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Alright, I’ll admit it. I’m a bit of a JRPG tragic.

There, I said it. I’m not ashamed of it. But who can blame me? I grew up with some of the best console RPG titles to ever grace the chips of a cartridge. Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Phantasy Star, Secret of Mana – the list goes on. Every generation since the NES has given gamers a plethora of fantastic stories, great characters, and extraordinarily eccentric villains. What fan could forget Kefka from FF3?

But lately the quality of current generation JRPGs leave something to be desired. Whether its a sloppy story, terrible coding or simply too much of the same, nothing that has released on the big 3 has provided a completely satisfying experience. What’s going on devs? What’s happened to the genre of exploring, grinding, fighting and reading?

JRPGs seem to be at a crossroads. The increasing number of critics taking apart the usual suspects of convoluted story and questionable battle systems have put developers in a strange position. Do we continue on the classic path or do we completely revise the systems. But in whatever way the developers have changed things for the HD generation, none of them have seemed to work. Let’s take a look at the major developer’s offerings and see what happened.

Square Enix/ Tri-Ace

Square were originally renowned for quality titles. They would spend ridiculous amounts of time perfecting every element of their titles – the story, the music, the gameplay. Each title would push the boundaries just that little bit more, and provide a fantastic gaming experience. From the first Final Fantasy till number 12 on the PS2, Square was in a golden age.

Then something happened. It merged with Enix and started to increase its workload. Originally the owner of a sole IP, Square started developing new titles. It signed agreements with Microsoft to make exclusive and first run titles, and delved into handhelds for the first time.

It should also be noted that two of its major releases over the past few years – Star Ocean: TLH and Infinite Undiscovery were both developed by Tri-Ace, but published and fine tuned by Square. Enix originally owned the IP for Star Ocean, thus held onto publishing rights after the merger.

The other thing it did, unfortunately, was completely lose the plot. Every title released so far by Square has been a disaster in one way or another. The Last Remnant was a complete Q&A nightmare. The engine suffered from severe framerate, graphics and glitching problems. Other issues with game balance and an overwhelming number of cut scenes arose. Infinite Undiscovery was panned for its terrible cast, voice acting, graphics and battle system.

Star Ocean: The Last Hope is, fortunately, somewhat of a jewel in the mud. While it is definitely a much better game then any of the other releases, it still suffered from questionable story arcs and voice acting. The game plays well, but it doesn’t feel like an evolution, rather an upgrade. In all, it just feels like the passion has given way to pumping out the titles.

But when it comes down to it, the mainstay of Square has always been Final Fantasy. FF13 and its quasi-sequel are stated to be released this year in Japan and next year in the rest of the world. Only time will tell if Square can redeem itself and rise above once again.

Mistwalker

Mistwalker was essentially established by an ex-Square employee in conjunction with MGS to create Xbox only JRPGs to help break into the Japanese market. While the company also creates titles for the Nintendo DS, those development duties are outsourced, with Mistwalker focusing on the story, music and artwork components of the titles.

Mistwalker have released two titles for the Xbox 360 – Lost Odyssey and Blue Dragon. Both games, while both somewhat well received, were criticized for the same reasons. Lost Odyssey was thought to be let down by re-creating almost any RPG of the previous generation, dropping in some nice graphics, a melancholy lead character and a few short stories. The result was nothing out of the ordinary, with a samey battle system and random battles.

The imagination wasn’t there. Blue Dragon also suffered from the same disease – everything was too familiar, too repetitive, like you had played it a hundred times before. Mistwalker defended their titles and methods, noting that people would rather play with what they know, rather then with a potentially game breaking mechanic. While true, their games suffered from a worse fate then those of Square’s; being one of obscurity.

