Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Elements Of An Superb J-RPG Experience

Some may call them a "dated formula" others would say "its too much reading", but if you make an Japanese style rpg with the correct set of elements, you have a great chance of turning skeptics into believers. Up until now the genre has been slowly making a comeback with a great variety of games (especially on the PS3 and PSVITA), but we still don't have that insane masterpiece that becomes a legendary game to remember. This is why today we are going to see which are the small details that would help create such a j-rpg experience. Of course a game doesn't necessarily needs to have every single one of the things you will see today, but at least some of them would do the trick.

Star Ocean 2 World Map
You could find all sorts of stuff on the Star Ocean 2 world map like characters and
new towns that were not part of the main plot.
Scaled world maps that feel alive
Examples: Old Final Fantasy games, Star Ocean 2, Wild Arms series,"Tales of" series.

Nowadays this kind of approach to a world map has been reduced to menus or stretched to open world settings, but neither of those modern styles have been able to capture what an j-rpg world map used to be. For one thing, a scaled map is faster to navigate, but keeps a good balance between going between places and possible side events. This kind of style also makes it simpler for the developer to put extra stuff in there, just so it doesn't become a monotonous walk from town to town. This is the kind of world map where everything goes, be it extra dungeons, towns and places that are not part of the story, strange happenings while on the road, meeting new characters, following side stories. It is a rich part of the j-rpg genre that has been oversimplified in favor of shorter development cycles.

General Spiriel
General Spiriel from Shinning Force 3 is still a fan favorite of the whole series.
Generals, admired warriors, mysterious but cool characters
Examples: General Spiriel (Shinning Force 3), Raven (Tales of Vesperia), Dias Flac (Star Ocean 2).

This is a staple of the whole genre and one of the reasons because of which j-rpg games became famous in the first place. It is obvious that some villains are considered the coolest characters in the genre, but that kind of thing is quite predictable. Where the cool character aspect really shines is when the player has somebody to admire, both because of his actions and might in battle. It is the kind of character that creates an atmosphere of confidence without looking too benevolent and it can be even better when games treat the topic of war and two great generals face each other in battle. This is what separates an rpg where "a couple kids save the world" from something more serious, engaging and overall more exciting.

Materia System
Most people I know hate this at the beginning only to love it on the long run.
Fun inventory/equipment/skill systems
Examples: Materia system (Final Fantasy), Weapon modification (Parasite Eve), Dragon enhancements (Panzer Dragoon Saga)

This is one aspect of j-rpg games that not everybody loves, but if there is something that we have to accept, it is that once you learn to use one of this systems and figure out a way to use it to your advantage, it becomes natural and fun. These kinds of things do have a learning curve, so the very first moments will be kind of confusing until you get the hang of it. So after the initial annoying process there is a great chance that you will end up feeling empowered as you play with all sorts of items, equipment, skills and game rules. Here is where you get creative and start to make a strategy that doesn't always involve grinding and leveling.

Chrono Cross Nikki
You help this guy with his rock concert and he may join you.
Side Stories
Examples: Fort Condor (Final Fantasy VII), Getting Bowman (Star Ocean 2), Branching Paths (Vanguard Bandits). Getting various characters to join you (Chrono Cross), Finding characters before their time of death (Valkyrie Profile).

This aspect has been tried over and over again in the American Rpg genre, but they haven't gotten to a point where it doesn't feel generic in nature. Most people think that this can only be done in completely open environments, but Japanese Rpg games in the past managed to pull this off while keeping their story oriented focus. For example Star Ocean 2 had extra characters that you had to go out of your way to meet them, help them with their problems and get them to join (not to mention that the game had more than 50  different endings). Other games like Chrono Cross had really good side stories that you had to play in order to get secret characters to join you and Final Fantasy 7 had several activities that developed while following their very enjoyable side plots. So now that we know that, we can see why this was one of the things that made the genre to be so popular in the 90's.

Cloud Tifa Memories
This scene evoked really strong feelings of nostalgia, friendship and our hopes and dreams vs real life.
Good usage of mood and atmosphere 
Examples: Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy, Koudelka, Vagrant Story, Wild Arms, Baten Kaitos

This one is really important because it is the thing that keeps us glued to an rpg game in the first place. If the game is capable to cater and activate your own feelings and emotions while you play, then it has succeeded in instantly making you a fan.This is the kind of feeling we got from scenes like Cloud and Tifa talking about their "broken promises" and childhood memories, the relaxing "mystical" atmosphere that Chrono Cross had in all of their places, the kind of surreal mood that Baten Kaitos had with its mix of magic and technology and even the wild west vibe that Wild Arms is known for. All of these games had an extremely good mix of visuals, music, plot and characters that became something more than just reading dialogues, it became something that catered to our sensibilities and made us care about what was happening in the game.

With all things discussed, the bottom line is that Japanese Rpg games need to look back into the little details that made them big in the past and capitalize on them on our modern era. We can have the best graphics ever and the most detailed environments, but if they don't hit us where it counts we will lose interest. This is not your classic argument about turn based battles or any of that game aspects that many old school rpg gamers talk about. This is more about keeping the art in rpg games and move it up a notch with our current technology instead of relying on limitations and half baked ideas.

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