Fixing JRPGs

Who's this shithead who thinks he can fix JRPGS? Who asked him? Doesn't he love Dark Souls? That's Japanese and an RPG. Nyah nyah!

Ok, with that out of the way, let's talk. I've been thinking about JRPGs again! There's a Final Fantasy 7 remake that has eschewed typical JRPG combat! I played and disliked Undertale! We have this wonderful Slack channel where I have smart people to talk about games with. Probably because of The Undertale Incident, JRPGs have been the topic of discussion.

And before I get into what would make a JRPG work for me now, I want to dispose with the pedant strawman from the beginning of blog entry. When discussing JRPGs, here are the hallmarks I'm referring to. Also, there are clearly exceptions that I plan to talk about, so hold your questions for the end.

  • Turn based combat where the combatants look at each other and punch each other. You generally just choose an action and your character performs it with no further input from the player.
  • A significant volume of encounters with weaker enemies. This gives you EXP that are used to empower your characters. You know, a bunch of slimes you have to kill. Note, for my purposes, it doesn't matter if these encounters are visible on the field or not. Earthbound and Chrono Trigger, I'm looking at you.
  • A story that is "epic" in scope. Plucky youngers saving the world from some super powerful single being.

Ok. I talked about why the first and second part sucked in my first entry. To recap though:

1) The choices you make in most JRPG encounters lack meaningful engagement or consequence. You're not engaged (there is very little complexity to what you're doing and the play doesn't express anything thematically or any interesting ideas ludically, in many cases) and you're not rewarded with meaingful consequence. If you defend rather than attack, what happens? Nothing. You won't remember that encounter at the end of the game. It's literally filler.

2) The volume of this. The above wouldn't be a big deal if you didn't spend most of the game doing it. The sheer volume of non consequential, non engaging decisions you make is wasteful and disrespectful to the player's time. Though games like Chrono Trigger and Earthbound try to skirt this by making encounters appear on the screen, the end result doesn't matter. Yes, you can see the enemies coming but you're still going to spend most of the game doing bullshit.

3) This is harder to quantify and I didn't mention it in the last entry but the writing in most JRPGs is malarky, specifically in classic entries. Sometimes it's charming, sometimes it's surprisingly thematically sound, but the sheer amount of words spilled to no end, the clunky dialogue, the last minute 2 dimensional antagonists, this is bad writing.

Ok, now that I've defined, in a limited sense, my problem with this genre, let's talk about the fix and exceptions. I recommend if you're interested in my hot takes on this stuff, to read the last entry too.

Devil's Advocacy

I don't think these design decisions were made for no reason. I know that I found the very idea of decision and text based combat really enchanting when I was young. And there are arguments for these elements. The arguments don't stand up for me, but here they are, as far as I can tell. I've included my response below.

1) Non demanding combat is necessary for contrast. Having low impact, relaxing encounters creates contrast with more tactical boss fights. In Mario, you wouldn't want all your encounters to be with hammer brothers, would you? No, you need some easy Goombas every once in a while. Besides, having this much quiet time is calm and medatative.

If you find tapping attack over and over to be calming, that's great and I wouldn't take that away from you if I could. I personally want to play a game when I sit down to play a game. I don't want something to do with my hands while I listen to podcasts and if I do, I'll play Dark Souls or Isaac.

The Mario example (which no one made, btw) presents a fundamental misunderstanding of Mario design. Think about how Goombas are used. Yes, they're an easy enemy but after the first few encounters, they're constantly recontextualized through arrangement and terrain. Mario gets harder after you master it. The JRPGs I'm talking about don't. Numbers go up, but they do on both sides of the equation, so instead of 2>1 in the early game, we're looking at 10>9 in the late.

2) The amount of encounters create a certain world feel and present a hardship that your characters have overcome. There's danger everywhere! And look at all the monsters you had to slay to get to Zorbungus, The Nebula Drinker!

*It's not dangerous! If the idea is to make the world seem hostile and dangerous, the ease of the encounters subvert that. There are some exceptions where this actually works but for the most part, it just makes the game worlds seem tedius. *

And what is proven by the hundreds of animals you killed on your way to Zorbungus? It feels longer, yes, but not cooler. You spent more time killing things and racked up a body count, sure, but it wasn't adversity. The adversity comes from the bosses, which, generally, I have no problem with.

3) These stories are meant to appeal to the monomyth! They're classic stories featuring archetypes. They're easy to understand and appeal to the kid in us!

