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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Our Steam Game on Sale! Launching in 6 Days

Our Steam Game Goes on Sale in a Few Days

I’m happy to announce that our Steam game goes on sale in less than a week! The project is the brainchild of my client, David Nguyen, and it’s titled Crimson Sword Saga: The Peloran Wars. Built in RPG Maker, it’s a “visual novel,” a role-playing game (RPG) in the style of Final Fantasy and Tactics Ogre.

There’s a lot of turn-based monster-smashing fun, but it’s also an epic story exploring the lives of a case of 57 characters over the span of 74 chapters. Building out these characters and giving them all human concerns, quirks, and dreams was a true privilege and I thank David for bringing me this project.

If you’re interested, check out The Peloran Wars on Steam! From the game page, you can add it to your Steam wishlist, visit the game website (where you can download the free five-chapter demo!), or… in a few days… buy the game!

Okay, here are some screenshots:

Game Writer Rundown: Skyrim

Thoughts on Bethseda’s Skyrim

I rented the popular new RPG Skyrim last weekend and lost 2 days to it. This game is a GOTY contender and has garnered over 200 perfect scores from game writers. The usually reserved (and incisive) Eurogamer goes as far as calling it a “masterpiece.”

I think it’s pretty good, although I’d say Bethseda’s older RPG Fallout 3 is still superior for a few powerful reasons:

  • Fallout 3 takes itself less seriously, but is no less perilous. Only in Fallout can you plunder a ray gun from a crashed alien, for example, or follow a trail of clues to a life-or-death confrontation in a scavenger hideout over a treasure that turns out to be an item called “Naughty Nightwear.” And it’s useful, too; wearing it imparts great charm bonuses for trading, natch.
  • It’s hard to do sword/axe/pikearm combat in a videogame. Without going third-person*, how do you tell a near-miss from a hit? (And when, oh when, will we get a game where a good sword strike stops the sword instead of clipping through the target?) With Fallout, it’s projectile-based combat, complete with the limb-subtargeting gameplay that the original Fallout was known for. No such thing in Skyrim, and as a result combat is simply much less tangible.
  • Fallout’s retro alterna-’50s mood is entertaining and the vintage music enchanting. In my admittedly-brief exposure, nothing comes close in Skyrim.
* And yes, third-person gameplay is an option, but then camera control and opponent targeting will gank you even worse than your enemies.

Skyrim Still Totally Worth Playing

I also reserve final judgment for a full playthrough. Many of the game’s quests and character development are yet to be explored by this humble game writer. And there’s a lot to like about Skyrim. Like F3, it has a truly great UI for inventory, quest, and trading management, and it doesn’t suffer from grinding or slow-travel problems. I was a little annoyed by the heavily pixelated shadowmaps of the dynamic shadows in Skyrim (I’d rather have them turned off or static than see obvious globs of shadow fringing moving shadows), but I truly enjoyed the dragon encounters and the eerie combat in the catacombs of ancient Nordic temples.

Skyrim also has an entertaining thread where you can become a werewolf, and I’ve read that vampire is possible too.

Thanks to my fellow ex-3DO colleague Keith Meyer for triggering this post!