SNES Master KI: Hello, and welcome to another Turn Based! We’ll be trying something new this time, this will be a three-player round. Increasingly prominent contributor Dari will be joining us for a discussion on how to design the ideal JRPG. All three of us have our own ideas on how to do this, so hopefully we’ll end up with lots of bloody conflict and furious verbal combat. Or hopefully we won’t, I forget which one we want. Icepick is the least enthusiastic about the genre, so we’re making him go first.
Professor Icepick: I guess it could be argued that one of the most important aspects on a Japanese turn-based RPG is its setting. Due to the genre’s increased emphasis on storyline, a proper setting can create an engrossing world to explore for the 40-400 hours players can look forward to spending in the game itself. Yet roughly half of all JRPGs in existence will go for a cliched fantasy setting, taking place in a fictionalized version of medieval Europe. More recently, we’ve seen post-apocalyptic steampunk future go from a breath of fresh air to yet another one of those standard set pieces. Yet, very rarely, we’ll actually get something unique. I think the best example of this would have to be the Mother trilogy, released in the West as “Earthbound”.
Taking place in what is essentially a contemporary setting driven more by off-the-wall humor than trying to ape the entire of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Earthbound managed to garner a cult following in the West due to its irreverent sense of humor and a setting that was, quite frankly, a breath of fresh air within the genre. As such, my ideal JRPG setting would be anything besides those two clichés that feel omnipresent within the genre. That’s not to say that it’s not possible to escape the bland nature associated with traditional fantasy or sci-fi tropes. It just takes some kind of a gimmick, like a fantasy game basing itself more on the folklore of a non-European region, perhaps a more mundane future with less obvious flaws or being developed by Nihon Falcom.
Dari, your thoughts?
Dariwan: I’d have to agree. Most of the time it takes something drastically changing in the middle of the story to make the setting be anything more than just the same old thing. Earthbound was definitely a different beast, kind of feeling like it’s in “America” which makes you feel like the game could be in your hometown or somewhere close by.
I feel like my ideal JRPG would be something like a mix of Japan or something like Earthbound mixed in with the tropes. I think that Tokyo Mirage Sessions mixed in eccentric Japanese settings and the cliché stuff pretty well, but I think we can go a bit farther than that. Not that we’re going in that far, but MMOs have the same problem as JRPGs with their settings being a bit blasé. but I feel as I said before my ideal setting is one that “lives” and changes as the game goes on, instead of being the same thing throughout.
KI, do you agree?
KI: My main criteria for a setting is that it’s different enough from reality to accommodate the variety needed for a 40+ hour game. This seems easier to do in fantasy settings, which may be a reason why they’re such a common choice, but it isn’t necessary. As mentioned, the Mother series was able to take neighboring towns in contemporary America and make one feel completely different from the next. The key is that the setting can’t get caught up on feeling realistic. You shouldn’t be confined by real life settings, or an obsessively “believable” medieval Europe expy, or rock-hard science fiction. I want imagination and variety, and you can do that in any setting as long as you have the creativity and don’t chain it to realism, even realism attached to a fantasy setting.
I do like it when games change tone midway through as well, games like Xenoblade Chronicles 1 and 2 and Final Fantasy IX introduce settings late in the story that you see no indication of at the start of the game. And Chrono Trigger of course has every world setting you can think of thanks to time travel. With how huge the scale of JRPGs should be, one setting often isn’t enough for an entire game.
Icepick: Of course, JRPGs aren’t the only genre that relies heavily on story. Visual Novels are quite similar to JRPGs in terms of storyline, but the main that differentiates the two is the emphasis on gameplay. In my honest opinion, the main gameplay aspect related to JRPGs is the battle system present in each game. Unfortunately, in most cases, I’m left underwhelmed. I’ll break it down as simply as I possibly can: if the game’s concept for a battle system starts with “Attack”, ends with “Run” and can only manage to shove “Magic” and “Items” in between them, then chances are I consider you a cancer to the video game medium as a whole.