*The kid in me is dead. I've been thinking lately about how I no longer seek out media that makes me feel like a kid. I was thinking about it in relation to Undertale at first but it extends to Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy too.

Typical JRPG plots (I'm not including Undertale in this) tend towards storytelling that is both simplistic and needlessly complex. I don't have much patience for that. And when the macro plots are actually sort of interesting (Chrono Trigger, for example), there's a lot of lifeless dialogue and flat characters you have to get through on your way there.

I'm going to combine the "What I'd like to see" and "Exceptions" section, because what I'd like to see are more exceptions. Before I get to that, though, I want to talk about how half measures.

There's a movement towards literally spackling over this feature of the genre and games are often praised for this. The big example I can think of is Bravely Default but it comes up in other games too (specifically the Zeboyd JRPGs, which I like). Bravely Default's solution to this issue was to allow it to go by much faster but didn't do anything to increase engagement. Random Battles in Bravely Default happen too often and they're really boring. They're quick though!

Yes, you can turn them off, but that's damning too. What does it say about a core mechanic that there's an option to literally turn it off? Where is the confidence in that? How am I supposed to think this is a good gameplay feature if the developers don't?

Zeboyd limits the number of encounters an area but, despite their efforts towards engagement, the time until you run out of enemies is still boring. It feels like the developer apologizing for a genre staple rather than omitting it or designing away from it.

Undertale, which I've talked about more than I ever thought I would, gives the option of just doing something else instead of engaging with enemies in turn/menu based combat. I had a lot of problems with the execution here (it felt impenetrable if you weren't apt at bullet hell shooters), but again, what does it say about a mechanic when you can just replace it?

So, what's to be done? What are some options for fixing this shit up? You have to engage me, JRPGs. I dont' want to spend 70% of a game just tapping one button. Non interactive, consequence free parts of your game should be kept to a minimum. They should certainly be the exception, not the rule. How to increase engagement:

Difficulty I haven't played all of them but I really like what the Persona games do with random battles and the reason is that they're tough. If a random battle can kill you, it has consequence. Persona enemies are tough but the player is armed with a huge toolbox of status effects and debuffs to get around this.

It's not perfect, though, as you still spend entirely too much fucking time doing it. Persona with about half the encounter rate might work.

A better example, in my mind, is Darkest Dungeon, a game that I want to do a full write up on at some point, because I think the way its mechanics interact are really elegant. Darkest Dungeon is super tough but more importantly, it contains...

Consistant Tactical Considerations In Darkest Dungeon, character placement means so much. You have to really think about where you put each character to compliment their ability and equipment loadout and the enemies you're likely to face. Further, in any given delve, you're likely to have ten for fewer encounters. Darkest Dungeon is one of my favorite JRPGs.

Another example, though it's a cheat, is Final Fantasy Tactics, where positioning, areas of effect and character loadout are paramount. It's not a JRPG (it's a SRPG) but I think I get most of what I would want from JRPGs from SRPGs anyway. SRPGs are sort of like JRPGs with good combat. (Oh, and something like Star Ocean or Lunar doesn't count as having robust player position tactics. It barely matters in those games).

Write a story like a fucking adult who can write a story It's hard for me to think of a traditional JRPG that knocks this out of the park. I love Final Fantasy 6 and I think it holds up pretty well. Parts of Final Fantasy 9 do as well. Chrono Trigger does a good job at this, mostly. But why is the dialogue so simple? Why is there no subtext, no hidden motivations? It's always melodrama. Even when it's good, it's melodrama. There's so rarely hidden heart to these characters. The heroes are brave but honorable, the villains might have a tragic flaw or good origin, but they're evil now and driven to evil.

Further, the end of the story so often brings in some shithead cosmic force that I have no personal stake in. Golbez is a flat character, but he has ties to my characters. Zemus is bullshit.

One good subversion of this is actually Earthbound, which is charming and weird throughout and has an emotionally resonant final encounter. So yeah, Earthbound is good on this front (though there are too many encounters and the combat is rarely fun!).

As mentioned in the previous entry, there are lots of things I do like JRPGs for. I like boss battles, for example, and I like the aesthetic trappings often enough. I also like robust character build systems which some JRPGs do really, really well. But ultimately, no matter how much I might like those things, I need these things:

I need to be engaged throughout most of a well written adventure that respects my time.

Why is that rare?