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.

Article by Jeremy Parish, .

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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Comments 22

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  • Avatar for Paunchberry #1 Paunchberry A year ago
    Though the long wait for Dragon Quest 7 was definitely worth it and I've been enjoying filling the Pokedex, Dragon Quest Builders is easily the most fun I've had with a game this year.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #2 Kuni-Nino A year ago
    All this talk about 2016 JRPGs and Tokyo Mirage Sessions isn't mentioned anywhere. Oh how that game was ignored. Makes me sad.

    The article is fine tho. It feels like I have a variety of stuff to choose from when it comes to JRPGs and that's nice to see. The doom and gloom surrounding the subgenre was so annoying last gen. I'm glad the games are thriving in their own little ways.
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  • Avatar for Patrick-C #3 Patrick-C A year ago
    Great writeup. As someone who's not a huge RPG fan, it seems crazy to me that there was ever a perception that they were on the wane — as primarily a 3DS player, there've been times where I felt (with some disappointment) like every cool exclusive new release was an RPG that I wasn't especially interested in getting.

    I increasingly feel like the trick to resuscitating dying video game genres is to pronounce them dead, because this is a thing we've seen before — fighting games were kind of treated as on the way out for a while there until around the time of Street Fighter IV, but now I'd argue the genre is as strong as ever. Shmups were assumed to be kind of done by a lot of folks, but here it is in 2016 and Cave is still releasing games and we got a big fancy Darius release recently and there's a thriving community of indie shmups on Steam.

    Hell, 2D platformers were treated as dead and buried in the non-portable space after Super Mario 64 but reemerged as an enormous genre in the last console generation, with a bunch of indies, the NSMB series, Rayman ...

    I suspect RPGs are no different. Game genres have proven surprisingly durable. I think what we may be seeing play out is every genre adjusting, one by one and not all at the same time, to the shifting market — particularly the move to digital and the loss of the mid-budget, B-game space that Jeremy's recently talked about. It takes time for developers large and small to figure out how to carve out a successful space for things like RPGs and fighting games ... but eventually, they do, and we reach a kind of equilibrium.

    For my part, I've noticed that racing games seem to be pretty few and far between these days, which hopefully means we'll get a revival in a few years.Edited December 2016 by Patrick-C
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  • Avatar for CorneredAngel #4 CorneredAngel A year ago
    How many words - and not a single one about either of the Trails of Cold Steel games? At this point, it's not even funny any more - what is it about these games that makes you guys ignore them so! Again, are they just *too* "Japanese" for your liking?!?
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #5 jeremy.parish A year ago
    I can only offer opinions on games I've played in an opinion piece. Remember how I said in the article I haven't played every RPG this year...? This is a great opportunity to raise awareness for games that were overlooked, but treating their omission as a personal attack probably isn't the way to go about it.
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  • Avatar for mobilesworking #6 mobilesworking A year ago
    7th Dragon III was a pleasant surprise, not least for its excellent Yuzo Koshiro soundtrack. I didn't finish it, unfortunately, but I enjoyed the ~20 hours I put into it.
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  • Avatar for Jonnyboy407 #7 Jonnyboy407 A year ago

    I had a great time with TMS as well!

    Bravely Second, FE, SMT4A... man, I spent probably hundreds of hours in JRPG awesomeness this year
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  • Avatar for CorneredAngel #8 CorneredAngel A year ago
    @jeremy.parish Jeremy, that wasn't in any way a personal attack on you. But, you are the face of the site, and so far, the site has largely overlooked these games. So, asking *why* is not unreasonable! Or even, for that matter, asking why you personally overlook them.
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  • Avatar for ReptilianSamurai #9 ReptilianSamurai A year ago
    @jeremy.parish as a fan of retro games and jrpgs, I think you'd love The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky (and it's sequels. Personally I haven't gotten to Cold Steel yet). Be prepared for a slow burn, but some of the best writing in videogames, including npcs who feel like actual people with lives and stories of their own.

    In your copious gaming spare time, of course. (I honestly don't know how you manage all your various projects!)
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #10 SatelliteOfLove A year ago
  • Avatar for link6616 #11 link6616 A year ago
    @SatelliteOfLove Oh! I forgot that came out! Thank you for reminding me...

