Can The JRPG Change Through Innovation, Or Is It Already Evolving?

Has the well of creativity run dry?

With the advent of Final Fantasy VII Remake in full swing, many I have spoken to about the subject are excited for the possibilities while also being worried how much will change. It’s only natural after all; a game that was part of their formative years is getting not just a cosmetic makeover, but the full works.

A large part of the concerns I have heard is surrounding the company behind the game. Square Enix have been moving away from the traditional Active Time Battle (or ATB) fighting system the series was once renowned for in favour of newer battle systems. You only need to look at how Final Fantasy XV is progressing to see the evidence of this shift. It’s not necessarily bad, but it is certainly divisive.

But in a sea of other RPGs now available, compared to their Western developed contemporaries, is Final Fantasy the last bastion of innovation in Japanese developed RPGs?

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Before I dig myself further into a hole with fans of the JRPG, it’s important to emphasise that, in my eyes at least, the definition of what a JRPG is has changed over the past decade. Many Western developed RPGs are adopting JRPG mechanics. A case in point would be last year’s Child of Light, developed by a small team using Ubisoft’s UbiArt engine.

If you just looked at the battle system alone, it seems as though it was completely lifted from Game Arts’ Grandia series. Battles are turn based, with the turn order depicted by a constantly moving bar that you can influence by performing certain attacks. Grandia did also allow for spacing and distance between characters to become a factor, adding another layer of depth to the battle system.

However, you need not look too far beyond the various digital stores to discover where innovation can be found in Western developed RPGs. Hand of Fate may act like a third-rate Batman: Arkham Asylum with its combat mechanics, but it’s choose your own adventure game board harkens back to the good old days of Fighting Fantasy – a series of single-player role playing gamebooks, with pages to turn to for progression.

Each level is a quest of its own that you have control over with the deck editor. Some cards even have conditions for removal, mostly through defeating certain encounters. It’s a formula that keeps you playing, but also shows that role playing can span multiple games, even if in this case the role you are playing is merely that of the adventurer.

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Enter Darkest Dungeon; a classic turn-based RPG with a twist. Your characters don’t actually matter too much as they’ll eventually descend into madness, and madness in this game means getting so many debuffs, up to and including the annoying trait of refusing to be healed, that they’ll shortly die soon afterwards. But when you manage to get that rag-tag party that breezes through dungeons, it soon becomes an intense struggle to keep your best warriors alive.

Even games that look back at the traditional computer RPGs like Baldur’s Gate or Neverwinter Nights have ways of innovating their own genre. Look no further than Divinity: Original Sin, perhaps the only game I’ve played where you can kill quest givers, have arguments with your playable companions and even commune with animals. Its universe is a little left-field, but the concepts found within are like little else before it.

Japanese RPG developers on the other hand are sticking quite close to their roots. Pokémon games have shown a little evolution (har de har) during the now sixth generation of games, but Mega Evolution is not drastically different enough in terms of battle systems. Persona, despite my unabashed love for the franchise, has not changed much mechanically since its revival on the PlayStation 2. I even have it on good authority that while the Tales series is “really good”, it hasn’t changed much at all.

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Even when game companies have tried for innovation in Japanese developed RPGs, it hasn’t always worked out well. For those who can manage to stomach the rather disturbing narrative surrounding The Witch & The Hundred Knight, what they’ll discover is a mediocre Diablo clone with an annoying stamina mechanic. Sure, Western developed RPGs turn out some stinkers too – just look at Sacred 3 – but it seems like a lot of Japanese companies are spiralling down the same path.

Then there are games like Bravely Default, perhaps the best thing Square Enix has done with turn-based mechanics in years. It introduced Brave and Default as two new gameplay mechanics that allow you to store up attacks or unleash your fury at the cost of turns. This balancing act single-handedly throws a spanner in the conventional turn-based RPG works, simply by distorting the order.

It’s a game that leads me back to the original subject for this article: Final Fantasy. Since Final Fantasy X, we’ve seen MMORPGs, real-time battle systems, and semi-automated battle systems in the sequels. Personally, I didn’t take to any Final Fantasy game beyond Final Fantasy X, but that opinion is entirely subjective. What I can’t honestly fault is that they’re trying to innovate, and it’s clear that some people have resonated with that level of originality more than others.

But maybe, just maybe, I’ve been looking at it wrong all this time.

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When seeing the state of Japanese developed RPGs, it’s easy to look at the battle system and declare it be too simple. This was a common theme when I asked people about this subject. All still enjoyed the likes of the Tales franchise, despite its lack of innovation.

Then it hit me. Persona proved that while its battle mechanics remain simple, it could carve out its own set of new twists and innovations thanks to the relationships system that differentiate itself from the Shin Megami Tensei franchise. As a result, Persona 5 is one of my most highly anticipated RPGs in years outside of the Final Fantasy series, even though I expect there to be a great deal of familiarity present within its combat.

