Friday Roundtable: Face Off: The Western RPG vs the JRPG

WRPG vs JRPG

Random Encounter

It’s been a long and hard road for video games to move out of the dark recesses of dimly lit cafeteria corner tables and basement hobby rooms into the societal spotlight they enjoy today. Of all video game genres, the one most often associated with nerds and socially awkward individuals would have to be the role-playing game. Harkening back to its Dungeons & Dragons tabletop ancestors, and often featuring fantastical characters and settings straight out of any self-respecting geek’s wet dream, RPGs have been a staple of the serious gamer’s diet for decades.

Though they had been around earlier, in the late ’80s and ’90s, Square and Enix moved the RPG genre forward by introducing series like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest to the world; many other developers and series would follow in their tracks to expand the genre by leaps and bounds. These games, traditionally heavy on narrative and strategic battles, also branched into other genres, creating new hybrid categories like action RPG (Legend of Zelda) and MMORPG (EverQuest).

Though Japan dominated the market during this time, the 2000s have seen the rise of the Western RPG, which kept many of the core ideas but approached design and story-telling from a different cultural standpoint. Companies like Bethesda (Fallout 3) and BioWare (Mass Effect) have made a notable name for themselves by shaking up the (as some would claim) stagnating genre.

Today, Pascal, Isaac, Declan, and Sebastian don their helmets of persuasion and swords of insight to discuss the ins and outs of these two splinter-sets of the RPG, and address the age-old question: JRPG’s dad vs WRPG’s dad – who wins?

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Pascal:

I’m afraid I don’t outgrow my games very well. Where most people have had enough of zombie-flavored horror or action games, I still get a huge kick out of them – and I’ve been around since before Resident Evil kicked off its first round! So that being said, I haven’t yet found myself in the position to kick old-school JRPGs by the wayside in favor of Western-developed RPG experiences.

WRPG vs JRPG

Blue Dragon’s look took cartoonish anime graphics to an extreme

I’ve played the big-name Western RPGs: most of BioWare’s catalog, from KOTOR and Jade Empire to Mass Effect and Dragon Age, and have found that most of these games have certainly been enjoyable. But once I finish one, it gets put aside rather quickly, and generally doesn’t inspire me to look forward to the next game in the series (an exception to this was Mass Effect, which made me pine for the second installment as the credits for the first were rolling across my TV screen). There’s certainly nothing wrong with Western RPGs, and they definitely have their own feel. But they lack the charm and innocence I feel when playing a JRPG.

As serious as some Japanese RPGs get, they always seem to me to have a palpable undercurrent of light-hearted humor; even the darker, bloodier games like Shadow Hearts are tongue-in-cheek hilarious. To me, these games offer a sense of warm familiarity that I don’t get from the colder, cut-and-dry Western games. And this can’t be relegated to the prevalent cartoonish graphics and character designs; although I do favor the classic 16-bit look, even modern games like Lost Odyssey and Blue Dragon, featuring varying degrees of cartoonishness, offered classic experiences in a stylish contemporary shell.

Isaac:

The very first game (besides Super Mario) I played on the NES was an RPG, and I can hardly say I’ve ever played an RPG, either Western or Japanese, that didn’t have some redeeming feature.

That said, back when there was one home system to choose from, there wasn’t even a debate between the two styles, as one of them didn’t exist. At that point, it was more a question of “Is this game playable?”.  I have to take a moment to explain that this attitude is one that has stuck with me.  I’ve never given up on the JRPG, though my interest in Final Fantasy has waned with time; and moved away from interesting characters and worlds to a more graphically devoted build.  Dragon Quest, on the other hand, has gone so far in the opposite direction, continuing to further and further dive into its core gameplay mechanics that it too has become painful to go through recently.  Do either of these mean the JRPG is dead? Far from it.  Games like Lost Odyssey or Blue Dragon take a very classic approach to their play, but keep it fresh with a strong story or great humor.

WRPG vs JRPG

A straight-forward meter shows whether you’re aligned with the light or dark side of the Force in KOTOR

The Tales of… series is another long-running group of JRPG that, from a certain light, appears similar to current Western RPG designs.  Fast-paced, active, multi-member combat systems with complex combos, specials, and use of the environment, anyone? Was that Dragon Age or Tales of Vesperia?  Of course, when seen side by side, the differences stand out all the more, but I play both of these with the same passion.  It’s all about what I desire at the moment.

