JRPGs and What They’ve Become

I love watching trends in video games. Genres form and evolve, and it’s really interesting to watch how the threads move about and take shape. As you might’ve heard on the podcast, I’ve played a bunch of the Final Fantasy XV demo. To me, it’s the culmination of a decade of Final Fantasy games trying to push the genre forward.

I’ve made no secret of my feeling that JRPGs as a genre have gotten stale. The days of standing in a line selecting commands from a menu as the primary form of gameplay and watching canned animations play out is well behind the times. The formula is so well defined that you can boot up RPG Maker and whip up a functional JRPG over a weekend. Seeing “classic” JRPGs released in the states at all is fairly rare, now, doubly so on major modern consoles.

From the above, you’d think I hated JRPGs, and for a while in there I would’ve agreed with you. I think the technology has reached the point where interesting choices aren’t just doable in games, but important and expected, and the necessity of a turn-based combat system isn’t a technological limitation but a design choice. A great many JRPGs have unbending linear plots where the only choice you have is which NPCs to listen to in what order, and have a static turn-based combat system simply because that’s what the genre does. Having worked in MMOs, I’m strongly convinced that following genre conventions simply because they’re genre conventions is a fast way to a dead genre.

In the meantime, though, I’ve played the (truly excellent) Persona 3 and 4. These games are fascinating, because the core gameplay loop is not what you’d expect. Instead of wandering through areas with random encounters (ugh) or random wandering enemies that spawn a combat vignette (better), comprising the majority of your game time, Persona 3 and 4 are about time management. There are a vast number of things to do and a limited amount of time to do them in, and sometimes the things are of limited availability. The games are more about the stories of the characters against the backdrop of some calamity that you’re also dealing with than the forward press of Saving The World. You might save the world, but it almost feels incidental to the more important relationships you’re building. Both games also let you make some interesting choices– relatively shallow in scope, usually “who do I date” and “do I encourage or rebuff this person”, but the ramifications of those choices feel significant because they’re tied to a limited resource: time.

Persona games have taken the trope of JRPGs and combined them with a time management and dating sim. When you get into combat, it’s less about chipping away at an enemy’s health and more about exploiting their weaknesses– combat encounters are like a high-stakes puzzle game. The rest of the game focuses deeply on a single slice of life, where you get to know the people and the places in great detail.

At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got Final Fantasy, games about world-spanning adventure and various travels with a party who, ideally, become your friends. It’s almost like… wait for it… a road trip, really fitting for the newest upcoming installment of the series. The focus is on getting to see the sights and sounds of a great big world, and seeing a lot of variety in the process. I’ve commented before that I think that the MMORPG is the natural evolution of the JRPG– it’s a great big world that you adventure in alongside friends, and you level up and get better gear to fight bigger and badder monsters to see more of the world. The other evolution of the JRPG, the one that’s taken longer to form, are games like Mass Effect, taking the same basic construct and upping the fidelity of the story and the choices you can make in it, as well as a more modern, fast-paced combat system.

Final Fantasy has been pushing the boundaries of the genre almost since its inception. Every game is a different twist on character progression, combat mechanics, and so on. Action Combat has been something they’ve clearly wanted for a very long time– even before the prototypical spinoffs like Dirge of Cerberus, the fast-paced semi-turn-based combat of FFX-2 and Crisis Core, and the MMOs (XI and XIV) and MMO-alikes like FFXII, they’ve been incorporating the ATB (Active Time Battle) system, a way of timing your turns. They’ve previously acquiesced and allowed you to turn ATB off, and more recently have (I think) realized that that was holding back their attempts at advancing the genre.

Now we have FFXV, a game I’m surprisingly excited about. It’s Final Fantasy tone and style in a game I actually want to play, that feels like an evolution of the series (the culmination of 15-20 years of experimenting) and not a retread of existing ground. I’ve also got FFXIV’s expansion, the continuation of a slightly different evolutionary path and one that’s kept me hooked for far longer than I expected.

I’ve also got the upcoming Persona 5, which I’m unreasonably excited about for the music alone.

All of this is coming at a point in my life where I’m doing a lot of rebooting and starting over, which is itself reminiscent of things I did 10-15 years ago. It’s fitting, somehow, that I’d return to school and return to Final Fantasy in the same year.

Source: Digital Initiative
JRPGs and What They’ve Become

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