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
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
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
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
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
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.