In the last couple of years, I've developed a strange relationship with JRPGs. I found myself tiring of their beautiful exteriors that lacked heart. Since writing that article about my growing frustrations, I took a break — distancing myself from the genre that dragged me into gaming. It was a necessary betrayal. In my near year-long recovery, I played indies and shovel-ware. I became acquainted with cats of mobile gaming stardom. I rediscovered my fondness for SRPGs, even though I still think I'm terrible at them. I revisited older JRPGs which is something I rarely do. Then, I kept my promise to myself to judge them one game at a time when I forced myself to play The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SC. I could not have chosen a better series to throw myself headlong into, and for that I'm thankful.
But I nearly ruined my perception of modern JRPGs and the genre as a whole before getting to that point. It was an ill-fated playthrough of Tales of Hearts R that nearly did me in.
Tales of Hearts R Was The Wrong Decision on the Road to Healing
Being burnt out on the genre in general, I played Tales of Hearts R at the worst possible time. It was doomed to fail from the start, as I played it right on the heels of my very first run of the emotionally exhausting and brilliant Suikoden II.
To its credit, Hearts R had an interesting premise — until it went completely off the rails. Where the comically light fare of Tales of Graces F shone, Hearts R failed. It maintained some of the series' signature playfulness between characters, which has always been the strength of the Tales of series. But while I enjoyed Graces F for not taking itself very seriously, Hearts R did the opposite until it became unbearable. It built a decent story that failed to deliver, when it was so frustratingly close to doing so.
There were villains who refused to die, re-appearing at various points of the game when they had no business being there. This contributed to Hearts R dragging on for what felt an eternity, without any real purpose other than to annoy — which says so much considering JRPGs have long been champions of endurance testing, and loved for the ridiculous behaviour of some of their antagonists. It didn't help either that Hearts R lacked an exciting bevy of those, but rather a bland troop of them.
I finished the game, but at the cost of my patience, and a sizeable chunk of my tolerance for the genre. Hearts R highlighted and exacerbated all the problems and mixed feelings I had on JRPGs, which had long been building. And that's when I decided to quit, which lasted months.
To Ease Back In, I Played an SRPG Instead
I didn't actually re-introduce myself to the genre with Trails in the Sky SC. To ease back into JRPGs' sprawling worlds, I took a different approach, and for the first time started Final Fantasy Tactics Advance.
Tactics Advance enthralled me despite its run-of-the-mill story. I wasn't expecting a repeat of the overly complex Final Fantasy Tactics but I was anticipating something more in-depth in its narrative. But ultimately that didn't matter. As an SRPG, it fulfilled my need for overly-cautious grid-based strategic planning, and sweating bullets at potential failure.
The simplicity of its story was exactly what I needed, so my focus turned to the fun of its battle-system instead. It trained my brain to refrain from nitpicking at terrible characterisations, or weak plot elements. Straight-forward and to the point, Tactics Advance gave me nothing to get hung up about in the story department.
That aside, I appreciate how gorgeous a game it is, as the sprites and maps attest to. The music is delightful, with compositions that are light and hopeful, even in the throngs of battle. It's tonally strange at times in how it manages to capture all of that, but it speaks to its overall nature. Don't get me wrong, the soundtrack has those dire moments too to fit in places where necessary. I loved the game for that magical feeling JRPGs can give. The protagonists were swept into a storybook fantasy, and I was right there with them.
That's the best part. Tactics Advance gave me a familiar feeling that reminded me why I love the Final Fantasy series' worlds of swords, magic and strange beasts which are now parts of my gaming norm. It's reminiscent of my times spent with the numbered Final Fantasy games — that no matter the setting, as long as those creatures are there, and I can issue commands to a party to attack with magic spells I'm well-versed in, or attack with the might from fighting classes in armour I've donned before. That alone satisfied my JRPG love in the little things unique to the series, and true to the genre as a whole, in some form or another.
Taking a Step Back to Remember All The Excellent Things JRPGs are Capable Of
Chrono Cross and Chrono Trigger, on the other hand, made me remember JRPGs a little differently.
After dabbling in the endless missions and battles of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, I began replaying the polarising entry bearing the beloved word "Chrono" in the title. I never hated Cross, and that remains true after spending time with it once more. I never got wrapped up in heaping expectations on it for being tied to Chrono Trigger. I should mention, however, that around the same time, my sister began her first adventure with Trigger. I couldn't help but guffaw.