There have been a lot of games that have had interesting takes on the JRPG battle system that manage to set themselves apart from that mediocre stereotype. Games like Lunar and some of the Legend of Heroes games have turned their battles into almost miniature “turn-based strategy” segments, relying significantly on character placement to allow for more thoughtful combat. The aforementioned Earthbound sticks to a Dragon Quest-inspired battle system with one very unique (and game-making) alteration: when party members take damage, their health gradually decreases, allowing a knowledgeable player the chance to heal them before they get knocked out. I’d also be in remiss if I didn’t mention Undertale, an American indie game that was clearly inspired by Earthbound, but took its battle system in a different direction. Players can choose to attack enemy monsters, using an accuracy bar or simply interact with them to settle their conflict peacefully. But when the enemy attacks, the game turns into a sort of shoot-’em-up style game, representing the player with a heart icon, forcing them to escape injury in various ways.
Of course, my personal favorite battle system would have to be the ones found in the early Paper Marios, and to a lesser extent, the Mario & Luigi games. Relying on button presses to increase damage, extend attacks and even defend and counter enemy attacks with proper timing. There’s just something so captivating about this simple gimmick: it’s the closest I’ve ever felt to really being in control of my character in a turn-based RPG. It’s a shame that few other games have attempted to lift this system, going instead for the more traditional Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest-style of combat. The only game that really comes to mind for me is South Park: The Stick of Truth. The fact that the game is only referred to as being “inspired” by Paper Mario, rather than a “Paper Mario clone” or even its own sub-genre is perhaps one of the greatest crimes that JRPGs have yet to answer for.
Dari: I personally like turn-based RPGs simply because they allow you to strategize instead of getting hit every 2 seconds with no real chance to defend. Also, the turn-based system allows you to exploit weaknesses and keep going. I do agree that “Attack Run Magic Item” gets boring at times. That’s why games like Persona (Especially 5) and games like the Tales series definitely are different beasts of turn based games. The Tales series in particular feels like an action RPG as most of the games are open field actions in battle. You can jump and do combos almost like a fighting game and even do certain mystic arts by chaining certain moves together. I like those different atmospheres that can generate difference in the game itself. But as I said I like the standard JRPG experience except when they do it wrong.
The game I’m currently playing is Blue Reflection it’s kind of like Persona but backwards. The battle system is…interesting to say the least. they have systems that don’t really matter until boss battles happen, and the basic gameplay is kind of easy. You also auto heal after every battle, which takes away any urgency in any battle, since you know you won’t die. It bothers me, but the story is decent enough to keep me playing. That’s another argument for another time though.
KI: I’ve recently had trouble getting into turn based games, so my ideal JRPG battle system has become the Nier/Ys style where basic combat feels like a character action game, but you still have stats and items and an MP equivalent. As long as I’m not being harshly punished for CPU controlled characters getting themselves killed or spammed with unavoidable spells, I generally prefer action-JRPGs at this point, and my ideal one would definitely have a real-time combat system.
If the battle system is turn based, it’s important there be something to prevent it from being tedious or feel like you don’t have to really be engaged. Semi-turn based battle systems like the Mario and Luigi games or Xenoblade games can work very well for alleviating this, with timing being a constant part of every battle. Even something as simple as the rhythm-based damage bonuses in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 adds a lot to the battle system for me.
Icepick: The role-playing game designation in video games generally feels like a catch-all term: there is little in common between games like Final Fantasy, Fallout and Ys, yet no one would argue that they are not all “RPGs”. One common element all of these games share is the concept of “character progression” — simply put, as battles and other quest elements are completed, the player character becomes stronger and gains access to new abilities, much like how studying or exercising increases people’s mental and physical prowess in real-life.
I’m honestly kind of torn about this one. Generally, I like mostly random stat boosts with experience, with a handful of points for the player to assign themselves, in order to further customize their character to suit their playstyle. That’s generally what I would consider the standard, but it’s just how much control one has over these stats that I feel conflicted. I’ve played games where stat changes are considered permanent, which forces players to make their choices wisely, which I like. On the other hand, I’ve also played games that have allowed for a constant “experience pool”, which can allow stats and abilities to be changed at will, depending on the situation. For example, if one focuses on the “strength” stat in a game, to deal big damage, but eventually finds themselves in a position where an ability only accessible to characters with a high “wisdom” stat becomes necessary, the ability to shift those points around saves the player from pointless grinding — but also sort of destroys any stakes in making those decisions in the first place.