    And Jeremy, don't be concerned, Tokyo Xanadu is confirmed westward!
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  • Avatar for Y7748837 #12 Y7748837 A year ago
    This has been the best year for JRPGs since 2000 (Chrono Cross, Valkyrie Profile, Front Mission III, Wild Arms 2, Vagrant Story, Lunar 2, FFIX, BOFIV, others).
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #13 jeremy.parish A year ago
    @CorneredAngel I'm not the face of the site anymore, and USG has given Trails plenty of attention, largely thanks to the new face of the site (Kat). As for why I "overlook" games, that question has a lot of uncomfortable implications.
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  • I spent the year bashing my head against Bloodborne's second(?) boss, watching dudes drive around in XV and listening more to music from old FFs than it's own OST (the music during the Titan E3 boss was excellent, too bad I'm often playing songs from IV and X instead), and dealing with enough Danganronpa fans that I finally had to know what it was and not sure if I was hot or cold to it.

    At this point, I want tributes to old JRPGs, regardless of national origin, more than I want new JRPGs. What I'm getting at is puhleeease come out in 2017, Cosmic Star Heroine.Edited December 2016 by UnskippableCutscene
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #15 VotesForCows A year ago
    Cool stuff - really capture the breadth of options available in this genre. So many options to play...
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  • Avatar for docexe #16 docexe A year ago
    The genre is definitely not death, but I think it has been reduced to a smaller market niche, at least compared to its heyday during the PSX and PS2 eras. In that sense, I hope the Switch manages to gain traction in Japan. Considering the PS4 sales are still lagging there and that the 3DS and Vita are on the way out, having another viable platform (and a portable/semi-portable one at that) will ensure that we continue seeing JRPG’s appearing on consoles.

    And well, just to share the mandatory anecdote about the JRPG’s I have been playing this year, after more than 400 hours invested, I finally finished Xenoblade Chronicles X. I’m currently playing Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, and while I’m still not very far into it, it’s definitely being delightful.Edited December 2016 by docexe
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  • Avatar for chiptoon #17 chiptoon A year ago
    It's so hard to find time for all of these fantastic games. I'm still trying to finish Xenoblade Chronicles X!
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  • Avatar for Jericho-GM #18 Jericho-GM A year ago
    @CorneredAngel I sincerely hope that you're just internet angry and not angry angry because a game you like was not mentioned in an article written by someone who has not played it.
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  • Avatar for SIGGYZtar #19 SIGGYZtar A year ago
    Year by year, I see JRPGs are always doing fine. But year by year I always wish X game was on X console instead. Lots to play, as you can see outside the genre, and thankfully there's always an itch to be scratched. I've only found the time to play DQ7 and Pokemon. I have to finish Suikoden soon, so I can experience what is up with II.
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  • Avatar for sylvan #20 sylvan A year ago
    @ReptilianSamurai I'm playing the first one right now. Really enjoying it. Definitely my best random, impulse Steam purchase.
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  • Avatar for CorneredAngel #21 CorneredAngel A year ago
    @Jericho-GM I've been reading Jeremy's writing since the Xenogears days - and find it a bit hard to believe that he's not aware of this particular game. Especially given that it got a physical release. And is pretty unique. But, I guess, just not the "right" kind of unique.

    And if he isn't aware of the Trails series, that's a bit of a failing on the part of him as a journalist. Like I said, I'm not "angry", just disappointed/surprised. I mean, hell, if he flat-out said that the game is not worth praising, I would not have any complaints to begin with.
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  • Avatar for Tetragrammaton #22 Tetragrammaton A year ago
    @CorneredAngel Uh. Dude. He's said that he's aware of it, he just hasn't played it. Because someone else on staff played it. Since this is Jeremy's article, he's talking about the games he played.

    Anyway, nice take on the state of the JRPG market Jeremy. I feel that the Japanese roleplaying game industry is getting some attention this year thanks to Final Fantasy and Pokemon raising mindshare here at the end, but the genre is fine, and has been fine for a long time. Glad to see perception catch up with reality.
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