Post Script

How Ni No Kuni II high­lights the chal­lenge of evolv­ing the JRPG


We love a good JRPG here at Edge – not for noth­ing do we have one on the cover this month. With Dragon Quest XI, Square Enix is seek­ing western suc­cess by stick­ing to the script in a metaphor­i­cal sense while changing it in a lit­eral one. Its lo­cal­i­sa­tion is set to fol­low the lead of the eighth in­stal­ment, with a broad range of re­gional ac­cents – un­der­stand­ably so, since that re­mains the se­ries’ most pop­u­lar en­try over­seas. Yes, it’s a stead­fastly tra­di­tional ex­am­ple of the form, but in Ja­pan that’s ex­actly what sells. So why go to the bother of changing a win­ning for­mula?

Plenty of other games have proven the wis­dom of such an ap­proach, the orig­i­nal Ni No Kuni be­ing one of them. Out­side its awk­ward hy­brid com­bat, it was a de­fi­antly or­tho­dox JRPG. As with the likes of Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey, Mi­crosoft’s early at­tempts to con­vince a re­luc­tant Ja­panese au­di­ence to in­vest in Xbox 360, it sought to re­cap­ture the genre’s glory years. The suc­cess, rel­a­tively speak­ing, of all three sug­gested the old-fash­ioned style still ap­pealed to western play­ers. The Per­sona se­ries, mean­while, took three games to land upon a recipe that ap­pealed to a global palate. Since then, it’s la­dled on the stylis­tic flour­ishes while hold­ing fast to the struc­tural trap­pings that turned it from a mi­nor cult favourite to a break­out hit.

Not ev­ery se­ries has the lux­ury of stick­ing to its guns. As de­vel­op­ment costs (and team sizes) spi­ral up­wards in ac­cor­dance with tech­nol­ogy’s in­ex­orable for­ward march, many JRPGs need to work harder to court western au­di­ences. For its se­quel, then, Level-5 had a much tougher job, not least given the ab­sence of the first game’s ma­jor sell­ing point. Its an­swer is to throw just about ev­ery idea it can cram in there to see what sticks. Ni No Kuni II’s re­al­time com­bat is de­cent enough, and its city-build­ing el­e­ment is per­fectly fine, of­fer­ing a long-term hook be­yond the story. And RPGs of this nature need to be built for longevity, if only for the value per­cep­tion when put next to western block­busters that ei­ther come with sprawl­ing worlds of­fer­ing dozens of hours of play and ex­pan­sive sea­son­pass plans, or are de­signed as ser­vices to keep play­ers com­ing back over months and even years.

If it’s easy to de­tect a hint of des­per­a­tion in the va­ri­ety of ways Revenant King­dom tries to com­pete with its peers from over­seas, that’s symp­to­matic of a genre ex­pe­ri­enc­ing grow­ing pains as it at­tempts to evolve into some­thing new and dif­fer­ent. Just look at Fi­nal Fan­tasy XV for fur­ther ev­i­dence: the most fa­mous and en­dur­ing JRPG se­ries took in­spi­ra­tion from east and west, but strug­gled to make it all co­here. Even with de­vel­op­ment span­ning close to a decade, it launched in a state that made it look like an Early Ac­cess game. It’s been patched up, ex­panded, and vastly im­proved since, but few pub­lish­ers have the re­sources that Square Enix does, and you imag­ine the time and ex­pense might not have been worth its while.

Even Nin­tendo has had mixed suc­cess when it comes to rein­vent­ing the JRPG. Xenoblade Chron­i­cles is a strong con­tender for the last true great in this genre, but that’s al­ready com­ing up to its eighth an­niver­sary, and its suc­ces­sors have laboured to match it: X was a bold but flawed rein­ven­tion, while Chron­i­cles 2 was a dis­ap­point­ing re­tread. The Pa­per Mario games have evolved into a story-based ac­tion-puz­zle hy­brid. Game­Cube en­try The Thou­sand-Year Door is still widely re­garded as the se­ries’ peak, mainly be­cause Nin­tendo hasn’t even at­tempted to top it. Al­phadream’s Mario And Luigi se­ries, mean­while, re­mains bound to por­ta­ble hard­ware: even the lat­est en­try, not due un­til next year, has been ear­marked for 3DS rather than Switch – and that’s a re­make. The hand­held mar­ket, of course, is one area where the genre has flour­ished. Ever since por­ta­ble de­vices be­came the dom­i­nant force in Ja­pan with the DS and PSP, we’ve seen a num­ber of games of­fer­ing brand new ideas ( The World Ends With You’s in­flu­ence spread well be­yond its mod­est sales) or sub­tle rein­ven­tions of old ones ( Bravely De­fault lets the player grind or ex­per­i­ment with job com­bi­na­tions at their own pace). As two of the most pop­u­lar cur­rent se­ries make their way to Switch, we’re keen to see whether they stick or twist: Poké­mon con­tin­ues to pull in huge num­bers with re­fine­ment rather than rev­o­lu­tion, while Fire Em­blem be­lat­edly broke out of its niche by do­ing a solid im­pres­sion of an anime dat­ing sim.

Some would still con­sider the lat­ter se­ries more of a turn-based strat­egy than a JRPG, but then this is a genre whose in­flu­ence can be felt in many other types of game: it’s harder to name a pop­u­lar mul­ti­player shooter or free-to-play mo­bile phe­nom­e­non that doesn’t let you gain ex­pe­ri­ence and level up th­ese days. Maybe it’s time to ac­cept that the genre has splin­tered, and that JRPG isn’t a par­tic­u­larly use­ful la­bel any­more, be­yond de­scrib­ing a role­play­ing game that hap­pens to be made in Ja­pan. You could eas­ily class the likes of Breath Of The Wild, Nier: Au­tomata and the Yakuza games as JRPGs. Mon­ster Hunter: World, too, which has just be­come Cap­com’s big­gest-sell­ing game ever. And some­how we’ve got this far with­out even men­tion­ing the Souls se­ries. In other words, the JRPG has been evolv­ing un­der our noses the en­tire time: those who say its hey­day was a long time ago sim­ply need to be more open-minded about a genre that still seems in rude health.

It’s easy to de­tect a hint of des­per­a­tion in the ways Revenant King­dom tries to com­pete with its over­seas peers

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