There's been some heat recently between the fans of Japanese RPGs and fans of Western RPGs. Some gamers of the Western world have been saying that JRPGs have declined in quality over the years, and some have gone as far as to say that JRPGs aren't RPGs at all. Over in Japan, many RPG fans consider those of the Western variety to be of inferior quality. Since role-playing games largely originated in Japan, wouldn't they know best? Or is BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk right to say that JRPGs are stagnating?
The question of which is better—Western or Japanese RPGs—is not one worth pursuing. It seems clear that this is a matter of taste and cultural background. The Japanese prefer games that focus on the dramatic storyline, led by young, attractive protagonists with outlandish senses of style. The narratives often value teamwork and perseverance while encompassing a broad range of cultural themes and symbols. Western RPGs favor stories with older protagonists—often rugged, strong-willed individuals—and focus more on gameplay and combat. Many emphasize freedom of choice and individuality by allowing players to fashion their own silent protagonists in order to let them project themselves into the game.
Based on these facts, it's clear that the preference for one type of RPG depends largely on one's cultural background. The Japanese favor togetherness, hard work, and the telling of a good mythical tale. Western countries often value strength, independence, and freedom. Arguing over which game type is better is like arguing over which language is better. Those born in the country of origin are going to be biased for their own. Still, there are many in the Western world who prefer JRPGs, and I'm sure there are Japanese persons who prefer Western RPGs. I have enjoyed some JRPGs, but have trouble understanding the Japanese sense of humor. Being an American, I also prefer more freedom of choice, as I enjoy the illusion of having some control over the game's outcome.
If you've played neither, there are many things to consider before choosing which type of game to buy. Despite being in the same category, there are many differences between the two RPG styles. One of the most noticeable differences is the combat style. Most JRPGs have a turn-based combat system. On the one hand, the slower pace of turn-based combat allows for maximum strategizing during the actual combat. It also makes for a more impressive display, as the camera can focus on one character at a time as they cast magical spells or perform impressive stunts with their weapons. However, some consider this type of combat to be too slow and too unrealistic. Western RPGs generally use real-time combat, in which the player must run up to the opponent and exchange blows as quickly as they can. This is a little more realistic, except that in real life getting hit with a sword once would probably take a person down. It is more fast-paced and exciting, though more chaotic and hard to control.
Another main difference between the two RPG types is the overall tone. Western RPGs, and many Western games in general, are often darker and grittier than Japanese games. Especially in recent years, Western games have become dimmer and dirtier (and often more brown) in the name of realism. They also tend to have very masculine male characters. JRPGs, however, are often bright and smooth, with much effort going into making the game look as dazzling and beautiful as possible. Characters are fair and smooth-skinned with outfits designed to stand out. Male characters are often more feminine, though there is usually an exceptionally masculine character somewhere in the mix. The emotional (and vocal) range of these characters is more pronounced, as the JRPG goes for more of the dramatic spectacle than realism.
One thing that Western RPG fans complain about is the linearity of JRPGs. Japanese role-playing games are indeed almost always more linear than their Western counterparts, but whether or not this bothers you depends on what you value in a game. As I said before, Japanese games often focus more on the story and characters than anything else (except maybe hair styles). Linearity is an asset to games like this. Being able to name your own character and run around doing whatever you want is fun, but it's hard to keep the player focused on a carefully crafted narrative when there are long pauses in between main plot points. However, if you don't care so much about the story, or if the story's no good, then linearity makes for a dull game.
In opposition to the linearity of JRPGs, Western RPGs have grown to involve more and more choice. Many allow you to choose your moral path and individual responses in conversation in addition to choosing which quest to go on first. Western gamers have responded positively to this increase in decision making. It makes a game's story more dynamic and makes the player feel more invested. However, this feature has its own set of flaws. Often choices are limited, with responses being too far into the "good" or "bad" realm. Plus, players are sometimes penalized for remaining neutral, which can be annoying for players who want their characters to be real people, rather than Jesus/Hitler incarnate. In these cases, the main character can seem flat and unrealistic, which does a lot of harm to the overall narrative.
The fact is that some JRPGs are too linear and some Western RPGs are too unrealistic. Final Fantasy XIII is a prime example of a JRPG that does not give the player enough freedom. Some gamers are okay with that, but there are JRPGs that do it better. Final Fantasy VII is linear in the sense that players must complete each quest and go through each event in a specific order, but it still allows a lot of exploration on a world map. This still makes sense for the story, however, because in a world-wide quest like that, the characters would spend a lot of time trying to figure out where they need to go. The Mass Effect games can be criticized for having moral options that are too limited and too extreme to be realistic. Then if you decide to be neutral, you're punished with more limited options later. However, in Dragon Age: Origins, the player is given a wider variety of options and is never punished for playing as a reasonable character. The point is that whichever type of RPG you prefer, balance and good development decisions are what really determine if a game is deserving of praise.
I cannot tell you which type of RPG is better, or which one you will enjoy more. If you like anime, you'll probably enjoy JRPGs. If you wish to emulate Mel Gibson, you should probably try a Western RPG. I have enjoyed and hated games from both categories. Though your own personal taste will influence your opinion, what matters is how much effort and good sense went into making the game. Whether you prefer a good story or fast-paced combat, I believe that everyone should play both Dragon Age: Origins and Final Fantasy VII—because a good game is a good game.
CCC Freelance Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*