As someone who never got to play the early 3D Final Fantasies, I recently made the effort to play through Final Fantasy 9 and experience, supposedly, one of the best RPGs of all time. While the game is fun and I am enjoying the characters, the main stand out for me is how much bloody waiting I have to do, to actually get to the meat of the game.
You have to wait ages to get all the characters all in one party, you have to wait through so many minutes of unnecessary cutscenes to get to actual story points, you have to wait to actually experience the battle system in its full complexity. So much of the experience is filled with fluff dialogue, needless distractions and that really obtuse Tetra Master minigame that anytime I get momentum with the story or levelling, I have to break through a barrier of doing some silly fetch quest or run around a town for ten minutes just to keep going.
For me, this highlights an endemic problem to JRPGs both past and present, in the amount of needless waiting and homogenous extra content you have to go through, just to get to the story or the battle system. Most of the time, these instances may appear as crucial to the plot when actually, they are to pad out the game’s run time. For example, take the fetch quest you have to go on in Tales of Symphonia to cure Colette’s illness. Nothing about that plot line seems integral to the story, it just gives you another reason to run around the world looking for random items and experiencing the worst dungeon in the whole game. This waiting to get back to the main story and what makes the game fun only seeks to make players bored and to make sure the game adheres to the JRPG standard that the main story needs to last about 40 hours or something ridiculous.
After 20 hours and about 18 tutorials which repeated the same basic information, I just gave up.
For me, the modern JRPG obsession with babying the player through the majority of the game is a huge annoyance. Mario and Luigi: Dream Team Bros was plagued by tutorials even when you were 20 hours into the game, forcing a player to wait through long guides for things they could easily work out if they had got to that point in the game. What’s worse is there was no option to skip these interruptions and simply figure out these controls for yourself, you had to go through the rigmarole of listening to that irritating briefcase talked to you whilst the same music played in the background. I get it, I know how to press R and toggle between forms, can I just get back to the dungeon already?
Final Fantasy XIII springs to mind as well, with it only letting you out of running down corridors, mashing the auto attack button after playing for 20 hours. At least in other RPGs, you can see there is a wider world to explore and a deeper battle system, with the promise of you discovering it later on. In Final Fantasy XIII, it seemed determined to gate this content off until you had suffered through enough pain.
It’s not like a JRPG can’t bend from this. Most SRPGs let you jump straight into the action, forgoing many of these dull fetch quests or extraneous bits of story and allowing you to actually play the damn game. Yes, you may get the problems in games like Disgaea of having to do excessive grinding but at least you are actually playing the game, instead of simply skirting around doing extra activities which add nothing to the experience. The Fire Emblem series gives you the best of both worlds, allowing tacticians to jump straight into the battle while fans of the lore can take their time, reading through the cutscenes and enjoying the support conversations.
Awakening got it right, striking a good balance between giving fans enough story whilst also not gating off the gameplay.
This is not to say story isn’t important, of course not. RPGs rely on a good story and characters, as well as having fun battle mechanics, but having story for the sake of it or unnecessary quests to keep players from the core experience, that’s what I really object to. That’s my major qualm with the Persona series. So much of that game is fluff dialogue to fill a meter in order to improve your combat potential, which you only do once in a blue moon before being sent back to run errands and have meaningless conversation. Having tight control over a shorter but incredibly well planned story is much better than making a bloated epic, with throwaway sections which people will only remember as being irritating. Not every JRPG needs to be an epic. Take something like The World Ends with You which managed to provide a really interesting story without having its cast go on some super long quest to save the whole planet or gather the seven magical pieces of tat.
I think my tastes may have changed and I simply cannot deal with all the filler JRPGs have in them. There was a time where I’d love to play through a 70 hour game, reading all the side stories and grinding up every single weapon but I simply cannot deal with it anymore. Most JRPGs now seem to just have content for content’s sake, containing these ridiculous run times and filler mechanics just out of a sense of duty to the genre, rather than a desire to innovate or do something fresh.
Rather than telling a great story in 5 clean and well-structured paragraphs, it seems to me that they prefer to write 70 pages of shallow prose and crap dialogue about how the main character hates pineapple. I would prefer they at least try to move away from the old style and focus on making games with engaging battle systems and short but incredibly memorable stories, than another batch of samey epics with a random card minigame thrown in.
What do you think of JRPGs? Do you find many of them bloated and filled with fluff or do you like all the fetch quests and extra minigames? Comment below with your thoughts.