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Bravely Default, Child of Light, and the JRPG’s Possible Comeback
There was a time, eons ago, when lore of majestic beasts and medieval heroes slaying dragons and rescuing the world from tyranny and destruction dominated the video game industry. Throughout much of the 90s and even into the early 2000s, JPRGs were a force to be reckoned with. From Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest to Pokemon and the Tales series, gamers couldn’t get enough of the lengthy role-playing adventures.
Then something happened. When the seventh console generation began, JRPGs were tossed to the wayside, making way for action adventure titles, indie games, and, to a lesser extent, western RPGs. While the staple franchises are still beating, there’s no denying the JRPG genre has decreased in popularity. But fear not, children of the JRPG gaming realm: a renaissance could be nigh!
Okay, so dorkery aside, the future of JRPGs may not be as bright as its past, but while the last generation saw a deficit of quality JRPGs, it looks like companies may be investing a bit more in them in the future. The most notable example, of course, is Square Enix. While there are other JRPG developers and publishers out there, Square Enix is the juggernaut, boasting the two most successful JRPG franchises in the industry. In fact, they are also a notable example of the genre’s decline.
I know there are plenty of JRPGs besides Final Fantasy, but it is the most successful. Everyone hoped for another mind-blowing installment, and while the XIII trilogy is beloved by many, it proved to be a divisive series within the brand and, coupled with other missteps and mediocre (or outright terrible) titles like All the Bravest, The 4 Heroes of Light, and the original XIV, the franchise lost the weight it held at one time. Though Square Enix may not be solely responsible for the decline of JRPGs, they are representative of the genre’s decline as a whole.
The unfortunate truth, it seems, is that many companies detracted from RPGs, possibly due to the expense of developing such lengthy titles with modern graphics. Really, though, many of the problems plaguing the genre seem to stem from a largely undesired need to adapt and modernize. You hear it all the time with RPG developers. Gamers want huge, open worlds to explore and fast-paced, action-oriented combat systems. As a result, we started seeing JRPGs that were treading a thin line with western RPGs.
The point here isn’t that change is bad or that gamers don’t want open worlds or new battle systems. However, if gamers want fast-paced action, there are plenty of other games to deliver that. The need to westernize combat in particular was a tremendous flaw on the part of JRPG developers. As for open world exploration, it’s been a staple of the RPG genre at large, so I won’t say incorporating that is bad. What I will argue is that detracting from plot to provide more free roaming and side quests has become a problem.
To prove my first point, at least, let’s look at some recent successes. Bravely Default, a game that was curiously branded as a new IP, seemed to be almost disregarded by Square Enix…until it became a hit, outshining Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, which was released in the same month. Eschewing current trends and western influence, Bravely Default returned to a style akin to Final Fantasy V, with similar plot themes and the ever popular job class system. The result was a massive handheld hit that has already been slated for a sequel, as well as a browser-based spinoff. Then there was Ubisoft’s Child of Light. Critically hailed, the downloadable title offered an experience much closer to 90s-era JRPGs, with a battle system hearkening back to Final Fantasy’s Active Time Battle system.
In the wake of recent role-playing successes (including Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn), Square Enix has revised its financial forecasting, predicting a more successful year than initially expected. It also announced a refocusing on JRPGs, something sorely needed from a publisher that has been faltering in attempts to westernize and backing more western-oriented titles. Will this be enough to restore the glory of JRPGs as they were in the 90s and early 2000s? I won’t say yes, but it’s a start.
To clarify, Square Enix is by no means the sole publisher of JRPGs. Namco has the Tales series, and the Megami Tensei series is handled primarily by Atlus (though Square Enix assists in publishing in some regions). Both have large followings, much like Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series. Then there’s Pokemon, which is arguably more popular than even Final Fantasy. However, it was Final Fantasy that propelled JRPGs to international popularity, first with the original and then again ten years later with Final Fantasy VII, which many argue is where JRPGs entered the mainstream.
That being said, if JRPGs are to enter the mainstream again, developers need to recognize what fans of the genre want. Yes, there needs to some modernization. Ensuring games keep an open-world atmosphere and do not go the action adventure route of linear pathways, as well as maintaining a fundamental turn-based, strategy-oriented approach will go a long way in appealing to longtime fans of the franchise. The point could be raised that younger gamers may not enjoy it, but take a look at the 90s. First-person shooters were fresh on the market, just as they are still blockbuster hits today. You had your platformers and your action adventure titles like Tomb Raider. So, what’s different today? I believe nothing. It is merely a misconception on developers’ parts that because technology is progressing that people want immediate gratification in the form of fast-paced, explosive gameplay.
While many do want that—proven by how ridiculously well titles like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto sell—there is still a tremendous market for the slower-paced, story-centered experiences JRPGs deliver. The increasing popularity of indie games is evidence enough that high action games aren’t the only ones people want. The immediate gratification is in the immersion into a thought out, organic world, not a gun on a screen running around blasting holes into bloody corpses. The lack of interest in JRPGs is internal. If developers will realize what fans of the genre want—new experiences that preserve the spirit of JRPGs—then maybe we will see the reemergence of JRPGs many of us have so desperately wanted.