A Western-Developed Final Fantasy – Yay or Nay?

In a recent interview with Edge, Square-Enix president Yoichi Wada made mention that he wouldn’t be opposed to the idea of a Final Fantasy title that was created on the input of Western developers (possibly Square-Enix’s own Eidos, for one example?). Now, after over 20 years of Final Fantasies, they’re open to the idea of reaching out and stretching their legs, getting development input from the Western side of things.

Now, the idea itself is sound. I can definitely see areas that Japanese RPGs could improve upon, and they should take a lesson from their Western counterparts. So, I’m not saying this whole thing is a horrible idea. But, there are a couple things that bother me about this possibility.

1) Western RPGs are so dark and foreboding: They seem to all be set in some sort of medieval-type era with demons, dark things from the depths of the planet, dwarves, orcs and lots of blood. Diablo, The Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age: Origins (among many others) all follow this doom and gloom approach. I would absolutely not want to see that permeate the typically more high-fantasy and brighter settings of JRPGs. This also bleeds over into the characters themselves and the atmosphere surrounding them and their story (if there is a decent one) is usually heavy, like a fog that you need a knife to cut through. I much prefer the more colorful, optimistic tones and characters of the typical Japanese style (although some deviate from this formula like Demon’s Souls).

2) Western RPGs tend to let the story suffer in favor of generic characters and sandbox-style game play: It’s hard to really connect with the characters when things can become too generic. Too many choices and character-created and named generic characters affect how we perceive them within the story and can change the emotional impact of what are supposed to be major plot points. I don’t want Japanese RPGs to lose their flare for the dramatic, the grip they typically have on our emotions, the connection we have to the story and the specific, pre-defined characters within it. [For more on this topic of how generic characters and extreme non-linearity in the game structure affects a player’s connection to the entire experience, check out my article from last week on the topic.]

The point is, I wouldn’t want JRPGs to lose their identity, but other than that, I’m open to the idea of Western developed Japanese-style RPGs. Perhaps it could even spice up the sub-genre a bit, wouldn’t you say? Japanese RPGs are already big on multiple endings, but there are usually very few choices to make during the game itself. As a recent example, to see dialog bits in Star Ocean: The Last Hope, all you have to do is complete certain dialog tree prerequisites with certain characters sometimes in a certain order. There are no real choices. Without going to extremes, can we see a few choices here and there that might enhance the story but not cause a disconnect between the player and the characters? It’s possible, I’m sure. In the same vein, can we have some deep, mature topics within the game without turning everything into a dreary, doom-and-gloom experience? I would think so, I’ve seen it done.

Again, I reiterate: What I’m worried about most is JRPGs losing their uniqueness, their quirkiness, their identity. That is something I hope they never lose. However, I feel they can still be influenced for the better by taking a page out of the Western RPG book of tricks.

Join the Discussion

  • I hate to disagree. Western RPGs have a great story line (DA: Origins) and is more cinematic (Mass Effect). While JRPGs take a more traditional approach. But yes, I would love to see what BioWare does with Final Fantasy for a change, if given the chance.

  • J.-F.

    “Western RPGs tend to let the story suffer in favor of generic characters”


  • huh??

    JRPG’s lost their uniqueness long ago. Im not sure how many Yuna type characters there are in final fantasy. I think its time for Square to finally admit that final fantasy is FINAL. If they want to bring western influences into their games than great, change the name, make it something unique.

  • huh??

    JRPG’s lost their uniqueness long ago. Im not sure how many Yuna type characters there are in final fantasy. I think its time for Square to finally admit that final fantasy is FINAL. If they want to bring western influences into their games than great, change the name, make it something unique.

  • Edito

    Square Enix is finished since the end of PS2 era and for me the only western RPG that i really care is mass effect but i feel it like more a FPS than RPG and the others like DAO Fallout 3 are good but i just can’t play it Level 5, Atlus, Tri Ace and Sega will be doing square things and more belive me Nomura will form his own team apart from square and square will die… i hope…

  • I have to say Hell No!

    A frequent comment I am seeing thrown around is that Bioware would be perfect for the job, and to that I have to say this. Although Bioware may in fact be the best (western) candidate to take on such a task they still do not measure up to what is achieved in terms of the stories found in JRPGs. I am currently playing through Mass Effect now in preparation of the sequel later this month and as good of a job as Bioware does on it’s titles they (and this goes for pretty much all WRPGS) IMHO do not achieve the same overall effect that you get when playing games from the land of rising sun. Allow me to explain.

    In another article (written by the same author as this one) the author discusses Linearity in RPGs. In doing so he points out a big problem that looms over many of the western titles today. It’s the idea of too much freedom combined with this newly found “choose your own adventure” gameplay that hurts many of the WRPGs today.

    I know that It may sound cynical, and one can come back and say that if it wasn’t there people would cry foul, and you’re probably right. However, let’s take a game like Elder Scrolls Oblivion for example. You start off with this immediate task to save the kingdom from invasion and you’re sent on a mission to close all of the Oblivion gates. Pretty straight forward right? But then it seems like every single town you go to and every NPC you meet in the said town, wants you to do him/her a favor. Yes it ads variety as well as hours to the gameplay but it also makes the main narrative seem unimportant and this is where as a player you begin to lose interest.

    JRPGs and the Final Fantasy series especially, although linear (for the most part), manage to keep you enthralled throughout. How is that achieved? Through an in depth story and en engaging plot, which helps you the player truly connect to the characters more and more, every single step of the way. You can ask anyone who has played games in the FF series to name you 10 characters from each game they’ve played, and you know what? They could probably name 20 from each, just from the strong connections with the characters they made while playing.

    Even during my current play through of Bioware’s ME I don’t think I can name more than 5 characters in it, because I can care less about them. Even some of the dialogue (although it is branching, and i give them credit for that) is very dull. Shephard has the personality of a rock.

    Am I enjoying the overall experience yes, but is it on par with any FF in the entire series? Nope. I really don’t think that they or ANY western developer would be up to the task.

  • Ludakriss

    Let’s just hope that Western as well as Japanese developers are thinking of the same critical points as the author of this article as well as Joel Taveras to come up with close to an ‘ideal’ solution…

  • Dion

    To be honest, Western RPGs don’t really feel like RPGs to me, but more a mix of another genre with RPG elements. For example, Fallout 3 looks more like a first-person shooter, Mass Effect looks more like a third-person shooter. In Japanese RPGs though, the game feels more of an RPG than another genre, as it’s RPG elements are the main part of the game, with a little bit of another genre mixed in. For example, Kingdom Hearts, is basically an RPG with action elements in it.

  • Dan

    I completely agree with Dion!!
    JRPGs are the best one, don’t ruin them too!!

  • David Macphail

    WRPG’s, generally speaking, are garbage. They make a huge, open – world setting, throw in a Bazillion guns and then call it a finished product. Never mind the fact that there is no story and therefore no purpose for the events in the game taking place. Never mind the fact that the graphics make the characters look like 2D cardboard stands.

    Yes, as you can probably guess, i hated Borderlands. However Borderlands is not the main problem, just a result of it. Every time Western dev’s try to make an RPG we end up with an FPS that allows you to level up your guns, nothing more. Bioshock, Borderlands, Fallout and Mass Effect are all just FPS/TPS games with the most basic of RPG mechanics. Calling Mass Effect an RPG would be like calling Ratchet & Clank an RPG. Just because you can upgrade your weapons doesn’t mean you’re playing a fully – fledged, immersive RPG.

    I don’t want Final Fantasy XV to be a FPS, we have enough of those already. Western devs need to leave JRPG’s well alone, let the real RPG devs develop the real RPG games.

  • @J.-F.: By “generic characters” I mean that, in most cases, the story isn’t built around a specific character because the game let’s the player create a random, generic character of their choosing. This makes me personally feel disconnected from the character and the story.

    @Joel: You are the man!

    @Dion: Many times I agree with you. Western developers seem big on genre mash-ups and then they just slap the label of “RPG” on it and be done with it.

    @David Macphail: Agreed.

  • John

    There seems to be a great divide among WRPG and JRPG fans, and clearly on this blog one outnumbers the other.

