Why I stopped loving JRPGs
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.