JRPGs are a somewhat divisive game genre, to say the least, and there are a lot of people out there who won’t even give them the time of day — usually due to misconceptions that haven’t been even a little bit accurate for quite some time. In fact, we explored some of these reasons a few weeks back and got some interesting answers.
Today I’d like to look at it from a personal perspective, and give you the top reasons why JRPGs have been a favorite genre of mine for a very long time now — despite the fact that I was a relative latecomer to the genre as a whole. You may share some of these feelings, you may violently oppose them — you may even have some thoughts of your own that I hadn’t considered. Please feel free to express those thoughts respectfully in the comments below.
All right then. In no particular order, here are my own personal “Appeal Elements” for the JRPG genre.
The trope of “true companions” — also known as “nakama” — is an important centerpiece of the entire JRPG genre. While exceptions do exist, it’s very rare that you’ll find yourself playing a Japanese role-playing game in which you are a lone hero expected to take down whatever Big Bad is threatening the world entirely by yourself. No, instead you’ll spend a good proportion of your adventure gathering a band of plucky companions who may or may not all get along with one another, then another significant proportion of your adventure finding out various things about their respective pasts (dark or otherwise, and there’s always at least one dark past in there somewhere) and finally, your bonds of friendship, love and justice well and truly cemented through the adversities you’ve shared, you fight together to resolve whatever Bad Shit has been going down while you’ve been gallivanting off around the world.
Some JRPGs explore this concept in more detail than others — later installments in the Persona series explore the relationships between the main characters and their close friends as well as the intra-party dynamics, for example, while Monolithsoft’s rather excellent Xenoblade Chronicles rewards the player for deepening the bonds between all their party members, not just between the protagonist and the others. Tales of Graces F even states outright on its packaging that it is a game about friendship.
Why is this appealing? Well, it’s just nice, isn’t it? Aside from that, a lot of JRPGs make a great effort to make all their party members (and, usually, the protagonist) into distinctive characters whom you can relate to. This helps ensure that you care about them, which provides some great hooks for emotional engagement when aforementioned Bad Shit starts happening. Many WRPGs are catching on to this fact — for all their faults in recent years, this is something BioWare has always been very good at, for example.
Creativity in Mechanics
Now this is an acquired taste, I recognize, but one of the things I’ve always liked about the JRPG genre is the fact that it’s eminently willing to dispense with conventions and try new things with regard to mechanics and gameplay. Just look at how different battle systems are between various games, for example. Just look at how different the battle systems are between various games in the same series are, for that matter — both the Ar Tonelico and Hyperdimension Neptunia series that we’ve covered recently differ significantly in mechanics between installments, for example, and they’re far from being alone in this respect.
I recognize that the somewhat abstract nature of many Japanese battle systems is very much a matter of taste and some people simply don’t like gameplay like this — but even these people are catered to thanks to more traditional strategy-style games like Fire Emblem, open-world real-time hotbar-based combat systems like that seen in Xenoblade Chronicles, and action-RPG mechanics like those seen in The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower. In short, if you can’t find a JRPG that makes you even a little bit happy gameplay-wise… you’re probably not looking hard enough.
My GOD color. Everyone found it terribly amusing when Uncharted had its “next-gen filter” option that turned everything brown and turned the Bloom setting up to full, but it was actually somewhat based in truth — there’s nowhere near as much in the way of vibrant colors in Western games as there is in those that hail from Japan. Again, this is a matter of taste and again exceptions do exist, but personally speaking there’s only so many grey-brown environments I can trudge through before I start feeling incredibly depressed and not really wanting to go on. I didn’t really give a damn about doing whatever I was supposed to do to save Skyrim, for example, just because I found the environments so incredibly depressing to wander around. Contrast this with, say, Xenoblade’s brightly-colored 3D environments or Hyperdimension Neptunia’s memorable cast of characters — each of whom can easily be identified by their most prominent colors alone — and you’ll see a marked difference.
Making use of bright colors and then juxtaposing them with some seriously dark themes can also be very effective indeed. Speaking of which…
Themes and Settings
While again this isn’t a universal truth and numerous exceptions do exist, I can say with some confidence that there have been a lot more occasions when I’ve thought “Hmm, I’ve never done this in a game before” while playing a Japanese game than while playing a Western one — even when confined to the RPG genre. In JRPGs I’ve done everything from attending a full year of school (Persona 3 and 4) to running an item shop (Recettear) via delving into my mages’ subconscious minds in an attempt to free them of their neuroses and anxieties (Ar Tonelico). Through these unusual settings and the thematic content that goes alongside them, I’ve had some truly memorable experiences. Sure, a lot of them do tend to end up with fighting some sort of giant tentacle monster that is threatening the world somehow, but in most cases it’s about the journey, not the destination.
Alongside this, I’ve also seen a lot of JRPGs tackle relatable issues. Just in the Persona series, you’ll encounter terminal illness, suicide, self-harm, depression, anxiety, loss and other cheery subjects. Ar Tonelico, too, despite being best known for a few innuendo-laden scenes, is actually surprisingly sensitive when it comes to exploring the more intimate aspects of relationships. While some Western RPGs — particularly, again, those from BioWare, especially before they became part of EA — have done a good job of tackling some mature themes, I’ve never found them quite as relatable as some Japanese examples I can think of off the top of my head.
Finally, I just wanted to raise something that’s very important to me personally — but which some people I know completely ignore. Soundtracks. Music. What you listen to while you’re playing.
I’ve never been the sort of gamer who can listen to anything other than the game’s soundtrack while I’m playing — the only exception to this is racing games, and that’s usually because they have such dire selections of music I just want to make it go away as quickly as possible — and so the actual content of that soundtrack is really important to me. There’s a very marked difference in the approach Western RPG composers take to scoring a game when compared to an equivalent Japanese RPG composer. Western RPG composers often go straight for the cinematic orchestral-style soundtrack, while Japanese RPG composers often veer off in the opposite direction with lots of synthesized and electronic sounds that you’d normally associate with popular music. Even those that are less overtly “poppy” like Nier (above) are — to me, anyway — a lot more memorable.
Because JRPG soundtracks tend to be more heavily inspired by popular music, they tend to be a lot more “catchy” due to their hook-based composition. This is yet another of those things that is a matter of taste, but I quite like the fact I could probably hum you the battle theme to a large number of JRPGs at a moment’s notice, while I struggle to remember anything about the soundtrack to, say, Dragon Age.
So those are my personal thoughts on JRPGs and why I like them — and by no means am I saying everyone should or will agree with me! What’s your take? Go ahead and share some of your favorite (and least favorite!) things in the comments below.
Swords and Zippers is our weekly JRPG column in which we explore the best, worst and most interesting of this diverse and long-standing genre that has fallen somewhat from grace in recent years. Pete, this post’s author, is Games Are Evil’s Managing Editor.