People don’t want to play the same game twice. JRPG’s evolved during the NES years, the SNES years, the PSX and PS2 years. We got past random battles, poorly designed puzzles and “Magical Villain with an extraordinary twist” storylines. Why should we be willing to play games in 2009 that we did back in 1999? Mistwalker is on the right track, and are packing some great talent, so it will be interesting to see what they come up with in future.

tri-Crescendo

Tri-Crescendo are essentially an independent studio with elements from other companies, namely Tri-Ace and Square Enix. Similar to other recently established studios, they are beginning a new theme via creating more experimental games then what you would normally see out of the larger dev houses.

Tri-C’s only game of real note was the moderately well received Eternal Sonata. It was obvious with this title that Tri-C were trying to prove something, by developing a brand new IP with some very strange plot points. What eventually developed was a game with an dreadfully average story based around a bad dream and a classical pianist, coupled with a forgettable cast, gorgeous soft-tone graphics and amazing musical score. Certainly a mixed bag if there ever was one.

I didn’t know what to make of the game, and neither did critics. Most rated it highly due to a respectfully fantastic battle system with interesting tactics (light/dark), but pooh-poohed its lack of difficulty, plain story and well, lack of any new elements. The game played like any other JRPG, which lumped it into the same territory as its brethren.

Eternal Sonata was a good example of how the arena has changed. A game like this would have been welcomed with open arms a few years before, but not now. Just like with Mistwalker, Tri-C took what worked and ran with it. There is nothing wrong with the game, but it doesn’t even try to re-invent the wheel, it just adds some nice rims. Without experimentation, creativity and the idea that innovation can produce results, we’re just left with the same old pap.

What about…?

Some other titles, like Tales of Vesperia, were released with a better reception then the large majority of the RPGs I mentioned, but I omitted them because they haven’t had a wide release. The other reason why is because they were the exception rather then the rule, and the rule is what leads the industry.

What about handhelds? Handhelds have stood the test of time, and it seems that almost every decent JRPG churned out in the last 5 years has ended up on the DS. Jim over at Destructoid had a bit of a idea why, but it’s a sad day when all the power and potential of a next-gen system is wasted and a DS can provide a better gaming experience.

Its an important crossroads for the noble storyteller right about now. The market is expanding, the opportunities are widening, and the time to be innovative has arrived. Companies can’t afford to release the same old, gamers demand something different. Thus, just like FF7 turned the JRPG on its head, so must a new title that is willing to release the shackles of its predecessors and stride into greatness.

Ignore the critics of this venerable genre. It has its faults, and it has its golden moments. Let’s just hope that some ingeneous developing over the next few years finds it moving towards the future, rather then playing it safe and looking back at the past.

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  1. I love the Tales series and i’ve always been disappointed at how most of them never made it over here.

  2. avatar macirex

    Hey,it seems you haven´t played Valkyria Chronicles, that SIR is a great Jrpg, the best this generation has offered so far..

  3. avatar Menchi

    You simply -must- play Valkyria Chronicles, while not technically an out-right JRPG, it still has many elements of the genre.

    It’s simply one of the best games released this gen, with the art style to match. A great story, with an actual interesting cast and a deep combat system.

    Try it, you’ll see what the fuss is about

  4. I think you above posters are confusing JRPG with JSRPG (Strategy RPG).

    They’re different. JSRPGs never went anywhere, and are still very much alive (see Disgaea, FF Tactics).

  5. @ Chris

    Final Fantasy Tactics is great. I would like to see a sequel closer to the original than the Advance versions. The Advance games are great, but they are quite a bit different from the original PSX game

  6. @Tim
    The new Tactics combined old-school FF with new school Tactics, and I kind of liked it. The problem is the stories and characters both sucked for the Advanced games, and the PSX Tactics had one of the best stories, and characters ever found in a game (the game had a damn bible of optional story!)

    A lot of people say the Advanced/PSX versions are very different, but other than “learning stuff through a weapon” instead of through a job/JP, I felt it was mostly the same.

