Japanese RPGs might not be the most popular genre these days. Even though there is a large portion of gamers who still enjoy them, myself included, things have really tapered off for the genre since its hay-day in the PS1 and early PS2 years of Final Fantasy dominance. While there is some merit to the assertion that the genre is getting “stale”, with “outdated” game play mechanics and cliché stories, in a way, that’s what makes the genre what it is. It seems to me there’s somewhat of a double-standard in the game space today. On one hand, gamers and game critics complain about “outdated” features in JRPGs, but on the other hand they don’t seem to have much issue with tried-and-true features in other, more Western genres, such as the first-person shooter. I think, if people’s expectations were more leveled, they would get more enjoyment out of the JRPG genre.
With that said, I’ve compiled a list of 10 things you really should know about JRPGs, whether you’ve been playing them for years or just now wanting to get your feet wet in preparation for trying out Final Fantasy XIII early next year.
10 ) Sometimes localization isn’t that great: Remember, the dialog in these titles was originally designed around a language that is very different from English, one that relies on conveying ideas through symbols and sounds rather than a bunch of single words put together to form a sentence. Its not easy to localize a game like this and sometimes the dialog suffers or doesn’t quite make sense because of it. Trust me, it makes perfect sense in the original Japanese. Just because the dialog might be a hair off is no reason to avoid the genre altogether.
9a ) The men aren’t “girly”, they’re just drawn that way: The Japanese have a different idea, shall we say, of what strong, male characters should be. You’ll rarely find a gamer in Korea or Japan creating a beefy, muscular character to play in an MMO, for example. For the most part, this is a culture difference. The Asian male body structure tends to be smaller and more compact than an American male body structure. That difference makes its way into games developed in that part of the world, as well. There’s nothing wrong with that, even though sometimes we crack jokes about it.
9b ) What a pervert!: While we’re on the topic of character designs, get used to female characters with either little clothing and a big chest or a meganekko-moe (or similar) archetype girl with a big chest. Its par for the course. No, it doesn’t make you a pervert. And speaking of the word “pervert”, I’m not sure if its a direct translation from Japanese or what, but you’ll find that term used quite a lot in the English dialog of JRPGs. (See #10 above.)
8 ) Anime is art: It’s a shame some publishers – here’s looking at you Square-Enix – choose to change some art in certain games for a Western release because people here, in general, are scared of anime. I was very disappointed when I heard that the anime character portraits and menu art in Star Ocean: The Last Hope was being changed to just be shots of the 3D model for the North American and European releases. This is no doubt because they wanted to appeal more to certain demographics. Yes, you will see a lot of anime-inspired art in JRPGs, and yes it has more character than your standard, dime-a-dozen, realistic-looking FPS will ever have.
7 ) Yes, there will be long cut scenes: Japanese RPGs, above all other genres, are there to tell you a story. Sure, they allow you to be part of it, but, ultimately, there’s a story to tell and you’re going to see it in a very specific way. There’s rarely any branching dialog, free-form quests or heavy changes to the story based on what the character does like in Fable 2 or Fallout 3. If you aren’t there for the story, you might as well not be playing the game in the first place. If you are there for the story, you won’t mind cut scenes that are used to tell it.
6 ) Don’t worry about “innovation”: No, its not a bad thing for JRPG games to evolve and innovate, that’s not what I’m saying. What I am going to point out is that, just because a new JRPG has features that some consider “outdated” or “bad” does not mean they are. You have to take everything in the context of how it works in the game overall. Some of the best RPGs in the last couple years have something that many consider an “outdated” mechanic – turn-based battles (referring to Persona 3 and 4). Yet, it works extremely well in those games because of the way in which its implemented. Don’t be turned off as soon as you see the words “turn-based”, “random encounter” or “limit break”.
5 ) You will almost always get your money’s worth: Hey, a positive point here in this economy, right? No six-hour-long games here. I don’t even think there’s a JRPG in existence that’s less than 20 hours of game play minimum. Most developers know how to deliver a longer-lasting experience, that’s for sure.
4 ) The English voice acting will be bad: Let’s just expect the worst, shall we? There are a few JRPGs where the voice acting is quite good (Final Fantasy XII, Tales of Vesperia, Persona 4), but for the most part, it will be bad. This isn’t a problem with the game, this is a problem with the actors and whoever is directing them. Even at that, good voice actors can have bad parts of their dialog sessions put into the game. Its not always up to them. I really wish developers and publishers would put a little extra effort into the voice acting aspect of modern JRPGs, it will enhance the experience overall, draw more people into the story and avoid people making fun of the genre because of it. Oh, how I long for the days of reading all the dialog…
3 ) It has all happened before and will happen again: There isn’t a story on earth that hasn’t been told in some form or another. Often JRPGs are spanked for having cliché stories or character archetypes. Ignore all that. Its next to impossible to create a rich, detailed story without some or all of it having been told in some way, shape or form before. Get used to it, every single game in existence is like this. It shouldn’t be so much about what the story is, but rather how that story is told.
2 ) Slow and steady wins the race: Don’t try to rush through a JRPG, or really any RPG for that matter. That’s not what they’re designed for. The developers have created a rich, detailed world with many secrets to find and side-stories to uncover, don’t cheat yourself out of the experience of actually enjoying the journey through the game. It doesn’t have to be played all in one epic gaming session, most have save points often enough that you can play in bite-sized chunks of time. If I really get involved in an RPG, it will take me months to complete, not days.
1 ) Don’t expect a JRPG to be something its not: This is probably the most important point of all. Time and time again I see posts on forums where gamers are complaining that they’re not given enough choice, they can’t do what they want when they want, the game is too linear, it doesn’t feature an open world, yadda, yadda, yadda. People, if you want a Western RPG like Oblivion or Dragon Age: Origins, then go play a frakking Western RPG. Too many times gamers expect JRPGs to be something they are not and do nothing but complain about it. Complaining about things that make the genre what it is is an exercise in futility. That’s like saying an FPS title should have Gran Turismo-like driving sections in it or the next Madden game should have platforming. Just because you may want to platform your way across a football field while jumping on your opponent’s heads or blasting them with fireballs to take them out doesn’t mean that its what should be in the game, because that’s not what the game is. If you want a platformer, go play a Mario or Ratchet & Clank game. If you want a football title, play Madden. The same goes for RPGs.
There you have it, my top ten list of things to know and expect when it comes to Japanese RPGs. Don’t expect miracles, accept the genre for what it is and you will enjoy those games more. I’m not trying to force you to play JRPGs – if you really dislike the genre that much so as to not even try it, then so be it. But, if you’re ignoring the genre or even a specific title because of perceived faults in the storytelling and/or game play mechanics, you might want to reconsider and, just maybe, take the plunge and try something new. Perhaps you will discover (or re-discover?) what a strange and wonderful world the JRPG genre really is.