In this week’s Split Screen discussion, Anton Wegenast and Nate Hales evaluate the contrasting styles of JRPGs and WRPGs
Anton Wegenast: Do you like your art stylized? Go with JRPGs and their passion for being visually striking. The Persona series comes to mind, inviting players outside of Japan to embrace imaginative designs. Western RPGs usually base themselves in history, and are far more conservative in their art style. Even sci-fi RPGs tend to follow canon ideals from known works.
In the Elder Scrolls (Arena, Daggerfell, Morrowind, Oblivion, Skyrim) the world looks like medieval Europe. The Mass Effect series’s aesthetics are like a cross between Logan’s Run and Star Trek. I appreciate both styles, JRPGs have some great looking armor and character designs. Although they may be a little wild by Western standards, Eastern creativity has to be given a nod. I tend to play more Western RPGs, I like the traditional dark fantasy or sci-fi settings because they have a nostalgic effect on me. I often fill in the gaps of Western universes from stock knowledge from other works that I’ve read or played through before.
Nate Hales: JRPGs push the limits of reality when it comes to art style. Final Fantasy XII, Star Ocean IV and the Ar Tonellico series all push the design of their universes to the edge of what is realistically conceivable. All the characters, clothing, weapons, items and environments are typically beyond what we see in everyday life. Even the hair defies logic.
This is where I think the JRPG excels. It takes you away from reality and that’s what I want from games. I understand some players desire to relive a realistic life in a different time and place, but for me games are an escape and JRPGs offer some of the farthest escapes in gaming. It transports you to somewhere that isn’t really plausible and lets you deal with real world problems in unreal ways.
Anton: How do storytelling styles compare between the two?
Nate: When it comes to narratives, the JRPG and WRPG tend to be on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. JRPGs tell a more focused tale, leading the player along, allowing for some choice, but ultimately you are participating in a story. The Xenosaga series spans three games with hundreds of hours of game time, a significant amount of which are cutscenes all telling one specific story.
WRPGs go the other way and let the player craft their own tale, opting for little to no narrative at all. Stories are open ended or can be ignored altogether. The emphasis on choice is also heightened in WRPGs, letting you craft your own universe. This is where they lose me, I played 20 hours of Skyrim and never even saw a dragon or progressed the story past the first major plot point.
However, the JRPG story is one to be experienced, cliches and all – and there are a lot of cliches to be had. Some young hero inevitably has amnesia in every JRPG you play and you should be ready for a love interest that you can only ever show an awkward affection for. The best ones are filled with twist and turns, as many laughs as there are tears. They are made to be experienced and driving the story forward is where the fun is.
Anton: I agree, JRPGs and WRPGs are polar opposites. In WRPGs I get overwhelmed with choice and end up just wandering around until I get killed by some high level beast, or I need to restock/sell off my supplies. On the other hand, JRPGs can sometimes feel claustrophobic. With a wild art style, I want to find out about culture and the individuals. Some JRPG just don’t facilitate the kind of curiosity that their art may incite.
I was captivated by the world of Lost Odyssey but found myself railroaded where I wanted to talk to NPCs and go around like a kid – “What’s your job? I like your hat!”. JRPGs have more irritating clichés, like amnesia or a protagonist that is hopeless with the opposite sex. JRPGs can also be overly simple, you can sometimes follow your gut and know that someone is evil and will eventually betray everyone because they have an eyepatch, or a mean look about them.
Remember Kakanas from Lost Odyssey? Players just knew he was bad news right away. “Why does everybody trust this guy? That mean face alone clearly means he’s evil!” Despite WRPGs using clichés from a culture I’m more familiar with, I find I’m less surprised by twists in JRPGs, as they seem to play with an open hand.
Nate: Narratives aside, both Western and Japanese RPGs have themes that run throughout their games. It would seem the two styles have a different approach however.
Anton: I have to hand it to JRPGs, I love their themes. The antagonists are usually avatars for technology or industry, disrupting the serenity of the world. Final Fantasy VII really felt like I was taking down an oil company. In Valkyria Chronicles I defended a farming town against a much better equipped army. I dig the technology = evil vibe. WRPGs are more absolute, evil just is. People are just bad without any definitive reason to be so, and the ever present catch-all of ‘magic’ tends to motivate many things.
Overbearing government control is an interesting theme that WRPGs tends to explore, and I can appreciate that. It certainly makes more sense for megacorporations who rake in tons of money to be fueled by greed, and turn evil. In games like Deus Ex, the player is sometimes left to choose between embracing a system of power, or fighting it, perhaps with some of the unscrupulous types that were bombing things before anyway.
Nate: This is probably where JRPGs get some of the most flak for not pushing the envelope. Themes for them are well established. Typically they deal with large conflicts or seemingly insurmountable odds. The world needs saving and it is all up to you or an entire race is doomed unless you lead them to freedom. Of course, these themes can tend to get a little tired as they are repeated over and over. Destruction of everything you hold close is always looming.
For me it’s fun to play a game where the stakes are so breathtakingly high. Take Final Fantasy XIII-2 for example, this game has you travelling through all of time and space, manipulating the past to affect the future, all in an attempt to save your sister, who is supposed to save the universe. Time and space are at stake, it doesn’t get more grand than that. The scale of the JRPG is what draws me in, no matter how tired its concepts are.
Anton: Okay so, we probably ought to recommend a suitable title for each other to try out. Which game do you suggest I try?
Nate: My recommendation to you, or any WRPG fan is the PS2 classic Shadow Hearts 2. This game takes a historically relevant time period, with environments that actually exist and puts a layer of absurd on top of it like only a JRPG can. It’s a realistic setting that WRPG fans can appreciate. The story is fantastic and the battle system, with it’s time based attacks and character combos, in my opinion, is the best ever. However, Shadow Hearts offers far more in terms of side questing and choices. It is JRPG that is trying to be a WRPG while still staying true to its roots.
Anton: Nate, I suggest you play Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning. The art style is fantastic, and the game nudges you to follow an epic story, while giving you some freedom to explore. Character customization is great, and it has one of the best real-time combat systems out there. You can choose your weapon style, and unlock action-fighter style combos as you go. The story is by best-selling novelist R.A. Salvatore who is used to writing on a grand scale, so JRPG fans should find it resonates with their tastes.
Follow Anton on Twitter: @virussixzero
Follow Nate on Twitter: @nhales80