Now that Ni No Kuni is finding success on charts on its Western release, perhaps it’s time to discuss the Japanese roleplaying game, the “JRPG”.
While the genre enjoys immense popularity in Japan, it’s never been as popular over here, even with the odd exceptions of titles like Final Fantasy VII. Whereas Final Fantasy has made overt moves towards appealing to a global audience, the JRPG crown prince has always been the Dragon Quest series, which only really saw a release in the West with the PS2 title Dragon Quest VIII (2005). From what I gather, Dragon Quest is to the RPG in Japan what D&D is to the RPG in the West. It’s so iconic, it needs no explanation. It never changes.
I would wager a large part of the series’ continuing appeal in Japan is precisely its traditional, set ways. Asian peoples are much more traditionalists and conservative than Western peoples, and perhaps the game’s ways speak so strongly to that characteristic. The same assumptions that guard it against imitators and the creeping progress of time make it hard to approach to outsiders, especially as the shape of games moves on. In a way, I see it much as the Japanese culture and people in general.
The way the JRPG genre is explained in the Western gaming media tends to be about three things: endless grinding for XP, endless random encounters, and childish plotting that revolves around children. Apologists of the genre point to grinding being… less interminable, random encounters being… less random these days and plotting being… unparalleled great storytelling, for the most part.
I completely disagree with all of that. Dragon Quest IX is a great game because of these things, not in spite of them. This is coming from someone who is not hugely into the genre. I’ve played my share of Final Fantasy (emulated IV – VI, played VII, VIII, XII on their original platforms), but that’s really about it. Dragon Quest IX is my first brush with the series and I do like it a great deal.
The endless grinding for XP over endless random encounters is archaic design. It can admiteddly get a bit much. DQ IX alleviates things by usually showing the monsters to you before they attack, so you have the option of avoiding combat. You can also get items which shield you from these mostly inconsequential battles. But once you play with the system instead of against it, the random battling for XP achieves a number of things.
For one, it’s the main gameplay there is on offer. Everything else is exploration and following narration from NPC to NPC with no real decisions to make. It helps that the battling is good. With all the stacking status effects and differently behaving weapons and powers, there’s a lot to digest and orchestrate here. If you sleepwalk through battles, you will quickly find yourself running out of magic points for healing. The random battles become a difficulty slider – if you push on quickly as you can, you will find the battles in the longer dungeons (where you can’t rest to regroup) tough going, and especially bosses at the end of those long dungeons can be nail-biting encounters, with the latest save half an hour away. If you want to play it safe, you take your time levelling up and make sure you have the best available gear before pushing on. In most cases it’s obvious where you should be going, and it’s your own decision whether you would rather get stronger first.
Even when exploring, the random battles maintain their interest as the stingily replenished magic points become a resource you want to manage very carefully. There is a ton of optional side quests related to dealing with different kinds of monsters, such as proving your worth as a martial arts student by scaring five werewolves with a war cry before taking them out bare-handed.
If you ignore the additional depths of the battling and just try to push on through it, it does become very repetitive and a nuisance. I can use the battling to help me go to sleep, just by ignoring the optional stuff. It is a game about battling randomly spawning monsters for XP. You should be fine with that before signing up.
I’ve always found it ridiculous when people are talking up Final Fantasy storylines. It’s just not good at all. If you like it, fine, but it’s likely not because the storytelling is good. The plots are world saving cliches stacked on top of more cliches, carried around by moping childlike caricatures. The only Japanese RPG story I’ve found truly affecting is from Vagrant Story. Regardless, I do understand why people like them. The stories may be superficial, but they’re often very genuine. The JRPG stories wear their hearts out in the open, and their melodramatic characters are easy to understand. Like a good children’s story, it’s relatable. (It’s perhaps worth pointing out that I don’t hold most Western storytelling in games in any higher regard. They tend to be just as bad, except ridiculously serious about it all.)
What DQ IX does way better than any Final Fantasy title, or indeed any Western RPG, is the way it’s structured. You have a feather-light, cosmic, over-arcing story that’s providing you motivation to go about the world and poke your nose into things that are really none of your business. You’re essentially looking for glowing fruit (really) and helping people because as an angel that’s what you’re supposed to do. Fair enough.
The situations that reward you with glowing fruit have been very smartly written into bite-sized pieces, something you can play through in a single evening. It’s typically a single city location and an accompanying dungeon. The stories they’re built around are never complicated, but they’re always fresh. I’m actually interested in seeing what kind of situation I’m walking into next. The destinies in play are always affecting, everyone’s motivations easy to relate to. Often, they leave you feeling sad.
It’s important that these small stories are separate. There is no complex web of uninteresting characters to lose track of, much less a paper-thin make-believe world’s fake politics to endure. You grasp the new story and see it through, typically bringing closure to parties involved, and be rewarded with your glowing fruit. Emotionally, it just works. Every boss felled and fruit pocketed, you feel like you’re achieving things. Your own victories don’t feel that important, but the way you’re helping the characters involved is important. Your carte blanche of a protagonist, without a conflict to speak of, is not a problem here – it leaves you room to concentrate on the small tragedies and fates on stage.
In the small world of Dragon Quest IX I’ve felt more things than in games dozens of times its size and scope. By daring to keep things small, it makes them matter all that more. It helps that the localization is just sublime, keeping a marvellously light tone all through.
Oh, and I imagine a large part of the appeal of the genre is the staple of the opening of the world map. After funneling you through it in corridors and dungeons for a couple of dozen hours, at some point all JRPGs open up, typically giving you a neat means of transportation – a ship or a train or an airship. Not unlike getting the keys to your first car in real life, the feeling of freedom and endless possibilities is sublime, something no other game type can offer.