JPgamer: "Better Than Persona?"

In this week's Japanese gaming column, we discuss the recent crop of Japanese role-playing games -- and whether any have truly bettered Atlus' slice-of-life-with-monsters classic.

Article by Pete Davison, .

Welcome, once again, to USgamer's regular roundup of all things Japan and Japan-inspired.

This week I wanted to do something a little different and explore a Twitter conversation I was part of last night, since it's a subject close to my own heart and something that doubtless plenty of you have your own feelings on -- so feel free to jump in with your own thoughts at any point.

It began with a comment from RPGamer's editor-in-chief Michael Cunningham, who asserted that, contrary to popular belief, "console JRPGs haven't died, many have simply changed form. Valkyria Chronicles, Xenoblade, Demon's Souls."

Valkyria Chronicles, branded by Jeremy as "one of the most imaginative and entertaining games of the generation."

At first glance, Cunningham would seem to be on the money. Despite all being very different games, Valkyria Chronicles, Xenoblade and Demon's Souls are all recognizably role-playing games of Japanese origin in one form or another -- at least, if you take a relatively loose definition of "role-playing game." (Personally? I tend to take the fairly flexible definition of "any game involving one or more at least partially customizable characters who steadily grow in strength and power over the course of the game, and whose strengths and weaknesses can be represented numerically," though your mileage may vary.)

Robert Boyd of Cosmic Star Heroine developer Zeboyd Games disagreed, however, noting that he didn't believe any of the titles Cunningham mentioned to be JRPGs. "I mean, I guess if you stretch it Xenoblade could be called a JRPG," he added. "Valkyria Chronicles 1, I don't even consider an RPG." (He considers it an "old-school tactical war board game with some action elements," if you were wondering, pointing to the game's "expendable army of grunts" rather than more traditional strategy RPGs' hero characters as the main distinguishing factor.)

At this point, Twitter user and regular USgamer commenter "Stealth" jumped in, noting that he believed "we have more JRPG choice this gen than we ever had before." I'm inclined to agree, personally; for the last couple of years, pretty much every game I've played in my free time has been a lengthy JRPG (by my definition rather than Boyd's) in one form or another, and I've had a blast. Nier, Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story, Pandora's Tower, Trails in the Sky, the Ar Tonelico series, the Hyperdimension Neptunia series, Tales of Xillia, Time and Eternity and countless others -- I have fond memories of all of them. Not all of them were the most well-received or the "best" games, of course -- though naturally, that's a matter of opinion -- but that's not what Stealth was arguing; he said that we've had more choice than ever before. I don't have detailed statistics to say whether or not that is absolutely, positively true, but it certainly feels as if we're at least on a par with the PlayStation 2 generation in terms of variety -- and perhaps more so thanks to games that unabashedly cater to niche audiences rather than going for mainstream appeal.

If you've not yet played Persona 4, don't be put off by its 80+ hour length; you won't regret the time you spend in Inaba.

Boyd disagreed with Stealth, though the two were talking at slight cross-purposes for a while. "I dunno about that," he said. "I have yet to see anything better than Persona 4 (except [Persona 4 Golden for Vita]) and that was 2008."

Persona 4 is great, to be fair, and it's one of my own personal benchmarks for how good JRPGs can be if they're well-written, well-designed and unafraid to delve into dark, mature subject matter. But I wasn't sure I agreed with Boyd's assertion that nothing "better" (again, subjective) had come out since then. I pointed to my personal play habits for the past couple of years and he clarified his stance: "Oh, I've been playing tons of JRPGs this year. It's just that none of them are as good as [Persona 4]. Ni no Kuni, [Shin Megami Tensei 4], Pokémon X/Y and Xillia are all good-to-great games. But none are amazing. The only JRPG since P4 to wow me was Radiant Historia. And it falls apart later on."

"Clearly you haven't played Atelier Meruru (or the other ones)," said Digitally Downloaded's Matt Sainsbury, card-carrying member of the Atelier fan club. Boyd admitted that he hadn't played Meruru -- regarded by some to be the best of the Arland trilogy -- but that he had played Meruru's predecessor Totori and the first installment in the more recent Dusk saga, Atelier Ayesha. He branded them "good games" -- damning with faint praise?

Cunningham hit back with the phenomenal PSP JRPG Trails in the Sky, the second installment of which is currently being worked on by Recettear localizer Carpe Fulgur. Boyd noted that he thought "Trails in the Sky is great but nowhere near as good as Persona 4. Also it's a really old game."

It's true, sadly; despite the fact we weren't treated to an English translation until 2011, the original Windows version of the game hailed from 2004 -- some four years prior to Persona 4 hitting the PlayStation 2, thereby going some way to proving Boyd's point.