The Western RPG lately has seemed to take a large step away from anything seeming to have that air of exuberant childishness,aiming itself at an older market of gamer.  Now that I’m no longer a small kid myself, I really can appreciate a party of morally nuanced characters, without a rigid “black or white” morality system slapped on top.  But really, there’s only so much of the old dust-washed palette and gratuitous sprays of blood that I can handle.

On the other hand, however, is the fact that not all JRPGs are sweetness and light.  While the art style tends towards a more whimsical one, it doesn’t mean the story suffers.  From a game dealing with man’s perception of his own life-consuming illness to a tale in which the protagonist is someone we wouldn’t want to meet while walking alone after dark, the graphics for both of these feature large eyes, and comically adorable features.

So, I really have to say that I can’t choose one type over the other.  They’ve both gone on such currently diverging lines, we’re talking pears and pies.  While one is a light and tasty treat readily enjoyed anytime, the other can be piping hot, but filled to the brim with delicious treats.

Declan:

I think Pascal raises an interesting point regarding the darker, more mature themes of contemporary Western RPGs, and indeed, I think this is true of most Western video games regardless of genre; Japan tends to lean towards the totally fantastical and the outrageous. I’m the sort who revels in misery and suffering, and the sinister plots of Dragon Age and co. most definitely appeal to my inner misanthrope.

In my heart, though, I adore the freedom of choice and open-world exploration that many Western RPGs offer, particularly The Elder Scrolls. It’s that sense of being let loose to adventure across an alien world at my own pace – usually with a character I have hand-crafted – which I find most appealing; I will encounter things that other players will not and tell my own unique stories about what I find. It’s like hiking through foothills and straying off the track to discover things at your own leisure. For me, this idea of choice is what really sets the two regional sub-genres apart.

WRPG vs JRPG

Was the cover/shoot mechanic overused in ME2?

It’s not all songs of praise, though: I am disturbed by one trend in Western RPGs, and that is a seemingly constant swerve towards shooter-like action. Mass Effect 2 turned its predecessor’s complex ammo-/item-/power-juggling combat into a very simple cover-based point-and-shoot affair; Deus Ex: Human Revolution, while scornful of more aggressive players, certainly catered to those willing to blast their way through the story with a metric ton of C4 – hardly in the spirit of things! I’m sure this Call of Duty-ification of the mainstream RPG is unbeneficial, lest the genre’s traditional mechanics become a thing of history: from what I’ve seen of it, Mass Effect 3 smacks of Gears of War Lite and it  has me skeptical, I must admit.

Pascal:

Another point I want to raise is something that fellow completionists can probably back me up on: traditional JRPGs offer bonus content in the form of completing all facets of the story, sidequests, bestiary entries, collecting epic items, etc. While Western RPGs certainly do embrace some of these design choices, it’s rare to see a true completionist’s game come out of our RPG studios. Alone the diverging gameplay styles that make it possible to play a character as good, evil, or morally ambiguous means, by definition, that certain quests, areas, and experiences will be impossible to gain in one single playthrough.

Sebastian:

I’ve always been a light RPG player in general, even though one of my favorite games is a JRPG. I have problems with both, but I think they can be rewarding experiences if done properly.

I’ve largely stopped paying attention to both Western RPGs and JRPGs because I feel like they’re not focused enough, or have grown stale. Sure, I’ll buy Mass Effect when it comes out, but that’s because there’s no other game like Mass Effect. And, as Declan said, it inches closer and closer to being a shooter. Honestly, I’m not even that excited for Skyrim. The only reason I plan on buying it is because I loved Fallout 3. (However, I’ll be the first to admit that game can be tedious.) Western RPGs like to offer length, but it comes at a huge cost: narrative. The fact that you can probably play Skyrim until actual dragons come and burn your house down is nice, but if the majority of that time is spent killing random things or fetching items for people, then how long will I want to keep playing it?

WRPG vs JRPG

It’s “go anywhere, do anything” in Skyrim… but do you really want to play that long?

