I find the JRPG formula enjoyable, which is strange because only in rare circumstance does it make any sense for gameplay. It can often hinder the flow of a game. For example, in Final Fantasy VII there will be exciting cut scenes with big monsters and big explosions, there will be vibrant casinos, and high speed motorcycle fights, but when combat pops up things will take a drastic change of pace. Suddenly the epic heroes are taking turns whacking randomly appearing mutant squirrels. Only on rare occasion can this style of gameplay act fittingly with the world around it.
I bring this issue up because to very similar games have been released State-side in the last year: Dragon Quest IX and Final Fantasy: 4 Heroes of Light, and they both succeed on certain levels and fail horribly in others. In Dragon Quest IX you control (provided it is a single player experience) four, mute champions of good and while the aesthetic seems to compliment the simple combat there is a major disconnect between player investment in the game and the game itself. A requirement to finish is an almost unholy amount of grinding or side quests, and since the world is interesting players should want to explore beyond the story. But the side quests are not truly connected to the characters, as they have no personality, so there is still less reason to participate in anything beyond the only visible plot. Especially in RPGs player investment in characters and story should drive grinding and missions. In Dragon Quest IX it does not.
While characters do have personality in Final Fantasy: 4 Heroes of Light, the gameplay is set up to be as non-interactive as possible. So once you are able to play as even the most basic archetypes in a four character handheld game, you are left unable to play as them as directly as you would in a game without personalities (Dragon Quest IX). It seems most RPGs, even our most beloved ones, will leave a player longing for something better, whether it be stronger story, stronger character, or stronger mechanics. It is a rare moment when the JRPG formula, and all of the elements combined into it, actually feels most suitable for the situation.
Space Funeral Spoilers Below (Go Play It!)
Two examples of great JRPG style play can probably be found in Space Funeral and Final Fantasy VI. Space Funeral is a freeware game I’ve suggested before and it’s definitely worth your time. The turn-based combat is necessary for it to work because it takes place in a warped version of a JRPG. The goal is to change the world back to the way it should be, a proper JRPG. While the world is unsettling, the gameplay is familiar; it adds to the strange and unsettling feeling one should have as they play. The game makes the player question why things don’t feel right.
Final Fantasy VI is THE proper JRPG. It has more class than any other game in the Final Fantasy series. Things move patiently. There are operas and elegant flying machines. The combat compliments the sophistication of the game by being turn-based, therefore chess like. I’ve posted about this game a few times, and do really see it as among the best games in the genre.
One turn-based RPG I am holding out hope for is Tim Schafer’s Costume Quest. Being released October 20th it follows children on Halloween, and as they enter into combat they take on the form of their costumes. This is a perfect place for a JRPG. In childhood games kids often do more standing around talking about what amazing things they are doing with the imagined images of themselves than doing amazing feats. Children make believe in the JRPG formula unintentionally. The potential is great for the game and I’ll be sure to pick it up on release.
I think there is a way for JRPG mechanics to meet with story and character in perfect harmony. I think there are games that have gotten very close, perhaps as near to perfectly as one can get. But I would like to see more effort put into the games instead of it just tossing uniform mechanics into a game so it can be called a game. And this is does not mean I don’t enjoy games like Dragon Quest IX or 4 Heroes of Light. They each have their charm, but are seriously flawed.