Time and Eternity was not the finest game there's ever been, but it was a good example of that "choice" Stealth argues we've had this generation.

"Since Persona 4 came out in 2008, I can only think of a handful of JRPGs that have impressed me since then," said Boyd, bringing what had previously been a relatively small-scale conversation into Twitter's public timeline. "Ni no Kuni for the visuals and music. [Final Fantasy XIII] for its clever battle system. And Radiant Historia overall, except it should have ended sooner." Boyd also branded Xenoblade Chronicles his "biggest disappointment of the generation," aside, possibly, from BioShock Infinite.

I've certainly played and enjoyed a wide variety of role-playing games on consoles since Persona 4 came out and it's honestly difficult to say whether or not any are, without a doubt, "better" than Atlus' classic. But ultimately, I'm not altogether sure it matters; the point that was inadvertently made in this whole discussion was that JRPGs are far from being a dead genre -- whether you're looking at the PC, console or handheld space -- and that, in fact, the genre has diversified and expanded more than almost any other type of game out there in the last few years. Your own personal definition of "JRPG" (or even "RPG") may vary -- you may take a broad definition like me, or have very specific criteria like Boyd -- but there's little denying that for those of us who like hitting things with swords and seeing little numbers pop up, our favorite genre isn't going anywhere for a long time yet.

JPgamer is USgamer's regular round-up of topics regarding Japanese games, published every Wednesday. You can read previous installments here.

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Comments 18

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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #1 SargeSmash 5 years ago
    Well, that's interesting. As good as Persona 4 may be, though, I find it terribly overrated. I'm not saying it's a bad game, I'm not even saying it's not a great game, I'm just puzzled by how many hold it up as the greatest example of a JRPG out there right now.

    Of course, I'm also an old curmudgeon that still doesn't think anything has exceeded Chrono Trigger. Personal opinion, of course, although hopefully not completely steeped in nostalgia. A few have come close, however.
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  • Avatar for aett #2 aett 5 years ago
    I personally loved Xenoblade, but I can understand how someone who develops JRPG-inspired games might consider it a disappointment. There is a lot of unnecessary repetition in the game and I nearly pulled my hair out at multiple points in my 125-hour playthrough trying to find the right townsperson somewhere in one of the sprawling towns at precisely the right time of day. And that was AFTER collecting the rare item they wanted. Overall, though, the good far outweighed the bad, in my opinion.

    Apart from that, I fully agree with Boyd about nothing surpassing or matching Persona 4 this gen. Apart from Xenoblade, the RPG that I loved the most this gen was Fallout: New Vegas - which is not only a WRPG, but the first WRPG that I found myself interested in beyond the first few hours. Traditional JRPGs were few and far between, and most of them just didn't appeal to me. Fortunately - on the portable side of things - we had other types of RPGs like the Etrian Odyssey series to keep me busy.
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  • Avatar for limbeckd #3 limbeckd 5 years ago
    I agree that nothing has surpassed Persona 3/4, although they certainly aren't perfect (sooo grindy). Tales of Vesperia comes closest for me.
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  • Avatar for Y7748837 #4 Y7748837 5 years ago
    Wow dude you should write for RPGamer's editorial section
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  • Avatar for bigdsweetz #5 bigdsweetz 5 years ago
    There's no game "Better" then each other. Someone mention Chrono Trigger and this article mentions P4. Both are great games in their own right which have NO business being pitted against each other. No more then Demon Souls needs to be stacked against Shin Megami Tensei. All four a superb games that excel at being something that most RPG's aren't. Being original.
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  • Avatar for Shinta #6 Shinta 5 years ago
    Zeboyd's comments are pretty clueless. How are Valkyria Chronicles characters an expendable army of grunts? The game has one of the best casts in an RPG ever, and it does a fantastic job of making you care about each and every one of them very quickly.

    Characters also have permanent death if they die even once, and one of the only other things you can do in town besides restock is visit the cemetery.

    Saying VC has expendable characters like saying Fire Emblem has expendable characters. It's pretty much the exact opposite of correct.

    I can't stand when people hold on to the old definition of JRPG and insist that is the only thing that a JRPG is. Almost the only point of even using such a narrow definition is to ensure that its always viewed as old and out of touch. It's a paradox that can - by definition - guarantee that JRPGs are never viewed in a positive light. The paradox goes like this. "JRPGs are dated and never change. They should update and incorporate some stuff that WRPGs do." Then when they do, like Demon's souls, Dragon's Dogma, Lightning Returns, Xenoblade, and on - "Well those aren't even JRPGs." Do you see the obvious trap? The label does nothing but segment the genre into a super specific type of narrow game that hasn't evolved much. No one does this for WRPGs. No one says Mass Effect is a tactical board game war simulator with expendable grunts, they just call it a WRPG.

