A couple of days I go wrote about the common elements in RPGs that I wasn’t really fond of, and JRPGs—that is Japanese RPGs—popped up a few times, both for good and bad reasons. Some people disagreed with my statements and we had a lovely discussion about it, but I realised today that no one argued the JRPG points.
So in contrast to the, mostly negative, overview of RPGs I gave on that article, I thought maybe we should take a closer look at JRPGs. What are its virtues and vices? If the phrasing seems familiar, then you probably read a similar article I did on adventure games some time ago. If you haven’t, go check it out, it’s a good one.
For today, I’m focusing on the positive aspects, the virtues of JRPGs. And to keep the list succinct, I’ll just explore the five things I like the most about JRPGs. Tomorrow, I’ll speak about the five I dislike the most!
Scale: JRPGs in general have massive scales. World ending threats, plots to wipe humanity from the face of the planet, plunge the world into an age of darkness, you name it. The protagonists start out small and make their way to becoming God-killing heroes, saving the world in the process or changing it irrevocably.
But beyond the story, the scale is also present in the encounters and challenges. By the end of most JRPGs, fighting dragons counts as a minor encounter, where these beasts usually represent final bosses in western RPGs (except Skyrim where most are just big mooks).
And that’s without even mentioning the giant environments you visit!
Final Fantasy titles are the best example of this. It’s fair to say that villains and threats in the FF series are never minor dictators, but evil bastards bent on world domination and destruction. Final Fantasy V even took it a step further and made the story a threat to two worlds! Chrono Trigger had a threat to the end of the world and the timeline itself.
Tales of Zestiria so far follows the same vein, but with a tiny twist. I’ve been playing it on one of my LawfulGeek Plays series, and it might be one of the few JRPGs I’ve played where dragons aren’t disposable enemies. But then again, in the context of Zestiria’s world, Dragons are world-shattering titans and I foolishly attempted to attack one…didn’t end well for me!
Vibrant Visuals: While western RPGs seem, for the most part, focused on photorealistic graphics, making characters and environments feel as life-like as possible, JRPG visual design goes from one extreme to the other without ever losing its epic scale and feeling.
Cel-shading or generally cartoonish visuals are common in Japanese RPG, with vibrant colours and beautiful art. But the brightness often hides dark subject matter and stories of genuine humanity. The lack of realism in the visuals doesn’t mean a lack of humanity in the stories. They are still plots of very human characters forming bonds and facing adversity, even if said adversity is a giant purple balloon of doom—that somehow they manage to make intimidating.
Final Fantasy and Dark Souls are two of the most famous photorealistic JRPGs out there, with Square abandoning the beautifully colourful visuals that made them famous a long time ago and From Software sticking to the formula that works really well for them. But let’s face it, if Dark Souls were Cel-shaded, it wouldn’t diminish the game in any way. The gameplay would still be the same awesome gameplay and the stories just as complex—and often impossible to decipher.
Chrono Trigger featured Akira Toriyama artwork and it’s still one of the most amazing RPGs ever made. The Ys series has never even attempted photorealism and it just rocks—even if I’m the only one who thinks so.
Finally I’ll mention one of the most famous and notable JRPG series to date: Megami Tensei. Persona is an amazing sub-series, and does it look realistic? Hell no, it’s highly colourful at times, sometimes with garish combinations of colours straight out of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. But it works!
Complex: Stories in JRPGs are rarely simple and even the games marketed at youngsters have wildly complex stories with all shades of morality, deep characters and situations that will make parents have awkward conversations with their children. That’s just how the Japanese roll. Just because the games might be for kids doesn’t mean they won’t go dark at times (Earthbound is one of the weirdest, most surreal and dark games out there and designed to make you feel miserable, distraught.).
And as the previous points, complexity also comes in its gameplay. For example, the combat is layered, with tons of interesting tidbits that together form a deeply strategic experience. The bonds between your characters sometimes become part of the mix and raising them, bringing them closer, improves the overall performance and even opens up new attack possibilities. Companions aren’t just people you romance, but their connection to you can also be central to the story and the underlying mechanics.
