The Year In JRPGs So Far (Part One)

2013 sure has been something, huh? From the wonder of Ni no Kuni to the rejuvenation of Final Fantasy, this has been a pretty solid year so far for JRPG fans.

To celebrate, I've invited Kotaku's Kirk Hamilton to have a lengthy chat about this year's slate of JRPGs. This is part one. Expect part two sometime next week.


Kirk: Well. Hello, Jason!

Jason: Hey Kirk! Long time no chat. Just kidding. We chat every day.

Kirk: Long time no PUBLIC chat, then. And man, it has been a long time. I think the last thing we did a convo post was our Persona 4 Golden review.

Jason: Seriously? Jeez. That was what, last December? November? Damnit Hamilton. Get your shit together.

Kirk: Okay, Mr. "Sorry, I'm Too Busy Writing Super Long-Ass Profiles About Sid Meier To Talk To You About RPGs." To think, that whole time you and I could have been arguing about Ni No Kuni's battle system instead.

Jason: Ni No Kuni's battle system, which is awesome.

Kirk: Except when it's fucking infuriating. Speaking of which, nice transition.

So you've got me here to talk about the year in JRPGs so far.

Jason: Yeah. It's been a good one! Ni no Kuni, Fire Emblem: Awakening, Shin Megami Tensei IV... and the list just keeps growing. Mario & Luigi: Dream Team is in my 3DS right now, and Tales of Xillia is out next month too.

Kirk: It really is funny how there's always this weird lingering sense that the JRPG is "embattled" or "in trouble" and yet… well, you know. The scene is lousy with great JRPGs. I mean, right off the bat, we had both Ni No Kuni AND Fire Emblem: Awakening. Plus I finally started playing Valkyria Chronicles. And Final Fantasy IX on my Vita. I spent the first couple months of 2013 being all-JRPG, all the time.

Jason: Well, in fairness, the year has indeed been rough for traditional, turn-based, JRPGish JRPGs. There have been no Infinite Undiscoverys or Lost Odysseys this year. Other than Ni no Kuni, that subset of the genre has been poorly represented thus far in 2013, even if we both did spend some time replaying Final Fantasy IX.

Kirk: Huh. I'm not sure how you're drawing that distinction. Ni No Kuni wasn't exactly turn-based, was it? Fire Emblem was pretty JRPGish, albeit strategy-JRPG. Give me more of an explanation of how you're drawing these lines!

Jason: Hmm. Well, there's a certain formula involved—the whole town->dungeon->world map->town->dungeon thing. The sense of wonder, of being in an unfamiliar place and just wanting to explore everything and get new equipment and level up and shit. That traditional *feeling*. You get it from Ni no Kuni in a way that you don't get it from the likes of Fire Emblem... or maybe that's just me.

Kirk: Ah, okay, got it. That makes sense. It's a difficult distinction since it's so subjective, but basically, if you run around in a big world, go to towns, meet party members and get new magical powers… that's the kind of JRPG you're talking about.

Jason: Sorta. More like... if you run around in a big world, go to towns, meet party members, and get new magical powers, plus it feels like a traditional JRPG, then that's the kind of JRPG I'm talking about.

Kirk: Vague! But I do get it. So on that tip… which game do you want to talk about first?

Jason: What about the one that surprised us all yesterday? Earthbound, the quirky cult classic that is actually much more traditional than you might expect. So I know you've never played Earthbound—based on what you've heard so far, what do you know about it?

Kirk: I know that the music is great. In fact, I know that the music is so good that everyone I tell that I've never played the game is all, "DUDE WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU ETC ETC!!" So I know that I really want to play it. In fact, I'm buying it off of the eShop as we speak. That said… I still wish it was on 3DS.

Jason: Why? It's portable in your house. And you don't leave your house.

Kirk: Shut up, I do too! I like… go to the sandwich shop sometimes… and stuff. I do stuff!

The Year In JRPGs So Far (Part One)

Jason: What else do you know about it? Anything about the story, or the characters, or the world?

Kirk: I've heard bits and pieces, but it never quite jells in my memory because I haven't played the game, and it all sounds so dreamlike and abstract. I really want to play it, just because I'll talk about something—say, "I wish there was a JRPG that took place in the real world!"—and people will be like, dude, Earthbound. But I don't know much that's solid. Why is this game so crucial and beloved?

Jason: For starters, you get to play as a bunch of real kids—not elite warriors or hardened killers, but real-life genuine children. They've got psychic powers, sure, but they also get homesick. (The only way to cheer them up is by calling mom).

