There is power in great storytelling. Novels, films and theatre, are built around the complex weaving of great narrative. When we think of narrative in video games, audience and critics consider ‘story’ with different perspectives. First person video games allow the player agency, they shape their own story. On the other hand, third-person video games turn the player into a guide, not unlike an unreliable narrator. One who glimpses at segments of the story; ultimately, lacking the power of complete omniscience.
The big difference between Japanese and Western RPG’s is perspective. Unlike Japanese developers, Western devs often prefer the first-person perspective; this is easily seen in franchises, such as Deux Ex, Elder Scrolls, Fallout and Grand Theft Auto. While games like Elder Scrolls and Fallout, allow the player to switch perspective between first and third; the definitive way to play is in first-person. Western RPG’s ask the player to live in their world, the protagonist on screen is an avatar, a capsule, enabling the player to live out their fantasy. Whereas Japanese devs focus on the third-person, the player like a fly on the wall watches the action unfold, giving commands from a distance. While the players in control, they’re the narrator of someone else’s story.
For many in the western audience, the pinnacle of JPRG’s is Final Fantasy VII, while the Final Fantasy franchise had found relative success in the ‘west’ prior to release on PlayStation, the debut console captivated audiences and FFVII was a gem within its canon. The importance of FFVII, cannot be understated; for a majority of fans throughout the United States and Europe, FFVII was the game that bore their love of JRPG’s. While more hardcore gamers debate whether FFVI or FFVII was the greater game. Many children across the world were and still are introduced and instantly captivated by Pokemon (myself included).
It’s unlikely that anybody suspected the popularity and cultural impact of the Pokemon franchise. The formulaic nature of Pokemon’s narrative and the deep, yet easily accessible turn-based battle system; make the Pokemon RPG’s a staple for gamers, young and old. In the winter of 2016, Pokemon Sun and Moon released, instantly selling out in many stores. However, the release of Pokemon S&M didn’t just move software, but hardware as well. Pokemon’s ease of access has made the JRPG a quintessential genre for handheld gamers around the world.
And yet, many still look at the archetypal JRPG with disdain when comparing them with western style RPGs. This has become evident with releases such as Final Fantasy XV, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Nier: Automata, blending western and Japanese game mechanics. The Japanese twist on the western style open-world, with action-based gameplay, has proven that this welding of styles, works. After close to 10 years in development, FFXV had many issues but the common census on gameplay was positive overall. The open world was vast, begging to be explored and the move from turn-based to an action orientated battle system; brought a new intensity to fights, making them more challenging all the while leaving the player with a sense of control.
With this new outlook for JRPGs, there’s also been an introspective outlook for many Japanese developers. The release of I Am Setsuna from new Square Enix developer Tokyo RPG Factory and more recently Atlus’s Persona 5, proves there is an audience for traditional turn-based RPGs. The Persona series has always rested securely in the niche category, blending high-school social simulator with low fantasy- slash- magical realist epic adventure. While the themes come across as obscure at best; Persona 5 has grasped the interests of many in the PlayStation die-hards.
The first half of the year was fruitful for many Japanese developers and publishers. While many analysts predicted the decline of the Japanese game development; warning that many developers would move to mobile, instead, many of the biggest and best-selling console games this year, heralded from the land of the rising sun. And with the release of the Nintendo Switch, accompanied by the critical and commercial success of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Neir Automata and Persona 5; Japanese development is back at the forefront of the industry.
Overall 2017 has been exceptional for video games so far and by most estimates, it’s only going to get better. The end of 2017, has many big games listed: Super Mario Odyssey, Assassin’s Creed Origins and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, just to mention a few (all releasing on 27th October 2017). Each of these titles is a heavy hitter of varying proportions, yet they’re surrounded by other Japanese stylised (Mario is also of Japanese design) time killers: Nights of Azure 2, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Pokemon Ultra Sun and Moon and Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, all releasing in the coming months.
Recent years have been great for fans of lengthy story-based adventures and 2017 has been especially amazing. The resurgence of Japanese development, the current renaissance of JRPG’s and the positive mood around Nintendo Switch, means the future may be bright for 40 to 50-hour tales with spiralling plots. Beyond 2017, may herald greater games with broader scopes; Ni No Kuni 2, Lost Sphear, Project Octopath Traveler Pokemon and Shin Megami Tensei for Nintendo Switch, all may potentially take queues from many of the recent standout games or maybe they’ll push the envelope further helping to redefine the boundaries and our notions of the Japanese RPG.