    Honestly, people need to push the definition of JRPG even further to incorporate games like Zelda, which are obvious JRPGs now. Skyward Sword has an action combat system that rewards tactics over brute force. It has item upgrades and even a crafting system. It has numerous towns and NPCs, and side quests. It even has an overworld with a vehicle for transport. The only difference is it has puzzles too. Zelda is a JRPG in every sense of the word, but stubborn purists segment it off into the "adventure" genre. What else is in the adventure genre? Nothing. It's just a means of isolating Nintendo, so you can't compare it to other games. Demon's Souls has combat and puzzles that are extremely similar to Zelda.

    What is the difference between a game like Virtue's Last Reward and a JRPG? Not a whole hell of a lot honestly.

    People insisting that JRPGs must be bound by rules that didn't even define it in 1985 should be ignored, because purposely or ignorantly, they hold back the genre and do nothing but make it look bad, old, and stale, and unable to compete with the west. When you actually use the functional definition of JRPG, role playing game from Japan - and include all the best games - Demon's Souls, FFXIII, Valkyria Chronicles, Xenoblade, The Last Story, Lost Odyssey, Dragon's Dogma, The Legend of Zelda series, and on and on - you can see that it stacks up to any RPG from anywhere in the world. Compare Wind Waker HD's open world to Skyrim. Compare Dragon's Dogma's or Demon's Souls' combat to Skyrim. Compare NieR's story any WRPG. Compare FFXIII's OST and art design to any WRPG.

    As far as JRPGs that surpassed Persona, the list is pretty long. Dragon's Dogma, FFXIII, Valkyria Chronicles, Xenoblade, Demon's Souls, and on and on. Persona is extremely overrated. It's a fine game, but fans blow it way out of proportion. The story isn't fantastic. The battle system is far behind every other JRPG I've listed. The social links and dating sim elements are okay, but really aren't much better than the same stuff you see in Mass Effect's team building. The dungeons are randomized grind fests with no noteworthy level design to speak of. The music is above average for sure, but bested by pretty much every SQEX game.

    It's overrated, massively. The series is a relative unknown everywhere but in an extremely small, and vocal pocket of the internet. It only sold around 200k in the West. Just to put that in perspective, FFXIII-2 sold 2 million and everyone calls it a failure. I think Fez even sold more than Persona. It's not the best in any genre. It's a fun, niche RPG that needs to be massively updated to be relevant with Persona 5.Edited November 2013 by Shinta
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  • Avatar for Totalninja #7 Totalninja 5 years ago
    "The genre has failed to produce a game better than one of its all-time masterpieces within five years of its release, therefore it is dead."

    I don't follow this logic.
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  • Avatar for Dogislander #8 Dogislander 5 years ago
    Boyd's whole argument is fallacious. "No film is superior to Citizen Kane, so I'll dismiss everything after it." You have a favorite, congrats. We all do. It does not mean you need to ignore all the truly innovative and enjoyable games that are out there. Saying a genre is dying because it hasn't beaten our favorite...just plain weird. And it smacks a bit of ego-stroking. Nothing boosts an ego more than to be "above" a certain type of material.

    As always, what I like about this site is that it's more about getting people in touch with and APPRECIATING games, not nitpicking about how minor aspects fail. Sure, Persona is grindy, but the atmosphere and writing are fantastic. Sure, Xenoblade has plenty of odd little(optional) sidequests, but the sheer scope of the game and solid pacing make it a lot of fun.
    There's plenty of good stuff to go around without knocking on material that may not entirely match certain people's peculiarly specific tastes. Spread the love.
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  • Avatar for scuffpuppies #9 scuffpuppies 5 years ago
    Saw a link to this at the bottom of Eurogamer (my usual home of residence), and for one excited second I thought Gamernetwork had opened a new Japanese site.

    Colour me disappointed.
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  • Avatar for pjedavison #10 pjedavison 5 years ago
    Knew I could count on you guys for some great discussion -- thanks, everyone, for participating! :)
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #11 Stealth20k 5 years ago
    Nobody should mistake our interaction as fighting, we all love JRPGS and we all respect each others opinions.

    This was just for fun. We all werent playing JRPG's at the moment so........

    In the end what game is better than what is pure opinion so in this interchange I tried to be the voice of reason saying, ok, so maybe its not better than persona 4. But we have more JRPG choices to maybe find the next persona 4.

