The 2016 JRPG Report: Quarter 1

Another post that became far longer than I intended.

I couldn’t write a 3000-word post on JRPGs to open the year without following it up, could I?

So far, there can be little doubt that 2016 has lived up to its promise to inundate players with Japanese role-playing games of all kinds. While quite a few gamers have looked at this February and March as unusually barren in the “Triple A” blockbuster market – correctly, I might add – JRPG fans have been struggling to get through the deluge of quality content relevant to their interests. And boy, have I been struggling. I knew what I was getting into this year, but I’ve had to cut and run on some absorbing games and flat-out ignore others in order to even scratch the surface of the ones I most wanted to play. Such is adult life.

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WHAT I’VE PLAYED

It’s no real surprise that the Japanese handheld consoles have been the most fruitful homes for JRPGs early in 2016. The 3DS kicked things off with Final Fantasy Explorers, a Monster Hunter-esque game that focuses more on grinding for parts to make stronger armour/weapons than it does traditional Final Fantasy mechanics (though they also make an appearance). It was notorious for being in very short supply at retail when it launched at the end of January, but I got my hands on it and played a dozen or so hours alongside different co-op partners. The game is fun, and the ability to incrementally level up your skills and magic within the framework of a traditional FF job system offers some welcome differences from the MH formula. But it isn’t the kind of game I would play alone, so it was only a matter of time before I moved on.

Launching in Australia very quickly after Explorers, the PS Vita/PS3 received The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel in the early moments of February. Blending your standard turn-based battle style with light spatial awareness mechanics, the game presents a story in a Hogwarts-esque fantastical boarding academy with a cold military slant. It packs a schedule management system similar to the recent Persona games and its atmosphere is on point. I picked it up on Vita and really enjoyed the five hours or so that I played while up the coast on holiday, but life and other games have prevented me from going back.

One of those games deserves special mention for being the one that surprised me the most this quarter, and that game is Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon. Having never played the series beforehand, I dived in thanks to an eloquently worded recommendation from a colleague and found myself drawn in by the game’s surprising difficulty and addictive procedurally-generated loop. My time with SMD was always going to be limited but by the time I had to put it down, I had invested around a dozen hours over just a few days. The game’s presentation and art style are a great fit for the 3DS, its coming-of-age story is surprisingly engaging and unlike the main series Pokemon games, it isn’t afraid to get difficult.

Coming in for a final mention is the Final Fantasy XV “Platinum Demo”, a 45-minute prequel episode to the main JRPG event of the year. It came out on the day it was announced, March 31st, which was also the day I ran through the entire thing. Unlike last year’s demo, Episode Duscae, this tidbit of very pretty Square Enix gameplay is not lifted out of the main story, but rather follows the disturbed childhood dreams of protagonist Noctis as he fights off shiny blue dream monsters and collects even shinier golden crystal shards across four strange, distinct areas. The second area in particular – a gigantic rendition of Noctis’ bedroom – gives the atmosphere an air of whimsy that, when combined with the game’s mechanics and the Yoko Shimomura score, really brings to mind the Kingdom Hearts franchise in a big way. It’s very much a one-and-done experience, which I can appreciate since the last thing I want to do is get burnt out on the game before it’s even out.

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PICK OF THE QUARTER

All of which leaves Bravely Second: End Layer, a polished sequel to one of the 3DS’ very best games, 2013’s Bravely Default. It was always going to be the JRPG to beat in this first quarter of the year (at least outside of the USA) and in my opinion it has lived up to its top billing. Now mind you, at the time of writing I have only put about 25 hours into the game (on top of the eight hours I invested into the excellent prequel/demo available for free download) and I’m still only in the second chapter. But I have made it my mission to finish Bravely Second, changing up my daily commute from car to train recently just so I can make the time to do so. Because the game deserves it.

