JRPGs Need Evolution, But Too Many Are Stuck in the Past

A touch of modern, quality-of-life features can go a long way.

JRPGs are a huge time commitment, often spanning 40 or more hours. Within these gigantic worlds exist slow but satisfying payoffs where you build a party of characters and dig deep into rich storytelling. Having grown up with titles like Tales of the Abyss, Persona 4, and some of the Shin Megami Tensei games, I developed a fondness for JRPGs. But as an adult with a busy work schedule, playing lengthy JRPGs has become near impossible — that is, until I came across Final Fantasy IX through Xbox Game Pass.

Originally, I fell into the same issue with Final Fantasy IX as I did with other older JRPGs. The intro dragged, and I worried it would be a massive time investment like other titles in the genre. I instantly burnt out 10 minutes into the expositional stages of the game, turned it off, and didn’t think about it until a few months later. The urge to give it another go after scrolling past it while looking through my backlog suddenly hit me like a behemoth. Something changed this time around. Something led to me instantly getting hooked.

This second attempt at my adventures into the world of Final Fantasy IX was much different from the last due to one variable: the quality-of-life features this modern version boasts. No longer did I have to go at a slower pace thanks to a speed-up function that allows quick travel through towns and overworlds. Nor did I have to sit through slow-moving text. After that I dug through the rest of these added features, realizing they were made for people like me.

One of these changes removed random enemy encounters completely, which is a godsend when paired up with the speed-up function. The holy grail addition I got the most mileage out of, and likely the most controversial to JRPG fans, is the “9999.” This function turns up the damage of all your attacks to 9999 damage and has all heals restore 9999 health or MP. Like the encounter remover, this is a beast when paired with the speed-up feature that reduced my level-grinding experience from lengthy sessions to minor detours. The combined usage of these inclusions felt sinful at first, but I found my playtime was much more impactful instead of dealing with mundane or redundant activities. Eventually, I finished my first classic JRPG in what felt like years.

These features are something the genre has needed for a long time, and they’ve left me hoping more classic JRPG re-releases implement them. This new port of an exemplary title showed me that small things like a few assistive features can go a long way in retaining the attention of its audience, especially for those new to the genre. JRPGs have grown much more niche than they were back in the ‘90s, with heavy hitters like Chrono Trigger and Xenogears on the Super Nintendo and PlayStation One. But for the genre to grow, it also needs to evolve.

Back then, most RPGs that flooded the market were turn-based titles that later became classics. That isn’t the case anymore. In fact, many JRPGs have been influenced by Western titles, switching to a more action-oriented experience mixed with level grinding and storytelling. These newer attempts are the perfected approach thanks to their harmonious mix of strategic action and narrative. The positive reception from not only JRPG fans, but also people who wouldn’t consider themselves fans of the genre, speaks volumes.

The two best examples are the recently released Final Fantasy VII Remake and Yakuza: Like a Dragon. Both games are big-budget JRPGs that have swung their series in new directions with all-new gameplay styles, but in opposite ways. Like a Dragon morphed the Yakuza series from a fast-paced brawler RPG to the classic turn-based format similar to Dragon Quest, a franchise it was heavily inspired by.

While it most certainly sticks the landing in the end, returning to this niche style of gameplay isn’t easy. Like a Dragon goes so far into the direction of old-school JRPGs that it brings with it all the classic flaws that were ironed out by modern genre installments. Despite an overall fun experience, parts of the game drag with long dungeons, few save points, uneven pacing with a lull in the middle, long grinding sessions, and tons of unavoidable random encounters that break the flow of exploration. For a recent JRPG, it brings with it all the baggage of old-school JRPGs, making it feel not very modern at all.

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Meanwhile, Final Fantasy VII Remake pays attention to how the genre can improve, and gives one of the best examples of how to do it. It learns from past mistakes to make the title accessible to a wider audience by taking things in a refreshing yet familiar direction. All the exploration, maps, and battles that made the original so beloved are still present, keeping the heart of the experience intact. But Square Enix adds some careful touches to revamp the experience.

Segments are broken up to immerse the player in the story and environments without the tedium of random encounters. The battles keep all the spirit, tactics, and ATB shenanigans while making them more interesting and fun, particularly for those who either don’t have the time or simply dislike the slower pace of turn-based fights. The grinding isn’t completely gone, and is instead made optional through training rooms set up around various areas. Final Fantasy VII Remake may be a love letter to JRPG fans everywhere, but it isn’t afraid of change, adding in enough modernized features that will please both veterans and newcomers.

I’m a big fan of turn-based RPGs but the format sorely lacks evolution. In the days of the “Bit Wars,” JRPGs were popular because of their innovations in graphics, gameplay, and storytelling. Now, other games haven’t only caught up, but they’re also often lightyears ahead in terms of modernization. The JRPG genre isn’t dying, but developers need to keep innovating and adding new mechanics like the ones I saw in Final Fantasy IX. Otherwise, I fear it will stay stuck in the past.