There’s a fixation among gamers and game developers on telling what qualify as “epic” stories: grand tales of adventure and derring-do spanning the globe and possessing world-altering consequences for success and failure alike. Even with a thriving indie scene, the majority of AAA titles still aim for this narrative frequency, striving for something along the lines of big summer blockbuster aesthetics and scale. Some even manage to do this passably, but few actually provide that sense of the grandiose, the truly large and the nearly insurmountable.
For me, that was always best conveyed through Japanese RPGs. Part of it was a question of length, as these were titles that were intended to go on for dozens of hours at a stretch, even just for an initial playthrough. Their stories were lengthy and intricate, interwoven with dozens of subplots that turned their worlds from static dioramas into somewhat more believable, living things. Starting out in a JRPG always used to hit me with this tingling rush, my taste for adventure whet, my interest in the goings on piqued by writing that aimed to infuse its characters with strong, apparent personalities.
To this day, I can pop in almost any Final Fantasy from IV up through IX and get that rush. Even X provides a hint of it. Chrono Trigger? Absolutely, even though it’s one of the shorter entries in the genre. Legend of Legaia, Xenogears, and the Shadow Hearts franchise certainly qualify as well.
Yet the closest I’ve come to feeling so invested in recent memory? Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey, the first two Mistwalker games for the Xbox 360. The former, though, was so impossibly boring that I eventually gave up, while Lost Odyssey, though possessed of an engaging plot told through sound effect-laden text vignettes, flounders at conveying character during the game itself.
Persona 4 is my exception. That is the game that, even now, makes me want to jump back into its world and explore the various happenings around Inaba.
That’s one, though. One that was originally released in the PS2 generation. I can’t think of a single RPG on the current consoles that really grabs me. Even the Wii, with its Project Rainfall trio, lacks a title that really manages to hold my attention. Part of this certainly has to do with characterization. Persona 4 succeeds completely on the strength of its supporting cast and the constant interaction you have with them.
It’s a reminder that even an epic plot is best when character-driven, rarely able to survive on the strength of its concept alone. Most modern RPGs have removed the random battles of days of yore, have eschewed turn-based menu-driven combat in favor of action-based or real-time-ish systems. I remember when Final Fantasy XII drew scorn for removing the break between the world map and battle, instead overlying what was, functionally, the same ATB system as in pre-X entries onto a real-time framework.
Yeah, it might seem functionally the same, but it removed something of the drama and pomp from the proceedings, much as Final Fantasy XIII does by almost entirely automating the combat process. To be fair, I haven’t played everything out there. Ni no Kuni awaits, and there’s a back-library of DS RPGs ranging from Sands of Destruction to Radiant Historia that I haven’t thoroughly explored.
Sometimes, though, I want to get on my console and not just watch a bunch of AI-controlled party members swarm around an overly-durable boss, engaging in an impenetrable flurry of strike effects and flashing numbers that go by so fast as to bear little, if any, meaning. Because the strength of the JRPG? That shimmering, brass ring for which it must stretch to truly achieve its epic status? It’s drama.