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 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 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.
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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