Dari: It’s a mixed bag for me– I like the usual “Level up assign stats and go” which is kind of like Dungeons & Dragons, but I like JRPGs that buck that trend. Games like Fire Emblem that just give random stats that you don’t have control over, but offer different classes at max level give you more customization than other RPGs regardless of how it looks in the start. I’m a fan of flashy attacks and big damage so character progression is really big for me. The thing that irks me more than anything is when your characters are starting, and they really don’t have much to do, so you’re sitting there attacking and praying you don’t die every battle. This goes into ‘grindin6g’ which is another thing that i actually hate about JRPGs. JRPGs that “hide the grind” are the games that I enjoy a lot more than ones where you literally have to find in a area, sit there and fight for your life until you level enough to easily beat them then move on. (FFVII, I’m lookin’ at you…damn Worm area.)
KI: I generally don’t like being overwhelmed by choosing stat placement, especially early in a game when I may not know what exactly stats do or how important they are to the battle system. I like getting a boost in every stat when I level up, I’d rather have customization be separated from that base stat increase. Systems like the Abilities in Final Fantasy IX or the badges in the first two Paper Mario games are my preferred way to customize characters, you have more understanding of exactly what you’re choosing and how it will affect the game. I’d prefer that the customization system not be overly buerocratic, a skill tree where I have to essentially grind level ups to get an ability I want is very annoying. I also like a balance between whether stats/abilities can be reassigned or not. Permanent choices made before you understand the game should never ruin a save file, but if everything can be changed at any time I don’t want constant micromanagement required because the game didn’t bother to balance areas so multiple play styles would work. So having experience and ability point equivalents separated is my preference.
Icepick: Another common trait among RPGs in general is that they have a tendency of adding side content in an effort to flesh out the game world and make it feel more like an organic, real place, as opposed to, well, a video game. Secret bosses or dungeons, sidequests, card games, collectables, it must be required by Japanese law for every single RPG in existence to have at least one of these tacked on.
I honestly can’t think of an example of side content that actually managed to elevate an otherwise mediocre game. I guess there’s really only one bit of non-story related content that I actually found memorable and those were the bromides in Lunar 2 on the original PlayStation. Maybe it was due to the inclusion of characters from the previous game — or perhaps it was the lewdness of a few choice images chosen — but that’s probably the only piece of optional content in an RPG that’s actually stuck with me.
Dari: I don’t think they’re exactly NEEDED but in grindy games, I think side content is good as a “rest” from the game and doing something different, keeping the game fun and not tedious and making the player hate them. One of these “side content” things I like, again from the Tales series, they have “skits” which is side stories and sometimes just random conversations that add to character development and sometimes elaborate on story. It’s really helpful to have small cute offside stuff like that to help an RPG shine and show out as a better game in general.
Stuff like sidequests can help or hinder a JRPG. They can be good for a refreshing side story or they could just open a new time hole that you want to get out of because you want to access the story. this happened to me in Final Fantasy Crisis Core. I didn’t get past chapter 2 of the story because the side quests never ended. But things like the card games in the Final Fantasy Games are nice diversions that are optional that you don’t have to put time into unless you want to. I think that’s the ideal “Side content” in a JRPG. optional stuff that has enjoyment in putting in effort, but it’s not pertinent to the story or plot of the game, just something to break the monotony of the grind or the game in general.
KI: For side content, my general feeling is that RPGs should heavily lean towards quality over quantity. Tons of trivial (or would be trivial if they didn’t involve luck based grinding/trying to figure out what the hell you’re supposed to do) sidequests are a very bad thing, they are tedious and overwhelming. Sidequests should never end up being the majority of a JRPG. It gets even worse when those sidequests are practically mandatory, meaning that you will be severely underleveled if you skip sidequests and don’t do an absurd amount of grinding. Xenoblade Chronicles X was really bad about that, if you somehow had high enough levels doing just main story missions would take around five hours. As it is, I spent 60 hours and gave up on the final boss because I STILL wasn’t strong enough to win. There’s a reason I usually specific Xenoblade 1 and 2 when I praise the series. Chrono Trigger is probably the best handling of sidequests I’ve seen in a JRPG, the sidequests at the end of the game felt as polished as the main story, they weren’t overwhelmingly difficult to track down, and they added to the characters, basically being the end of their individual story arcs. We need more RPGs with 5 great sidequests instead of 500 mindless/frustrating ones.