That’s not to say that they are all boring or bad games: obviously some of Fallout 3’s side quests were engrossing, and I’m sure Skyrim will have a really great story, but a lot of Fable’s and Too Human‘s problems were because of this. I think that, sometimes, a shorter, more controlled Western RPG story would make for a better game.

JRPGs try to offer shorter, more narrative-focused story modes, but most of the JRPGs I’ve played recycle old tropes in new and only sometimes interesting ways. I think it was someone on Joystiq that recently pointed out that JRPGs are constantly making you save the world from annihilation, and eventually, it gets old. The Final Fantasy games are great and all, but they’re really the last of a dying breed. I think it’s both because JRPGs seem like they don’t innovate, and because people don’t seem to want the ones that do innovate. For example, how many people bought Valkyria Chronicles,  a truly good strategy JRPG? I actually went out and bought it for friends that I knew would never play it. What the JRPG needs is a fresh face, a brand-new game that nobody has ever heard of before, but is entertaining and has a great story. Ha! What they need is essentially another Final Fantasy 1. It doesn’t have to be long, it just has to be fun to play, and not involve the same used tropes that we get from JRPGs now. Hell, if someone could reasonably combine the two genres, you would have a great game on your hands.

Pascal:

Maybe I’m thinking too limited, but don’t we have some of those non-world-saving storylines in indie RPGs? For example, the recent To the Moon was a very intrapersonal story, focusing on the importance of one man’s life, as opposed to millions of lives across the world, and did away with tired battling and grinding altogether.

By the way, I’m not saying that I find grinding for XP decidedly tired myself, but I’d be lying if I claimed I never ran from battles simply because I was tired of the rest of the game constantly being interrupted.

Sebastian:

You are probably right about indie RPG’s, though I haven’t played them. I’m going to see if I can get To the Moon right now.

What’s interesting about XP grinding is there’s specific times when we may want to grind, but once we’re done grinding, that’s it. We’re done. This was especially apparent with Pokémon, where there was the chance for a million encounters after you were done (or after you were really close to death) that would completely interrupt you. I think the best way is to have specific grind areas, this way you don’t end up running away from battles just ’cause you’re tired of the interruptions, ’cause I do that a whole lot as well.

Isaac:

Regarding the differing design philosophies, isn’t that a key facet of the cultures behind the games?  Bear with me for a moment as I generalize, please.  For Western RPGs, the players usually want a quick leap into the action without an overly minute dissection of each and every level up and ability, allowing for a freedom of ways to complete any given objective, or to even ignore the objective and go check out the metaphorical flowers along the side of the road.

WRPG vs JRPG

Ruby and Emerald Weapon were the most difficult part of Final Fantasy VII – while being completely optional

JRPGs tend towards the more detail-oriented, however, since your goal and path are often much more clearly spelled out.  Here, the emphasis is on creating a highly effective response to the situation at hand, but also being able to change your strategy if need be.  Grinding for additional points to buy abilities or to enhance your capabilities is just part and parcel of the genre.  However, because there is such a focus on the end point of the path, many games offer a bonus or challenge area accessible solely upon completion of the main plot line.  This means that some of the toughest parts, the meat of the game, come in a practically story-free manner, to their detriment.

To pick a bone with what Sebastian said, many Western RPGs do feature a “save the world” plot line, although the focus is often not on the world as a whole, but on a smaller area, with implicit or explicit assurances of further destruction and mayhem should you fail.  On that note, quite a few JRPGs take an attitude, at least initially, of a much tighter focus, perhaps even only within one town, before zooming out to show more and more of the realm in danger.

However, I can easily find a large selection of games from both sides of the ocean that conspire to kick these generalities in their hind quarters, so what it comes down to is the capriciousness of which games we’ve played and of which games among those spoke to us, staying within our minds and hearts.  Thus, I truly can’t say that one is inherently a better representative of the RPG genre as a whole, but that it really depends on the studio, the writers, and ourselves.

Except for Shadow Hearts.  Anyone who doesn’t love this game’s take of alternate history with a wise-cracking badass of a main character simply hates fun.

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Share Your Thoughts: We’ve shared our thoughts, and now it’s your turn. What do you think? Are Western and Eastern RPGs clearly defined by their design philosophies? Is one superior over the other? Or can there exist a literal meeting of the cultures? The table is yours…

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