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2013 in Review: The State of Role-Playing Games

How has the last year treated role-playing games? Jeremy and Pete take a look back on a year of swords, spiky hair and too many zippers.

Article by USgamer Team, .

There's been an explosion of "RPG elements" in a wide variety of games over the last few years -- but what of the spiritual home of XP, HP and MP?

It's been an interesting year for role-playing games, and as USgamer's two resident obsessive role-playing game fans, Pete and Jeremy decided to contemplate where the genre's been, how it's evolved and where it's likely to go next.

Pete Davison: There's a marked divide in terms of both perception and market share between Western and Eastern role-playing games these days, I feel, even though both of those descriptors are gross oversimplifications.

Western RPGs -- stuff like Skyrim, Mass Effect, Dragon Age and their ilk -- seem to be going from strength to strength, while Eastern role-playing games are often regarded to be on the decline or even dead by some commentators. My personal pile of shame will happily attest to the latter point being completely untrue, but they've certainly become a lot more of a niche interest than their Western counterparts in my experience.

"Eastern role-playing games are regarded as on the decline or even dead by some, but my personal pile of shame will happily attest to this being completely untrue."

Pete
Skyrim continues to be incredibly popular, but it's just one type of RPG out there today.

Ever since I first got into RPGs with Final Fantasy VII, I considered myself as someone who particularly enjoyed the genre in general -- both Western and Eastern. So long as there were HP, XP and things to stab with a sword, I was happy -- or so I thought, anyway. I've started to feel myself drifting away from the Western take on the genre in recent years, though, and more towards the Eastern interpretation. Specifically, I've found myself being left increasingly cold by the sprawling, freeform open worlds of games like Skyrim, and instead preferring to immerse myself in Japanese (or Japanese-style) worlds with more linear progression and, for the most part, stronger stories.

Fortunately, I've found that I'm still extremely well catered to. Both the Vita and 3DS have proven themselves to be very capable JRPG machines -- particularly, in the Vita's case, thanks to the fact you can download the majority of the PSP's back catalog -- but the PS3 certainly hasn't been left out, either. The thing is, a lot of these games just don't seem to get the column inches they once did; I vividly recall back in, say, the PS1 era where a new JRPG for consoles was often big, exciting news -- today, they're often greeted with little more than indifference at best.

There are rare exceptions, of course; everyone seems to be pretty pumped about Bravely Default.

Jeremy Parish: Not to get too far off on a tangent here, but I’m really not keen on dividing out RPGs by their point of origin. It seems so arbitrary. Games like Dark Souls, Fire Emblem, Soul Hackers, and Etrian Odyssey frankly have a lot more in common on a fundamental level with foundational Western RPGs like Ultima, Wizardry, and Rogue than the likes of Skyrim and The Witcher do.

What’s the real distinction here? Art style? Dark Souls’s grimdark aesthetic and Soul Hackers’ otherworldly Kazuma Kaneko art don’t read as being particularly “Japanese” to my eye. Dragon’s Dogma doesn’t have a drop of anime in it, but it sure as heck does have more precise and involving combat than Skyrim. There are a whole lot of Western-developed indie RPGs that mimic Final Fantasy or Phantasy Star and look more “Japanese” than most recent JRPGs. For every obvious ringer like Tales of Vesperia, we have a Cosmic Star Heroine. So what do “JRPG” and “Western RPG” mean, stylistically? Not much. Really, those terms basically amount to another way that gamers segregate things into “us” and “them.” It’s much easier to write things off in broad strokes if you can define them as The Other.

"2013 offered further examples of RPGs breaking down meaningless regional barriers. Not to mention the boundaries of what, exactly, constitutes an RPG."

Jeremy
Rogue Legacy: a fresh new coffee break-friendly take on the RPG.

And, really, 2013 offered further examples of RPGs breaking down meaningless regional barriers. Not to mention the boundaries of what, exactly, constitutes an RPG. Look at Rogue Legacy, a Canadian game that’s equal parts Castlevania (perhaps the quintessential Japanese side-scrolling action RPG) and Rogue (an American game most effectively translated into console- and action-friendly format by Japanese developer Chunsoft). Rogue Legacy perfectly exemplifies the strengths of the modern video game medium, and RPGs in particular: With more than 30 years of precedent and predecessors to draw on, games can mix and match concepts to create entirely new expressions of old ideas and fresh combinations of genres. At the other end of the spectrum, games that pursue a pure take on a well-defined genre can achieve that end by learning from the failures of the past.