Icepick: Of course, what good is world-building when the world itself is lackluster? Map design is an important aspect of any RPG, regardless of sub-genre. In the 8-bit and 16-bit era, games relied on an overhead view to create truly labyrinthine dungeons and vast overworlds, but these days they can exist at any angle. It’s tough to really quantify my ideal world in general — I think my favorite maps of all time have been in the Ys series — but rather, it’s better to define a key component: variety. Each area on a world map should feel different from other areas, both in terms of aesthetic and in terms of design. If the layout of a volcano area matches the tundra, which matches the desert, which matches your character’s hometown where your adventure begins, which matches the villain’s fortress where the game comes to its conclusion, then what’s the point of changing the setting in the first place?
Likewise, the setting of each area should inform the designs of the dungeons themselves. You wouldn’t expect to sink in quicksand in a volcano area, deal with water puzzles in a forest and frankly, I think Ys Origin is the only game that could reasonably work slippery terrains into a desert setting. Granted, it’s interesting to experiment with that sort of thing, but recasting existing hazards to match their new biomes is a must.
Dari: I don’t have much to add to that. except in the realm of randomized worlds. The world has to be unique each time. it can’t be the same thing with a color or tint change and pretend it’s different. There needs to be some kind of radical change for it to make sense. The Persona games do this well – at least 1 and 2 and on for sure – 3 and partially 4 kind of slipped up by having pretty much the same layout for each dungeon but just had different randomized maps each time you enter.
Stage hazards are also an interesting thing i don’t see many games pick up on. You may be in a volcano area, but the lava rarely affects you. The Desert doesn’t really do much but make you hot (Golden Sun actually made you drink water in the desert and your temperature went up the more you stayed in it which I liked) We need a sense of danger otherwise we’re just walking around through a nice-looking setting with really nothing to fear or worry about. Except the monsters/enemies which get kinda stale when they’re the only threat.
KI: When it comes to world design in JRPGs, there is a gold standard that isn’t even technically a JRPG. If asked about level design in my ideal JRPG, there’s pretty much one word I would use to communicate what I want: Zelda. Dungeons should be intricate and filled with puzzles and obstacles. The overworld should never have generic empty space in it, for all my issues with it, even Breath of the Wild knocked it out of the park when it came to avoiding that. The dungeons don’t have to be exactly like Zelda, but I want something in them besides combat. Puzzle solving, platforming, shmup sections, just anything but flat halls or mazes.
Being able to interact with the world beyond a generic talk/inspect button and fighting enemies is important to me in a JRPG. Again, the gold standard is Zelda’s palette of unique items that can be used for both combat and puzzle solving, but anything that makes the levels more than a hall/maze/field with a graphical theme (as Icepick alluded to) will satisfy me. If I’m going to be playing a role in a world, let me truly interact with that world.
Icepick: Well, I’ve got to say, we’ve had a pretty fruitful discussion about what each of our ideal JRPGs would look like. I guess, the best way to finish would be to do a quick summary of everything we like to see in the genre. I love unique settings that avoid cliches that are synonymous with the genre. Engaging battle systems that go beyond simple menu-based random number generation are a must. I’m open to either permanent stat boosts or a pool of experience that can be readjusted on the fly, but not that big on sidequests in general and love it when an area’s themes are taken into account when designing dungeons.
Dari: I love JRPGs that don’t rely on side-quests but make wholesome side content that help the monotony. Games that “hide the grind” or even change up the battle system entirely to make a change. I like “Living” worlds that change and evolve as I go through them and I like when the character progression isn’t exactly the same as D&D and can do its own thing and still be interesting and fun. Also having the world fight you too is good as well. Have something besides the big bad and his/her cronies to want me dead.
KI: So, my ideal JRPG would basically be Zelda, Nier Automata, and Xenoblade being mixed together. Varied settings with lots of surprises as you go through the game, action game style combat, intricate, puzzle heavy dungeons. Simple upgrade system with a separate ability customization system, a few major sidequests that aren’t forced on you under threat of grinding. A world that’s big enough to make exploration feel significant, but not so big it all blurs together. Put gameplay and variety over realism.
Icepick: Well, that was a successful experiment. Hopefully Dari decides to join us in more Turn Baseds in the future. (We’ve actually already got a topic picked out, just in case he does.) So, who do you think has the best concepts for the perfect RPG? Dari, who is a die-hard fan of the genre; KI who is neutral, or the radical rebel that is Professor Icepick? Feel free to sound off in the comments below.