A funny thing happened in Japan: the year’s biggest and brightest Japanese RPG turned into a Western RPG. The moment this crystallized for me came towards the beginning of Monolith’s Xenoblade Chroncles. The main character and his love interest Fiora stand on a hillside, talking about the past. A question comes up, with two choices. I picked the positive one, because I thought Xenoblade was a Japanese RPG, and Fiora got mad at me. A relationship meter straight out of Dragon Age declined. That’s when I realized something truly strange had happened here: I was playing an RPG without a modifier.
The Tetsuya Takahashi directed Xenoblade Chronicles looks like a Japanese RPG, but it quacks like The Witcher and expands outward like the most sprawling MMO. A game we fans had pinned as the great hope for the Japanese RPG has proven to be something different: it advocates for a unified genre, the role playing game. In fact, the thing Xenoblade Chronicles resembles most is the purely hypothetical Obsidian Entertainment sequel to Chrono Trigger.
This was my favorite not-news of two years ago: Obsidian, the team behind Fallout: New Vegas and others, saying in interviews that the first property they asked new corporate collaborators Square Enix to develop was venerable JRPG Chrono Trigger (they got Dungeon Siege, the very definition of a consolation prize). It never happened, but as a thought experiment it raised interesting questions: what do we love about JRPGs? Is it the genre trappings, or is it something else?
In truth, Xenoblade Chronicles follows the example of bold post-genre stab Final Fantasy XII: it cherry-picks the ideas it wants from different genres. Take a Japanese setting—parasites on the back of a giant dead god, fighting robot parasites from another dead god—and build it outward with an open world where you can go pretty much anywhere you can see. Give you “heart to hearts” to interact with your fellow party members, and make the plot feel open ended by offering up a plethora of side quests. Take character development to its logical conclusion, and create a large number of convergent systems, revealed gradually to the player, that allow you to customize your party while still maintaining their individuality.
These elements represent the best ideas that diversity can produce. When I say diversity, I mean developers looking at ideas that aren’t typically their purview. Xenoblade Chronicles is a Japanese take on the Western RPG, and in doing so it hits on some notes, misses on others. It doesn’t have Skyrim’s elegant check-listing or direction, and it suffers in terms of usability, but there are ideas here that deserve notice. Xenoblade lets you develop your characters in a way that reminisces on Western games: you have freedom to improve individual skills, put your character on a path of statistical improvement through its skill trees, and then synergize these improvements to other party members. What seems complicated is just extrapolation of others’ work: skill improvements comes from Dragon Age 2 and similar, while the choice of three leveling paths builds upward and outward on the idea that each character levels into a specific role. It’s giving you more freedom while still placing you in constraints. They’re answers a Japanese RPG wouldn’t typically give, but we can look and learn from them.
A counterexample, a Western developer looking closely at the East for guidance, would be Jamestown, developed by Final Form Games. This title, a scrolling shooter published by a Western developer, did many of the same things. It took the ideas of Cave shooters and Gradius and put a decidedly foreign spin on them. The results are obvious: Jamestown played like a game significantly fresher than its contemporaries. It’s much the same with Xenoblade: it’s interpreting ideas. It’s taking the ideas of a genre that aren’t completely codified (the Western RPG, which hasn’t had any Japanese imitators in twenty years) and throwing a fresh spin on them. It’s how so many Western JRPG inspired titles, like Cthulhu Saves the World and To the Moon, come off feeling so fresh.
So let me echo the comments of Kenji Inafune earlier this week (and last week, and every week before): let’s get rid of country-defined genres. Let’s render the national prefix on the role playing game irrelevant. Rather than making the games you are expected to make, make the ones you want to. This way maybe we’ll see a Western Final Fantasy and a Japanese Mass Effect, and they’ll both be like no other games we’ve played before.