The other thing 2013 demonstrated for RPGs is that the age of console RPGs is practically over. Just how many role-playing games came out for Xbox 360, Wii U, or PS3 this year? Ni No Kuni, Tales of Vesperia, Guided Fate Paradox, and… what, exactly? The new Adventure Time kind of counts, I guess. But no, RPGs basically belong to portable systems, mobile devices, and PCs. Sure, 2014 will start off with a bang (South Park, Lightning Returns, The Witcher III, and Dark Souls, all within the first 10 weeks of the year!), but that’s about the extent of it. Meanwhile, I couldn’t begin to keep up with the great RPGs on 3DS alone -- and RPGs are pretty much the only thing going for Vita. Meanwhile, the classic ‘90s-style PC RPG has seen a tremendous revival thanks to Kickstarter. Console RPGs, on the other hand, seem to have become a dying breed.

Pete: It's an interesting shift in the market, isn't it? I'm certainly not averse to it, though, since handhelds make eminently suitable RPG machines in my experience. You can play for a few minutes and grind a few levels, or you can play for a few hours and work on advancing the story of completing a difficult sidequest.

I used to feel more strongly that RPGs belonged on consoles, since they had more powerful hardware that could render more convincing, cinematic scenes -- PS1-era Square Enix had trained me to associate RPGs with "epic" scenes. Over time what I want from the genre has changed, though; nowadays I don't need spectacular cutscenes and pre-rendered videos to tell an interesting story -- just some well-written dialogue and interesting characters. That can all be done on a handheld easily -- although that said, modern handhelds are more than capable of some spectacular scenes in their own right.

"Handhelds make eminently suitable RPG machines in my experience. You can play for a few minutes and grind a few levels, or you can play for a few hours to advance the story."

Pete
Pandora's Tower was an interesting example of RPG developers getting creative and blending other types of game together.

You're right about the breaking down of barriers when it comes to RPGs, though. When I think back to the best RPGs I've played in the last couple of years, all of them have done this in one form or another. The three "Operation Rainfall" games on Wii were good examples: Xenoblade Chronicles resembled a Western MMO more than anything else; The Last Story embraced its linearity to deliver a highly cinematic, almost Uncharted-esque experience; Pandora's Tower blended RPG progression with Zelda-style puzzle solving and Shadow of the Colossus-style boss fights. Trails in the Sky -- an ageing PSP title which is coming to Steam at either the end of this year or the start of next -- was another great example I played earlier this year; it blended a linear, character-centric narrative with non-linear sidequesting and world exploration to great effect.

I think it's a good time for RPGs, overall, even if they've shifted their focus somewhat. It's by far my favorite genre, and I haven't been short of great examples to play all year, from devs large and small. Looking forward, I'm particularly keen to get stuck into Bravely Default, though I should probably finish some of the other things I have on the go first…

Jeremy: Bravely Default… that’s one of them “portable games,” yeah? Truth be told, I don’t mind the way time-intensive RPGs have practically taken up residence on portable systems. RPGs tend to require little twitch skill and often focus on highly repetitive mechanics, so handheld systems make for a perfect fit. Think of how many people you know who absently level up Pokémon while they watch TV or something; hard to do that on a console. (Maybe Xbox One’s “snap” feature will radically change that! But probably not.)

Of course, this inspires the question of whether or not it’s good that RPGs incorporate so much grinding and repetition in the first place.

I honestly didn’t see any real advancement or innovation in the genre this year. I played several great RPGs, but they completely covered old ground. The most clever things any RPG did this year was Shin Megami Tensei’s big twist, which probably belongs in the “game narrative” discussion -- there was a major plot revelation at about the eight-hour mark that totally changed not only the context of the quest but the fundamental design of the game’s mechanical structure. You don’t see that often; gameplay rarely takes a backseat to story considerations.

"I have to tip my hat to Atlus for totally crushing 3DS beneath a constant stream of top-notch role-playing games. A Soul Hackers remake, Shin Megami Tensei IV, not one but two excellent Etrian Odysseys..."

Jeremy
Shin Megami Tensei IV is one of many brilliant new handheld RPGs. If you're an RPG fan and you don't own a Vita or 3DS, you're doing it wrong.

I suppose its lack of daring puts the role-playing genre in the same boat as the rest of the medium. 2013 really wasn’t a year for new ideas or risks -- more like the current gen coasting to a quiet close. Didn’t the twilight days of a console’s life used to be the time for wacky, daring, off-beat stuff? This time around, we mostly saw comfort food. A nice Fire Emblem here, a charming Tales there, another dialogue-heavy Spiderweb game (Avadon 2)... nothing surprising, but definitely satisfying.

