This week starts a surge of JRPGs coming west with the likes of Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE and Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness releasing, only to give way to games like I Am Setsuna and the juggernaut Final Fantasy XV later this summer. It’s a great time to be a fan of the genre, if you believe the genre is finally due for a return to the spotlight. The last decade hasn’t been kind to the long beloved genre, with stand outs like Lost Odyssey marred by games like Infinite Undiscovery. The inconsistency of the genre was made most apparent by the less than enthusiastic response fans had toward Final Fantasy XIII. It’s safe to say that JRPGs have fallen far from grace, but that isn’t to say they cannot return to prominence.
The issue, as I see it, is that most long time JRPG developers are either scared of change and innovation or are simply too stuck in their old ways. They keep making games that worked well in the golden days because they believe that will be enough. If they can make a game that reminds us of the good old days then we’ll look past the flaws. Well, that clearly isn’t the case. A good example of a modern JRPG is, again, Lost Odyssey. The game took on a more western style and a more serious tone but successfully implemented many classic JRPG mechanics. A game like The Last Remnant tried to reinvent the wheel by making combat bigger with more characters on screen. While the game itself was good enough, it suffered from major technical problems and ultimately doomed itself to a life of mediocrity.
The Tales series has seen continued success through last generation and into this one, but the series feels stale. The last truly great Tales game, Tales of Vesperia, came relatively early in the Xbox 360’s life cycle. Since then the stories have become more simple and the acting has become worse (the dubs anyway). Tales’ major claim to fame over the last few years has been simple; they were the only consistent JRPG series on the market. They could get away with doing the same thing over and over because there wasn’t much else out there. With all these new games and new entries in fan favorite franchises, Tales could be a series that suffers because while these games are trying to reinvent themselves, Tales remains the same. Should their gambles pay off, Namco Bandai could find themselves going back to the drawing board as well.
What JRPGs need to do is embrace western influence to innovate their games, but, and this is important, they cannot try to make western games. To make this clearer, look no further than Final Fantasy XV. The game seeks to maintain the tone and style of the series, but it also takes on a more open world style, a popular trend in western games. It also takes on a more real time combat system, but still maintains it’s more tactical elements and party mechanics. This is a gamble that I am confident will not only serve this game well, but will lead to a resurgence for the Final Fantasy series, as well as provide a template for success for other developers.
Japanese developers can’t ignore western influence, but they also cannot forget themselves. It is a delicate balancing act, but one that, when properly implemented, will lead to great success. Though we are increasingly fatigued by another fantasy/sci-fi/post-apocalyptic/whatever open world game, I believe the real issue is that we need more diversity in these games. Spicing things up with a little Japanese flair (and I’m not talking fan service or anything like that) could be just what the doctor ordered. Final Fantasy XV is an important first step toward that, but it is how we and other Japanese developers react to that which will decide the fate of the genre.
I for one am hopeful that we are in store for a renaissance of sorts, and though I said we can’t keep relying on the golden days, I wouldn’t mind reliving them a bit with a slew of new and improved JRPGs.