There was a time many of us as gamers held games like Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger and Vagrant Story in an extremely high esteem. It was a time where people who loved them weren’t so much ‘fanboys and fangirls’ as they were fans. We would all be frothing at the mouth for the next installation in the Kingdom Hearts or Tales franchise, but times have changed. It isn’t hard to see that the number of fervent JRPG followers has dwindled significantly. People will still look forward to Final Fantasy XV, and it’ll probably be a very good game, but somewhere down the line, the magic has been lost, so one has to ask… what happened?
Two primary reasons jump out at me. The first of which is actually a decades-old argument that I believe still rings true here. People have said for ages with books that their film adaptations are inferior to their written counterpart. The most common cause for this is that the movies tend not to match what the viewer believed the world to look, sound and feel like when they read the book. You don’t tend to find people complain about the book after having watched the film first, because their notions are already pre-conceived by what they’ve seen. JRPG’s are well known for their storytelling, so it makes sense that they would suffer the same broken nostalgia as various book-to-film adaptations. Final Fantasy VII, as well-loved an RPG as they come, has a perfect example in it’s protagonist, Cloud.
Cloud in the game he starred in, Final Fantasy VII, is voiceless, and barely resembles a person due to his blocky graphics, but therein lies the beauty, we can imagine his voice, his looks, his mannerisms, which therefore makes Cloud whatever we want him to be. Our only clue to his full personality are the words written on the screen when he speaks, like a book. Fast forward to the release of Advent Children, the Final Fantasy VII movie, and Crisis Core, Dirge of Cerberus and the other later Final Fantasy VII spinoffs, and Cloud is fully voice-acted and, particularly in AC’s case, extremely detailed. His voice, mannerisms, looks etc are handed to us on a silver platter, and shock horror, he’s nothing like we imagined he would be (though I speak for myself primarily here), not only are we now forced in our minds’ eye to see him in the monotonous, dull way we are shown, but it now influences the way we see him when we go back and play Final Fantasy VII. Voice acting and higher polygon counts have seemingly proved detrimental to our enjoyment of the genre rather than beneficial. And what’s worse, because Final Fantasy VII is such a benchmark for JRPGS, developers are now using characters like Cloud as something to measure their characters against, or at least the modern versions of them.
If you want proof that games with ‘lesser’ graphics can still tell as beautiful a story now as they could over a decade ago, check out ‘To The Moon’. Released in 2011, this game acts more like a visual novel than an RPG, but uses a very similar graphics style to SNES RPG’s like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI and Illusion of Gaia, and tells a story that can move even the strongest of heart.
The second reason is more orientated towards the games themselves rather than the stories they try to tell or the characters the use to do it. this particular reason baffles me, as it seems to be something that has just vanished over the course of time, and I’ve very little reason to understand why. I can remember the first time I used Lionheart in Final Fantasy VIII, the first time Guildenstern destroyed me in Vagrant Story or waiting for the next pre-rendered cutscene to turn up in, well, most JRPGs. The spectacle of playing an RPG seems to have simply disappeared. Fighting just isn’t as, well, cool as it once was. I’d be perfectly happy to grind my way to Level X, or kill 1000 enemies to get that one item if it meant I could some over-the-top super cinematic attack or spell or summon or anything to reward me for doing so. With many RPG’s nowadays, one often finds that such moves are given to you too early (Project X Zone, Super Robot Wars) and therefore become boring and undeserved quickly, or they simply don’t happen at all (Tales series, Final Fantasy XIII). I can’t speak for others, but I don’t really want my big numbers in menu screens, I want them floating off enemies after I’ve smacked them in the face!
Lost Odyssey, while a beautiful game for its story, is a particularly noteworthy offender here. The opening battle of this game is cinematic, and beautiful. Your character deftly jumps on and off enemies with some lovely camera work, and this all happens while you’re playing, not in a cutscene. This is wonderful, except it never happens again! Such a beautiful, seemingly big-budget game, would it have killed the developers to have implented some flashy lights and a bit of camera work to make those attacks really pop?
I don’t necessarily believe that all JRPG’s should just suddenly lose all their voice actors and scale all their graphics by 10 years, but I think that developers should be a little more mindful of what made such games so endearing in the first place, and perhaps what has been lost in translation over the course of console generations. The tools to regain favor are all there, with musical scored improving dramatically, and graphics power paving the way to make something truly spectacular. We just have to hope that perhaps the developers are JRPG lovers themselves and will gain inspiration for their stories (and not let their fans do the writing for them, I’m looking at you, Kingdom Hearts!) and their designs, sharing their imaginations with us without eclipsing our own altogether.