The gaming industry has changed dramatically over the years. While DLC, pre-order bonuses, and online features have become standard elements of virtually every game release, Japanese developers have supposedly regressed. This is particularly evident when you look at the RPG market; what was once a genre dominated by Japanese developers is now one where studios including Bethesda, CD Projekt Red, BioWare, and now even Guerrilla Games and Bungie are responsible for progression.
For gamers who grew up in the 80's and 90's, it hasn't been easy to watch JRPGs fall from grace. Really, if it weren't for FromSoftware and its Souls series the circumstance would be ugly… or at least that's what the previous few years would lead you to believe.
During the past six months there's been a huge awakening of JRPG developers. It all began with Square Enix's debut of Final Fantasy XV in November. After the Final Fantasy series had struggled to elevate itself for a decade, this long-awaited release managed to inspire confidence in fans again. Its combat system was enjoyable, and its narrative journey was one rich with a sense of adventure. With major updates slowly but surely being introduced to the game throughout 2017, it's safe to say that Final Fantasy is trending upward—finally.
The transition into 2017 has been more promising. Sega released Yakuza 0 to incredibly positive reception in January, receiving praise for its thoughtful consideration for humor and fun. Many are even regarding it as the best that the decade-old series has ever offered. Some are even calling it a sleeper hit, since a large number of RPG fans let it slip by unnoticed. What is for certain is it's remained one of the year's most respected titles among gamers, and that's saying a lot given its admirable company.
Team Ninja's Nioh debuted weeks later to even better reception. While some called it "Samurai Dark Souls", it was never to diminish how good the game was. Equipped with one of the best RPG combat systems of the generation, and a lengthy adventure rich with depth and memorable boss battles, by the end of February things were looking great for the JRPG genre.
And then there was NieR: Automata. Made by Platinum Games, it wasn't just a great representative of the JRPG genre, its diversity of gameplay styles and thought-provoking story was some of the best that gaming has seen in recent years. It was a treat that a very small population of gamers saw coming.
Next week Persona 5 will hit the market, and all signs point toward it being "extraordinary". Our review will go live on Wednesday, and for now we'll keep it simple by saying that it's going to be a contender for game of the year.
Although you would be hard-pressed to find examples as impactful as this in other genres, it's clear that JRPG developers have been putting in a lot of work; Final Fantasy is back, Yakuza 0 was fun and humorous, Nioh provided a new perspective on the action RPG sub-genre, while NieR: Automata and Persona 5 have shown us what top shelf JRPGs look like in 2017.
What's particularly surprising is these games manage to compete in an environment where WRPGs are continuing to improve. While Mass Effect: Andromeda isn't a particularly great example, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Divinity: Original Sin, and Horizon Zero Dawn surely are. These games are stellar, raising the bar for what consumers perceive as a great RPG.
Even then, JRPG developers are rising to the occasion, and doing so without the luxury of massive budgets. It's a great thing for the industry, and we can only hope that this trend will continue into the future.