    I think its a fallacy that WRPGs have generic characters. The robot in KOTOR was probably one of the most interesting characters I’ve seen in a console. Planescape: Torment was filled with some of the most original characters in gaming history.

    Whether or not you care about the characters all boils down to personal preference. Some think WRPG characters are complex, some think JRPGs are. I am more for the former, especially if you played the older bioware games before KOTOR. Admittingly, I wasn’t too fond of the oringinal ME characters myself (but most would disagree with me), but Bioware corrected this and the characters in Mass effect 2 are far more original and 3-dimensional. I have yet to see a JRPG character come close of the moral complexity of Thane or Mordin.

    In fact, I could argue that Jrpgs are filled with more generic characters the Wrpgs. IMO, most of the protagonists basically boil down to four anime archetypes, the depressed main character looking for purpose, the quiet yet confident warrior (who most of the time is guilt-ridden), the overly peppy optimist (which annoys the crap out of me), and the innocent and naive female. Basically in JRPGs the character and world designs are more original, but not the personality of the characters themselves. (which is extremely important to most people) IMO Bioware games were the opposite. (minus the first Mass effect) Of course there are exceptions, but the last 4 JRPGs I’ve played haven’t digressed at all from this character formula. I hear Persona has some original characters, so maybe I’ll give it a try.

    WRPGs such as Kotor aren’t afraid to put morally ambiguous characters as their protagonists, or even sociopaths. It seems that everyone in a JRPG has a heart of gold and the closest they come to being an anti-hero is being a little depressed and brooding. It is a play-it-safe mindset. (again, there are exceptions, but this is true in most JRPGs I’ve played in recent memory.) People are more complex than that.

    I think games such as Mass effect 2 are proving that you can make branching storylines and open-world appeal, while still giving a cinematic experience with complex characters. Reviewers almost universally agreed on this. Disagree all you want, but I think being placed #4 in the top most rated game of all time in gamerankings would prove you wrong.

  • John

    As for genre mesh-ups, I partially agree. But the reason why WRPGs are going this route is because people are tired of turn-based combat in RPGs that haven’t changed its formula since Ultima III, which most JRPGs model from. The appeal of making the combat more immersive for the player in RPGs has been something developers have strived for since Baldur’s Gate and Diablo. RPG developers have always looked at action games for inspiration when trying to immerse the player, because quite frankly turn-based combat takes most away from the experience. If you have a better idea, go implement it. You’ll be a millionaire.

    WRPGs actually more fit the original definition of what an RPG is, letting the player have a role, a set of choices, in an open-ended world. The gaming market, at the moment, likes this. Most JRPGs are simply a streamlined, mainstream friendly version of Ultima, and have become so linear (even more than before) that they have lost their appeal in the West, and what an RPG was supposed to be about in the first place.

    The truth is that there are not many WRPGs out there. So people new to the WRPG genre see Morrowind, Borderlands, or WOW (which epitomizes everything wrong about the genre) and think all WRPGs are like that. The truth is that since the PC days most WRPGs were like modern Bioware games trying to meld story, characters, and choices. If you think the story and characters are weak in these then I guess that is your personal preference. Most people however will think you are on crack.

  • @John: Thanks for the comments! WoW is not something I would say is necessarily good for RPGs in general. 😉 It is western-developed, yes, but it’s an MMO, something that would require an entire other article and perspective to get into.

    I do write a lot about the distinction between the different styles of RPGs, but I absolutely do not hate Western RPGs, they just don’t personally give me a connection to the characters as well as JRPGs of the past have. This usually comes about because of a combination of generic characters and unfocused story progression.

    I currently am playing Mass Effect 2 and I think it’s the best thing since sliced bread. One of my favorite games ever. However, I would not classify it as an RPG since Bioware stripped all the aspects of the previous game that really defined it as an RPG shooter. We’re left with the story and characters, so it’s basically a story-driven shooter. This IS NOT a bad thing, as long as the game is fun and keeps me interested, I don’t care what genre label you put on it (and I’ll talk more about this in my review).

    That leads in to this point though: Ultimately, the genre doesn’t matter. What’s important is that the game is fun and draws us into the world and its characters. The way that happens is different for each individual, thus why some people prefer JRPGs and some prefer WRPGs. 😉