I have to tip my hat to Atlus for totally crushing 3DS beneath a constant stream of top-notch role-playing games. A Soul Hackers remake, the aforementioned Shin Megami Tensei IV, not one but two excellent Etrian Odysseys... that represents a lot of play time. For fans of the classics -- and by classics I mean “old, old PC RPGs” -- the seeds studios sowed on Kickstarter last year began to yield quite a harvest this year. And there were even a few PS3 RPGs poking through, like brave weeds through cracks in the sidewalk. So maybe 2013 didn’t bring us much new in the way of RPGs, but it brought a ton of great content… and that’s no bad thing.

Pete: Nope, not at all -- and 2014 looks set to continue in that mold. There's a ton of brilliant RPGs dropping in the first quarter alone, plus a bunch of those Kickstarter campaigns you mentioned earlier are finally going to start bearing fruit over the course of the year.

Interestingly, as you touched on, the trend in the genre appears to be to look backwards rather than forwards. The aforementioned Kickstarter projects are channelling Infinity Engine-era PC RPGs; Bravely Default is a beautiful combination of Final Fantasy V's mechanics and Final Fantasy Tactics' art; and MMO Final Fantasy XIV is every longstanding FF fan's -- if you'll pardon the pun -- fantasy, thanks to its myriad references to earlier titles. This is testament to how enduring some of these earlier titles are -- though at the same time, those who have grown up on more recent, simpler titles may be in for a rude awakening when they try their first Etrian Odyssey, or get torn to shreds in Wasteland 2.

"The trend in the genre appears to be to look backwards rather than forwards... This is testament to how enduring some of these earlier titles are."

Pete
Here's an hour of Bravely Default's battle theme to get you in the mood for February.

I'm looking forward to seeing how the genre continues to evolve gradually over time -- but also I'm looking forward to getting stuck into my backlog of RPGs I have that stretch back to the PS2 era. These aren't short games -- especially not the way I tend to play them -- and so I'm pretty sure what I've got on my shelves right now could probably keep me busy throughout most of 2014, even without the new releases.

Either way, there's still plenty out there for a dedicated RPG fan to love, and plenty more on the horizon.

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Comments 12

  • Avatar for touchofkiel #1 touchofkiel 3 years ago
    Nice read. My pile of shame is basically a pile of RPGs, and next year it will continue to increase - from the first four months alone, we'll see FFX/X-2, FFXIII-3, Bravely Default, Dark Souls 2, Tales of Symphonia, Conception 2, Demon Gaze...

    And here I am, unable to pull myself away from FFXIV.
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  • Avatar for Blackcompany #2 Blackcompany 3 years ago
    "Western RPG's are going from Strength to Strength?"

    Really?

    I have to respectfully disagree. Games like Dark Souls feature poor controls, wonky cameras and cheap, one-hit deaths hiding behind "elite difficulty." And games like Skyrim take generic to a whole new heights with their unimaginative fantasy races, lackluster writing and poor voice acting. To say nothing of their boring magic and combat systems.

    If this is Western RPG's at their "strength" I shudder to think of them tapering to new lows...
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  • Avatar for bVork #3 bVork 3 years ago
    Funny how an article on RPGs almost entirely neglects computer RPGs. It was a lot less of a quiet year than you might think on the PC front. 2013 has been perhaps the most amazing year for re-releases ever. Ys I and II Chronicles+, System Shock 2, Wizardry VI through 8, Wasteland 1, and Final Fantasy VII and VIII have all seen light again on digital distribution platforms. It's great to be able to play the classics of the genre without either hunting down exorbitantly priced ancient media or turning to torrents.

    There's also the excellent and criminally unknown Expeditions: Conquistador, which takes traditional RPG gameplay (mostly derived from Heroes of Might & Magic, but with a much greater focus on individuals and their own ambitions) and firmly grounds it in a historical setting. I really want to see more of this. It's easy to be good or evil in a fictional universe, but knowing how conquistadors acted in reality brings much more weight to your choices. Do you roleplay and act as the conqueror and pillager that most of them were? Do you try to break with history and reject the racist underpinnings of Spanish imperialism, even at the cost of approval and material rewards in-game? These sort of decisions make Expeditions: Conquistador seriously one of the best games of any genre that I have played this year and I am totally baffled at the near-total lack of press for it.

