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