that remake.

      • Don’t judge me! I never had a Playstation 1. Plus I never really loved JRPGs, I’ve only ever finished two: Grandia 2, and Eternal Sonata. I couldn’t stomach FFXIII, my emulation file for Cronotrigger got corrupted (and I was far enough in that I didn’t want to start over) and the rest just didn’t resonate. I guess I finished Pokemon, if you consider it a JRPG, haha.

  5. And your reply function seems to be broken for me. (My previous post was supposed to go under Wingspan mentioning he hasn’t played FF7.)

    • Sorry about that, it’s actually not your fault. As an admin, I have the rights to reply to any post, but regular users (I call them plebs) can only reply to posts of a certain comment depth.

  6. I had a PlayStation 1 and never got to play FF7 on it. I did however find a PC version through The Pirate Bay. (Not that piracy is anything good)
    I’m a big JRPG fan, but FFXII and FFXIII weren’t as good as they could have been.
    Story wise: was too linier… (Maybe there’s an old sage in the mountains the group could have wandered off to find)
    Maps were too linier too, though they tried to fix that with FFXIII-2. time travel is a bad excuse.
    As for FFXII, the openness of the gameworld left a lot of room for exploration, but not a lot to find, and even then if you did find something cool, it had been badly nerfed (Excalibur for example).
    Interactive cut scenes is an excellent idea too, in fact I thought of a scene (from my own little world) where the main character gets bored and decided to ignore his talking friend. The interactivity being the press of a trigger button, details would be skipped and the story made funnier. Of course little bits would get through, trying to attract attention to the story but only so much that you might be interested in. Like where a hidden magical item might be found for example.
    Another could be for confrontation, the talking character realizes the main has stopped listening and goes to attack, a quick time event appears and the result varies…
    Of course posting this here won’t attract very much attention from the bigwigs, but there are ideas all over the interwebs worth looking for but rarely found.

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