JRPGs versus Western RPGs

I just posted on Quora in answer to an interesting question: what do I prefer, JRPGs or Western-style RPGs, and why?

Since David Nguyen and I just published the JRPG Crimson Sword Saga: The Peloran Wars on Steam, you’d think I’d prefer JRPGs, but you’d be wrong. I’m a Western guy, and David is the JRPG fan. But I see the appeal of JRPGs and I’ve played and enjoyed both flavors.

Why am I disenchanted (ha ha) with JRPGs?

  1. There are always exceptions, but I feel JRPGs are more character-focused and dialog-focused, with the dialog word count often doubling or tripling equivalent Western RPGs. This wears on me, even if it’s a game with a storyline I enjoyed, like FF VII. I want to know about the major threads, but I don’t want to listen to a tertiary sidekick vent about how their ingrown toenail reminds them of some traumatic childhood incident (exaggeration, but only a slight exaggeration). Skyrim and Fable are more my style. Exception: I enjoyed Planescape Torment but the incessant dialog rivaled the talkiest JRPG, and they made no effort to distinguish between primary quest interactions and “color” interactions with inconsequential NPCs.
  2. JRPGs tend to be a little more colorful and fantastic. JRPGs are high fantasy where a team of plucky teens in fanciful costumes is fighting to save the world from the ultimate evil. Western RPGs lean toward low fantasy, a little grittier and more… um… adult. The characters are older, their stories a little less fanciful, and their experiences more equivalent to medieval history (although I don’t think anyone would confuse an RPG with history). I prefer the latter.
  3. Did I mention those fashions and costumes? Yeah. I can pass on the bright yellow rain slickers and the pompadours. They’re great for distinctive cosplay, which is also not my thing.
  4. Some JRPGs overdo it on the replayability and depth thing. I enjoy a minigame as much as the next guy, but I don’t want an RPG to force me into a 40-hour-long racing tournament with subpar gameplay. Nor do I want it to inundate me with dozens of half-baked minigames that should’ve been whittled down to one or two strong ones. I respect players who want their game to be a lifelong adventure, but that kind of immersion isn’t my style.

That said, I think there are some things that JRPGs do better than Western ones. Humor, color, distinctive locations, and gameplay innovations, for example. Western ones tend to be so traditional they’re almost remakes, and some are simply boring dungeon crawlers.

Honestly I feel like the Western RPG genre is a little fallow right now, with the last great game being Skyrim (although I hear Witcher 3 is a hoot). I picked up Dragon Age: Inquisition and was quite disappointed in many ways. Their loot system was terrible, and made it very hard to see when you’d found a cool item. And the storyline was complicated and (although some of the companion romances were charming) sterile. No story, no loot ? no fun.

And so it comes back to story and the power of narrative. I’m a game writer at heart and strong writing always wins in my book. I’ve seen great JRPGs and great RPGs, and I believe you can’t do a great RPG without a great story. Even the hoary old RPGs like Wizardry had compelling stories, even if some of the narrative twists were simply delivered in the form of the arrival of some fantastical new weapon or bizarre new foe in the game interface.

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