  7. avatar Guy

    When looking carefully, one can see what really happened to JRPGS thus generation:
    Western RPGs

    Console owners were limited in the past to the same tried and true formula of JRPGs. They were never given the option to play the vastly superior western developed RPGs, as those were limited to the PC at first, and later on to the original JRPG-lacking XBOX (with games like KOTOR, Fable, Morrowind, Jade Empire etc…).

    This current generation is probably the first generation where JRPGs and Western RPGs are developed for the same consoles, and when one has to compare both, suddenly JRPGs seem extremely linear, lacking character or story depth and mostly childish in general (this obviously does not apply to all JRPGs).

    You might claim that nowadays JRPGs are not appealing because they don’t try to reinvent. But how come they appealed to you a while ago on the PS2 or the PS or the SNES? It was mostly the same.
    You were simply younger back then, less informed and less aware of other games. Better games. You hold a warm place for the good old JRPGs simply because if was part of your childhood, not because they were actuallly very good.

    People new to RPGs nowadays are not familiar with old JRPGs and therefore they can’t claim current JRPGs offer nothing new over their older iterations. But they still don’t fall for them. Why? For the exact reason offered above: they can play better Western RPGs on their console.

    • avatar Anonymous

      Uh..I played fighting and sports games ONLY on ps2 and ps1. I never played an RPG on those consoles. And when I bought the 360 a friend of mine convinced me to give RPGs a try. And JRPGs are way better than western RPGs. How do you explain that ? Faggot.

  8. I’d have to disagree Guy.

    I’ve been a fan of JRPGs through my childhood, teens and adulthood. I enjoy the storytelling nature of them, being involved in the situation that was created by the developer. I don’t need to customize myself to the ends of the earth, as you genuinely would in a Western RPG, thus that’s not why these games are appealing to people.

    It’s essentially the game version of a book. As you read, or play, you establish plot, learn about the characters, and essentially become emotionally involved in the story. It doesn’t matter if its on rails, its all about the tale being set out in front of you. How you move through the tale is up to you.

    Western RPGs follow the same route, but put more of a heavier focus on interactive dialogue and allowing you to shape your avatar. It doesn’t necessarily make the game better, its just another way to play.

    There’s DEFINITELY a market for these games, developers just need to stop being so damn sloppy.

  9. avatar McClellan

    Yea I totally feel you Jimmy. I don’t get to play many games but when I do I usually try to find something that gave me the same joy that the older Final Fantasy’s did. The last game I played was Lost Odyssey and it was good but you’re right.. nothing new or interesting. What about Tales of Vesperia (sp?) .. was that any good? The cell shading looked gorgeous.

    Here’s hoping FF13 will take some risks that pay off!

  10. avatar Name (Required)

    You have completely left out companies such as Gust, Nippon Ichi and Atlus, who have produced some fantastic games. The Atelier Iris series, Ar Tonelico, the Persona series, the Disgaea series…if you haven’t played these, then you’re missing out entirely.

  11. avatar Sims

    I agree with Name (required) on leaving out Atlus. Jimmy, you should definitely check out the Shin Megami Tensei series. The plots of the games are often dark, subversive, and not your standard JRPG fare. Gameplay is still turn-based with random encounters (except for the Persona series which lets you pick and choose your fights), but there’s a very unique addictive system for leveling up and the battles are very tactical and challenging. I would suggest starting with Persona 3 and Persona 4, and then move on to others if you like them.

  12. A few people have mentioned Persona 4/Atlus. I didn’t mention them because I was focusing on the next-gen systems, not the PS2/PSP/DS.

    None of the companies you listed have released JRPGs for the PS3/360/Wii either.

    There are some great titles on PS2, (like Rogue Galaxy and Persona 4) but like what was mentioned before, games like Disgaea are not JRPGs, they are JSTRATs.

  13. avatar Lave

    Square didn’t “delve into handhelds for the first time”, they’ve made games for the GBA, Wonderswan and so on for ages now. The earliest game I can remember them making is Final Fantasy Adventure (actually a rebranded Secret of Mana game I think) for the very first gameboy.