Kirk: Aww.

Jason: Part of the charm also draws from the world, which is sort of a surrealist take on real life. There are shopping malls, but they get attacked by aliens. There's a big city, but it's got a dark side. It's interesting. You'll see.

Kirk: I'm really looking forward to it. It's weird, isn't it, how these re-releases get so much attention, and yet they still feel so precious and rare. Like, why on earth isn't this game also on 3DS? As you so recently asked, why isn't Suikoden II on PS1 classics? This huge subset of people flips the fuck out every time one of these (amazing) games finally becomes available, but… I guess I just don't quite get what's stopping them all from being available all the time. You write a lot about localization efforts—what would you say the biggest holdup is?

Jason: Well, to answer your first question, I'd guess it's because the Wii U could really use some sales. It's advantageous for Nintendo to get exclusives on there. But as for other releases... well, when I have these conversations with People In The Know, it usually comes back to either 1) technical issues or 2) licensing issues. Suikoden II is full of weird bugs, which may explain the long delay. I dunno, though. I wish Konami would say something. (And trust me, I've asked.)

Kirk: I mean I can only imagine that there are at least SOME issues going on that we don't know about. It seems so simple, which usually means that it isn't. But, okay, okay, we could theorize all day. Moving right along—speaking of kids fighting monsters, I want to talk to you about Ni No Kuni.

Jason: Such a wonderful game.

Kirk: You are really, unreservedly positive on this game! And I'm very fond of it, but I also found several aspects of it to be pretty annoying. I've been wanting to bug you about the game's combat for a little while. I thought it was so, so profoundly irritating at times that it really did wind up coloring my view of the game. How were you able to enjoy it so thoroughly? Or am I overstating your position?

The Year In JRPGs So Far (Part One)

Jason: Tell me what you didn't like about it, and I'll tell you why you're wrong.

Kirk: Okay. Generally speaking, I thought the battle system was incredibly awkward, and that it didn't mix turn-based and real-time very well. (And it didn't help that the battle music was super annoying.) The biggest problem was the awful interface—you had to flip through your commands one at a time, rather than being able to access them in a radial menu. So it was far too easy to overshoot a command and get spammed by an enemy.

Also, you couldn't pause the action and switch from character to character, which would have made it a ton easier to actually use your party members strategically. (And damn was the partner AI daft.) The "defend all" command was great, but it was introduced too late and it didn't tell your own character to defend. It all added up to make the combat feel finicky, chaotic, and impossible to truly master or get my head around. As I mentioned when I subbed for this very column, I love turn-based combat. But I don't necessarily mind an active JRPG combat system when it's done well. I just didn't feel like this one was done all that well. Do you really think changing the things I just mentioned wouldn't have made the game more satisfying and fun to play?

Jason: I think that what you see as flaws, I see as obstacles to overcome. Okay, so you can't pause the action: that's why you have to think quickly. If you want to survive that boss's special move, you have to recognize the tells, then hit defend all, THEN make your character defend. It requires more than just strategy; you need good instincts, too. I'll give you that the interface could have been better, but what Japanese games have ever used radial menus? It's just not their style. (Also, this version of Ni no Kuni is actually based on the DS version, which only came out in Japan. Can't have radial menus on the DS.)

Then again, I grew up in the NES days, when games were super-difficult and weird quirks became challenges, not blemishes. When weird hit detection issues made enemies almost impossible to attack properly in Ironsword, my goal was always to find the right angle and figure out how to get past that. It's a feature, not a bug! So maybe my critical eye is a little bit different than yours.

Kirk: So that's you telling me how I'm "wrong" about the game's problems, eh? That doesn't really make me feel any more charitable toward Ni No Kuni, though it makes sense that you're viewing it in a different context and with a different eye than I am. I feel like I'm seeing stuff that's just there, and when I see problems like those, I can't help but wish for the better game that exists beyond them. But I do see what you're saying. I think in this case the annoyingness of combat did hurt the overall game, for me. But I still really liked Ni No Kuni, despite those gripes. I mean… was it Chris Kohler who said that gamers have been on a diet and this game was a cheeseburger? I totally get what he was saying. It was a wonderfully beefy game.

Jason: Well, I'm just couching my unabashed love for all of Ni no Kuni—combat included—by pointing out that I have a high tolerance for what others may see as annoyances. I looked at the quirks of Ni no Kuni's combat (like, for example, not being able to pause to think) as fun challenges, and they made tough battles all the more satisfying to beat.

