Before E3 started, I commented that I expect this E3 to be a good year for RPGs. I haven't been disappointed.
There were already reasons to be excited, with XSEED having already confirmed that Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel would be at E3. Then things really got rolling last Monday night, when Sony dropped the bomb that Final Fantasy VII was finally (finally, finally, finally) getting remade. I had predicted it in my previous article, but it was still a shock to see that it was real. Then Square Enix announced that Taro Yoko would be partnering with Platinum to make Nier, and things got real.
It was only a couple announcements among many, but the reaction they garnered was explosive. Silly as it is to claim that a company can "win" E3, there's no denying that the Final Fantasy VII remake allowed to dominate the conversation in the wake of the press conferences, even without any concrete information. For the first time in years, JRPGs were sharing the stage during gaming's biggest events.
Perhaps because they've mostly made their homes on dedicated handhelds like the PlayStation Vita, JRPGs have largely sat at the margins for the past few years. XSEED, Atlus, Nintendo, and Square Enix have all done good work getting games like Dragon Quest IX and Trails in the Sky to the U.S., but even more popular games like Persona 4 Golden have flown under the radar to some extent.
There are a number of reasons for why that has happened. In particular, the bias toward consoles has been inevitable, with games set on dedicated handhelds generally being viewed as somehow less advanced than their peers. For that reason, JRPGs have had fewer opportunities to get a share of the limelight; a situation exacerbated by the struggles of Final Fantasy and the absence of Kingdom Hearts III, two franchises that have long been leaders in the west.
This year, though, there seem to be a lot more JRPGs on home consoles. Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts III, two of the genre's white whales, are on the verge of actually being released. Later this year, Xenoblade Chronicles X and Persona 5 will be hitting home consoles as well, with Star Ocean due in 2016. Final Fantasy VII and Nier are the cherry on top of a suddenly rich sundae
It's a somewhat surprising reversal for JRPGs, since one of the problems facing developers has been the reluctance of their home market to embrace the high-definition consoles. The PlayStation 4 continues to be a non-starter in Japan, forcing the smaller developers who used to be a vital part of the console's ecosystem over to the Nintendo 3DS, Vita, and mobile. The only thing that I can see changing is that publishers like Square Enix have realized that there's still an audience for these games in the west, lessening the importance of the home market. On top of that, Japanese developers have finally started to catch up technologically with their western counterparts, once again producing attractive games of their own.
During E3, I had the opportunity to interview Atlas' Shinjiro Takada (Devil Survivor), who is currently in the middle of working on Shin Megami Tensei x Fire Emblem, another promising JRPG. I asked him if he perceived a return to form for the subgenre, and he said yes, if only because developers are putting a greater emphasis on quality.
"I don't want to name names," Takada said, "but quality has not mattered as much to some studios as it should."
With Nintendo investing in Monolith Soft and SMT x Fire Emblem, and Square Enix shaking things up at the top and bringing in fresh blood, there has indeed been a relative uptick in quality releases. And the foundation is in place for even more.
Many of the game's shown at this year's show won't be out until 2016 or beyond. Final Fantasy VII and Nier are clearly in the early stages of development, with only a pair of teaser trailers to hint at what's to come, and Kingdom Hearts III still doesn't have a release date. Even the release of Persona 5 remains up in the air, though Atlus hasn't budged from its promised 2015 release window.
Still, there's plenty reason for JRPG fans to be excited. Xenoblade Chronicles X is a big, beautiful open-world RPG for the Wii U, and Cosmic Star Heroine is looking extremely promising. Who knows, we may also get a Bravely Second announcement soon.
Beyond even the game announcements, though, it's heartening to see Square Enix renew their commitment to the genre they helped popularize by opening a new JRPG focused studio.
These are heady times for JRPG fans. It feels good to be optimistic.