  14. avatar Edito

    its easy answer to the article title – THE JAPANESE JRPG DEVELOPERS SUPPORTED THE WRONG CONSOLE, we all kno where the home of JRPG is we can’t reject this or ignore… and belive me i think white knight chronicles will surpass all the released JRPGs and the upcoming ones (FFXIII no doubt and VERSUS???)

  15. avatar Jason

    Actually, I think the main problem with RPGs (but not the only by far) started with voice acting if you ask me. You see, before voice acting, you had to read what the characters were saying, and interpret it in the right tone, etc. So no matter what was written, it was never said poorly.

    Enter voice acting, and not only is there a problem with many games that the voice acting is simply bad, but it really draws upon the weakness of the writing in these games. When playing RPGs I find myself constantly thinking, “A real person would not say it like that, or at all.”

    If games are going to get better, developers need to take the writing for them more seriously and voice-acting needs to be a hell of a lot more discriminating. No more high-pitched annoying female voices, no more re-using the same voice actor several times over in the same game, and series.

    I think the problems are most likely broader than that. Video-gaming has become more of a business and there’s a lot of shoddy work out there. I honestly think that more pressure is placed on game designers to finish their products faster and cheaper than in the golden age.

    Take the recent Tales games for example. Abyss and Vesperia both started out amazingly, with solid gameplay, fun systems, interesting plots, good characters… but then they go on too long, and by the time the game is done the plots are tired, the quality of the dialogue has severely diminished, and you just want the games to end already.

    In my opinion FFX was the last JRPG masterpiece produced by Square. I’m currently playing Star Ocean IV, and while it’s better than the recent trash from Square-Enix, it’s no masterpiece. There’s poor voice acting at times, trash plots that are unnecessary to the game’s central thrust, annoyingly implausible situations, and a few design problems.

    The most frustrating part is that it seems like these gaming companies keep getting the hard parts right. They succeed in developing super graphics, bugs are not common, and the battle systems are typically fine for the most part. But they don’t seem to edit their plots, they hire stupid actors, etc.

    Here’s hoping they get their act together.

  16. avatar Dave

    What is hurting JRPGs is that, we believe we are in the future so we feel like we need future games. This is not the case. You see, cars operate on a system that has been around over a hundred years. The appearance has changed, along with the speed and flow, but the system has remained the same. Why has it not changed? For starters, everyone is comfortable with the car. Mechanics know how to fix them and everyone knows how to fill them with gas and change the oil, for the most part. Everyone knows where the gas peddle and steering wheel is; the only thing most people care about changing is the color or style of the model, and the size of the tires, engine, you name it! If Toyota started making AT-ST Walkers to transport us, it may seem really cool at first, but because the system is new, it will only be a matter of time before a multitude of problems come pouring in and a cry for camery’s and 4runners will return.

    No one that I know has ever (EVER) complained about turn based, music filled, epic battles, with awesome summons, spells, and LimitBreaks.

    Do you think RTS (Real time strategy) lovers would pissed if starcraft was turned into a turned based strategy game??? So why fuck with our system?? My Elementary school principle told me once, “Dave if you don’t like broccoli you will never like broccoli.” The point I’m making is that in 1987, a game system was born that attracted me. At the time, I wasn’t a hardcore gamer because I wasn’t attracted to real time type games. My point? I will never be attracted to real time games. Believe it or not, the JRPG system is ageless. I get excited when I see advertisements for turn based strategy, expecially old school Final Fantasy turn style. What ever in the world would make developers believe our brains would all of the sudden undergo metamorphosis when the PS3 came out?

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  17. As a JRPG nut I find myself continualyl going back to my SMT games (specifically DDS 1 & 2 and Lucifer’s Call). I know they aren’t the greatest of games and don’t push the boundaries nor are they exactly gripping. Yet I still love them.

