Others say the difference lies with the way the story is handled. Since the beginning, western RPGs have strived to give players maximum control over their character, and allow the player to make plot-altering decisions that change the game's narrative as well as the ultimate ending of the game. However, although JRPGs by and large follow a linear path, there have been several notable exceptions, specifically games from the Shin Megami Tensei series.
So, if it is not the battle system, and it is not the story, then what exactly is causing the sharp divide? I submit that the only real difference between western RPGs is the way the games have evolved since their inception. If you pick up a copy of Final Fantasy II, even in an enhanced form (like the iPhone or PSP port) and compare it to a modern JRPG like Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor, you will only notice a few subtle differences in the way things like gameplay and plot are handled. However, when you take into account that the time between these two games is more than 20 years, you might wonder how so much could have stayed the same over such a long period of time without the latter being an obvious homage to the first.
Even when you consider a JRPG as recent as White Knight Chronicles, the lack of change in formula is very apparent. The story is formulaic, and the active battle system showcases a customizable move system that has been seen in other JRPGs like Star Ocean: The Last Hope. Conversely, when you look at the pace of change with western RPGs, you can't help but notice the large gaps. For instance, BioWare's Knights of the Old Republic on the Xbox featured a grand story, immersive alignment system, and plenty of missions, but when you compare the battle engine and options with Mass Effect, released just four years later, the differences are staggering. And If you take into account that the time between these two games was only four years, it is amazing how much difference there is between the two titles, despite being developed by the same company.
Unfortunately, it seems like the divide between western RPGs and JRPGs is widening, with the scales being tipped in the favor of western development in the US. The slower pace of change for JRPGs has made them less appealing in the western market, and it is harder for games patterned after older titles to compete with the ever-evolving western RPG.
Final Fantasy XIII is due to be released next week, and many are saying that its success or failure in the US market may very well determine the direction of the JRPG sub-genre. While some fans appreciate the consistent approach Japanese RPGS have taken thus far, the current dominance of western RPGS may force Japanese RPGs to change their approach. Even Square Enix boss Yoichi Wada has publicly stated that Final Fantasy XIII may be the game of its kind. Whether that means the Final Fantasy series will evolve past JRPG conventions or adopt more western elements in the future is unknown, but it shows that even Japanese gaming companies are starting to rethink their approach. But one thing is for sure, The RPG genre is seeing an unprecedented split in approach, and it will be very interesting to see what comes of these developments.
Amanda L. Kondolojy
CCC Staff Contributor