Yesterday I spoke of the best things in Japanese Role-Playing Games aka JRPGs. I spoke of the scale, the length of the video games and how complex they are no matter their audience. But not everything about JRPGs is good and there are some common elements that annoy me to no end, so this time around I’m listing the five things I wish JRPGs stopped doing!
The Power of Friendship: I mentioned yesterday that JRPGs have complex characters and storylines, with surprisingly dark themes even if the game targets younger audiences.
While that is true, there is a common trend tied very closely to traditional roles and personalities in Japanese media—including television, films and books. That trend is, as the title suggest, the power of friendship. It’s not uncommon for JRPG characters to overcome impossible situations just by thinking of their friends, of feeling their ‘power’ with them. It can even trigger new abilities in the characters as they work as a group.
While a party solving problems is the basis of RPGs, the Japanese take it a step further and give the very bond between them—the camaraderie, the friendship—real power, one that affects the world around them.
Final Fantasy IV has one of the best examples of this, with rousing speeches of friendship and the prayers of the people of the world healing the party for their final battle. Final Fantasy IX does the same in the end as well.
Kingdom Hearts is all about the power of friendship. If you’re a Keyblade wielder and have at least one good friend, there’s a good chance you’ll survive everything!
Xenoblade Chronicles X on the other hand only uses the power of friendship for unlocking side-quests and at most give your main character a new skill. That’s about it.
Grinding: I mentioned this one on the first RPG article I wrote this week and I must mention it again.
JRPGs are perhaps infamous for grinding, for forcing you to fight endless monsters or repeat other in-game activities to the point of madness just so you can overcome a challenge. In these cases and these games, it’s not a matter of strategy or skillful playing but of numbers and if you’re failing, you simply don’t have the right ones!
Grinding can become frustrating, which often leads to players abandoning the games. Grinding is also an artificial way to pace the content, to make sure the length of the game is satisfactory. But instead of doing it by actually having a lot of content, they just up the challenge considerably between two story points. Veteran JRPG players will often grind from the start, racking up levels and stats while they hit the first few story points, making sure to always stay ahead of the game. The downside to this approach is that challenge will be lacking by the time they reach their objective.
Bravely Default is the game with the most grinding in the history of JRPGs and that is saying something, I know! This is a game where from one chapter to another the enemies can go up by 20-30 levels. Also adding to the frustration is the fact that encounters level up but the experience rewards are atrocious.
Final Fantasy II is the title in the series with the heaviest grind, but then again it’s a game where every attack you make, every bit of damage you receive and in general your actions in battle level up your individual skills. Taking many hits raised your hit points for example. So grinding was a necessity, so you could level up your skills enough to make them worthwhile.
Dark Souls II is the anti-grind, because once you’ve killed the same enemies a number of times—by either dying or leaving the area—they disappear forever. The game prevents you from grinding, forcing you to learn to play instead!
Tales of Zestiria and Chrono Trigger are very anti-grind. As long as you fight enough enemies on your way to the next story point, you’ll be fine. In Chrono Trigger this usually means starting fights with enemies in the rooms.
God-killers: I spoke yesterday of scale, and how in most JRPGs giant mythological beasts such as dragons are nothing but random monsters in the end, as the games take the players to legendary heights. The final boss is often a God or has Godlike powers. It’s not wrong to state that most JRPGs are about killing God.
While I don’t mind deicide one bit, it does become a predictable pattern, and once an element of your story becomes predictable, it doesn’t take much for the entire thing to follow suit. Your carefully woven story and pace will unravel and players will pick it apart mercilessly.
Xenoblade Chronicles has you killing one of the two primordial gods of the universe and remaking it. If that isn’t big enough, I don’t know what is.
Final Fantasy VI’s Kefka kills the old gods, remakes the world and becomes its new deity. You then kill him!
Dark Souls has your character, the Chosen Undead, killing a few gods in his quest to retrieve the Lord Souls, with the last one being the first God: Gwyn, Lord of Cinder.
Xenoblade Chronicles X and most Nihon Falcom games subvert this. Xenoblade Chronicles X has you fighting a man, not a deity. The big bads in the Ys series are often darkness-consumed people or mechanisms left by ancient civilisations. The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky has a super-computer as a final boss!
Unthreatening Villains: JRPGs have some of the best voice acting in the gaming industry, with strong protagonists and most importantly, villains with powerful presence and voices. It’s then a giant shame that most JRPG villains end up being so unthreatening.
They start out very well, hitting the right beats, being exactly as malicious as you’d expect, with just a few dashes of cruelty, raw power and charisma so that when you meet them, you’re shaking and following their every word. But then, they start underestimating you, fighting you only to toy with you and leave you, with clichéd phrases such as “become stronger for the next time we meet!”
And it happens so often that by the time you reach that final confrontation, you’ve lost all respect for the villain, because they were more preoccupied with creating dramatic tension than doing their job and beating you to a bloody pulp and killing you!
The villains in Nihon Falcom games, such as Ys and Legend of Heroes, suffer from this. You meet them many times over the course of the adventure and fight them of over and over but they never finish you, always leaving you there while they mock your weakness. It ends badly for them.
Tales of Zestiria—and I do apologise for bringing it up so much but I’m still playing it so it’s fresh on my mind—has this problem as well, with Heldalf saying that it’s not yet time for your battle. I didn’t know they leaked the script to the cast!
Kefka is the best counter example. The villain of Final Fantasy VI loves to play with you but get in his way and he will butcher you…or will poison you castle’s water reserves and kill your family. Don’t mess with Kefka!
Over-exposition: This one is the bane of JRPGs, the one common trend to end them all: the over-exposition.
Japanese games love to drown you in exposition. They want to tell you the plot, and then they spend the next few hours hammering it so far into your skull that you’ll start reciting it from memory. It’s very common to have NPCs repeat the same story point about three dozen times not even five minutes after your first heard about them.
Personally, it feels as though the writers were worried that you couldn’t grasp the story and characters and world, so they have to constantly remind you of what’s at stake. Trust in your audience a bit more. Over-exposition gets tiresome really fast, and players will get annoyed and the last thing you want to do as a writer is annoy your audience!
So far during my playthrough, Tales of Zestiria is guilty of this one (as is Xenoblade Chronicles, Xenoblade Chronicles X, most Final Fantasy titles and even Ys), with the characters repeating plot points ever few minutes, even if they’ve already done so many times in the past. It gets to a point where it starts feeling a bit condescending, as if the developers assumed you wouldn’t be smart enough to follow their plot.
Dark Souls on the other hand drops you off the deep end and lets you figure things out on your own. If you pick up the plot or not is up to you. They don’t even bother with exposition, save for a few snippets of conversations, but instead leave it to their world and items to tell the stories. While this approach is not without its faults, the primary one being that your protagonist often has very little motivation to pursue the main plot, it is a refreshing change of pace.
Chrono Trigger is another JRPG title that skims on the exposition. It’s there, believe me and there are some walls of text explaining things, but they rarely go over familiar ground a second time, unless it’s a new character explaining things and they assume you don’t know anything. But that is forgivable as it’s just characterisation.
So with that I end my view on JRPGs. Maybe next time I’ll look into Western RPGs and what they do right and wrong!
Sound off in the comments if you’d like that!