    I love them because they have that certain japanese attitude which is also give to many of their films, that being – anything goes. I love that type of attitude where anything can happen and will be brought in a non-linear way that makes JRPG’s so damn cool to play.

    I’ll still see the best in many JRPG’s regardless of what happens.

  18. I ama actually mid-way through Crono trigger as this is typed. Unfortunately the PS3 has gotten very little JRPG love, so I have been unable to try out much of this generations offerings.

  19. avatar Novan Leon

    I don’t think the solution to the problem is changing the JRPG formula, the solution is staying true to the formula while finding ways to use the newest technology to enhance what is already tried and true. I don’t want my JRPG’s to be exactly the same every time, but I don’t want them to stray from the JRPG formula either. I love the classic games now as I loved them back in the day. I just feel like the game developers have lost their way. I just don’t feel the passion in their games any more. The first JRPG-ish game that really had an impact on me in many years was Valkyrie Chronicles, and that’s not even a true JRPG. At least someone out there still understands what it takes. My hopes are currently on White Knight Chronicles but I’m timid about geting my hopes up.

  20. avatar Ryujikun

    I enjoy a lot of different RPG’s. I’m a big fan of classic style JRPG as well as the newer games. I love the linear story more than make your own story though. I like games to take me somewhere, instead of me writing my own book. I probably like it like this because I also read books. I do like western RPG’s like Fable 1, KotOR 1 and 2. They definitely let me run through it mulitple times. Mass Effect is fantastic also, not done yet…main pc is down T_T. These games are more linear like JRPGs though. There is nothing wrong with open world games, write your own adventure, but I don’t get that much drive out of them yet, I need to play more of Oblivion to get used to that. There are a few adventure books that I read that had that feel to it, change to this page for this option type books. But like I said I like games to take me places because i’m not a good story teller myself lol

    I have to agree with Jason a bit. Once voice acting came into play a lot of awful voice acting came out which hurt a lot of games level. Maybe in the original language, (J standing for Japanese), they may have better actors but localization doesn’t always go well. Some voices you can get used to but there are those you can’t. When it was text-based you can clearly see errors if there was any, but little impeded your enjoyment. (ah classic horrible quick translations)

    Over all I’m still enjoying the games, and we need to keep the same old games as well as variety of new styles and gameplay. It’s big world and no one has the exact same taste in games.

  21. Not only voice acting, but cut-scenes as well. As soon as they started doing cut-scenes that were not utilizing the in-game engine, the game lost some of it’s immersion and charm. Developers began intentionally modeling their games after movies with voice acting and cinematics instead of upholding videogames as it’s own unique story-telling medium.

  22. Nothing has happened, that is why they tend to lean on the sucky side now. plain and simple.

  23. If that theory were true, people who are young and/or new to the genre would think the current JRPG’s are awesome. This just isn’t happening.

  24. avatar Dave

    Heres a good study that game developers should review. A new digital field system that is being installed in todays airliners is allowing airline pilots to see a digital layout of the terrain underneath them, even at dark! The system was initially developed with impeccable detail. The study taken showed most pilots got very distracted and confused by intense detail on the screen. The researchers found that when they simplified they system, it became substantially more effective and understandable. hmm.. sounds familiar..

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  25. avatar shaggyglasses

    @ guy

    you have a superiority complex

    @ everyone else

    define rpg… i get so confused when i bring up final fantasy tactics… people tell me its not a jrpg its actually a srpg. same with valkyria chronicles… not jrpg its an srpg.

    so what is a jrpg then. linear gameplay. linear story. last time i checked, oblivion was a very linear story. about oblivion, is it really a wrpg or an arpg (action rpg)? is mass effect a wrpg or arpg?

    nice article by the way

  26. avatar Guilherme

    What’s an J-RPG?, every-single console RPG but PC-ported ones?

    frankly, Final Fantasy is an “J”RPG as much as Doom is an “A”FPS.

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