I can mention any number of games as examples but let’s go for one of my least favourites: Final Fantasy IX. Yes, I don’t like it, even though it’s a beloved game, but we’ll leave that for another time. Final Fantasy IX takes the rug from under you several times, changing up its villains and upping the scale every time. By the end you’re dealing with the real big bad and it involves the fate of two worlds. There are sacrifices, betrayals, forgiveness, redemption and much more in its plot.
In fact, you could say the same of most Final Fantasy titles. Can anyone say that Final Fantasy VIII was simple or shallow? Hell no, it was a brilliant game and its combat mechanics were wonderful, with its Draw mechanic, using enemy powers against them in ways only Blue Mages could do before.
Earthbound, as I’ve mentioned, is trippy as hell, and messes with you in ways you can’t even imagine. Its designer tailored everything in the game to screw with your head. If you felt miserable while playing it, if the combat frustrated you at any point, guess what, the creator wanted that to happen to you. There are lies at every junction, your partners have their own personalities and interact with the world with you. It’s weird, yes, but you form a deep connection with the cast.
Xenoblade Chronicles makes party affinity a major mechanic, the same way Persona 3 grants you more powers the more bonds you create with people. And these underlying mechanics have an effect on the plot, or at least your perception of it, creating partner and romances where perhaps there were none at the start. And their stories involved multiple worlds, gods and shaping universes. Nothing is ever simple.
Silly: While JRPGs can be very serious and dark, they can also be very silly and over the top. It’s not uncommon for Japanese Role Playing Games to have ludicrous moments, skits, and even slapstick humour. Just because the world is ending and humanity is coming to an end doesn’t mean you don’t have time for a joke. Lighten up, will ya?
From silly conversations and dumb side-stories to ludicrous enemies, JRPGs lift your spirits with these moments so you’re never bogged down by the misery you can feel in the story. These moments are refreshing and offer a temporary change in atmosphere, in feeling, and in doing so help sell the darkness of their stories more effectively. After all, the bad moments feel much stronger when you’ve also had good ones.
The Tales series is the prime example, with every game having dozens of skits where the characters play funny with each other. If you’ve seen any of my Zestiria episodes, you’ll notice these come at any time, even after dark revelations in the story or after a hardcore fight against an impossible enemy. Just because things aren’t looking up doesn’t mean you can’t have a sense of humour.
Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger had exaggerated facial expressions that made scenes hilarious, even if it’s one of the darkest stories in all of Final Fantasy, one where the villain actually freaking wins! Super Mario RPG went kinky in Princess Peach’s bedroom!
Lengthy: Japanese RPGs are usually very long, dwarfing their western counterparts. It’s not uncommon to have games nearing fifty or even hundreds of hours of play time just on the first playthrough, tripling that for completionists (like me) most of the time. There are dozens of things to find, nigh-unkillable side-bosses to vanquish and so much more.
The stories take a long time to tell, they’re rarely straightforward and have twist upon twist. The villains can change, you can have a former enemy join your party and then find out what the real threat is. The areas you explore have dozens of side stories but even the main quest in the area will take some time, even longer if you have to grind—which I don’t approve of, by the way.
By the end, when you’ve finished the game, you’ll remember the entire experience but never realise how much you’ve put into it.
How many of you have finished a From Software title in one sitting or in a week? Have you gone through Final Fantasy VII without taking a break? JRPGs are impossible to finish quickly. I finished Mass Effect during my Extra Life participation in about 7 hours. I would’ve needed several times that amount to finish even the shortest of JRPGs, which might just be one of the Ys games. Ys Origin is perhaps the only game I’ve come even remotely close to speedrunning and still it takes a lot of time.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky series is massive and it often takes me so, so, so long to finish a game that when I finally push my review onto the site, it’s been like two months since its release. Tales of Zestiria is going the same way at the moment.
See it this way. I record in 15-20 minute chunks for every episode, in average. I’m hitting the 80-episode mark this week and I’m still a long way to go. That’s a lot of bang for that buck!
It took me over six months to finish Xenoblade on the Wii. That says it all. I took a few breaks to take care of other games and other business, but even when I went back and pushed hard to the end, it still took me about two months.
Tomorrow, we’ll be looking at the five things I wished JRPGs would stop doing. There will of course be some overlap with the original article, but for the most part, I’m looking at other things, common JRPG tropes that have become slightly stale.
See you all tomorrow!