    Whether the RPG is on mobile, on portables, on pc, on consoles, the word "jrpg" doesnt just mean square enix anymoreEdited November 2013 by Stealth20k
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  • Avatar for renatocosta90 #12 renatocosta90 5 years ago
    I ended up reading it up as an exchange done Ace Attorney style, flying fingers, table smashing, objection shouts everywhere!

    I'm one of the opinion that games should be vehicles for good storytelling and everything else is an extension of that. The game mechanics should be conveying a particular story or statement, even in, say, a fighting game, where the mechanics of the game convey to tell the game overarching plot (if playing in the arcade mode) or the story of the decisions the players make while playing each other (in versus). For me, that's what is interesting about games, the variety of formats and possible stories that can be told and generated throughout every gaming session.

    I guess that most people that argue that JRPGs are 'dead' or 'gone' still pine for that very snes/psx-era games that banded a group of do-gooders to wield powers in turn-based combat and save the world at the end of the day. That is well and good, but I think this particular type of game has evolved overtime, shedding the sometimes bloated playtime, grinding, random encounters, and throwing a lot of things in the mix. P4 is the sum of these design decisions (the do-gooders, save the world), but with the added design of weaving dating-sim/visual novel mechanics throughout the game, allied to some stellar writing (as Pete pointed out).

    In the end, we have tons of games, not constrained by nationality, art style, gameplay, that try to tell their own stories, in their own different and strange ways. Making a "better" or "worse" game is hard to compare, in this case. We can have a long, 80-hour RPG as P4 and a 4, maybe 5-hour long story in To The Moon, that can be considered great games. Or bad, if that's your preference.

    I digress, hard. But I guess, in the end, we have a lot to experience and experiment. Let's try to not get constrained by our own limited expectatives of what a game made on japan or otherwise should be like, I guess.
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  • Avatar for Macstorm #13 Macstorm 5 years ago
    @nimzy As the Cunningham being talked about here, I have to agree. I worry that the misconception about JRPGs dying has come from the big names losing site of what made them big names in the first place.
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  • Avatar for Vasenor #14 Vasenor 5 years ago
    @Totalninja Yeah.

    "Let me talk to you about how many years it has been since we've had a great and innovative cover based shooter..."

    In general if you talk about more niche genres the selection has been pretty unparallelled lately with everything from roguelikelikes to point and click adventures enjoying a revival and slew of new releases.

    I'm currently trying to think which genre hasn't had some at the very least decent games released lately.

    Anyway, I like JRPGs and really enjoyed P4 (and many of the other SMT games) and am really looking forward to the release of episode 2 of Trails in the Sky (the first of which has also become one of my all time favourites). Unfortunately I lack a PS3 for me to enjoy Ni no Kuni or Valkyria Chronicles amongst others. One of the reasons I want to pick one up before grabbing a next gen console in a year or two once you have a decent catalogue for those.
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #15 Stealth20k 5 years ago
    @Macstorm Its square everyone thinks about
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  • Avatar for christopherhughes97 #16 christopherhughes97 5 years ago
    Since Persona 4 is pretty close to the top on my personal "best games" scale, and is actually the most recently made game that I would rank so highly, I would not really consider it a knock against the genre that nobody has really topped it in the past couple years.

    Also would have to agree with the idea that others have put forward that the JRPG genre outside of Square-Enix has diversified a lot in response to the HD generation. If we're going to continue doing as the names of the genres imply and defining JRPGs and WRPGs by the cultures that produce them, we should probably stop getting mechanical discussions confused with the issue. As long as JRPGs are "3-4 guys stand in a line and defeat enemies with menu-based commands and do basic exploration stuff and cutscenes in between" and WRPGs are "everything else", the JRPG genre is always going to seem outdated and dying. I actually kind of like the culture of origin definition. It creates more interesting conversations than a mechanics-based definition.
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  • Avatar for Daedalus207 #17 Daedalus207 5 years ago
    You guys are making me feel good about my decision to buy a Vita this holiday season. I still haven't played Persona 4, and I sold my PS2 before I finished P3FES.
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  • Avatar for LunarKnite #18 LunarKnite 5 years ago
    I happen to think most of the great JRPGs after Persona 4 migrated towards handhelds. Dragon Quest IX was a fantastic JRPG (And I'm saddened no one mentioned it...) that harkened to its old roots meanwhile having an online system that no doubt helped shaped the way Nintendo thought about handhelds and online connectivity.

    And then you have another Shin Megami Tensei franchise, Devil Survivor, in which the 2nd game of the series is by far my personal favorite SMT game. It does take its cues from Persona 4, but it does so in its own way, having tactical grid based movement combined with turn-based combat.
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