There are few games that are as complicated, clever or unexpected as Trigger. It takes no more than that small moment on Denadoro Mountain to prove that. There's that creature staring at the skyline at the top of the mountain, and after pestering it a few times, it bluntly and exasperatingly realises (and very pointedly remarks) that your characters are not going to leave it alone. And so, to get rid of unwanted attention, it gives you a magic tab.
The moment is so hysterically uncharacteristic of how monsters typically react in JRPGs and games in general. Monsters are so removed as solely the things to beat on and get experience from. They serve that purpose as well, but charming moments like those are frequent in Chrono Trigger, and set it apart from so many games. It's in the characters' expressions during battles, their surprised animations and those of the monsters too. It's in Ozzie, Slash and Flea — rock stars in real life — of questionable celebrity statuses in this game.
I may understand why Cross was a disappointment to some, but my recent time with it endeared me to it even more than it did years ago. It's a good game. The question of whether Cross is a failure to Trigger's legacy is not something I'm here to discuss at length. As a JRPG though, Cross takes big ideas and weaves them into its narrative in the most depressing illusions of choice. Many decisions and actions have negative consequences, but what really struck a chord was how frightfully well it portrayed confusion.
Unlike Trigger, Chrono Cross doesn't have sprite animations to emote a broad range which includes impeccable comedy. It's not predominantly humorous game, after all. After the soul swap and the stabbing, Serge, in Lynx's body, winds up in a disturbing dreamscape world resembling a Van Gogh painting. Without facial expressions or voice acting to rely on, the music coupled with the cryptic messages and fuzzy, swirly-eyed demons on the visual backdrop had to put Serge and the player in a state of panic.
It's a weird scene, and it gave me the creeps, but it's so artfully done that it serves as a reminder of what can be expressed with a distinct colour palette, an unnerving composition and deranged looking monsters. And while not a unique idea to any medium, I've enjoyed a lot of similar moments in the past with many of my JRPGs, thanks to their creativity in telling dire or funny situations through visuals and music. Those are the memories I hold dear. Those are the ones my more recent forays into JRPGs lacked.
When I Was Ready, I Went Back In With Smarter Choices by Playing The Trails Series
With that in mind, I took another extended break until Trails in the Sky SC released. It wasn't easy restructuring a mindset to convince myself that I needed to dedicate hours on end to see it through. I had become used to short bursts of play that Tactics Advance provided, the minutes a day it took to feed those ungrateful Neko Atsume cats and the quick-thinking and rhythmic highs of playing games such as Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number and Nova-111.
Quite frankly, I wasn't sure if I could do it. It felt like a looming chore despite the progress I had made by lightly playing Chrono Cross and observing Chrono Trigger. I felt bitter. And sure enough, I almost failed.
Trails in the Sky SC's slow burn had me reeling. I wasn't completely sold on the first game but I liked it well enough — enough to buy the second to find out what happened after the first game's cliffhanger. Just when I was starting to enjoy myself a little, I had to stop playing to turn my attention to The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel. That's what happens when you sign up to review a game. For me, re-directing a focus from one JRPG to another means certain death to the prior. Having to remember story elements, and getting back into a particular frame of mind is difficult. The interruption likely leads to a pile of unfinished games.
Luckily, Trails of Cold Steel was so good — musically engaging, with depth of character and a delicious political story — that my faith in JRPGs was rekindled significantly. The game was modern. It began with a slow burn too, but when it picked up, it floored it and wiped all my reservations across the floor thanks to its accessibility.
As the game is in the same series (different continent but a standalone story with connected elements), getting back to Trails in the Sky SC was easier to do. It also really helped that when I did, SC displayed so much of that nonsensical JRPG charm without sacrificing a well-written script to balance emotional truths, that I couldn't help but feel hopeful. It captured the great feeling of an older generation JRPG minus their gameplay atrocities. And then the series proved that it could continue that flavour in newer entries in the franchise as Cold Steel did.
I ended my previous think-piece on JRPGs noting that I do have optimism when it comes to my once undeniably favourite genre. That hasn't changed. If anything, that belief has strengthened. Playing The Legend of Heroes games back to back means I haven't given up completely. I'm still going to have some reservations when it comes to the upcoming Persona 5 and Final Fantasy XV but I think I'm even more equipped now to handle them without some of the jaded sentiments I've accumulated over the past couple of years.
I can even say that I'm honestly happy and excited for what's to come. I'm still cautiously optimistic but willing to dive in with less of a chip on my shoulder.