To start, let me say that JRPGs have, for many years, been my favorite genre of game. I adored Tales of Symphonia, the World Ends With You, Kingdom Hearts, and Persona 3. And I have a great deal of affection for older games like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy III as well. So as many other JRPG gamers could believe, the "dry" season of major console JRPGs was taking its toll on me. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor was enough to feed my hunger for a little while, but it still wasn't enough.
Imagine my eagerness when I went to pick up two of the newest JRPGs, a spark of excitement in my recently dreary life. White Knight Chronicles and Final Fantasy XIII. Now I am aware of the negative reception received by reviewing sites for WKC, but the bottom line in many reviews was that the hardcore JRPG crowd would still enjoy them. And I read plenty of fantastic reviews for Final Fantasy XIII.
At first, all was well. I thought I was generally enjoying these JRPG offerings. Now, the key phrase is "I thought." To my horror, I started to find I was playing these games just for the sake of playing my favorite genre. These games were BAD. FF XIII was becoming more and more like a 30 hour clichéd movie full of an uninvolving battle system and tedious linear dungeons. WKC had exceedingly boring gameplay, and a boring and predictable story to match. I was terrified. Was my favorite genre fading into the past, with attempts to "mainstream" JRPGs slowly killing the genre? Or were JRPGs simply losing their shine?
As I have recently played Chrono Trigger for the first time, and enjoyed it immensely, this leads me to not believe that I am getting bored of JRPGs. Instead, I believe that companies such as Square Enix are attempting to make these unique games marketable to the common gamer. In other words, whiny little Xbox Live kids yelling "FAGGOT!" into their headsets while playing Halo 3 or Modern Warfare 2.
No, no, no, NO.
That is exactly the kind of thinking that is butchering this once unique niche in gaming. JRPGs do NOT need to be mainstreamed. It is an abysmal idea that takes away from what these wonderful games are at their core! Games with vividly coloured and wackily designed environments, deep and unique characters, with very statistically based combat systems. But the most absolutely important aspect was the story's ability to draw you in. The previously mentioned characters and environments should combine to immerse the gamer in the story. That is what I believe JRPGs are at their very core, their essence. Or at least, was at their core.
Both FFXIII and WKC suffer from what I shall now dub mainstreamization. Final Fantasy XIII was so overly simple it made me want to cry. The combat system had an auto-battle command, and I could scarcely believe it when I first saw it. Apparently Square Enix believed that all that navigating through menus during combat was too complex for the average gamer. So in consequence, during less important battles I developed a habit of changing the channel while simultaneously spamming the X button until I believed the battle was over. And the lack of world detail made me want to cry.
But Ben, you might say. The world was plenty detailed. Of course, I would say. The environments are extremely pretty and well designed, as well as there being plenty of information on the world itself. But 90% of the environments are inaccessible, because obviously the mainstream gamer can't handle a more open world. They REQUIRE a straight corridor so they won't get lost. Not to mention the fact that you have to navigate a menu to see detail on the world. As obviously mainstream gamers can't cope with that sheer amount of information. In a JRPG, where immersion in a world and story is essential, understanding the world became an OPTION. These factors combined to completely kill the immersion of FFXIII's story.
White Knight Chronicles made its first mistake by putting to much emphasis on its online portion. I believe it was provided to draw in more of the mainstream, online gamer, crowd. But the result is that the game puts much less influence on a JRPGs most important aspect. There is absolutely no need for an online component in a JRPG, as their selling point is the immersive story. They used resources to make something completely unnecessary instead of what draws the core audience to these games. Not to mention the fact that the gameplay was tedious due to a need for online compatibility.
After much thought, I realize that I have been turning a blind eye to JRPGs since Final Fantasy 7. I have much criticized Nintendo for ditching the core crowd with casual gamers on the Wii, and it has taken me years to see through my fanboy tendencies that the same thing is happening to JRPGs. Developers are trying to mimic FF7's enormous success, and create a more enjoyable game for the common gamer. The developers are responsible for the decline of the beloved niche in gaming. As usual, the core crowd is being shunted around due to the corporations knowing the core crowd will always come back for more anyway. And since I believe that they are stealing what my favorite genre essentially is, this is one less gamer they are taking money from.