It’s been a little while since I’ve talked about JRPGs, so with the new year upon us, it seems fitting to take a glance at the JRPGs of 2017 that I played. For all that it was a less than pleasant year in other respects, it also proved to be a pretty stellar year in terms of new games.
Let’s get the disappointment out of the way: contrary to most gamers out there, I was not blown away by Persona 5. Atlus’ newest entry in its franchise of modern Japanese teens saving the world and solving mysteries with Stardust Crusaders-style superpowers has gorgeous visuals, a funky soundtrack and some impressively polished dungeon crawling…but that’s only one half of the game.
The other half of these games, ever since Persona 3, is a visual novel, and it’s there that Persona 5 really drops the ball.
It’s an intriguing premise, to be sure: our heroes are Phantom Thieves out to reform Tokyo by fixing the fractured psyches of its most troubled denizens. Great! But between its inability to make any of the characters likable, and its lack of long-term narrative thrust, I found myself getting bored with it all. And that’s fatal in a game where you’re going to spend half the time listening to talking heads yap on and on while you pick dialogue options.
Aside from the quality of the writing, I hope the series ditches the visual novel aspect in future installments. Persona 2: Eternal Punishment was my first exposure to the series, and it felt novel and fresh compared to a lot of other RPGs at the time; Persona 3 was similarly unique; then Persona 4 added a layer of polish to what Persona 3 did; now Persona 5 adds another layer of polish to the formula, but by now it feels a tad too routine and, well, formulaic.
I heartily agree, however, with all the praise that NieR: Automata has garnered. This game, about androids in frilly outfits battling alien robots over the fate of post-post-post-post apocalyptic earth is the perfect storm of uniting an artsy, indie game sensibility with the production values of a Triple-A game. More than that, it’s the first game in a long time that surprised me, not in a “I didn’t see that plot development coming” way, but in a “I didn’t know games could do this” sort of way. Automata is a pretty wild ride that wants to challenge everything you thought you knew about video games. It’s mature content and downright harrowing story make it not for the faint of heart, but there’s a strange, dark beauty to this thing that I won’t forget any time soon.
The next one is an HD re-release, but executed with enough aplomb that I think it deserves its own mention. I’ve long felt that Final Fantasy XII was the best thing Square-Enix did during the Playstation 2 years. Its unprecedented blend of design philosophies (Japanese and western, MMO and offline), its epic scope and politically-driven story have long overshadowed the game’s flaws in my mind. While Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age likely won’t change any minds about the game, its various tweaks addressed nearly every quibble I had with the original, raising it up into being one of my all-time favourite games.
Last is Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana, the latest entry in Falcom’s long-running series, and a game which seems to have slipped under nearly everyone’s radar. Which is unfortunate, given that it does a good job of living up to its box’s boast of being “The ULTIMATE ACTION RPG” (at least so far; I imagine I’m around the halfway point). The game begins with series hero Adol Christin and a boatful of other people getting shipwrecked on the monster-infested island of Seiren, and follows their attempt to survive and escape to civilization while figuring out what the deal with Seiren is.
The game is graphically unimpressive, its characters are a bunch of clichés and the localization is abysmal, but none of that matters much considering how much breezy fun it is. YS VIII achieves in a near perfect manner the careful balance that an Action RPG needs to have: fun combat that is neither too button mashy nor too twitchy, equipment, stats and loot that add a level of depth without overwhelming the combat, and a world that is both fun to explore and to bop enemies over the head in.
While there’s not much here that hasn’t been done before, I haven’t played an Action RPG that has brought all its constituent elements together in such an unpretentiously fun manner – it’s the game I wish Square’s Mana and Kingdom Hearts franchises were like. I haven’t played much of the Ys games, so perhaps this could be the start of something interesting.
So that’s been my 2017 JRPG-ing. Anything cool that I missed?