Monday, March 31, 2014

Square-Enix returning to JRPG roots, but what roots?

Looks like Square is thinking of going back to their JRPG roots:

For some perspective, Bravely Default has sold something like 173,000 copies in the first 3 weeks in the US, while Lightning Returns only managed 166,000 in its first 3 weeks. FF13 and FF13-2 sold 500,000 and 375,000 respectively in the same regions in their first 3 weeks.

Interest in their flagship series has been plummeting for some time and while I doubt any plans for FF15 are going to be shelved, it's vindicating for them to realize that people in both Japan and the West like JRPGs for their core values rather than attempts to distance the games from their past. I don't really know anything about Bravely Default, but I can say Final Fantasy has definitely gotten away from some of the core components of exploration, character ensembles and even story.

Going back as far as FFX, dungeons would be long linear paths that amounted to grindfests through pretty scenery. You don't want circuitous mazes like Phantasy Star 2, but a good dungeon will give you opportunities to tread a ways off the beaten path and get rewarded with some loot, a cut-scene or a cool set-piece. Lightning Returns goes so far as to introduce a time limit to the game that dissuades you from the exploration and puttering about that has always been the backbone of JRPGs.*

Instead of a strong cast of likeable characters that each get a chance in the spotlight, the newer games also focus too much on a single Mary Sue and their platoon of one-note hanger-ons. ** Solid archetypal character designs are also gone and replaced by tech demos of people that look like they stumbled blindly through a couture fashion warehouse.

And seriously, there's no true story there anymore. Sure there's plot points and big set-piece events and pretty cut-scenes and voices taking place, but the important stuff like real character arcs and subtext are either gone or lost in the busy mess of mystical pseudo-science babble and crazy terms. The ludo-narrative dissonance is also off the charts for the crazy new gameplay elements in each new chapter. Going back even to FF9, why did learning skills from equipment make any sense? How was a sphere grid or checkerboard appropriate for those stories beyond just being cool things surreptitiously tacked on? Materia in FF7 and even the widely-maligned draw system in FF8 were explained as a part of that game's world, they made sense, they weren't just goofy ideas tacked on because maybe people will dig it and nevermind sense.

All that said, I'd be interested to know exactly what lessons they have learned. Games like Tactics Advance, The World Ends with You and Dragon Quest 9 have nailed most of these points and I'd hate for productions like that to get lumped in with what FF has become. Games from other companies like Gust and Atlus have also been successfully forging into new gameplay territory while remaining true JRPGs. As much as the 2d FF13 recap movie filled me with glee, JRPGs have moved beyond that and plenty of newer games are moving on with the same spirit.

* Recent Atelier and Persona games as well as others have also introduced schedule mechanics that may seem to encourage the same problems as Lightning Returns. In these cases, I'd argue that the games gain the same sense of urgency, but continue to support exploration since the schedule consists of abstract chunks of time in your choice of location that still allow meandering. There's certainly nothing that punishes your playing the game at your own pace as long as you reserve time for core goals.

** To FF13's credit, I do think it was wise to make the Mary Sue the main character rather than in most games since FF8 where you're presented with an ostensible main character that ends up serving as an attache to the character that truly is the focus and drive behind the plot. Still, they took all of Homer's Poochie suggestions literally...-_-

No comments:

Post a Comment