One of the most fascinating shifting trends in video games is how Japanese Role-Playing games went from hugely popular titles that appealed to a wide audience to niche, boutique games that appealed to the converted. The trajectory of JRPGs is crazy. It went from a marketplace where even smaller series and titles sold well during the PlayStation 2 era to fighting for survival in the seventh generation. Translation and localization of JRPGs has always had a rough history with turn-around. Even under the best circumstances the turn-around was about a year during the PS2 era with some exceptions. During the seventh generation, localization of JRPGs was quicker except the quality of the games declined and so did sales. Due to falling sales of JRPGs, localization became risky and many good games stayed in Japan. This shrinking market could be attributed to many things: a shift in tastes by gamers, a rise in popularity among different genres like first-person shooters, and a huge increase in quality of Western RPG’s that met the shift. There are probably a dozen reasons for the fall of JRPGs (major series moving from home consoles to handhelds), but part of the blame lies squarely on Final Fantasy XIII.
Sure, Final Fantasy XIII (FF XIII) is an easy target when criticizing JRPGs and the decline in quality during the seventh generation, but to be fair, the game was emblematic of the litany of issues found in JRPGs (in general and of the time period). Quality aside, the biggest issue with Final Fantasy XIII was how much stock got put into the game. Final Fantasy fans looked at the release of the game as the return to quality for their beloved genre, and not without good reason. Final Fantasy has always been one of the genre’s rocks that rarely disappointed even if fans were sometimes mixed or torn on how they felt about newer entries. For Square’s part, they gave fans a long time to build up the title in their minds.
It is always a gamble to announce a title too early and Square-Enix made that mistake by announcing the game back in 2006 even though the Japanese release would be three years later and the North American/Europe release nearly four years later. That is a long time for people to build up expectations. Expectations that no game can possibly live up to. Early announcements aside, the development of the title was riddled with issues from moving from PS2 to PS3, trying to develop a new engine and game simultaneously, framing a single game and engine around two other games dealing with the same universe, and what seemed liked a lack of direction. Every time Square showed off footage or talked about the game, it always felt like they never quite had down what the game was or how to sell it outside of “Hey it is Final Fantasy, so things will be cool, babies”. Then the game came out…
While the critical reception was not terrible, for a Final Fantasy game they certainly were tepid, especially considering how well received FF X and FF XII were. Fan reception was far more mixed. You fell into one of two camps, either you loved it (either by actually loving it or lying to yourself) or you hated it (and you probably were right). Maybe you were ambivalent, but that probably means you gave up on the game before the 25 hour tutorial was over (that makes you smarter than everyone else then). What made FF XIII emblematic of the issues JRPGs were facing was largely linearity. In a world where many Western RPGs have been giving more and more agency to the player to shape the story and more active combat, FF XIII’s story, combat, and forward progression stuck out but not in a good way. FF XIII is a series of hallways for the most part, stitched together with overwrought cut scenes about plastic characters with only the flimsiest reason to fight together. All the while they are moving toward a goal that is hard to care about or to root for them to win because none of these characters have any chemistry together.
That is a stark change from previous Final Fantasy games, where regardless of the world-threatening evil, you always felt there was a reason for these ragtag groups of people to be fighting together (even Cloud’s depressive/PSTD havin’ ass with his crew). Lightning and her compatriots always felt like they all got stuck in a store after it closed and they had to find a way out because they all were dumb enough to get left in a store after it closed. Of course, the battle system was not quite as compelling as a good turn-based system can be or as satisfying as an actual real-time battle system is. It rests somewhere in the middle, struggling to be anything more than meddling. Then they made a sequel and are making another because everyone needed to see more of Lightning.
It is not entirely bleak for JRPGs though because even in ruins, flowers can grow and the sun rises again after a thunder storm. Thanks to judicious JRPG fans spearheading “Operation Rainfall” to implore publishers to bring Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower to the US, JRPGs saw a huge resurgence during 2012 on the Wii of all places! This shot in the arm was also experienced on the Nintendo 3DS where more great JRPGs have received localization in the last few years (including Nintendo taking the initiative to bring Bravely Default to the US in 2014). 2013 was also an amazing year for JRPGs (in large part due to the 3DS) and how Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch showed how effectively a JRPG can be when done right. Hindsight being what it is, Lost Odyssey should have done better (I am still bitter about this!). It is easy to make FF XIII a target because it is a game of hubris. Square-Enix began development of the game during a time when JRPGs could do no wrong and bet big on brand recognition, but by the time they released it, the combat was outdated and more than that, the writing was poor. To Square’s credit, they seemed to have learned from the mistakes of FF XIII if the early footage of Final Fantasy XV is any indication. Then again, that game started development around the same time as this one and still no release date is in sight, so maybe not.