So you are a shy, but adventurous young boy who, by fate, lost your sister by an evil guy who simultaneously has some sinister plan to destroy the world you live in. You, of course, go on a quest to avenge your sister and save the day, and in the way, meet some very weird people that has nothing better to do than accompanying you to bring an end to that evil guy. You come to realize the world is full of hideous creatures that leave money and items once they’re defeated, and that there are a lot of places that nobody knows who built, which are full of traps, treasure chests and a massive vicious creature who fights the occasional adventurer for a living. That is the Japanese RPG in a nutshell.
You know, I love Japan, and everything that comes from there. Name it manga, anime, the idea of naive sexy school girls or Japanese RPGs, I’m all for Japanese paraphernalia, but you have to be honest and realize JRPGs have grown stale in the last decade, sticking to aging traditions and losing countless gamers every day.
RPGs by nature, are geeky, and only a fraction of the gaming community have the patience to go through a whole game, but in a dynamically changing world, where today’s hot stuff is tomorrow’s outdated gimmick, JRPGs has become only a niche genre, played by the most devoted fans who even having wives (they wish) and boring jobs find 70 hours to spend in saving an alien world.
In contrast, Western RPGs have changed at the same pace of the industry; they have become a lot more action oriented, they don’t rely on leveling up, they are fast-paced cinematographic experiences instead of melodramatic affairs, they try not to have dull moments, and above everything, they keep evolving.
Take Tales of Vesperia, for instance. Try to tell at least five important improvements over Tales of Symphonia. They’re both great games for sure, but they’re also almost the same game, and Vesperia is a whole generation ahead of Symphonia. Conversely, Mass Effect 2 features a vast array of enhancements and additions over its predecessor, it feels completely fresh, and a whole lot better. Japanese RPGs have been relying too much on the same formula for the past decade and have made only a few changes, most significantly in the battle systems. Name it Lost Odyssey, Eternal Sonata or Star Ocean; they boast the same structure, the same narrative, the same one-dimensional conversations, the same fire/snow/desert/cave scenarios, and the lack of relevance in the way you play the game. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still great games, but they’re not so different from Chrono Trigger or FFIV. More importantly, they’re not letting us get into the role of a hero, while their western counterparts do.
So while this genre is still pretty hot in Japan, its clearly losing its costumers here in the west. With the exception of Final Fantasy XIII (which takes a lot from western action games), every western RPG has outsold those from the land of the rising sun. But what could japanese developers do in order to properly evolve our beloved genre?
1. Change the stories. That means, try to change a little the unlikely young hero archetype, the evil villain who at the end turns out to be the father/brother/nanny of the hero, and the slow way the story unfolds. We, of course, are not asking for a frantic (and ultimately nonsensical) narrative like the one found in Modern Warfare 2, but something a lot more tight, not so vague between events, and that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Even with all the criticism it had, Final Fantasy XIII is a very good example of this. It retains a lot of aspects from its predecessors in terms of characters and dialogue, but it moves with a much smoother rhythm.
2. Let us take the role. You see, RPGs traditionally let you walk “freely” through the world and talk to everybody. But more often than not, the people give you the same lines, and your presence and/or actions have no effect on them. It’s like you practically don’t exist in that world (except for saving it at the end) and if you don’t exist, you’re not having a role. The approach made by The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Dragon Age: Origins and even Fable 2, is integral for a good sense of role-playing. It’s worth noting that Demon’s Souls is a great Japanese game that has effectively embraced this approach in a very original way.
3. Let the player beat the game without reaching Lvl.100. If you’re a RPG purist, you have no problem with leveling-up countless hours to reach the necessary level to beat the last boss. That’s good and all, but most of the people don’t have the will to do something like that; they’re either not that skilled, nor patient, or simply don’t have the time to achieve the grinding mayhem. And that’s a shame because everybody should be able to see the end of that epic story and that bunch of heroes they grew to love. Besides, even hardcore fans know leveling-up too much leads to ruining the experience of the game, and it’s almost like cheating. Mass Effect 2 is a great example of clever leveling-up.
4. Keep the thing Japanese, even with the western enhancements. We just want our RPGs to improve, to feel fresh again, and to sell so the genre won’t die. But we still love how incredibly weird and charming our Japanese games are. Maybe change little things people don’t dig easily around here, like the gay character Makoto (Enchanted Arms) or the pedophiliac relationship between Faize and Lymle (Star Ocean) or simply annoying kids like Rico and Rucha (Infinite Undiscovery). But we definitely don’t want a Marcus Fenix-like fellow as our lead character.
It’s simple, we love Japanese RPGs, but we want them to be better, so many more people would play them, and enjoy them like we do, and if they sell, they’ll produce more, with even better production values and gameplay innovations. In the end, it would benefit not only the industry, but us gamers.