It’s time for Ask Kotaku, the weekly feature in which Kotaku-ites deliberate on a single burning question. Then, we ask your take.
This week we Ask Kotaku: What’s your preference: Japanese-style RPGs or Western-style RPGs? (Note that “JRPGs” are not necessarily RPGs made in Japan but RPGs in the Japanese console-game style. And Western-style RPGs, too, can and do come from non-Western countries.)
Since my Super Nintendo days I have craved anime-looking characters taking turns hitting each other. Final Fantasy II (FF4 JP) was my first “epic” game experience, and that format remains my favourite way to spend 40-60 hours in front of a game console to this day.
When I think of Japanese role-playing games, I think bright colours, over-the-top villains, cute characters, and other happy things. When I think Western role-playing games, I think of — and this might come off weird — medieval Poland. Dark and brown and muddy, people in drab outfits doing drab things to drab creatures. I blame The Witcher, a series I love, but a series that really drives home the drabness. Or any RPG from Deep Silver. Dark, brooding fantasy, the way Europe likes it. Have you ever been to a Gamescom in Germany? It’s downright depressing.
Give me a Japanese RPG filled with bubblegum idols fighting demons in the fashion district any day.
I’ve tried numerous times to play JRPGS, but can rarely get into them. The reasons can vary, but often it comes down to my lack of interest in anime and turn-based combat. On the other hand, I tend to enjoy Western RPGs, like Fallout, a lot more because of how open they often feel.
Part of this preference for Western RPGs is that I didn’t grow up playing all the classic JRPGs people talk about these days. In fact, I didn’t play many RPGs at all when I was younger. But eventually I started playing the Elder Scrolls and other Western RPGs and ended up falling in love with them. And now I don’t see myself going back to play all those classic JRPGs I passed over, because my brain just ain’t wired to enjoy them.
It’s tough, and of course you don’t normally have to choose. But this is Ask Kotaku, so we are! While aesthetically I prefer a tasteful, serious JRPG, when it comes to my bottom line, gameplay, I’m going to go with Western-style “CRPGs.”
My earliest encounters with JRPGs (Final Fantasy! Phantasy Star II! Final Fantasy IV! Suikoden! Skies of Arcadia!) were by far the most enjoyable, and as I try to find a JRPG that can make me feel that way again I find myself chasing diminishing returns. Having a malleable, naive kid-brain is very handy sometimes!
Further, I’ve always been a gameplay-over-presentation person. Ideally you have both — who prefers an ugly game, besides Amiga platformer fans? — but it’s gameplay I’m always thinking about between sessions. Plotting, strategising, seeking tactics and builds. What steers me toward CRPGs these days is my long-standing feeling that CRPGs, on average, give me more to chew on there, and are more interesting to replay. Exceptions abound — many Japanese-style RPGs have quite substantial gameplay chops, and I love when they do — but if forced to choose I feel like CRPGs cover those bases more capably, more often.
My all-time favourite CRPG is 2001’s Wizardry 8, a game I’m still thinking and learning about 20 years later. I love Suikoden, but that’s more a love for its world, story, and aesthetic than its fairly straightforward gameplay. While both give me great memories, I’m more likely to want to revisit a wide-open Western-style game like Wizardry than a more linear Japanese-style game like Suiko.
The easy answer to this question is “both,” but I guess that would be a little boring.
Growing up, I was obsessed with Western RPGs like The Elder Scrolls and Fallout. The freedom they offered was a huge part of that, and I loved playing through them over and over again with new ideas for character builds.
As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve learned to respect the rhythm of old-school JRPGs as well. There’s something really nice about sitting down with a game and knowing immediately how battle will ebb and flow. I also like having time to really figure out a fight and come up with an optimal strategy in games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, plotting out a cascading series of choices and consequences.
And honestly, I never finish the stories in Western RPGs anyway.
This is like choosing between Chicago- or New York-style pizza, or saying I prefer yeast doughnuts to cake doughnuts, even though I’d always happily eat either one. I grew up playing JRPGs, almost exclusively. One or two would come my way each year, either through gifts or borrowing, and I’d play those couple games for months. A few years later I’d replay them. It was sort of a never-ending cycle. By the PS2 era I’d barely touched anything that didn’t star someone with spiky hair or a sword. I never had a PC, and so barely messed around with Diablo, Fallout, or Baldur’s Gate. A friend in school asked me to draw him some elf from Icewind Dale II and it was like staring at some alien artefact he’d pulled off the moon.
Then around the late 2000s things flipped. I finally got around to playing Knights of the Old Republic, and it blew my mind. You could have an RPG with minimal random encounters, hardly any grinding, and a choice as to how the hero went about their story? A few years later I started playing Dota 2, which engineers the same satisfying level progression as a classic JRPG inside of an hour, and I’ve struggled to ever go back. Final Fantasy XV, Dragon Quest XI, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 — they’re all just filled with so much tedious bullshit. I love the worlds, the characters, and the familiar patterns, but the light in my eyes extinguishes the second I’m subjected to more than 10 seconds of stilted dialogue or more than three battles of inputting the same basic commands over and over again while checking my phone.
Part of me thinks modern JRPGs just aren’t as good as they used to be. But part of me also thinks I’ve just gotten old and boring and hate having fun anymore. After all I’ve played a thousand hours of Destiny. How can I complain about fighting slimes for an hour? I haven’t given an answer yet because I no longer know which genre I prefer, and that kills me. Maybe one day they’ll make a Fallout game in a world that’s not soul crushing, or a Dragon Quest that has branching dialogue trees and loyalty missions. Until then I refuse to choose.
Sixteen-year-old me would have said Japanese RPGs without blinking. I was a hardcore Final Fantasy nerd. I grew up on those games after being first exposed to Final Fantasy VIII via a Pizza Hut demo disk (remember those?) They were all I played, them and Kingdom Hearts. But then I ran into a little game called Dragon Age: Origins, a Western-style RPG that altered the course of my life the same way meeting FF8 had. From there I met Mass Effect, then I went back to Final Fantasy (XII at this point) and back to the Dragon Age and Mass Effect sequels. Then there was a long period when I just didn’t want to invest the time into any kind of RPG at all, choosing instead to play games like Overwatch and Hearthstone before The Witcher 3 came along and dragged me back into RPG-land.
So, both. There’s no way to choose and no region’s better than the other.
Tricky question. I’ve been repelled by too many Final Fantasy plots and drawn to the political intrigue of Mass Effects, so I’ve long thought I preferred Western RPGs. From what I’ve played, Western RPGs tend to involve more meaningful player choices and seem to be written for an older audience. They don’t seem to traffic in the tropes common in Japanese role-playing games, which seem inordinately preoccupied with the stories of teenage boys, their dad issues, their secret truth that they’re the one destined to save the world, and the awkwardness of young people’s romantic relationships.
But, even as I write this, I realise that I’ve probably tried more Japanese RPGs and have wound up enjoying a wide range, including the sweeping Suikoden V, the intricate Fire Emblem Awakening, the delightful Dark Cloud 2, and, if you count them as RPGs, the ever-excellent Zeldas. I’ve enjoyed them more than any Fallouts or Dragon Ages.
I also am very aware that I’ve not yet played the best of Western RPGs, not having grown up a PC gamer and not yet having made the time to play Divinity Original Sin 2 and other apparent modern classics. To be fair, I haven’t dipped into the Persona saga either. Hmmm. Maybe this genre of super-long games doesn’t really fit into my life!
How About You?
Kotaku’s weighed in, but what’s your take? Are you more partial to a Final Fantasy or Suikoden, or would you rather lose countless hours in Planescape and Fallout? We’ll be back next week to deliberate and debate on another nerdy issue. See you in the comments!