So here's the thing...
In recent months, I've fallen for a Japanese Role Playing Game called Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (or simply, Persona 4, for short). Known for it's striking art style, memorable characters and killer music; the game has carved out a nice spot for itself in western audiences as a “cult classic” of sorts. While I am guilty of falling deep down the fandom hole generated in certain corners of the internet around Persona 4, there is so much more this game has to offer than just high school, bears, television & murder.
Historically speaking, JRPG's as a genre of video games have been reliant upon a certain amount of specific tropes, both from a storytelling standpoint and a gameplay standpoint. Typically, in combat you control a party of four characters or more and battle enemies in a turn based manner from a menu that has four or more options.
Your attacks deal damage relative to the statistics of the equipment each character is assigned and a similar situation can be described for the spells. Early on in gaming history, this system of fighting worked well and fit with what hardware developers had to work with at the time, but later the genre has been criticized for being too archaic and slow paced to capture the attention of gamers today.
Fans of the genre typically overlook an outdated combat system and focus on the story as that is where the highpoint of the genre normally lies. With a handful of exceptions however, most JRPG stories are super predictable as well. Developers tend to get lazy and rest on the laurels predecessors have set before them. Nowadays, you can't walk five feet without tripping over a princess that needs to be sacrificed in order to save the world, or a megalomaniac bent on global domination.
Not to degrade the legacy of Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy 6, it's just that so many games have 'payed homage' or straight up stolen wholesale from their respective plots in the 30+ years they've existed that to see yet another game get released with a similar story is an incredible pain in the ass. One could even argue that it's a mistake Square themselves made in following up Final Fantasy 6 with the story of a certain spiky blond haired SOLDIER.
But I digress.
What makes Persona 4 stand out to me is how well they fused a traditional role playing game with elements of a dating simulator and how well the characters were developed over the course of the title, but I'm getting ahead of myself. In SMT: P4, you play as Yu Narukami (or Charlie Tunoku, whatever name you'd prefer), a second year transfer student moving to Inaba to live with his uncle and cousin. Over the course of the game a series of murders take place in the sleepy town and it is up to Charlie & co. to solve what exactly is going on there (and maybe get a little popular while he's at it).
From a gameplay standpoint, Persona 4 isn't offensively bad. Combat is very much traditional RPG combat. You can equip weapons, armor and the sort, cast spells through creatures called Persona and is more or less self explanatory. Unfortunately, it lacked Persona 3's elegance in AI controlled teammates. In SMT: P3, you could command your allies to battle individually and gain experience on their own in order to alleviate the "grind" from you, the player. However, the exclusion of this system is small hat because combat is not where Persona 4 shines.
All the buzz around Persona 4 is because of its well crafted characters and rightfully so.
With the JRPG genre being built on grandiose story tropes like saving the world, transitioning to a plot that focuses on a small group of high school students was a refreshing change of pace that was so overdue in the industry on the whole. It wasn't only enough for Atlus, the game's developer, to tell a more intimate story within the context of a JRPG but they also handle controversial topics extremely well in a way other developers should take notice of.
Namely, Kanji Tatsumi (top row, third from the left) and his struggle with his sexual orientation. The concept of "coming out" in Japan is a much more daunting task than in certain parts of the U.S. as Japan is a country much more closely tied to tradition, and such an act could be seen as committing cultural heresy. The "classy-ness" with which Atlus approached the topic is really noteworthy and the fact that he is the most macho of the bunch is all the better.
With his inclusion in the party, all major high school tropes are accounted for; Charlie Tunoku, the transfer student, Rise Kujikawa, the popular girl, Chie Satonaka, the nerdy one, Yosuke Hanamura, the class clown, Kanji Tatsumi, the bully, Yukiko Amagi, the one to take over her family business and Naoto Shirogane, the person who you have no idea how she became as succesful as she is but is still somehow doing really well for herself. The place you leave these characters as compared to state you meet them in is really compelling and is easily one of my favorite experiences I've ever had both playing and watching someone else play a video game.
With the success of Persona 4, the ball is officially in Atlus' court. I am by no means preemptively disparaging Final Fantasy 15 and I hope that game does well when it comes out, but I think it is safe to say Square Enix has continuously shat the bed in the JRPG department since 2001. The rest of the developers that still care about that genre enough to make them have been banging their heads against a wall for longer than they'd care to admit when the future lies in telling much more closely knit stories and turning character development into an actual mechanic.
Yeah, you could say I have high hopes for Persona 5 if only because of how good I've seen Atlus get this genre in the past, and it seems like no one else has taken a page from their book yet. If SMT: P5 absolutely nails it, it could gain enough traction to spark a resurgence of JRPG's, but if it doesn't, I'm not quite sure how long the genre has left to last. As a fan, I really don't want to see these types of games go away as they're much more entertaining to me than the majority of western RPG's (I'm looking at you Bethesda).
But for now, Valentines Day 2017 is going to be much more interesting than I thought.
If you enjoyed this article, please check out my personal blog where this was originally posted along with many more over at spencerbaughman.wordpress.com. Cheers!