Kirk: It's really just another example of how different literacy in a given genre, be it JRPGs or fighting games, gives a different and interesting critical perspective. Even though I'm right. But anyway! Moving on to the other game that came out around the same time, let's talk about Fire Emblem: Awakening. I sense that maybe you and I are in slightly different places on that game, as well. I LOVED it, I'm partway through my second playthrough. Where did you wind up coming down on Fire Emblem?

The Year In JRPGs So Far (Part One)

Jason: I also liked it, but I don't think it's the best game of the year. It's a wonderful, yes, and I'd recommend it to anyone—especially people who haven't had a chance to spend tons of time with the likes of Shining Force II or Final Fantasy Tactics—but the story is pretty much nonsensical.

HERE COME SOME FIRE EMBLEM SPOILERS

Kirk: It's funny, I felt that way about the story as well, at least for the first half of the game. Then, at some point, it all starts to come together. And the fact that the whole story wrapped up with such an epic, satisfying finale really killed me. It's definitely one of my favorite games of the year, and also one of my favorite soundtracks. I'm curious, how far did you get in the story? Did you manage to get a any sense of why the characters have become so meme-ready and beloved?

Jason: I beat the game, and I think the characters are phenomenal (even though I let half of them die). I also think you're way wrong about the ending—you can do a "power of friendship" story without throwing in all that time travel/doppelganger gobbledegook. (See: Suikoden, which you have to play ASAP.)

The writing is excellent—the folks at 8-4 deserve mad props for that localization—but no matter how interesting the characters and their relationships are, the fact remains that Fire Emblem: Awakening's plot is still about a dude who's secretly a dragon.

Kirk: The time-travel and doppelgänger mess really weren't really what I liked about the story, or the ending—it was the way the characters I'd known and given a shit about all rallied to help me, coupled with the way the final battle played out for me specifically. That extra junk—the twin-dragon mess, the fact that my kids came back in time—that didn't do much for me, either. But man, seeing these people I'd lived with for so long rally together to pull my character out of his reverie, and seeing my character sacrifice himself to save the world… it was pretty great! Though I'll freely admit that the amazing music was a big part of what sold it for me.

And yes, I know, okay, if you're going to pull out the "the game you haven't played did it better" card, I can't really argue with you. One day I'll play Suikoden! Promise. But until then, I thought Fire Emblem was just brilliant. It signaled the turning of the tide for the 3DS, and I can't think of the last time a game singlehandedly did that. And I definitely agree about the localization—those guys did fine work. I've come to be much more aware of localization work than I used to be, largely because of all these JRPGs I've been playing. It really is amazing how much of a difference good localization can make. Both Fire Emblem and Ni No Kuni benefitted hugely from having good people doing their translations.

FIRE EMBLEM SPOILERS HAVE CONCLUDED

Jason: Have you played any games this year with really bad localization?

Kirk: That's a good question. I've played games where the writing was more "charming" than genuinely "good." Like, I'm finally playing Valkyria Chronicles and while the story is pretty cool and the characters have some real depth, it's also all a little bit… well, gormless? Is that the right word? It's a bit wide-eyed and goofy. Meanwhile, playing Final Fantasy IX has made me realize just how much better the localization in that game was than my beloved Final Fantasy VII. (Didn't you tell me FFIX was localized by the same guy who did Ni No Kuni?)

Ditto Apollo Justice, actually—that game has great localization, probably better than the earlier Ace Attorney games. So, I'm not sure if I've played any games with bad localization, but I've played enough games on the spectrum to start having an appreciation of when a localization is really good.

Jason: Yeah, Richard Honeywood—he's a really talented dude who has headed up localization on a lot of awesome games. On the flip side, when you do wind up playing Suikoden, you'll see what bad localization is like (and how it's sometimes worth looking past anyway).

Kirk: Well. I sense we'll have a lot more of this kind of thing to talk about as we keep going. But we're out of time for this week, yeah? I think I'm gonna go play some Earthbound, and dream of a day when I can finally play Suikoden II. If only so you'll stop bugging me about it.

Jason: You do know that when you finish Suikoden II I've got a long list of other JRPGs for you to play, right? There's Xenogears, and Lunar, and Soulblazer, and Secret of Mana, and Lufia 2...

Kirk: It never ends.

Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG. It runs every Friday at 3pm ET. You can reach Jason at jason@kotaku.com. You are encouraged to yell at both Jason and Kirk on Twitter at @jasonschreier and @kirkhamilton.