The JRPG is Doing Just Fine, Thanks

The JRPG is Doing Just Fine, Thanks

2016 IN REVIEW: The year's roster of excellent import role-playing options suggest rumors of the genre's death have been somewhat premature.

If you ever need a reminder of just how long Final Fantasy XV was in development, consider this: It's been more than two years since the meme that the future of Japanese role-playing games hinges on the success or failure of FFXV began to make the rounds, and our own Kat Bailey laid out a strong case that this was, in fact, not entirely true.

Final Fantasy XV did actually arrive this year, more than a decade on from its original announcement, and its impact on its genre was... negligible, as it turns out. FFXV has sold well, has reviewed well, and also has no bearing whatsoever on other JRPGs. Certainly the game will play an enormous role (har har) in determining the future of Final Fantasy and of Square Enix; I've even seen some speculation that the company will call it quits with new, numbered entries in the franchise and focus more on spin-offs and remakes. I find that pretty unlikely, but who knows? The entire project turned out to be a massive boondoggle, a seemingly endless money pit, yet all of the pain should be mitigated by the surprisingly entertaining end result and the generally positive reception it's received.

Of course FFXV was a hit. It has a little something for everyone's fetish.

Whatever it may have been in its early development days, though, Final Fantasy XV has almost no connection whatsoever to the genre to which it ostensibly belongs. You occasionally come across JRPGs with big, open worlds like this one — last year's Xenoblade Chronicles X, for example — but I can't think of a single other Japanese RPG that shares FFXV's unusual mix of action-centered (yet, optionally, partially turn-based) combat, open-world design, quest-based structure, and cinematic focus. There's more of a triple-A action series like Assassin's Creed here than there is of, say, Breath of Fire, and ultimately FFXV's performance speaks to nothing more than how well Square Enix's Tokyo development teams can work within the limitations and expectations of blockbuster game design.

Take away FFXV and you'll find that 2016 brought us a bumper crop of Japanese RPGs that existed independently from, and succeeded irrespective of, Square Enix's big release. They ranged from tiny and esoteric (The Legend of Kusakari, which turns the grass-cutting element of The Legend of Zelda games into its own standalone adventure for 3DS) to best-selling (Pokémon Sun and Moon Versions). The year's Japanese RPG could be soul-crushingly difficult (Shiren the Wanderer) or breezy and simple (I am Setsuna).

Actually, come to think of it, "difficult" was more the order of the day in 2016. You had Dark Souls III — yes, Dark Souls is an RPG made in Japan, or "JRPG" — which did its usual thing of demanding precision play while offering no quarter. Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse maintained that franchise's tradition of completely ruining players with the first boss encounter. And of course you had the aforementioned Shiren, which introduced (at least to American fans, who never saw Shiren the Wanderer 4) a day/night mechanic to its roguelike design, making the unforgiving combat design and steep penalties for failure inherent to the Shiren game even more brutal. Imagine not being able to see foes which can wipe you out in a few hits and can only be defeated with the use of skills that need to be recharged by moving to a new floor, all while managing the standard demands of a randomized roguelike. I won't lie, I didn't beat Shiren before reviewing it, and I wonder if I ever will. But I certainly do enjoy trying, even if each demoralizing defeat puts me off playing for a few weeks every time.

That's not to say difficulty was all that mattered in the year's role-playing games. Dragon Quest Builders has its frustrating moments to be sure — boss fights, I'm looking at you — but on the whole the game has a remarkably relaxed vibe to it, as befits a sandbox building game. Monsters exist in endless quantities and (as in Shiren) take on a far more aggressive stance during the night hours, but they're easy enough to fend off with your attack skills. Once you upgrade your hero's skills to handle reasonably durable building materials, you can wall off your city into a fortress and never have to worry about random monsters making a mess of your hard work. After that, you can just put the game on cruise control and focus on grinding for materials or creating an elaborate, systematic town, or basically whatever tickles your fancy.