So the next time someone says “Japanese developers don’t know how to innovate”, consider which developers have tried and failed to reinvent the wheel. Greatness is probably not far away. Then again, if something isn’t broken, it doesn’t need fixing. As long as Final Fantasy VII is as good to play in the remake as it was back when it launched on the PlayStation, we shouldn’t have much to worry about.

11 Comments

  1. As an avid fan of JRPG’s, I think a lot of it is going stale but I also think that is because they are serving Japan primarily and catering to demand.

    Final Fantasy is definitely the boldest JRPG series particularly when you take into account the 13 saga and 14 debacle. Level 5 have tried to be more adventurous with mixed results. Rogue Galaxy was a spectacular RPG but didn’t sell very well. WKC looked the part and had good MMO mechanics but the game wasn’t polished enough in each department.

    Persona is an awesome series but again each iteration is largely the same. Star Ocean also falls into that category and sadly we don’t see a great deal of Dragon Quest in the West.

    The Souls games are JRPGs and they have been the most innovative, groundbreaking games to come out of Japan for a long time.

    • Nothing wrong with “serving Japan”. It’s what some companies are good at.

      The problem is when they start trying to Westernise. You end up with FF13. Now, I quite enjoyed the first 2 games of that trilogy (the 3rd was a horrible mess), but they weren’t Final Fantasy games. And I suspect the reaction to them would have been a lot better if they weren’t labelled as such. A new “action” RPG from a Western company would have probably gone down a lot better.

      This past week or so I’ve been playing a lot of Disgaea D2. Pure JRPG (well, SJRPG, since that’s a thing). Graphics that wouldn’t wouldn’t upset a PS2. And just the same as the previous games. (Ok, there are some tweaks. They’ve not made it more complicated, thankfully, or dumbed it down. Just streamlined everything). And I’m loving it.

      Do people complain that much when this year’s version of some FPS franchise is almost exactly the same as the last? Or recycles maps from old games as DLC?

      Even the more obscure JRPGs are obviously selling enough to get translated (often with English voices too) and released in the West. Even when they’re only slightly evolving each time.

      • “Do people complain that much when this year’s version of some FPS franchise is almost exactly the same as the last? Or recycles maps from old games as DLC?”

        Yeah, they do (see any review of CoD etc). Changes nothing though as they still buy it regardless.

      • Actually, look on metacritic, and the critic reviews for something like CoD don’t seem to be punishing the games too badly for doing the same thing every year.

        User reviews seem to be split between good scores and bad scores on the grounds that “it’s just the same” or “it’s not exactly the same as my favourite one” or “I shouldn’t be allowed on the internet”.

        And why shouldn’t people still buy them? If they’re perfectly good games, why does it matter if they’re hardly the most innovative things ever?

        There’s the weird issue of critic reviews giving them a free pass when JRPGs seem to get punished for it. Which is obviously racism. ;)

      • I agree YD that there is nothing wrong for not changing a great deal. I think for Westerners, a lot of gamers will be daunted by the sheer size of Disgaea or Final Fantasy 14 on console.

        Final Fantasy 13 is a strange game. I really enjoyed the story, graphics, voice acting-practically every technical aspect apart from its gameplay. 13-2 was better in that department but its story was hackneyed beyond belief and Lightning Returns was awful.

        Final Fantasy 12 was one of the best games I ever played and a lot of it was experimental. I think the bigger companies in Japan can take a gamble or two and not take a heavy hit. NIS and Atlus stick to their guns because they know they have a solid audience and won’t change anything dramatically.

        As for the reference to FPS-COD in particular, Disgaea and Persona are very similar but with subtle differences that can change the whole dynamic of the game. COD on the other hand even when it does try to change subtle things, it is criticised for not changing the linear nature of the game.

        The Souls games were the biggest breath of fresh air to Japanese games for a long time. I think because of the overriding success, Dark Souls 3 and beyond can go stale especially considering what direction should the series take after Bloodborne.

  2. I do find the real time battles a lot more annoying that turn based, id rather FFVII Remake keeps them.

    • Is abandoning the turn based battles for the FF7 remake even a possibility? Could they really be that stupid?

      • Yes they can and it would take the essence, scale of battles away. Lining up against Weapon and seeing how small you were in comparison knowing you would need to summon your biggest to kill Weapon could only be done in turns. In real time, I fear it would be hack and slash.

        Crisis Core was great for that sort of thing. But FF7 was about strategy, maintaining items and health on your first time through certain points. I remember getting stuck in the Train Graveyard for a while because I was lvl 9, had barely any health and like 1 potion. Also, those ghosts were too op. Ahh good times, *boots up FF7*.

      • If they don’t screw it up by changing the battle system, they’ll go and find some other way.

        Maybe Knights of Round will be available as DLC for people who don’t want to spend ages trying to get it? Or everything in the Gold Saucer will be locked away behind an annoying “Want this? Buy the DLC!” message.

  3. Yes they could, question is will they?

    • No, the question is “should they?”. Or possibly “they should, but by how much?”

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