Yes, sadly it’s time to bid our farewells to the JRPG. It has been a very close and dear companion to many of us along our journey through the gaming world. The genre that included the incredible Final Fantasy VII, the charmingly captivating Grandia and the engrossing Chrono Trigger is dead. Why? Ask yourself; when did you last play a modern JRPG and come away from it with a smile on your face?
I’m sure we all remember the moment when Sephiroth drove his Masamune into Aeris, the piano kicked in and a tear rolled down our faces. Moments that we don’t forget, no matter how many other games we play. Old Japanese RPG’s are filled with these moments, I know I personally have many and I’m sure you have many of your own. The days when you could throw yourself into a game and the story would take you on an epic journey, you simply didn’t want to end. After all, that was what the JRPG was all about, telling a beautiful story and making you feel like you were part of it, like you lived it almost. Introducing you to characters that were so brilliantly defined and showing you worlds and locations that were breathtaking, despite the limitations of the pixelated graphics you experienced them with.
For me, a big part of the appeal was that the gameplay was simple on the surface, yet the game remained challenging. Most of the games I’m referring to would see you standing in a line, facing opponents standing in a line. You pick your action, the character performs it and the world keeps turning. It was simple and still offered the tactical challenge we needed. By keeping the gameplay simple, you enable the user to be fully taken in by the world around them and the story being told. They aren’t overburdened by tutorials and having to remember how to do X, Y and Z to defeat an opponent. Put simply, turn based battling was a perfect fit for the JRPG and whilst some games in the genre did stray and make it work (The Tales of Series is the best example) the best JRPGs had a simple, turn based battle system.
So why are we now in a world where, not only are there very few JRP’s ever produced; but the ones that do find there way to retail are completely unplayable? It’s not like they didn’t have the formula already laid out for them! I’m going to focus quite heavy on Square Enix and the Final Fantasy series, because it stands out as the series that has fallen furthest from greatness over recent years.
Many people often say that Final Fantasy X is the last true Final Fantasy. I tend to agree with them to a certain extent. Even though I liked the sphere grid system and the new things it did, I felt as though it was already quite a distance from what I knew and loved a Final Fantasy game to be. I think it’s safe to say that most people view the PS One as the golden era for Final Fantasy. Boasting FFVII, FFVIII, FFIX and eventually FFVI, the PS One had the cream of the crop. Final Fantasy VII in particular is hailed as the shining high point in the series. Which is interesting, when you think that the game really didn’t push the envelope out gameplay wise. It was a turn based system and it utilised the materia system for magic and other abilities. It was simple to grasp and easy to play with. As I said earlier though, what this simple system enabled us as players to do, was to allow ourselves to be fully immersed in the brilliant story. It grabbed us and wouldn’t let go, giving us strong defined characters such as Cloud, Barrett and Tifa and showing us amazing locations such as Midgar and Cosmo Canyon, to name only a few.
I could go on about how great that era was for Final Fantasy and the JRPG, but I’d end up missing what I’m trying to say. Modern JRPGs are just not up to par. Final Fantasy started going rapidly downhill after 10. Whilst the titles in the series after FF X have their fans, the love for these games could be considered niche in comparison to the predecessors. Take FFXIII, here was a game that had fans of the series like myself, scouring the net for any piece of new information I could get my hands on everyday! Sadly, despite positive reviews, the game didn’t impress. Graphically, it was stunning and no game previously could compare, on console anyway. That’s where the praise ends unfortunately. Before, where a Final Fantasy game or any JRPG would allow users the ability to explore worlds at their whim, XIII stuck you on a path and wouldn’t let you deviate. Obviously, I’m not saying that JRPgs of old were open world or sandbox, that would be ridiculous. What I am saying though, is that you could at least go on a world map and walk to a town that wasn’t on your critical path! With XIII there was none of that, it was long straight corridor, after long straight corridor. This is only the tip of the iceberg, sadly.
It would have been at least bearable if the characters and story were decent right? Well, unfortunately here is where we come to the two slices of stale bread in our blandwich. The characters, bar one, could at best be described as annoying and at worst, hateful. The story? Well, if you were able to follow any of it, was completely forgettable. Put simply, this is not a Final Fantasy game, this is a modern JRPG.
What about other modern JRPGs? Sadly, there isn’t much to choose from! It seems as though developers are aware that now, it just isn’t what people want to play. Today’s gamer seems to want a more faster paced, or open game. There are games out there though for the JRPG enthusiast! You can indulge yourself in Hyperdimension Neptunia or Mugen Souls! These are but a few examples of a new wave of JRPGs that see a release and then get slated. For some reason, the JRPG of 2012 has to be completely mental and if you don’t know what I mean just go and look at the gameplay. We’ve gone from simple, beautiful, story driven games to cartoon-like, ridiculous, insanofests! (Pardon the ad libbing) Developers seem to be completely out of touch with what fans of these types of games want. We don’t want the drivel that is currently on our shelves. We want something beautiful, believable and engaging, that isn’t a linear, one button to win game like FF XIII. Go back to the roots, look at those old games that sold so well and are held in such high regard by millions.
I truly believe that were it not for games like the Tales of Series, we’d have seen the last of the true JRPGs. For me, it is but a matter of time before it becomes and long forgotten relic of gaming. The only saving grace, is that we can go back and play the old classics. Because even in todays, modern, high definition culture; a game like Final Fantasy VII is still as perfect now as it was 15 years ago.
What’s your favourite JRPG? Do you think that the modern offerings are good enough? Let me know, join the discussion on Twitter @DralZx