The Turn-Based JRPG is a Genre - It Doesn't Need to Change

I think that most gamers would agree that there has been a whole lot of negative press directed towards Japanese game development in recent years. I personally believe this to be mostly a misunderstanding, and that it's actually the growth of Western games creating the illusion that Japanese games are decreasing in quality. But anyway, that's a different discussion...

One of the major complaints though seems to be the stagnation of the JRPG. The 'dated' mechanics being one complaint, and then a number of issues with things like stories and characters. Let's look at the character and story aspects first. Now, JRPG's are often criticized with how they tend to have a number of tropes. The stories follow suit here too. I can understand the criticism, but the thing is, that criticism can actually carry over to pretty much all game genres. Characterization and story quality is pretty darn low in all games, there really are very, very few exceptions. So why is the JRPG so ridiculed because of this?

You could say that it is down to the emphasis of the story. But the thing is, it's not like it has changed, the story quality that is. For those that have been playing JRPG's since the super early days, they know that the stories have often just been there, and that was it. The story simply acted as an incentive to progress. Even stuff like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger get massive praised heaped on for the stories, but to be honest, they were just there too. It's just in a very mediocre pool, they kind of stood out. But this isn't a defense, I don't want to say that the stories have always been crap, and all stories are crap, and that makes everything fine. That's a poor excuse to use.

It was really how the stories are part of a JRPG. A JRPG is essentially a journey, and that is what the stories often capture. That have you going from one place to the next, the reason why you explore and move forward. The journey is when you look back at the characters that you met, where you met, who you fought. It pieces together. Regardless of the ultimate goal of the story, when you play a JRPG you may look back on the bosses and all of the cool stuff that came before, and that is where the story really is. Not that you are going to save the world, but you and your rag-tag group are the ones doing it, and you've had to get through some tough challenges to get there.

Games are not movies, they are not books. They don't need to tell you a story, they need to let you into the story. They need to present you with challenges, and with memories, and JRPG's will more often than not, always do that. It's like when you would get to the crater in Final Fantasy VII; not many would say that the story is all that good, but to get where you are, you and your friends have been to space, trapped in a desert prison, snowboarded down mountains, fought ancient protectors, raced Chocobos, sailed oceans and flown in the skies. That is your story, not the fact that you are going to beat the boss.

In a sense, this is where open world RPG's come from too, like Skyrim. It far from has the best story, that's the case for Elder Scrolls in general; but your journey is where the real adventure was.

Moving on... Gameplay is something that is often questioned too. Players want evolution, they want to see action. They want movement and dynamics. It's understandable, some of this stuff can be cool. And in comparison, and JRPG plays like a dialog branching game, and menu system. You could say that it is dull. You could also say that Point and Click games are dull, it's the same interactions as you have with a web browser. The same can be said for turn-based strategy games like Total War or Civilization. Again, I'm not going to use these as excuses. I'll try and justify why what they do is okay regardless of everything else.

A lot of the most enjoyable aspects in battle systems, is the progression aspect of the characters. People love to gain new skills, new weapons and use them in battle. It's exciting, it's exciting getting to the later stages of the game and having all these amazing skills and weapons, especially when you remember back to the days of the basic fire spell and iron sword that you had at the beginning of the game. It's also good to find the best uses for these skills, where they work and where they don't. How quickly you access them and how you develop your rhythms of use.

Entering a battle and targeting with the skills you know work of the enemies you know that are weak. Stealing from the ones that you know have something. Learning and mastering a system, and knowing your characters strengths and weaknesses. At the beginning of the game, you fumble through some menus. You don't know what skills are effective, and even only uses specific characters because their base stats are higher. But by the end of the game, you have an arsenal of skills, the items that you know you'll use and the characters you know inside out. You are fully prepared, and can enter battle and which ever character has the first turn, you know straight away what skill you'll use. It even gets to a point where you know that they next hit will kill an enemy, that you know you can hold of healing because your guy can take another hit. You know your team, and you know because you have been on the same journey. The input is simple, but once you know how to handle it, it can be incredibly rewarding.

Now, if people want to ask that it changes and that they get something more action orientated, then they are essentially asking for another game. And that's fine, genres can branch and hybrids are created. It's a great way to develop games when you take little pieces and ideas from many different areas. But that does not mean that the turn-based JRPG needs to change. What it does, it does for a reason. It offers something specific for the player.

Ultimately, when gamers and critics ask for JRPG's to evolve, they are almost asking for a genre to be ignored. A new JRPG will appear, and people will complain about the combat not been dynamic enough, but the system is actually part of the genre. It's like saying I want to play Half-Life, but I want it to be turn-based. That is not an evolution, it's a change of genre. And that's what people seem to ask for.

Evolution is good, we need it in games. But that does not mean that we need the more common genres to die. Should be drop all linear games now we can do competent sandbox? All fighting games should be played in a 3D environment? No, we don't ask for that for other genres, then why continuously ask of it from the turn-based JRPG.

What the JRPG does now is the same as it has always done, and that's expected as it's the same genre. It has grown in scope, and allowed for more content and features, but it's essentially the same as it was. But again, why is this not okay as evolution, but going from Quake to Crysis okay? The evolution there is basically the same. They are a genre, some aspects have grown, but it's essentially the same. How about from Street Fighter to Marvel vs Capcom 3? It's the same scenario once more.

When people are asking for the turn-based JRPG to change, they are asking for the wrong thing. And if they were expected drastic changes, then they are expecting the wrong things. Alternative genres can always exist, the turn-based JRPG is a genre that can and should always exist, because it often does exactly what it is supposed to do, and most gamers who play these games because they understand that, would more often that not agree.