High profile industry personalities lament Japan’s game development failings, and countless, often conflicting proposals addressing how to rescue the Final Fantasy franchise (as deftly covered by GamesBeat community writer Mike Rybicki) litter the blogosphere. At times like these, it’s easy to hop on the negativity bandwagon and assume the worst of every new release announcement that comes out of one of gaming’s most storied motherlands.
But you’re not going to get that from me. I’m an inherently positive person, and I’ve loved Japanese games since the day I played the first Final Fantasy. Though my brother’s file occupied the sole save slot on our cartridge, the game so charmed me that I still hurled myself at the first few hours of it regularly in Sisyphus-like futility.
Japanese RPGs still elicit that same level of passion from me, and succeed at that for a good reason. A number of releases in the genre have sported great game design that kept my mind fixed on their systems, and my eyes glued to a screen. Let’s celebrate some of the best things that JRPGs have offered lately.
The Prestige Encounter
This one has been around for quite a while, and recent releases still get great mileage out of it. A prestige encounter is an optional, challenging battle or dungeon that rests in an area of otherwise expected difficulty. Final Fantasy XIII-2′s monster hunts on the Archylte Steppe, and Persona 4 Golden’s extra tough shadows that take up the final room of a dungeon after you’ve completed it are great examples of this feature.
Why it works
Prestige encounters make our game worlds less game-like and more believable. In life, we’re rarely faced with perfectly paced, gradually escalating challenges. Every once in a while, something wildly unexpected pops up among our otherwise predictable activities. They’re the events that remind us that there’s so much more out there than our day-to-day grind. In JRPGs, some of these encounters offer an opportunity for the over-leveled party or tactically brilliant player to strut their stuff by being only a step or two above the norm. Other times, they’ll provide you incentive to come back to a cleared area much later by being way too strong. When you do come back, bearing cans of cosmic whoopass wrested from the cold, dead fingers of fickle gods, they give you a benchmark as to how far you’ve come since the simple days when your biggest concern was how to charm the flower girl in the slums.
The Opt-In Risk/Reward Throttle
It really is a wonder that so few games have put this mechanic to work when performs as well as it does. In a world where many games have you choose a difficulty at the beginning, and make a point of locking you out of achievements if you scale it back later (if they let you scale it back at all), The World Ends With You (and its recent iOS Remix) makes scaling your difficulty on the fly a feature, offering you stronger and more frequent item drops for accepting a challenge. Final Fantasy XIII-2 also does this in a more subtle way, offering you drop rate-boosting items in the late game that you can wear at the expense of your stat boosting gear.
Why it works
Games that offer this kind of throttle not only broaden their audience, but also bend to suit the player’s mood from moment to moment. Are you normally a hardcore player, but tonight you’d rather turn off your brain and just dig the game’s story? Dial that challenge back a bit and relax! Usually casual, but feeling ambitious today? Throw the switch and kick a sleeping giant! The World Ends With You is the glorious poster child for this feature. You can throttle your difficulty, number of battles you chain, and the experience level at which you fight to your taste, and reap super-rare drops by opting into challenges. It frees you from the limitations of having only one or two regions in the game world that provide suitable challenges and rewards at any given moment. In a genre regularly accused of linearity, the throttle turns the world into your sandbox.
Rich Non-Combat Systems
Some of the worst Japanese RPGs have been little more than battle systems tethered to narrative context. If you weren’t engaged in hitting something, you were listening to a supporting cast member tell you what to hit next. Interested in doing something else in the world, but you haven’t finished hitting the requisite things between your party and the next story beat? Too bad! Persona 4 stands tall as our proud liberator from the tyranny of the combat corridor. Social life maintenance in Inaba isn’t just a means to improve your combat prowess. It’s figuratively and literally a system worth fighting for.
Why it works
All too often, in games that tout cool additional systems, those systems are just minigames that offer combat perks if you throw enough time at them. Persona 4 (in either of its iterations) balances the scales that so many others leave lopsided. The real brilliance is that the more time you spend in either the dungeon-crawling or social life modes of the game, the more appealing the other activity becomes. Grinding through the game’s dungeons rewards you with new personas. Those personas make your interactions with specific friends more efficient, giving you a critical advantage in your efforts to see your relationships reach their full potential before the cruel march of time brings your year in the countryside town of Inaba to an end. When you tire of hanging out, merge those personas and enjoy a hefty experience boost for your strange new creature. Add the fact that, for the vast majority of the game, you can pick which of these two systems you want to explore at any moment, and you’ve got a game that serves up meaningful fun no matter how you engage it.
Did I miss any great innovations in recent Japanese RPGs? Share your favorite systems and features in the comments below!
Robert Wiesehan appears to be a mild-mannered writer on his video blog, where he talks about weight loss and writing his first fantasy novel. In his secret identity as Bandana Rob, he plays games on Twitch.tv several times a week. He’s like a superhero, but the only thing he can save you from is boredom.
Images via each game’s publisher’s website.