Why I stopped loving JRPGs

Chrono Tigger Pendulum

JRPGs were my favourite genre when I was a teen. I loved them all, from Chrono Trigger to Final Fantasy to more obscure series such as Shadow Hearts or Shin Megami Tensei. For a while, they were all I would play. To me, they were synonymous with gaming, a pillar of the medium.

Until one day, I stopped liking them. And never did again.

I can point the very exact moment I lost my love for the genre. It was during a playthrough of Persona 3 FES, back when the game was fairly new. I was halfway through, making my way up a dungeon called Tartarus when I hit a wall: A trio of bosses, shaped like hands carrying swords that I couldn’t get through.

My team had a severe weakness to their electric attacks and after several tries I realized it was pointless. If I wanted to get through, I needed to choose another character and raise his level high enough to fight.

Swords from Persona 3 FES

And I realized I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to grind my way through the same boring enemies over and over just so I could keep playing. And I also realized that, if I won, my reward would be but more of those enemies that I didn’t want to fight in the first place.

THE ENEMIES I DON’T WANT TO FIGHT

When it comes down to it, JRPGs are games about combat. It’s what takes most of their runtime, their levels and design. It’s what makes them games, where the player input lies.

And yet, the vast majority of battles in JRPGs aren’t great. The reason being that they are fought against powerless opponents of no actual importance. Slimes, Zubats, city guards, rats…the genre’s most common enemies are also the dullest. You only need to press the attack button a couple times to defeat them, leaving no room for tactics.

The fact that you take small amount of damage each time does represent a problem, but this pressure is easily solved by the ocasional healing spell, which is never in short supply. And even then, this level of attrition is not much different from taking damage over time.

Dragon Quest Slime JPRG

In other words, these enemies do not lend themselves to interesting gameplay. You never hear everyone say “Yeah, my favourite part of the game was that time I pressed X to defeat a slime and then did it again like three hundred more times”. The vast majority of players consider this a small chore, mixed between the interesting segments.

And if you do that chore, your reward are bigger numbers you can do bigger chores with. The entire progression at the core of the genre is like racing a threadmill: No faster how hard you run, you always end up in the same place.

It may not seem like a huge problem, but these battles add up to dozens of hours. And I’ve reached the point where it’s no longer worth it for me. It’s no longer fun, just repetitive and dull.

STEREOTYPES, FUNCTION AND PLOT

Fans of the genre tend to point out that it’s not about the combat, but the story. Like I mentioned before, I disagree on that. But the truth of the matter is that I no longer enjoy their stories, either.

Terra and amnesia

Stories in JRPGs tend to follow a certain mold. Being a hero, fighting evil, travelling far away to save a fantasy world…They are fun concepts, but they do not make story engaging on their own. They do not communicate a particular idea or theme, they are just tools.

And I feel JRPGs do not tend to move beyond these tools. They have the look, the ideas and concepts but never put them to a use I find particularly engaging. They are genre fiction, and I no longer find fighting the bad guy because he wants to take over the world as engaging as I once did.

Let’s use, say, Chrono Trigger, as an example. It’s a fun game, probably the better of the 16-bit classics. But there’s not much to the plot beyond going from one place to another. And the characters, while likeable, do not have much depth to them. The story is mostly functional.

Older games also had a certain honesty to them that is now missing from the genre. They were silly and overdramatic, sure. But the over-the-top dialogue and characterization was a concious choice. Constrained by the small size of pixel graphics, exaggeration was used to convey emotion.

Final Fantasy VI Scene

But the genre lost this self-awareness over time. As game lenght increased, functionality was brushed aside, leading to the same simple characters being stretched beyond their limits. Stereotypes stopped being a shorthand and became a form of pandering.

IT DIDN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY

Something that pains me is that it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s no reason JRPGs need to have meaningless battles or rely on stereotyped characters. In fact, what showed me that better JRPGs were possible was the series that inspired them in the first place: Wizardry.

There are no meaningless enemies in Wizardry. There are few of them, much fewer than we are used to in modern games. Which means that instead of a long string of weak enemies, you have a scarier one that is more interesting to fight.

Spells and abilities are actually necessary to beat them, too, because normal attacks do little damage on their own. Strikes must be enhanced with status effects such as paralysis for full effectiveness, making them important part of the strategy instead of an annoyance.

Wizardry SNES battle

Of course, Wizardry is not known for its narrative. But just like how JRPGs can look at their roots for improvement, they can also look beyond them for insight. The genre doesn’t need to stick to pregenerated cutscenes and the same cast of archetypes. It can use other techniques, tell other stories, try to weave their narrative into the actual game mechanics.

JRPGs can be better. And I hope I can enjoy them again some day.

