How to Fix the JRPG
Anyone who has played Final Fantasy XIII probably recognizes it as Square Enix’s attempt to fix what is largely a stale, dying genre. Sure, there have been bright spots, but for the most part the genre is going the way of the adventure game: relegated to me too gameplay instead of innovation and new ideas. And this is a shame, because I’d hate to see the genre of roughly half my favorite games of all time go down the path of obsolescence.
Final Fantasy XIII, in my book, was a failure for a number of complex reasons, but we’ll try to sum it up. Put simply, it took the parts of the JRPG that needed innovation, the battle system, the linearity, and tried to work it into the framework of a first person shooter. Looking at XIII, it really is a Japanese take on Gears of War. To a Western eye, this might seem ludicrous, but think about it. Gears is all about a linear pathway, and in each room or hallway there is a cinematic fight, with quick tactical choices and teammates who you could order a bit, but who were pretty helpful. XIII worked the same way: linear pathways, and in each room a cinematic encounter with quick tactical choices and teammates who were, by and large, out of your control. Stories were told by the interaction of squad mates in cutscenes, with few outside influences.
That is one view of the modern JRPG. It is one I do not approve of.
There are many theories for the present decline of the JRPG. Bioware’s head honchos said, weeks ago now, that the reason was a lack of progress (http://kotaku.com/5430803/bioware-on-the-decline-of-the-jrpg) in the genre, which is kind of a cheap way of saying it. It’s especially ironic when you look at Bioware’s recent past/upcoming games, one of which was a retread of Baldur’s Gate (admittedly, a pretty fantastic one, but still hardly an evolution) and another of which is World of Warcraft cum Guild Wars set in the Star Wars universe. Admittedly, they were talking about Mass Effect 2 at the time, which does progress the genre of the Western RPG to an interesting place.
In fact, Mass Effect 2 is the perfect example. Mass Effect 2 is taking the genre of the Western RPG, stripping out the limited battle system made by emulating Dungeons and Dragons lock, stock, and barrel, and inserting a pretty fantastic new combat system. It removed a lot of the dead weight from the game and its genre, which was exactly what it needs.
The problem is, you get the impression that Square Enix (who I will pick on as head purveyors of the genre) doesn’t seem to understand that. While Bioware see the core of the RPG as the story, the choices, and the system as secondary, Square Enix and other Japanese developers seem to see the system as the core aspect, and the storyline and the choices and the world as extras, the fat to be chopped off. This was all but confirmed when one of Square Enix’s former writers (also of other companies) said that she was told games don’t need storylines (http://www.kotaku.com.au/2010/05/is-story-important-for-japanese-role-playing-games-ask-this-lady/).
This is an absolutely ludicrous idea. Basically, Japan is saying that people buy their games for grinding, for the thrilling, titillatingly simple combat, rather than for the story or for the progression. Admittedly, some games don’t pull off any of these aspects (*cough*), but I would say that most JRPGs I play that I enjoy succeed in all aspects.
If we’re looking at the blueprint of what the modern JRPG should offer, I present four almost completely unrelated games for your consideration. Changes need to be made, and these changes can be small, subtle things that will alter how we look at JRPGs slowly, but surely.
The first is Final Fantasy minus one number, or Final Fantasy XII. The tragedy of Final Fantasy XII was that, for all intents and purposes, it looked like it could have been the shining star, the game that showed us, hey, wait a minute, the JRPG is still viable, and stronger than ever. It’s original conception, led by Yasumi Matsuno, the creator of Final Fantasy Tactics (and Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, one of the most underrated strategy titles ever made, but I digress), could have been a fantastic, world beating game. When I play Final Fantasy XII, a game a surprising amount of the world despises, I see not what it is, a kind of disappointing mess of a game, and instead see the potential. The battle system is fast and fun, echoing Final Fantasy XIII’s future battle system, but from the demo (which featured a wait mode for battle) I could see the tactical aspect that was originally there.
The tactics were, of course, smothered in large part by the desire to craft something cinematic and pretty rather than something with depth. That is in large part the problem with the modern JRPG: games like Kingdom Hearts became popular with casual games because it was pretty and colorful and uncomplex, and now you have major companies deciding, our games should be pretty and not very difficult. If they could remove the gameplay parts and replace them with more story, a 60 hour long movie, they probably would.
But back to XII. I’m convinced Yasumi Matsuno, who was pretty obviously kicked off the project (a quest in the game basically says he was a bad man who led the development team astray) saw the problem. That the thing that would make the JRPG evolve in the way that Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts evolved it into oblivion was the opposite of KH’s approach. The thing to take from Gears of War wasn’t the linearity and the storytelling. The storytelling method worked in a game where the gameplay was visceral enough to propel you, but Final Fantasy, for all its talk, didn’t have that. Never did. No one ever talks about how epic things happened when they beat the final boss, only that they beat him. His role in the story was more important than the frictional challenge he represented.
I feel like he saw this and took a hard look at how his battle system should look. There needs to be a visceral thrill to it, there needs to be fear, there needs to be emotion. And not on screen, look my character is yelling â€˜Demon Fang!’ emotion, but the emotions of the player. He wanted to put the player more in scene than in previous Final Fantasy games, and decided this meant giving the player direct control over one character. There’d be friction and emotion, when your one player character was killed. There’d be more seat of your pants intense moments than in any of the other Final Fantasy games combined. Your allies would be squad-mates, and they would help you, and you’d be in fairly good direct control of them, but they would be automatons. AI controlled.
Obviously, no one liked this. No one liked his choice of a forty year old traitor as a protagonist, either. Bosch is the Gears of War influence wrapped into a little ball. He’s a traitor, escaping to fight one last battle to save the kingdom. He’s big and powerful and physical. By Japanese standards, he’s pretty ugly. He has a story, and he has a role in the story beyond that of a fragile outsider. He’s involved with all sorts of nasty stuff, conspiracies and crimes.
Most importantly, he wasn’t Tidus, and he wasn’t Sora, and while he was closer to Cloud than either of those two he was far away from what we remember Cloud as.
Final Fantasy XII is the country of Thailand. One foot squarely in revolution, the other foot squarely in trying to appease the old guard, put down the new guard. It has the feel of a game attempting brilliance, and then having some executives come in and paint over the brilliance with a sheen of acceptable.
It’s a common anecdote from Action Button’s Final Fantasy XII review, but when the game was released and one hopeful fan was allowed to ask Yoichi Wada a question, he said, Please remake Final Fantasy VII. Not even a question. Final Fantasy VII remake threads are the rage of the internet; when they pop up, the fanboys come running, from all corners. Gamers want a new Final Fantasy VII.
But do they? Really? It’s long been my assertion that VII was great for reasons completely unrelated to public perception. It wasn’t great because of Sephiroth, it wasn’t great because of Cloud, or Tifa’s enormous breasts, or anything, but it was great because of emotional urgency. Character death and a great villain may be a part of it, but it was great because you got the feeling of the care that the designers put into it. And that’s what’s important.
Returning to the topic a little, the question becomes, what is necessary to create a perfect JRPG? A modern equivalent of VII, or even of X, which pushed the genre into the modern day. While I feel like creating a modern battle system, one which has friction and tension and isn’t just a glorified movie of what happens in Gears of War, that’s not entirely it. There are other aspects that need to return.
The biggest of these is choice. Now, someone will say, But JRPGs have always been very linear! I will disagree with you, same as I did about the battle system. While a line of guys standing on both sides of the screen was the most efficient way to represent epic battles in the 8 and 16 bit eras, similarly, those yes/no questions where only one works was the closest they could come to open endedness in the small confines of a cartridge. Sure, your choice of wife in Dragon Quest V (possibly *the* most underrated game in the West, due to it not being released until it’s rather bland remake came out a few years ago) didn’t effect the story almost at all, but it was a way of giving the player some power to role play their character. You didn’t have to recruit everyone in the World of Ruin in FFVI. You chose who came with you into battle, and that’s a degree of open endedness. There couldn’t be an open world, or meaningful choices, because they didn’t have the time or the space.
The problem is, like the battle systems, this has been codified into the characteristics of a JRPG. If choice is offered, it treads the line to the Western RPG. There is an assumption that JRPG players don’t want complex moral choices, or branching plotlines, or open world gameplay; that what they want is linear corridors and clichÃ©d interactions between characters who have already starred in millions of anime series.
I’m not saying the JRPG has to become a Bioware game. That’d be silly, but what I want to see is multiple options for solving different scenes. Choices with far reaching consequences. Making the player do things. I want to see a game where I can choose whether or not to believe the boss who says he’s reformed, and I want that choice to mean something. I want to be given a problem that has multiple solutions, and then going to try to work it out some way or another, with other options opening or closing as time passes.
Naturally, this begins to stop sounding like a JRPG, and I’m sure a lot of people are saying, Well, what you think the JRPG should be is Gears of War with open ended choices. Not so, my friend. What I want is a battle system that is frictional, organic, and tactical, built upon an intelligently complex character development system (because, let’s be blunt: simplifying character development like in XIII still confuses new players, and irritates older players), coupled with a story where you make choices and push your will into the piece.
Bringing it back to the role playing, which is what, nominally, the genre was all about.