A quick glance at a few reviews of Xenoblade Chronicles will tell you at least one resounding thing: this is a great game. Very helpful, I know. While the title is an homage to the sometimes-revered Xeno series of games, I’m setting that aside for now on the basis that it may or may not have anything to do with the series besides sporting a similar title (also, minor detail, I’ve not played the Xeno series, so it would be difficult to draw conclusions anyways). In addition, nearly everything I’ve seen about the game references the fact that it is a JRPG (never mind that I managed to make the exceptional cognitive leap in determining that it is a role-playing game from Japan without the internet’s help), which has almost become a genre unto itself. This is as good a time as any to talk about what this means to me and what it might mean to you, since I can’t help but feel I was partially raised on the likes of Final Fantasy (at around the age of 6 or 7 I had three copies of the original NES game because it could store only one save file per cartridge… and, embarrassingly enough, I lost one copy under my bed).
Now it’s definition time. A JRPG is a role-playing game made in Japan. Wait wait, don’t go, there’s more, but it gets tricky after this. I could list the various mechanics, story themes, stereotypes, and other conventions which at least generally define the genre, but others have done an excellent job. So take a second if you’ve got any uncertainty (I know I did when I started having a look around for any consensus on the matter) and feel free to go link hopping or google searching yourself, my words will still be here when you’re done, though the above link should suffice as a primer (albeit in a strongly favourable light).
The key here is that there are some conventions established through decades of similar games of which a modern JRPG must be aware. Often the most interesting aspects of such a game are how it diverges from the conventions: how familiar is the combat and what are the twists; do the setting, themes and characters play to stereotypes or carve their own path; how do you as the player interact with the world (and the list easily goes on). At its worst, a JRPG plays like a game you feel like you’ve played any number of times before while you wonder why you’re spending hours upon hours playing it again with a new skin. At its best, a JRPG has learned from past games what makes its players happy and delivers in innovative and spectacular fashion, while any cost in time played is easily forgotten in the face of immersion and engagement.
But enough generalities, here are a few examples. Personally I’ve found the combat system in the two Final Fantasy XIII games to be nearly the pinnacle of active menu-based combat (if you’d like to hear about it in more detail, let me know in the comments and I’ll make it a priority). That may seem like an odd niche, but is surprisingly important, at least in this genre. I often felt like I was both a combatant and movie director through crisp, dynamic (and challenging) combat scenes, and right up to the very last battle in the game, I was learning and enjoying it.
Radiant Historia, a relatively recent addition to the halls of great portable games (am I showing age by saying ‘recent’ to a two year-old game?), allowed exploration not just through the world, but through an instantly traversable timeline, neatly annotated with the various future-altering choices you have or could have made. The sheer convenience of the entire system had me happily playing through every possible outcome of a game filled with many possibilities. In comparison to these titles, I eagerly await whatever innovations Xenoblade will add to the list.
Take home message: JRPG says a lot about a game, but the games themselves are often about balancing that genre familiarity with plenty of improvements and surprises – all of which are well worth the time to discover. If you’ve never had any experience with a JRPG then it’s possible it’s really not your thing – though I would consider it a pleasure to help you find one that suits your personal game sensibilities so don’t be shy in the comments. If, on the other hand, you are an old hand at JRPGs, then consider this an opportunity to look back on the JRPGs you’ve loved (or perhaps not loved so much) and think about what made those games shine (or what worked even if the rest of the package didn’t quite live up to your expectations). As always, share your thoughts with the rest of the class, and I’ll be back in WILA Xenoblade to give you my own thoughts!