While the core mechanics of the battles have changed very little, they really didn’t need to – such is the excellence of the vintage-Final-Fantasy-with-a-twist system in place. The locations you visit are mostly the same as in the first game, which is somewhat disappointing, and without a defined four-crystal structure the narrative feels weirdly paced. But it makes up for these shortcomings with a laser focus on a wonderful primary cast of both new and returning faces, a considerably lighter and funnier tone than that of Default, the steady introduction of addictive new secondary minigames, a deluge of creative, powerful new character jobs from the very beginning, and finally 3D visuals that somehow manage to be even more jaw-dropping than those of the original. I still have a long way to go in the game, but for now, what a treat it is.

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WHAT I HAVEN’T PLAYED

The lengthy nature of JRPGs means I’m naturally going to miss a few, but the list of games I’ve had to skip out on due to time constraints is enough to make me feel a little ashamed. For example, Legend of Legacy and Project X Zone 2 just whizzed by, tiny physical shipments and all, and I barely had time to look into them let alone buy them. Ditto for Etrian Odyssey 2 Untold: The Fafnir Knight, though in fairness I’m not the word’s biggest Etrian Odyssey fan so I probably wouldn’t have played it anyway. Something I almost certainly would’ve played had I not been so time poor is Stella Glow, an isometric turn-based strategy game with a sharp, colourful art style and an intriguing story. I played the free demo, which essentially just amounts to the two-hour prologue, but that’s as far as I got. Alas.

Yet the most omnipresent JRPG I missed in Q1 has to be Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth, a digital-only Vita/PS4 release in Australia that popped up on the social network feeds of several of my friends as I sat by unable to join in. Ostensibly taking the basic, ever-successful Pokemon main series catching/battling/levelling formula and transplanting it onto one of its most prominent late-90s rivals, Cyber Sleuth is by all accounts a tremendously enjoyable RPG for fans of the much-beloved digital monsters that feels right at home on the Vita’s portable screen.

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WHAT’S UP NEXT

The second quarter of the year could well end up the driest of the four for JRPGs, not least because there’s an awful lot of other big-name games coming out. When May alone promises Uncharted 4, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, Homefront: The Revolution, Battleborn, DOOM and Overwatch, it seems wise for the grind-y RPG stuff to step aside. Having said that, there are still a handful of JRPGs around the corner for those looking, and they promise many more rewarding hours.

The headliner is surely Fire Emblem Fates, which is launching confidently – and in multiple forms – here in Australia on May 21st. It has already had a very strong commercial and critical launch in the US and looks set to devour the travel time of plenty of 3DS players when it finally arrives in PAL regions. For many, Fates will be enough to satiate, and yet it is by no means alone in the quarter. Four days earlier fans of cult favourite strategy/third person shooter hybrid Valkyria Chronicles will get a third bite of the cherry with the budget-priced Europa Edition on PS4 – which promises to be the definitive version of the critically acclaimed game.

But there’s more. Early April will also bring Knights of Azure to western PS4s (not Vitas, unfortunately). An action RPG from Gust Co – a studio more famous for turn-based affairs – the game looks slick and promising, if a little basic. And in fact I think it might even be out already by the time I post this (EDIT: It is in fact out now, and is sitting just shy of 70 on Metacritic). Later on April 29th arrives Stranger of Sword City , a dungeon-crawler from the makers of 2014’s simple but addictive Demon Gaze, which I enjoyed quite a bit. Both games will likely be overshadowed by the much-anticipated release of Dark Souls III, however, which is not a JRPG but is likely to have a lot of crossover interest from the genre’s fanbase.

Which brings us to June, and the dual release of two very intriguing titles. Hitting both PS4 and Vita, Monochrome’s Grand Kingdom looks to combine the 2D plane-based combat of the early Namco Tales games with the turn-based-yet-reflexive flavour of Paper Mario, featuring some environmental obstacle management sprinkled in. The game’s art looks amazing to boot. The quarter rounds out with the enigmatic Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, the long-in-development Wii U exclusive from Atlus’ vaunted Shin Megami Tensei team. It looks like a game heavily influenced by the Persona series and dipped in candy LSD. I can get behind that.

Speaking of Persona, it now looks almost certain that Persona 5 will miss Q2, and with the recent reveal of Final Fantasy XV‘s September 30 release date, a question looms: Can JRPG fans handle the magnitude (and time investment) of arguably the two biggest names in JRPGs sharing the third quarter of the year? Time will tell.

 

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