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Japan vs. The West: Who makes the better RPGs?
Posted on Tuesday, March 24 2009 @ 20:12:55 PST

Before I get into any details, I am not referring to Rocket Propelled Grenades. No, the Russians have everyone beat on that regard. Instead, I am referring to Role Playing Games. In this article, I will compare Western RPGs with those of Japanese origin. Although the two are technically both in the same genre of games, they are radically different in every aspect.

In a Western RPG, the player is usually given plenty of options on how to customise their character, so as to reinforce the connection between player and game. This includes skill sets, appearance, equipment and personality, most of which can be changed further after the game has gotten underway. The main quest is not always a concern to the player, as side-quests are abundant and exist to help the player flesh out their character in the way that they want, though offer little in terms of assistance with the main quest, mostly giving extra experience, additional funds or a slightly better armour/weapon combination. As a result, open-ended gameplay is quite often used (The game does not end when the main quest is completed) In other words, the world is their oyster, and they can interact with it in any way they wish, usually only limited by the games technological limitations. Moral choices can be present as well, though most of the time this choice comes down to being a thief and/or assassin or not. The main flaw of Western RPGs is that the bestiary (the roster of creatures used in the game) quite often features little to no deviations from a combination of the Tolkien bestiary and a selection of undead creatures.

An example of this is the Elder Scrolls series. Its later instalments, Morrowind and Oblivion, have featured large expansive worlds with abundant quests and tasks, but are populated mostly by elves, dwarves, orcs and other such creatures. Other creatures are present, such as daedra (demons) and vampires, though these add little variance to the game.

Japanese RPGs, however, tend to be quite the opposite. The player is given little control over their characters appearance, if at all; equipped items can sometimes be seen, though this is usually restricted to weapons. The game is usually restricted to following the main story arc, with the side-quests being few and far between, but generally longer and offer greater rewards. For instance, quite often side quests can span large sections of the main quest and offer one of the games ‘ultimate weapons’ as a reward. As a result of this focus on the main quest, JRPGs rarely feature open-ended gameplay, usually ending the game once the main story arc is finished, yet some offer the ability to carry character stats over to a new save at the beginning of the game. Character development is greatly reduced to merely guiding the character up the pre-chosen character archetype the game has laid out for them, though occasionally one character will be given that can take skills from any archetype, however this is a ‘Jack of All Trades’ scenario; that general character will not reach the proficiency of any of the other characters in any one field (magic use, strength etc.), even if you restrict their skill base to the corresponding archetype (i.e. your general character will not best your mage, even if they only learn magic skills). This is usually due to being unable to reach the higher level abilities (high magic for example) before hitting the games level cap. On the flip side, the bestiary in a JRPG is usually very creative, with a large number of unique characters, races and species for the player to interact with, though this interaction is often preset by the game. For example, townsfolk are rarely attacked in JRPGs, though in some cases the game permits it, usually as a development of the plot.

The prime example of this is the Final Fantasy series, probably the most well-known JRPG series to date. Though the main characters appearance and experiences are preset and differ little between different players of the same game, the characters within the game tend to be unique in design and function to characters in other games not in the same series. Side quests are not usually apparent, but if found tend to offer rewards that greatly assist the players progress in the main story, which remains for most of the game as the player’s main concern.

Given the differences between the two sub-genres of RPGs, devoted fans of one of them will find switching over to the other as either a refreshing change or an awkward experience. For me, personally I can appreciate both for their eccentricities. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, for example, was a great game, offering plenty of things to do, however in a combination of my stubbornness and apathy I usually end up playing it the same way each time. The JRPG series Suikoden, however, I loved for its intricate story, unique bestiary and cast, even if it offered little more than the main storyline.

Basically it boils down to the same thing a lot of other decisions do: personal preference? Are you willing to sacrifice the option of choice for a good story with unique characters, or would you prefer to do anything while being surrounded by the average and ordinary?

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