State of the (Yggdra) Union – JRPGs and modern gaming

Because Square-Enix hasn't been for a while now.

The Japanese Role Playing Game. A genre that’s been with us since the 80’s as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy led the charge for stat-building, NPC tropes, and epic tales on our consoles from across the sea.

From there, the tales only grew grander as technology improved. The animations of the 16 bit era managed to convey emotions and body language in the few pixels available to their creators, and it seemed for a time that both Squaresoft and Enix could do no wrong. Each game that found its way out had its own story to tell, its own uniqueness, and its own flavor.

Final Fantasy IV, Earthbound, Secret of Mana, Illusion of Gaia, Terranigma, Robotrek, Star Ocean, just a few of the excellent games to be released at the time. This trend continued into the 32-bit era, with Final Fantasy VII, whether you consider it overrated or not,  rushing to the forefront to bring the JRPG to the masses.

Even far into the Xbox/Dreamcast/PS2/Gamecube era there were new ideas and great games being thrown around. Shadow Hearts: Covenant tackled both the occult and comedy in a single setting, GUSTs Atelier Iris and Mana Khemia series kept sprite-based RPGs alive, and Persona 3 and 4 are considered some of the best of the best. So the real question  is, what happened?

Blame Yourself… Or God.

The advent of the HD era of video gaming has seemed to have a similar effect on the industry as the switch from the 16 to 32 bit era. Rumors abounded about SCEAs reluctance to release anything in 2D on the original PlayStation, claiming that 3D was the future and that the sprite era was on its way out. Granted, this wasn’t entirely true, Xenogears mixed sprites with 3D to lovely effect, but the trend did lean toward using the latest and greatest technology.

So too, during this new age, does it seem that games are becoming massively expensive blockbusters, with increasingly large budgets spent on normal maps, detailed character models, and all the visual treats that the HD era can provide. While this makes for a lovely cinematic experience, it’s clear that costs are being cut elsewhere. Final Fantasy XIII has beautiful graphics, flashy effects, and a sweeping musical score, yet the majority of the game is running through corridors, letting the game Auto-Battle, and occasionally making the decision to let your team auto-battle in a different way. Even character progression is stifled, as each area has a cap on the amount you can level your characters, breaking FFXIII up more into a game with distinct stages than a classic RPG. The developers have spent all this money on their creation, and they’re going to make sure you play it their way.

The HD Era has also brought about internet connectivity to our home systems, for better or worse. Many games have embraced this situation and moved forward with DLC plans, adding new maps, new items, and expanding their games after launch. Multiplayer support is almost a given in every other genre, but again, it seems like the JRPG is lagging behind in this area as well.

Namco Bandai was one of the first RPG publishers to attempt DLC in their games, offering downloads for Eternal Sonata, and Tales of Vesperia. However, in a situation where they could have offered new quests, new battles, or new challenges to keep players interested in the game, they instead chose to sell cheats on the marketplace. Having trouble with a boss? Give us more money and get some free levels. Need some healing items but you’re too lazy to head back to town? More Microsoft Banana Dollars, please. Even alternate costumes,  items that were rewards for hunting down sidequests in the older Tales games, were put up for sale instead.

It's not like she needed more ears anyway.

In an even more brazen example, Compile Heart put up a party member as DLC for Hyperdimension Neptunia. A character who joins your party during the course of a regular game, is listed in the manual and shown on the box, but refuses to actually fight for you until you pay the required fee. They did this twice in the same game. Unacceptable.

It’s clear that the big budget JRPG is faltering at the moment. Releases are few and far between, and those that do release have little commercial success unless they’re attached to a major franchise, much like the situation confronting movies these days. Releasing a game in the days of $60 HD epics is too risky to take chances on things consumers might not like, so where do we go from here?

A future draws near!! Command?

The future for the big budget RPG may never again match the past, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some people doing it correctly. Demon’s Souls, and the upcoming Dark Souls use the online connectivity in a novel way, allowing players to interact indirectly with each other, leaving messages and tips scrawled in the dungeons as they go along, as if you’re following behind some intrepid adventurers who have been there ahead of you. You see images of how people nearby have died, giving you warning to dangers, and it’s a novel premise that works well, without resorting to the old standby of multiplayer, the deathmatch.

Dragon Quest IX allowed players to interact with one another via wireless connection, fighting monsters and exploring dungeons as a team, along with having free quests for download after release (though to be fair, they were all stored on the game card, simply unlocked over time), and an shop whose inventory changed daily after connecting to the internet.

Square-Enix themselves had an interesting idea with the implementation of the “sequel” to Final Fantasy IV, The After Years. The game was sold in chapters, with each one focusing on a different party composition, tying together with a final chapter in the end. It did not sell too well on the WiiWare service, and was bundled together with the recent PSP remake, but it brings up an interesting idea.

Imagine, for the sake of argument, a downloadable game called Final Fantasy Tales. Sold for the price of $20, it could be a modestly designed game, with a cheerful and stylized look, cutting down on development costs and allowing them to market it as a return to “Classic Final Fantasy”. The base game would come with a fully fledged RPG tale, offering a competent experience.

However, it would also make use of the strengths of the current era. Why not allow players to interact with each other in some way? Go to a shop to sell your goods, and you end up listing them on an online marketplace for other people to buy and scour through for deals. Final Fantasy’s usual minigames could be played against other people, complete with leaderboards. Most importantly, offer new tales for download, reusing the same base game engine, while changing up the setting and assets. They could sell them for $15 each, (which is a much better value than buying a total of 6 maps for Call of Duty), and have a game that not only plays to the strengths of the current generation, but offers a much more attractive return on investment.

Like Radiant Historia. Seriously, it's awesome. Play it.

Now, with all the doom and gloom present in this article so far, you might think that the genre is headed to its end, however it has found a nice home on portable devices. The releases on the PSP and the DS have often been able to evoke that golden age, with the lower development costs and quicker development time allowing riskier games to see release.If care can be taken to continue this as handheld devices start to near the power of the HD consoles, we may simply see the major shift of JRPG development transferred there instead.

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