There are few genres as synonymous with hardcore gaming like the RPG. There was a time in history when the Japanese dominated console gaming with their particular brand of role playing, based loosely on the pen and paper variety at first, and then becoming a show of one-upmanship between one another. This was the same time I first started playing games, and RPGs have been a staple of my collection ever since.
I love them, but let’s be honest with ourselves here: Eastern RPGs have been built on some of the silliest tropes in gaming. Many of them were built out of necessity, and now really do nothing but to serve as archaic monuments to a time when they were innovative gameplay design. They are the chair rails and furry carpet walls of video games.
While not the only genre of games to require some out-of-narrative preparation, Eastern RPG’s are famous for the grind. Be it for experience or money, running around and killing monsters becomes a necessary evil in order to face the challenges ahead. Phantasy Star IV has such overpriced gear, that you would almost never be able to afford it upon entry of a new zone organically. FFVI should have just shipped with a mortar and pestle, with the amount of grinding necessary to get through some of the bosses in that game. Certain zones had some lethal normal enemies, as well. But more on that later.
There are many examples of games where grinding is only really necessary for bonus content, or outrightly discouraged all together. A post-modern look at grinding would prove that the concept is incredibly outdated and would be best if left to die. Western RPGs don’t ask nearly the amount of needless wondering. Mass Effect never requires you to grind, and Elder Scrolls skills come by usage, which the game gives you plenty of opportunities to do within it’s very design. You end up incredibly powerful at the end of both of these games, and you never need to spend more time than you wish doing so.
Notable Grindfests include: Most Final Fantasies, Legend of Legaia, Every Pokemon Game, The Disgaea series.
Normally, enemies that fill dungeons and world maps do so to soften you up for bosses, or keep you on your toes between towns. In some cases, though, these creatures seem to be out to prove something. In many Eastern RPGs, there lies a handful of monsters that will absolutely kill you if you are not careful, like Behemoths in most FF games. In some older games, like The 7th Saga, it is incredibly likely to step out onto the world map for the first time and get murdered by the first creature you meet. The struggle is real.
But considering many random monsters are out of context fodder anyway, why even plant these hidden “surprises” amongst them? There’s really no good reason to have a monster amongst the random pool that could rip my head off without warning, since all I’m doing is using these monsters to level up anyway. I can understand having the general difficulty of all monsters in an area go up, as a representation of being in a harder area (and thusly giving me a mechanical sense of progression on top of the narrative one). Or having every monster be equally as lethal as every other one (thusly reinforcing how dangerous things are for people who aren’t superheroes like myself.) But I really can’t come up with a good reason why these guys are necessary additions to a potential encounter pool, besides to thoroughly piss players off.
Notable Badass Minions include: Behemoths & Tonberries (Final Fantasies), Brain’s/Sages (The 7th Saga), Creeping Chaos (Wild ARMS), Everything (Demon’s/Dark Souls)
That time when you think you’ve saved the land from a particular brand of villainy five hours ago, only to see the asshole standing in front of you, jerking everything up again. Recurring bosses are staple in the genre, and happen for a variety of reasons. Maybe your target keeps eluding you before the final blow is struck. Maybe the big bad guy has just wiped your party out and can’t/won’t end it right here. Maybe they’re just particularly hard to truly kill. Either way, it makes particular enemies a real thorn in your side.
There are some good arguments for having bosses escape capture or not completely decimate you, but is seems every JRPG makes the same argument, nullifying the legitimate ones. If you are truly a giant evil man-beater, why wouldn’t you kill the main characters after you knock them all out? My favorite examples of this are Kuja and The Sinistrals (particularly Gades), who have no problem destroying entire cities and killing everyone in them, except your party members in particular.
Notable Comeback Kids include: Zed (Wild ARMS), Pison (The 7th Saga), Kuja (FF9), Seymour Guado(FFX), The Sinistrals (Lufia), Dhoulmagus (Dragon Quest VIII), Yggdrasil (Tales of Symphonia), Every Pokemon Rival
Eastern RPGs take great pride in their world building, stories, and characters. They are normally quite elaborate and can be very engrossing, but there’s no good way to let you in on the excitement without beating you in the face with it. This usually comes in a couple of ways; sitting you down and making you watch a lengthy cutscene/series of cutscenes before gaining control, or making you play a prologue tutorial of sorts. In some ways, stories that don’t really advance even when you are in control qualify as prologues.
Some prologues work. Vagrant Story’s slides right into gameplay if you sit through the first couple of scenes, and you can skip the whole prologue at any time. Lufia’s prologue was awesome, putting you right into the shoes of that world’s greatest heroes to relive their greatest achievement (it was so good, it became the game’s sequel.) Many, though, are simply toothless gameplay experiences, really failing to make players feel like they’re actively playing anything but a neutered version of their promised gameplay experiences. And then there are prologues like Persona 4: Golden’s, in which you pretty much watch the game play itself for its first two hours.
Notably Egregious Preludes include: Kingdom Hearts II, Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, Valkyrie Profile, Persona 4: Golden, Xenosaga
Behold My Final Form and Despair
Big bad guys tend to be more than meets the eye in Eastern RPGs, more often than not needing to transform out a no longer suitable form into one that now parallels their immense power. You’ll often be lucky if they do so only once.
Changing forms is pretty common in every form of entertainment, but JRPGs take the concept and pervert it, plunging the credibility of “epic encounters” in the process. Sometimes the changes are justified. In FFVI Kefka’s final form isn’t a spontaneous reaction to you doing a lot of damage, but more like a direct result of his plan working. General Kato in Shadow Hearts was pretty much harmless to your party until he stands on the edge of time and becomes Susano-O. But if you could have always been Safer Sephiroth, why not just lead with that?
Notable Shapeshifters include: Nega Filgaia (Wild ARMs 3 – 10 forms), Seymour Guado (FFX – 4 forms), Sorceress Ultimecia (FFVIII – 3 forms), Sephiroth (FFVII – 3 forms), Pison (The 7th Saga – 3 Forms)