6 Comments

  • I completely agree with the analysis of the genre’s past, but I feel like you’re missing some games that truly tried to move the genre forward combat wise. You should try out final fantasy 12 and xenoblade chronicles. Unfortunately though they too suffer from a plot that’s too much anime pandering. Well final fantasy 12 is more like star wars I guess, but it’s still mostly conveyed via cut scenes.

  • Wait, what? You realized this in P3? And THAT was the understanding you came to? Only two characters have a Zio weakness; all you’d have to do is pick three- total- that don’t and leave the heavy lifting to your protagonist. No need to go back and do a bunch of grinding, no need to quit the whole genre. Besides, that’s not something you wouldn’t have had to do in older games, either: I had a similar problem arise when playing Lunar, but that didn’t make me quit the genre.

    Battles against mobs aren’t supposed to be fun. They’re the means to an end: getting strong enough to beat the next boss, get to the next point in the story. It’s odd, though, that you act as if the enjoyable fights don’t exist. Obviously, there are the various bosses. In Persona 3, the Lovers boss is fun, so’s Aigis and so is the Reaper- once I stopped getting terrified. .hack’s boss battles were always fun. The FFs have usually had fun battles whether they were normal or boss. Sounds like you lost the plot, so to speak, the point of the fights.

    You don’t really explain how stereotypical characters turned into pandering. If anything, the more lengthy stories meant more character development was necessary. It meant those stereotypes were ONLY the basis for characters, not all they were. Both characters and story have gotten far more complex and nuanced than they once were.

    If you were talking about how games now have a lot of bloat, and that included JRPGs, I might be inclined to agree. That’d still require some examples, and it’d also require you to acknowledge that not all the games in the genre fit into the problem you think the genre has. Persona 5 and Berseria are among those that are wonderful JRPGs from the past few years, and I’m sure there are more I haven’t gotten to.

    And you use a game which has little in the way of narrative as an example of how a narrative-driven genre can improve… because of less enemies to fight? Sorry, I really have no idea what’s going on here. Best I can tell, you’re looking for JRPGs to be some other genre instead.

    • My realization could have come from any other game, Persona 3 FES just happened to be the game I was playing at the time. Like I mention on the article, my issues exist in virually the whole genre, regardless of age. My only comparison between older and newer games was regarding honesty in their storytelling, which I believe has been lost over time.

      You mention that battles against mobs “aren’t supposed to be fun”. But that’s what I argue against in the article: If they are not interesting, nor fun, why play a game that dedicates dozens of hours to them? It’s not really a good use of our time and a better game would replace this meaningless battles with something interesting or engaging. It’s not so much that I don’t understand why they exist, it’s that I do and I don’t find it interesting. The fact that there are a handful of bosses that might be interesting doesn’t make the idea of dozens of hours of boredom more palatable, either.

      Regarding characters, I do not believe characters in more modern, longuer games are any better than the old stereotypes. The cast of all Persona games are typical anime archetypes, none of which I find particularly deep or engaging. Truth to be told, I have not played any JRPG whose plot or characterization was.

      Note that I do not consider JRPGs to be narrative driven. After all, there’s barely any plot in Dragon Quest and nobody questions its place in the genre. Still, what I propose for the genre in the article is to look beyond its roots, not at them, for narrative improvement. There’s little for the genre to learn from Wizardry in those matters, despite the series having insight to share on the design department.

      Hope my comment has helped you better understand my position.

  • You should give Octopath Traveler a try

  • I agree with a lot of this in general, but there’s some games which make even the typically mundane aspects of JRPGs work. Final Fantasy X is one of the best in the genre, its characters are legitimately good and even fodder battles are fun. The only problem is the pacing is off, there’s too many of the fun fodder battles to level up and progress, and random encounters are bad (unless they can be easily ignored or quickly escaped).

    Tactical RPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics (that’s the best one, much of the genre is very hit or miss though, many TRPGs are trash, especially the likes of Disgaea) take it a step further, making all combat important and fun, each fight has meaning and involves genuine tactics. The characters are complex and interesting, every aspect is solid.

    I’d say just be more picky and don’t be afraid to quit a game if it isn’t going well. I used to force myself to play them but now I drop games like flies if they don’t start and stay strong (a few dips are normal but they better be quick and much later into the game, a slow burn can fuck off). The genre is basically dead now though, you’ll see idiots say “octopath!11!!” but it’s just recycled, uninspired, low budget garbage (with a nice OST but not memorable since it isn’t tied to a decent game).

    Stick to the classics. Earthbound, Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, etc.

    • I do not think Final Fantasy X is much of an exception. Its battles are not very different from any other JRPG and it’s hard to argue that characters like Yuna and Wakka do much to break stereotypes.

      I also think calling people “idiots” for recommending a game is uncalled for. They can be wrong or have a different opinion but that doesn’t make them them idiots. We try to keep this a friendly place where people are not judged or insulted, regardless of their opinion on the quality of a game.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *