The Future Of JRPGs Is Not In Forcing Broad Appeal
I am tiring of the complaints being levelled at JRPGs across the board. All of this negativity surrounding JRPGs has became irksome when when gamers began levelling inane complaints at a mainstay JRPG series like Final Fantasy, and one collection of titles in particular, that of Final Fantasy XIII and its sequels. One of the most noteworthy arguments was that Final Fantasy XIII was too linear for its own good. The truth is that many JRPGs are linear. Past Final Fantasy games’ story progression have followed linear paths in the past. This is nothing new. Yes, a game like Final Fantasy XIII may have reduced the world exploration to a point, but making broad statements such as linearity being some new evil to JRPGs doesn’t take into account the history of JRPGs. I have played many JRPGs that offer linear stories like the Breath of Fire series, Chrono Trigger, the Kingdom Hearts games, the Atelier games, Dark Cloud and Dark Chronicle to name a few. Linearity could be argued to be a JRPG convention, a trope, of many of these games. Tainting it as something negative and to be regarded with the utmost disdain is moot.
Examine current JRPGs on the market like Ni No Kuni and Tales Of Xillia, both games have linear story progression and follow in the old school tradition of previous JRPGs. They’re building on the foundations that have proven to be functional for these types of games. Gamers enjoy JRPGs, and now with Ni No Kuni and Tales Of Xillia selling quite well JRPGs are not going anywhere too soon. This is a good thing, JRPGs are in an interesting place at the moment. Dark Souls has turned the notion of the JRPG on its head appealing to international audiences without compromising on the vision From Software has for the game. Although, Dark Souls 2 being marketed by its PR team as a game to rival Skyrim is a tad worrying. Square Enix seems to be returning to form with Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts III, and Level-5 has developed a high quality JRPG with Ni No Kuni, one that has received critical praise and sold well abroad, even outside of Japan.
Interestingly enough, Level-5 are taking some interesting risks in the JRPG space with new game titles such as Wonder Flick. Wonder Flick reportedly contains 1000 hours of gameplay and will be available across a multitude of platforms. This includes: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Wii U, PS Vita, iOS, and Android with smartphone integration being a key strategy with this new IP. However, if you watch the trailer above you’ll see that the game isn’t trying to re-invent the JRPG wheel. Wonder Flick appears to be very old school and traditional in its game design, as did Ni No Kuni which took the best bits of JRPG history and moulded them into an attractive package. Wonder Flick seems to be employing the exact same strategy, and when Ni No Kuni followed suit with a similar strategy the game was well received critically and sold huge numbers of units overseas.
The biggest question I pose in relation to JRPGs is: why attempt to appeal to a broader international audience, in a way that alienates a well established JRPG fanbase? This has been quite a problem for Square Enix with the Final Fantasy XIII games. Personally, Final Fantasy XIII for whatever reason didn’t appeal to me. This wasn’t due to its supposed ‘new’ reliance on linearity in the game’s storyline progression. I personally felt that the combat in Final Fantasy XIII, for example, was trying to appeal to a demographic that Square Enix didn’t have any tangible grip on. Perhaps the simplification of elements of Final Fantasy games were taken to one extreme? I felt that combat in Final Fantasy XIII was simplifying the battle process in the wrong areas. This is made more apparent by the game’s producer, Yoshinori Kitase, arguing that the development team “wanted to create a new game, even a new genre”. Kitase also stated that, “In a lot of senses FFXIII is more like an FPS than an RPG”. Fundamentally, Kitase says:
We’re always trying to depart from what we’ve created in the past. Still, even though FFXIII doesn’t quite fit into the RPG genre, our mission from the very beginning was to create the ultimate single-player RPG experience. In that sense, our team’s perspective was to think ahead to what RPGs will be like ten years from now, especially with the arrival of high-definition machines. What can we do to make this game stand apart from something like Dragon Quest and other RPGs on handhelds? What can we do that’s different and advance the genre as a whole?
Simply put, it is easy enough to see why Square Enix is faltering slightly. When you start thinking that you can re-invent what a JRPG is, or try and make a JRPG something entirely different, you lose track of both who you core audience is and are not catering to JRPG fans. Yet Square Enix at E3 2013 proved not to be at a total loss announcing that Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts III were in development. Quite a number of JRPG fans have disregarded Final Fantasy XV, particularly with its battle system, which is a more well refined version of the battle system found in the Kingdom Hearts series. I think that the battle system in Final Fantasy XV is a better simplification than that found in Final Fantasy XIII. It feels less clumsy and if its following in the design choices as made in the Kingdom Hearts series, the game will naturally appeal to a broader audience than forcing the game to do so.
Traditional turn-based combat is not a defining element of JRPGs and these types of games are so much more than purely combat systems. Tales Of Xillia is a JRPG but its combat system has more to do with combos and fighting games than anything else. The times are changing for JRPGs and I do hope for a resurgence in their popularity.