With occasional bursts of freaked-out panic to run the heck away from a giant monster.

The one thing my favorite RPGs of 2016 and Final Fantasy XV did have in common, I realize, is that all-important sense of freedom to do your own thing. I still haven't returned to FFXV following my 16-hour preview experience wherein I farted around without even completing the third chapter of the story, but once I have some free time — a lot of free time, that is — I certainly intend to go back and spend a good chunk of it on doing nothing in particular at my own pace. Even in more focused games like Shiren the Wanderer, which consists almost entirely of dungeon-crawling, offer up their freedom in their mechanics. You can build and customize Shiren's gear into a seemingly infinite array of specialized systems, just as you can mix-and-match hundreds of completely custom-built demons into an enormous number of permutations in Apocalypse.

"Role-playing game" can mean many things, but at its heart it means (to me, at least) a certain degree of liberty. Maybe that means an open invitation to wander through the game world, or perhaps it simply amounts to being granted carte blanche for building your character or party. In any case, the year's slate of JRPGs upheld this mandate most admirably. Sure, not every game in the genre offered unlimited player agency, but that is as it should be — RPGs are also about variety, after all. So it's fine that I am Setsuna meticulously imitated Chrono Trigger's design structure down to that game's general linearity and restrictive character development; it was more than made up for by Nintendo's elaborate multi-part Fire Emblem, which functionally presented two different difficulty levels across its two cartridges while continuing to allow players to build an army to their best of their ability and woo the romantic partner of their choice.

RPGs did just fine in 2016, regardless of FFXV's existence. Pokémon Sun & Moon versions set sales records around the world, abetted in large part by Pokémon Go (a very refreshing take on the MMO concept) but also buoyed simply by fan enthusiasm and the new generation's generally sunny design. Or, uh, moony, I guess, depending on your pick of versions.

Take away the insane sales outlier that is Pokémon, though, and the JRPG still felt vigorous. Dark Souls III dominated forum discussions and search results for several weeks. Fire Emblem was a hit by any standard, especially those of that particular series. Dragon Quest Builders evidently sold well enough outside Japan that Square Enix hasn't thrown in the towel on the franchise again; they just announced an international localization Dragon Quest Heroes II a few days ago. And while a lot of the less-visible RPGs I enjoyed so much didn't set the sales chart afire, I'm pretty sure the likes of Apocalypse and Shiren hit the marks their publishers had set for them. Besides, these are the kind of games that people tend to pick up further down the line, when they have the time to invest, or that accumulate interest through word of mouth and end-of-year lists. Like this one.

There were a few high-profile RPG disappointments in 2016 — mostly, curiously enough, from Square Enix. FFXV racked up plaudits and sales alike, but it seems like many of the company's more modest productions didn't deliver. I am Setsuna was meant to serve as the flagship for an internal studio dedicated to producing retro-style RPGs, but given the game's silent fade into obscurity, it's hard to imagine the company moving forward with that particular plan. The latest Star Ocean had a sort of B-game vibe to it — big-budget aspirations hindered by the reality of modest resources — and seems to have come and gone without much notice. And World of Final Fantasy contained boundless charm and a pretty entertaining combat system, but Square Enix's strangely uncommunicative pre-launch marketing for the game really deflated the hype it should have commanded.

World of Final Fantasy might have been 2016's best-kept secret, which is a strange business model, really.

Despite these letdowns, though, 2017 looks to improve on 2016's great RPG options. Persona 5, several Dragon Quests (including, maybe, the next numbered entry in the series), the stunning The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wind, a new Tales, a console release for Ys Origins, and likely some as-yet-unannounced localizations such as Etrian Odyssey V and Tokyo Xanadu as well. But let's not get ahead of ourselves! I can't imagine anyone has been able to play through all of this year's best and most noteworthy RPGs. You have 10 days left in 2016 — that should be just enough time to track down something you've missed (Shiren? Builders?) and maybe even finish it. Well, you have your assignments — get crackin'!

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