“The Year of …………” pt2 – Japanese RPG

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Unlike their western counterpart, Japanese RPG’s seem to be completely adrift in the vast sea of videogame genres… and with no clear bearing on their future. For the past ten years, there’s been a complete stagnation of the genre’s aesthetic, increasingly reduced to shallow cliches; whether it’s the Japanimation visual style or the traditional turn-based battle systems, it’s rare to see J-RPG’s forfeiting these conventions in favor of new approaches. And like the classic adventure genre in the mid-90’s, the Japanese current of RPG’s has become so entrenched its own design formalities that its audience has grown downright claustrophobic, fearing even the mildest form of innovation. Games like “Infinite Undiscovery” or “Last Remnant” show how even Square Enix, the giant RPG conglomerate, is desperate to find some sort of working formula for its new games, in the process going as far as copying elements from both Western-RPG’s and MMORPG’s.

However, despite all that, JRPG’s remain strong in Japan, with many titles being released every year: from “Valkyria Chronicles” to “Yakuza 2”, there are titles for all tastes. Maybe because of this fact, of all the categories I established in this exercise, this is one of the least disappointing. The following are two of the best examples of how the genre still survives to this day.

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Lost Odyssey” – Sakaguchi’s unyielding classic approach to roleplaying is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most heartfelt love letters to a videogame genre in recent memory. The idea that the designer that practically defined the genre 20 years before, can return to it, and subtly reinvent it, with an unflinching faith in his personal ideas and style, is one of the few thoughts that makes me have some faith in the videogame industry. “Lost Odyssey“, like the best “Final Fantasy’s”, is touching on an emotional level as few games can be, and that is something no other 2008 game can reclaim. That it boasts an elegant simplicity to its dramatic power only serves to show that even a game design model that’s two decades old can be used to tell the most heart warming stories… something which eludes even the most popular of game genres.

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Persona 3” – Even though it is one of the less charismatic and unique entries in the “Shin Megami Tensei” series, “Persona 3” still manages to be a thoroughly fresh and original J-RPG – a rare compliment in such a monolithic genre. Its unique merging of Japanese adventure games with traditional J-RPG combat ends up delivering a near perfect mix of the bizarre, virtuous aesthetic that the series has became known for, with a pop-art feast of incredibly enjoyable gameplay. That delicate mix is what eventually saves the game from the limitations of the genre where it’s foundations lie, in the process defining a new, stylized RPG model that manages to resonate with both eastern and western audiences.

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Biggest Letdown  – “Odin Sphere” – “Odin Sphere”, the spiritual successor to “Princess Crown”, is a game of profound beauty and charm… yet, it’s one that never translates it to its interactive dimension. A strange hybrid of side-scrolling brawlers and role playing, the game ends up neither presenting interesting avenues for an action game, nor showing a refined version of the RPG mechanics it implements. As a matter of fact, it gets the worst of both worlds: a simplistic action-game that neither shows the entertainment immediacy associated with good arcade games, nor the long term enjoyment guaranteed by tactical nuances and character development associated with RPG’s. And the absurd, unnatural length of the game, which clashes deeply with its action’s arcade roots, makes it even more unbearable and repetitive than most RPG’s – it turns an exquisite work of  art feel like a boring grind. The potential of the game, both in its aesthetic and narrative work, is just squandered, only to be appreciated by those who are willing to traverse the same scenarios for dozens of hours, in order to enjoy some of the finest 2D sprites and scenery ever to grace a PS2 game…

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Despite the numerous quality RPG’s to have been released in the past year, I do not believe any of them present a solution to the conundrum faced by RPG designers. Sakaguchi’s old-school approach failed to connect with audiences, probably because of its platform, the lack of a franchise name to back it up, and above all, because what sets it apart from every other RPG isn’t immediately visible. The subtle nuances that made “1000 Years of Dreams” a memorable storytelling vehicle were clearly not understood, being mostly dismissed by both players and critics. It saddens me to say that if Sakaguchi (once a fan-favorite designer) maintains his re-rendering of traditional RPG semantics, he will be forced to develop his games on a smaller scale, with modest production levels – a path which Mistwalker’s DS outings, “ASH: Archaic Sealed Heat”, “Away Shuffle Dungeon” and “Blue Dragon Plus” hint at.

