Nov 12, 2013
A short while ago, Square Enix’s Tetsuya Nomura made a long-awaited announcement at E3. To save time Nomura simply pointed toward a trailer. The story is familiar, yet darker and more desperate: a young prince has his world torn apart when a rival nation decides to invade his father’s kingdom in order to sever the family line and obtain the world’s last remaining crystal. The prince high-tails it across the crumbling city with his friends, fighting pillaging soldiers and giant monsters, with the aid of guns, swords and magical spells. As the trailer comes to an end, a casual voice teases that “The world is ever changing…for the fifteenth coming”. The words Versus XIII then explode into shards and are replaced by a bold XV. The Final Fantasy saga marches on.
The choice to rebrand Versus XIII as XV comes at a time when the JRPG (Japanese Role-Playing Game) market is still flailing behind its more successful counterpart: the Western RPG. When both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 entered the scene, something happened – mainstream interest in the JRPG began to decline. The WRPG became in favor following the release of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Other popular titles include Fallout 3, Bioware’s Mass Effect, and Fable II. Later JRPGs like Final Fantasy XIII, Star Ocean: The Last Hope, and Eternal Sonata have all been seen as average.
Hit after hit emerged from this niche market, not just from America but also from Europe – The Witcher franchise by CD Projekt is a cult example. The Polish developer is currently working on Cyberpunk 2077, an adaptation of a famous tabletop role-playing game. Why is there more interest in WRPGs these days? And why are JRPGs struggling to keep up in sales?Rewind to 1997; Square Enix (known as Square in those days) released Final Fantasy VII. The game boasted a complex story and featured 3D graphics for the first time in the series. Being the first in the main series to be released in Europe, Final Fantasy VII‘s immediate commercial success led a golden age of JRPGs in the West. The high production values and narrative structure it carried at the time were comparable to films and novels.
The need for highly intricate storytelling and depth began to emerge in the JRPG. And in 1998, Square provided another major entry into the JRPG hall of fame with Xenogears. Combining mecha action with RPG elements, Xenogears dealt with issues that were rarely explored in video games: religion, human history, racism, poverty, warfare, and references to prominent 20th century philosophers. In 1999, Final Fantasy VIII was the first JRPG to consistently use realistically-proportioned characters.
Monster-collecting RPGs were becoming fashionable at the end of the 90s – Gamefreak’s Pokemon is still the best-selling RPG franchise of all time, with a record 200 million copies sold. Other JRPG games explored genre-defining traits. For example, 1999’s Star Ocean: The Second Story featured a relationship system, partly inspired by dating sims and quite possibly by Fire Emblem: The Genealogy of The Holy War (released four years earlier in 1996). The player had the choice to ship and pair different couples together. Whatever decision the player makes in this respect would affect not only the storyline and ending, but the in-game combat sequences as well. A character’s emotional attachment to their fallen partner would give them a combat boost.
With all of this in mind, why are WRPGs better received? There are many reasons. To begin with, WRPGs consist of darker storylines and relatable characters – for example, the Mass Effect trilogy was about the continuation of a cycle of genocide by planet-crushing machines known as Reapers. The only one capable of saving the galaxy is the gruff anti-hero Shepard, joined in his (or her) quest by a group of messed up individuals with problems such as xenophobia, psychosis, or family issues. JRPGs are often lighter in tone with comical characters – there are exceptions; Lost Odyssey followed an immortal, constantly doomed to watch loved ones die while he carried on toward an uncertain future.
In terms of mechanics and character design, recent WRPGs offer highly customizable player characters. The user can choose any gender, race, age, physical build or facial appearance that he or she desires. JRPGs often contain set characters in order to satisfy a predefined script, while mimicking the bishōnen (“beautiful boy”)/bishojo (“beautiful girl”) anime designs. The differences in style owes to the fact that JRPGs are aimed at a larger demographic. Final Fantasy XIII‘s female audience accounted for almost a third of the fanbase.
Putting stylistic differences aside, the biggest game changers involved in the decline of the genre are the bad design choices that Japanese developers placed into them. Some elements are given more emphasis than others, resulting in a mixed reception: Eternal Sonata, while receiving admiration for its inventive battle system, was criticized for its weak story, being very short, lacking in exploration and having too many minigames; Nier‘s saving grace was its soundtrack and voice acting. The game’s graphics were considered “primitive” and ugly by a handful of critics, and some felt the sidequests were repetitive.
And speaking of bad design choices, Final Fantasy XV could have been a Les Miserables-style musical. Nomura felt inspired by the 2012 musical film and was intent on turning FFXV into an epic sing-along. Fortunately, the higher-ups at Square Enix talked him out of it. Also abandoned were a first-person view and a missing heads-up display.
On the subject of FFXV, the game promises to carry on the tradition of bleak JRPGs like Dark Souls, with a story that sheds light on “human emotions and believable characters”. The narrative will be about “man in the real world”, with very little reference to the fantasy theme. FFXV‘s battle system seems close to third-person shooters – cementing it as an action RPG – while retaining aspects from the previous installments in the series. The addition of seamless real-time cutscenes (an idea used by western video games since Half Life) will fully engross the player in the world of FFXV. Another key feature is the return of the open-world map and ability to travel by foot or alternative method of transportation.
Will Final Fantasy XV bring about another golden age of the JRPG? The response to that is: maybe. Judging from the trailer at E3, FFXV is going to be one of the biggest games on the PlayStation 4. Square Enix and Tetsuya Nomura may have learned from the past and are bound to deliver a game that departs from the tired cliches of a shaky genre. They’ve avoided the colourful mix-and-match designs of Final Fantasy XIII, strayed away from the lighthearted Disney world of Kingdom Hearts, and took reference from the human condition at the start of the 21st century in order to tell a story about a futile power struggle. When Final Fantasy XV is finally released in the near future, the sales it generates will determine the future of the JRPG.