Role Playing Games have been providing some of the deepest and most immersive experiences since the early days of Gaming. Even way before Video Games, the classic Dungeons and Dragons games were popular and have been tantamount in making RPGs what they are now. Combining a wide variety of gameplay elements like shooting, click and point, character progression, open world exploration, car racing, arcade mini-games, branching story lines, and so much more, Role Playing Games are the ne plus ultra of what Video Games are today.
And, being such an encompassing genre, it is bound to be divided into further sub genres like, tactical, turn-based, action, etc. But, there’s one division that’s the most definitive- Japanese and Western. No other gaming genre has been defined by the region it originated from. So what caused this divide? A divide that creates a major difference in what each of these sub genres caters to. Some, might argue that it is the art design that sets them apart. But, that’s just scratching the surface, what lies beneath are two entirely unique experiences, demanding different approach and rewarding different perspectives.
While both Japanese and Western RPGs originate from the Dungeons and Dragons board games, delivering the thrill of possibilities and adventures in a fantasy land, they both have a fundamental difference in how they deliver this adventure. Both Japanese and Western developers construed and delineated the classic board game in their own unique ways, influenced by their differences.
Western RPGs today strive to give the full control to the player, starting off from character creation and progression, and an open world with the option to do as you please. Although this may give the developer lesser control over the story arc, it has become widely popular in the recent years, largely due to the variety of choices given to player, thus making the characters, story and the world feel more personal. And a wider sense of exploration eventually leads to deeper immersion in a world you are clearly making an impact on. Also, interactive NPCs that give further side quests or trigger random events makes your presence more and more relevant, enhancing a sense of being rooted to the fantasy world. But, intearctive NPCs also mean they could be killed, leading to quest lines that may become entirely unavailable. But, with freedom of choice, that’s a small price to pay and would only enhance re-playability. Games like Fallout 3 or Skyrim, after a brief introduction/tutorial section, immediately set you off in a huge word teeming with secrets to discover, places to see and enemies to hunt.
This is not to say that WRPGs have not started delivering better stories, it’s just not what the core of it is. Take Diablo III, a highly addictive, rewarding and engaging RPG, with a bare pretense of a story, but very popular nonetheless. Or, the Elder Scroll series, with passable main plot, but immense amount of lore to be acquired by means of exploration and discovery, a lot of it through the many side quests.
Japanese RPGs, on the other hand, tell a stronger story, keeping one/multiple protagonist(s) who you control. They are not your creation, but you control them and thus get to know their story. Though the choices and exploration are limited, it gives the developer the means to tell a story that’s more tightly wound and directed, and more time is spent in developing the various characters and their individual stories. And often, JRPGs are known for invoking an epic sense of grandeur by means of their unique visual style and top-notch animations. Art style has always been the trademark of JRPGs, with the anime style visuals of Tales of Xillia and the amazing CG effects in Final Fantasy XIII. But, what sets JRPGs apart the most are the menu based combat system and the way the narratives are presented. Drawing heavy influences from Visual Novels (yes, Eroge and Bishojo games), which presented the narrative as the text and the context as the background image, JRPGs still focus on clicking through narrative text, which while delivering a deeper story, are losing popularity as they render a slower pace.
Similar is the case with the menu based combat system, where the player strings together a set of commands and then watches it being executed in great flourish, and while the crisp execution is visually appealing, it loses the personal touch where you get to land every hit. And that is one of the reasons that JRPGs had been falling behind in the last few years. But, then came the new Tales Games (Vesperia and Xillia), and more importantly, Ni No Kuni, which takes the command based, arena style combat to real time battles, where the player gets more freedom of movement and attack patterns within a confined arena. Thus it keeps the tactical elements intact while delivering faster action.
This a great step for JRPGs, and there’s no studio better capable of redeeming the JPRG genre than Miyazaki’s Ghibli. Also, the way Valkyria Chronicles combines third person tactical shooting elements with a unique art style and a core JRPG system makes for a welcome change. JRPGs have always given us beautiful worlds and fantastic creatures, and with the next Final Fantasy (FFXV) embracing an open world, action style combat, the genre is definitely making a tenacious return!!
One thing that is common in Role Playing Games is leveling up, and that involved grinding. This is in fact one of the core aspects of any RPG, and also where WRPG and JRPG’s different play styles draw in or put off players. With access to an open world, grinding feels less like a chore, as it’s mixed with both seeing new places and enemy types, but when you revisit same areas for farming items or XP, it does get tiresome and less appealing. Also, while JRPGs automatically assign points to various stats when you gain a level, WRPGs allow you develop the stats as per your choice. But, once again, that experience changes with the player’s perspective.
Developer Bioware is among the biggest RPG developers today, with releases like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, etc to boast. And their take on JRPGs do provide an insight- “The fall of the JRPG in large part is due to a lack of evolution, a lack of progression,” BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk told Destructoid. “They kept delivering the same thing over and over. They make the dressing better, they look prettier, but it’s still the same experience”. Though it’s by no means a universal fact, it is a valid point.
That’s not to say that JRPGs are bad or WRPGs are better, but with how far gaming has come in terms of all it can deliver, JRPGs have somewhat fallen behind. Also of note, some of the finest Role Playing Games to come out in the last few years, the Soul’s series (Praise the Sun!!), are all developed by Japanese developers.
Let us know what you think of the distinction between Japanese and Western Role Playing Games, and if you have a preference among the two sub-genres. Also, if we missed any points, do tell us in the comments below.
Author’s Note- This article has been written keeping in mind RPG releases in the past 3-5 years, so as to maintain relevance to the current generation.