On the other hand, “Persona 3” does show the reforming verve that the genre desperately needs. However, its spike of creativity already seems to have been misplaced in the upcoming “Persona 4”, which replicates the exact same design model. The fact that they released the fourth title one year after the first (despite the big hiatus between previous entries), begs the question: how many yearly “Persona’s” can Atlus come up with before the formula wears out? It seems the companies still don’t understand that what’s killing the genre, and by extent, their business, is the constant rehashing of the same game…. which doesn’t leave a pretty picture for 2009.

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  • Comments (2)
  1. I agree. The Japanese Role Playing Game has not shown clear signs of evolution; instead, it is very attached to its roots. In spite of that I need to say, in is defense, that it is hard to make great improvements on such an improved genre. While the first JRPGs appeared on the Famicom, it was during the 16-Bit and 32-Bit days that they evolved into something superior, captivating large audiences throughout the world. The last two generations were clearly unable to provide a similar growth, albeit some wonderful exceptions.

    I think that great ideas derive from the creative brainstorms behind most of the current JRPG games, but you can clearly see that the premise is never matched by the game proper. Perhaps the creators have arrived to the tragic and inevitable conclusion that there’s a very precarious balance when creating this sort of game, a thin line between what is acceptable and inacceptable. Maybe keeping it in touch with its natural roots is the only way to preserve it.

    Other games such as Yakuza 2 – one I enjoyed a lot unlike the other games you delved into – provide uneven JRPG elements to a hybrid between street brawler, action adventure game and RPG. Different elements have been tweaked, even in games from Square-Enix, but the results were not always satisfactory. We are, after all, discussing a very specific sub-category of games: like in different mediums, sub-categories are determined by specific attributes that create, altogether, an expressive model. See kid’s literature, for instance: has it evolved that much as a sub literary genre? In fact, no: you see illustrations and vocabulary become more in tune with the present trends, but what has changed from the days of bed-time storytelling?

    Personally I think that this issue applies to the present-day industry: we are at a point where videogame production require larger investments, therefore lower risks. But risks need to be taken in order to go further. JRPGs seem to be lost somewhere between a thick maze of formalities and fan service. On the one hand I feel like saying that we require more than great visuals or epic soundtracks; yet even if the biggest stage drama was to be reenacted in such a videogame, what sense would it make to have Hamlet slay King Claudius in a turn-based battle just for EXP points and a new sword? – what I’m trying to say is that maybe we can’t ask for certain levels of consistency in a genre that is defined by game rules and concepts of interaction that defy coherence.

    Thanks for the text. Please don’t comment on my comments!

    • ruicraveirinha
    • January 21st, 2009

    I agree with what you’re saying. I believe that the notion of what defines a RPG needs to be changed, just as the notion of what once defined an adventure game mutated. If The genre is to maintain the strictest of notions of what defines it, then it’s basically condemning its appeal to a slow, yet steady slope of decay.

    Perhaps this is an awkward view, but I think that the more a work fits in a genre, the more it’s probable to feel predictable, constrained, derivative. Game designers need to understand that a genre is defined by more than just its many cliches. They need to start designing new games without bothering if it fits or not a certain category – let the critics judge what is, or is not an RPG. Because if they follow the rules of what defines an RPG, they are basically guiding themselves by what has been done before, thus limiting their creativity and their chance at doing something new. Because a genre has ideas, concepts, design philosophies, that go way beyond the minuscule scope of its formal requirements.

    Yakuza for instance, does not show the majority of formalities that come with the RPG territory: it lacks the anime aesthetic, the sci-fi/fantasy setting, a straight experience system, etc. It’s original, has a different type of battle system, has a different narrative style, etc. But despite all the differences towards the genre, it feels like an RPG to me, because it maintains its focus on character evolution, adventure elements, and linear narrative. Is it still an “RPG”? Is it an non-linear action-adventure game? Is it a brawler? Does it even matter?

    I want to see crime novel RPG’s with noir aesthetic, adventure elements and shooting battle systems. I want to see historical RPG’s, with well written political intrigue and strategic battle systems. I want to see sci-fi RPG’s that are really sci-fi and have starships and laser cannons in their battle systems. I want to see a western RPG with no magic, no spunky anime characters, and a lot of sheriffs and robbers…

    I want to see new RPG’s… is that much to ask?

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