My Love-Hate Relationship With JRPGs

I have a confession to make: I hate JRPGs. I also love them. Then I hate them. And I love them. And so on and so forth for 40 hours or so.

I've been thinking a lot, over the past week, about the ambivalent relationship we have with video games. This was triggered by Star Ocean: The Last Hope, a game in which you travel between planets and kill aliens with swords. The Last Hope is the fourth game in the Star Ocean series, which is known both for intimate character relationships and ridiculous plot twists involving aliens and optical illusions. It's basically the Japanese version of Mass Effect.

I started playing The Last Hope for the first time last weekend, and I found myself simultaneously captivated and disgusted with the fact that I was captivated.

I get that a lot. It's tough to reconcile. But I think it's normal.

Here's my theory: a good video game — especially a good JRPG — is a rollercoaster. It has setup and payoff. It has peaks and valleys. You wade through moments of bullshit because the adventure is fulfilling — and because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

So I'm playing the latest Star Ocean. I'm wandering through the alien-infested ship that serves as one of the game's earliest dungeons. I see a random enemy on the map. I try to get away. He chases me down. He's faster than I am. He catches up, the screen dissolves, and suddenly I'm in a random battle.

During that moment, I feel a little burst of annoyance, because I have to waste the next 30 seconds of my life taking this guy down. Instead of doing something *fun*, like setting plasma bombs to open up doors and hunt for treasure, or taking down some big boss thanks to careful strategy and skill, I am spamming the A-button and checking my email.


That burst of annoyance is met by an equally tangible burst of pleasure when the victory music starts to play and I watch my characters gain experience. Sometimes they level up. Sometimes I get a cool item. And the endorphins rush in.

Can't have the highs without the lows, right? Without those moments of annoyance, what would be the point? How could we enjoy the victory without fighting to get there in the first place?

There's a quote that's always stuck with me, from Edge's Jason Killingsworth, perhaps because it so brilliantly illustrates how I always — always! — feel about the video games I enjoy.

Over the course of a review, the critic needs to be able to say: I love this game, then I hate this game, then I love this game, and so on.

People always ask me why I dislike Final Fantasy XIII. It's so pretty, after all, and the combat system sure is unique. But it's sterile. It's one long ride through mediocrity, a plateau of lame dialogue ("Bring the L'Cie to the Fal'Cie!") and decision-free adventuring. I didn't have a love-hate relationship with that game. I didn't have a relationship with it at all.

So even as I groan at much of Star Ocean's voice acting (why do all modern console JRPGs always have a child party member?) and wince at the random encounters, I'm gonna keep playing. Because the best games aren't the ones you love, or the ones you hate. The best games — like the best relationships — are the ones that simultaneously do both. Those are the ones we remember.

Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.


    I think it's just that Star Ocean 4 is shit, actually. It had the potential to be so much better but everything about it is half-arsed. Sometimes it stops being crap for long enough that the good game it could have been starts to peek through the layer of filth and then Edge fucking Maverick opens his stupid mouth again. :(

      This a million times... the game had so many fantastic things... but was completely let down by terrible voice acting (even in the Japanese one) and dialogue, and the most atrocious AI I've ever seen in a JRPG. Would have been one of the best if they'd made it multiplayer.

      *edit* also - FFXIII was a million times better than SO4... though I reckon it has the best combat system in any FF... so I suppose I'm biased.

      Last edited 25/05/13 4:37 pm

        See, this goes to show: different strokes for different strokes. I personally think FFXIII has the worst combat system of any Final Fantasy to date, which makes me groan every time they announce that instead of moving on already, they're making something else related to it.

          I agree, I disliked the FF13 battle system too. Too spammy and same same, not much tactics from what I could tell, even less so when combined with the 'level up' system so it pretty much didn't matter which characters you used. Ix commando, 2x black magic, wait for breaker bar to fill, watch big numbers until enemy is dead. Very occasionally swap in a white mage for healing.
          FFX's was really cool but, each character still had their 'unique' skills (for certainly the majority of the game, though of course every char could get every skill eventually but it took a damn long time) and traits (Wakka for flying enemies, Rikku for stealing, Yuna as white mage etc) and then just trigger to swap in the char you want to use.

    Example. My favourite thing about fire emblem is that the characters can die and are permanently out of the game. My most hated thing is that the characters can die and are permanently out of the game.

    So, wait... JRPGS' valleys are the combat and their peaks are everything else? Why not just make the combat a peak as well? It's what i don't get about japanese games, to me, it feels as if the devs are arrogant enough to believe you must prove yourself again and again before you enjoy the game you paid them for. Why not just make the tedium actually fun?

    I confess I have a love-hate relationship with this column. Jason should really just write a game theory column because Random Encounters rarely talks about the J in JRPG.

    Coming down off the soap box, this isn't really a JRPG specific thing, it's just game design. ARPGs and "social games" are the clearest cut example of incentivising the player to keep going via intermittent rewards. There's a fine balance to it though, provide too many rewards and rushes too quickly and the player gets tired and the effect wears off unless you can provide something even more exhiliarating (Think gateway drugs). Conversely, if you don't reward or provide a rush often enough then the player will get bored because they aren't being stimulated by the game.

    Additionally, as Killingsworth was alluding to, you need to make the player feel challenged. If the reward is easily obtained, the rush of success is nowhere near as profound as if you had to work hard for it and so you need to provide more experiences in a faster rhythm to maintain player interest. This will, as mentioned before, be more prone to inducing interest fatigue though.

    Last edited 25/05/13 7:16 pm

    Pretty rare that i agree with most of an article written on Kotaku lately. But you described my own feelings about Star Ocean better than i could myself. What a lovely mediocre game it was. And now the battle music is stuck in my head, again....

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