    That's the only major new game of note from 2013, though. Everyone seems to be busy making their next game. From Pillars of Eternity to Wasteland 2 to Might & Magic X to The Witcher 3, developers both large and small seemed to mostly spend the year on unexciting but necessary work. Which is a great thing, in my opinion. If even half of those games come out and live up to their potential, 2014 will be a year to remember for RPGs.
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  • Avatar for Neifirst #4 Neifirst 3 years ago
    Jeremy might feel differently, but the "snap" feature on the Xbox One will make it my preferred destination for the upcoming wave of indie RPGs and action RPGs on consoles. I've sunk way more time into Forza 5 that I originally thought I would simply because I can have NFL or news going on simultaneously. It is an absolutely perfect feature for grind-heavy games and I get to play a game taking up 70% of my big screen TV with 5.1 sound rather than hunch over a 5-inch display with headphones.
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  • Avatar for Feanor #5 Feanor 3 years ago
    @Blackcompany Dark Souls is not a Western RPG. And it doesn't have poor controls.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #6 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    I've recently started to hate the term "RPG." It seems like a very misleading term considering that role playing games aren't necessarily about role playing, but rather have always been traditionally stat based games. It was fine when it was used that way, but nowadays the term is very confused, with people either thinking it has something to do with real role playing, or fantasy games, or story based games, or games with statistics and a turn based combat system. And it's no wonder the term is so confused when it has such a misleading and mushy title "RPG" that does not accurately describe what it is.

    Personally, I don't consider Skyrim and Mass Effect and Shin Megami Tensei IV in the same category. I guess you could call Skyrim an "action-RPG" and Mass Effect a "shooter-RPG," but they really seem to belong to different categories. In fact, if you look at the difference between RPG's made in the east and west, you see that most of the turn based RPGs are still coming from the east, and most of the so-called "wRPGs" are action games like Skyrim. Granted there are exceptions like Dark Souls and Dragon's Age, but to me it seems like RPGs in general are falling out of favor in the west, whereas action games with slight RPG elements are on the rise.

    If only we could call RPGs "stat based games," it would make so much more sense and be so much more clearer. Then instead of saying "Skyrim has RPG elements" we could just plainly say it has stats and a leveling system.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #7 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    @Blackcompany I mean, I agree with you on Skyrim, but Dark Souls has excellent controls, and a very very deep combat system that makes it the absolute best game of it's type, bar none. And the difficulty isn't just there to make the game "elite," it's to make the game more involving and exciting. Exploring a world is much more interesting when there's real risk and danger.

    But yeah, I don't consider Dark Souls to be an RPG. It's more of an action based dungeon crawler, since skill matters much more than stats.
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #8 Stealth20k 3 years ago
    If you like rpgs,this was a spectacular year
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  • Avatar for danger.to.others #9 danger.to.others 3 years ago
    In general, there's always exceptions, I think each side could catch up with the other.
    The East with level design and controls (including camera) from the West and the West learn to tell better stories and humor like East excel at.
    I like them both, East and West styles. But no RPG has gotten it completely right for me yet. The best ones will have a lot right, but just enough wrong that I keep noticing and wishing it were there.

    As they tried to do a "Western" type RPG, Dragon's Dogma nailed the levels and controls....but left out the storytelling! Something they are best at! (Well, it is Capcom, maybe those people in particular aren't the best of the best storytellers.)
    Funny though, how in trying to mimic the West, they stripped it of it's strongest virtue and to an extent, even it's identity.
    Because the last thing I'm suggesting to the East is to lose it's Asian "feel". I think all sides benefit if they're culture is maintained and felt in a project.
    Dragon's Dogma is still a great game. But again, I'm left noticing that glaring omission.

    Fingers crossed someone nails it all finally. I've got faith in Dragon's Age 3. Slightly shaky after the repeated dungeons of 2, but faith remains regardless.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #10 SatelliteOfLove 3 years ago
    "It’s much easier to write things off in broad strokes if you can define them as The Other."

    I've been under the impression those who do this don't conciously notice the exceptions.

    Had one say there's too many turn-based JRPGs on home consoles. Yeah.

    Matsuno? Megaten? Wuzzat?

    This sort of thing obscures too much real problems bubbling away at good game design world-wide.

    Also, Mass Effect is a JRPG, Etrian Odyssey is a WRPG, WOO HOO!!!
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  • Avatar for CountZeroOr #11 CountZeroOr 3 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 Personally, I wouldn't mind if more RPGs put some emphasis on balancing the "role" side of things (characters making decisions with consequences), instead of focusing on the "roll" side of things (stat and build optimization).
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #12 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    @CountZeroOr Except, you can't define a genre based on whether the player makes "decisions." That's far far too vague, and has nothing really to do with gameplay. That's why a "role-playing game" is a terrible label for a game genre. Classically RPGs have always been stat based games with turn based combat... the label "RPG" may not make much sense, but at least the genre it described was specific.

    This is why the term "RPG" needs to be retired. If you want games with more decisions and consequences, great. That can happen in any genre of game. Say what you want, but don't equivocate it with a genre.
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