Improving JRPGs for the New Generation
The JRPG genre used to rule gaming, with some of the best games in history falling under this umbrella. But, as of late we have witnessed a decline of great role playing games from Japanese developers. We haven’t gotten a game as incredible as Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VII, or Persona 4 in a couple of years. This is widely attributed to the decline of the Japanese game market, but I think that the problem is with the genre itself. When the Xbox 360 and PS3 were initially released, there was talk from developers about how they didn’t know how to evolve the JRPG genre for the new consoles. The issue seemed to be how to advance gameplay so critiques of the genre not evolving could not be made. Where the PS2 and Xbox gave us the first games that could be fully rendered, and were capable of delivering more spectacle, the new consoles seemed to struggle with innovation. Titles like Final Fantasy XIII introduced new battle systems and showed off impressive spell effects and animation, but it was criticized for its linearity.
The JRPGs that did see critical and commercial success were those that simply delivered the gameplay of yester-year with flashy new graphics. Titles such as Ni No Kuni and Lost Odyssey were very traditional RPGs, with the renewed focus being on presentation and dramatic story telling. This is where the genre seems to be able to maintain its strengths, while also moving forward. While gameplay can be evolved and reimagined, and should be, the stories are what have always defined the games, so it’s the method of presentation that needs to continue to evolve. Ni No Kuni for example, was animated and written by studio Ghibli, the acclaimed Japanese animation studio. This gave the game a more cinematic feel, while also filling it with locations and characters unlike anything that had been seen before. While its gameplay was very reminiscent of the classic turn-based battles of yore, it added an extra foil through its monster switching system. This injected some of the Pokémon formula into the game, making it feel even more unique.
While I have touted story above evolution of gameplay, if it ain't broke don’t fix it, this doesn’t mean that developers will rest on their laurels and keep churning out the same game but with different coats of paint. Gameplay can be advanced but it needs to remember what it’s drawing its inspiration from so it doesn’t risk becoming something else altogether. Final Fantasy XV is a perfect example of this. The long awaited sequel has evolved from the turn-based battles of its predecessors, but it still features menu heavy, tactical gameplay, that keeps the player engaged in-between the drama filled story segments. The gameplay seems very familiar to that of Kingdom Hearts, a game that was a spin-off of the core Final Fantasy series. RPGs need to take the existing gameplay of the genre and put new spins on it, while also maintaining what made it great in the first place. This is what has kept franchises like Final Fantasy, Persona, Pokémon, Dragon Quest, and Kingdom Hearts relevant for so long.
The genre will keep expanding, but fewer people than ever are taking on the gargantuan task of creating these colossal games. While we do still see massive JRPG releases like Xenoblade Chronicles X, Persona 5, Final Fantasy XV, Dragon Quest XI, and Kingdom Hearts 3, we do not see as many new titles coming out of Japan. The industry is not dead, it is very much alive, but this is mostly due to the existence of beloved franchises that still have some life left in them yet. And while some may argue that the games haven’t evolved enough recently, they still have plenty of room to grow in terms of presentation, story, and gameplay. Hopefully this current generation can be remembered as a golden age of JRPGs, much like the days of the SNES were more than 20 years ago.