[THIS IS A RE-POST OF SOMETHING WRITTEN IN 2011]
For the longest time I’ve defended JRPGs, laughed off their transgressions, forgiven their quirks and idiosyncrasies, and positively lauded their often regressive design-philosophies. I was in the camp that didn’t necessarily jump for joy when SquareEnix took the Final Fantasy series towards a full voice cast. Oddly enough, in my staunch determination to uphold the values of a genre so often the butt of industry jokes, I’ve actually neglected the Western RPG as a genre itself (almost out of fear for liking it too much). I must confess however, I now side myself with those who cry out for a change to take place within the Japanese role-playing game. But not in the way you might think.
I actually believe that, for all SquareEnix’s horrendous schemes to milk the Final Fantasy series, as far as the main numbered iterations go, they’ve actually done a fairly good job of mixing up the battle system. The battle mechanics have always been the fallback for the Final Fantasy series insofar as, outside of scrolling through story dialogue, fighting is pretty much what’s for breakfast, lunch and tea. And to that end Square have recognised this. Of late, the last 7 or so main entries have shaken up the formula, with their latest, Final Fantasy XIII, going as far as to attempt to make visceral action relatively turn-based.
But this will not save them from some rather damning criticism. The wholesale removal of any form of exploration, need to converse/engage with the game-world, and total lack of choice when learning upgrades in FFXIII is nigh on unforgivable. But there was at least the evidence that they wanted to embrace a degree of change. It just so happens that all the choices made monumentally backfired.
I’ve been asking myself recently if I think the JRPG needs to evolve in line with its Western cousin? Whether the deeper sense of role-playing needs to be given weight? Some caution must be taken if we think down these lines. Take a Western RPG master like Bioware. While the original Mass Effect was certainly hewn from a PC heritage of stats and more stats, its follow up pushed all of the old-school hallmarks of the WRPG behind the scenes, favouring a straight-up third-person shooter experience being the game actually presented to the player. A similar thing happened to their other recent franchise, Dragon Age. You see, for all the enviable traits of the Western role-playing experience, one must also accept the baggage of the Western market; the fact that action-oriented gunplay is currently overlord, with minions, ‘drab-brown’ and ‘chest-high cover’ tagging along behind.
And so I find myself in a quandary. I certainly think that the JRPG needs a little bit of a shake up. But I certainly don’t think that lusting after the WRPG is the way to go about things. Japanese developers have proven they can ape Western genres with immense success (see Demon’s Souls) but that’s not to deny their own unique place in the grand scheme of things.
The conclusion I’m most happy with at the moment is one where I accept that the ‘next-gen’ world of progressive-fully-voiced-shooty-shooty-cover-system-dialogue-optioned-Westernised ‘role play’, is not a world the JRPG belongs in. And that’s no bad thing. It is the current desire to strive for modern relevance that is seeing the JRPG fall short. The genre itself seems suited to a particular period in technology, much like the side-scrolling platformer. Sure, newer tech can buff your game to a tasty shine, but the core mechanics need no such overhaul. Mario is Mario, today as much as he was back in 1981. Perhaps it is a move backwards, toward static backdrops and old-school fantasy, which will paradoxically confirm the future relevance of such a uniquely odd genre. SquareEnix are right to switch up their battle system. But their desire to change other aspects of their games has left them wanting. Invest new tech in devising new ways to battle in the most gentlemanly fashion, but house your progression in the trimmings of yesteryear. Such absurdity seems right at home.