As I sat back in my almighty gaming chair and prepared myself for another joyous day of social isolation, a thought struck me. When was the last time I played a good Japanese Role-Playing Game (JRPG) that was released in the last few years? This little nugget burrowed into my brain and refused to budge until I shifted myself to my computer and looked up a couple of recent-ish releases. And do you know what I found? I found a great deal of established gaming websites giving out a 5 or 6 out of 10 to recent JRPGs. This didn’t sit well with me.
After being fed a diet of classics from the Land of the Rising Sun as I was growing up such as Chrono Trigger, Skies of Arcadia and Final Fantasies 7 through 9, was the once-great genre becoming a thing of ridicule? It certainly didn’t help that whiny pubescent protagonist A and generic boobie anime lady B, both somehow appearing in what feels like every single game, were slowly destroying all sympathy anyone once held to the fate of JRPGs. Don’t even get me started on titles such as Hyperdimension Neptunia (yes, that is the name and yes, it is stupid) and Nier; both poster games of the decline in quality for different reasons.
Hyper-I’m-not-typing-that-title-again is all style over substance and even the style blows harder than a man with a bad snotty nose. Its over-reliance on corny anime stereotypes like annoying-yet-supposedly-cute, stoic-yet-actually-feels and the rest of the guff turns this clever idea of the characters representing the console war between PS3, Xbox and Wii into an unimaginably painful slogfest. The music is able to bring on bouts of tinnitus within the first few seconds of being on and the character designs themselves are so cliched, it feels like the makers just Googled ‘hawt anime chicks’ and copy-pasted them into the game.
On the other hand, Nier and its ilk are probably more worrying in their flaws than even Hyper-whatever-the-hell-it-is. For starters, the colour scheme is brown on grey everywhere, which automatically makes me think I’ve gone colourblind. Not a good start. It gets worse once you meet the characters who, instead of being chirpy annoying bundles of nerd-fantasy, are as dull as a four-hour lecture on the history of tax legislation. The gameplay is as stilted as a circus clown on wooden poles and actually reminds me of the comically bad Resident Evil, where your character could only move at 0.00001 mph in four directions, even when confronted by a slobbering brain-sucker. Animations are poor, dialogue is poor and I’m overall poorer for the experience.
However, for all of the negative comments I’ve made so far, I still believe that the future isn’t looking as bad as it could be thanks to the resurgence of the Final Fantasy series and the sheer power of the arguably cult Tales series. Although the latest Final Fantasy released (XIV if you’re not keeping count) is very much a turkey rather than a proud eagle, XIII and its sequel XIII-2 are actually very good gameplay-wise, particularly the battle system which I cannot praise enough. The graphics are what you’d expect; absolutely eye-meltingly good and the plots of both games, while not being as good as in the glory years of the original Playstation, stand up on their own in comparison to its competition. Meanwhile the latest Tales game, Tales of Xillia, has just hit shelves and is already promising to be another hit with the critics with its average score on Metacritic being 79 out of 100, which is a damn sight better than the paltry 45 out of 100 Hyper-thingy-ma-bob received.
But it’s not about reviews and numbers in essence. We need to talk about why JRPGs have become what they are seen as today: antiques based around 80s and 90s game design. It’s all down to two words: no evolution. In all the JRPGs I have played (and there have been a lot), 99% of them boil down to a simple formula: Emo kid goes on quest to save the world, meets love interest and cast of zany characters who, deep down, have secrets/feelings/whatever, everyone sorts their stuff out, beat big bad guy, world saved. Instead of having the same old story every time, why don’t we change it up? Have no love interest, lose the dead wood and make the bad guy something else other than a silver-haired Twilight reject. The die-hard gamers might complain but it’ll make things interesting again.
So then, in conclusion, are JRPGs becoming stagnant? Yes and no. While the whole emo-kid-goes-on-quest-with-other-stereotypes is becoming a joke, there is still a hope for JRPGs so long as they learn to evolve and explore new ideas rather than fall back on tired and worn-out formulae.