Lost odysseys: are JRPGs about to explode?

Wednesday, 30 January 2013 08:10 GMT By Dave Cook

Ni No Kuni launches this week in Europe, but will it help rekindle the West’s interest in classic JRPG larks? Dave Cook argues that yes, it will.

“It’s incredibly smart design on Level-5′s part, and it treats you like an adult which, after the abysmal string of pre-Xmas games that intrusively held your hand last year, is highly refreshing.”

Role-playing games are in an odd place right now. Skyrim has done huge, brilliant things in bringing interest in the genre to the masses, and it has even converted the steeliness of naysayers into the stat-crunching, monster-twatting fold. But would the majority of Skyrim players try their hand at the JRPG forefathers of the genre? I’d bet all 99 of my Gyshal Greens that they wouldn’t.

Out this week, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is an exciting prospect in that Western gamers have been pre-ordering it in droves. One stockist even oversold its batch last week which, while annoying for customers, suggests that the title is firmly on the radar of many gamers. Even ‘everyman’ players seem to be aware of, and curious about the game’s existence. That’s highly encouraging.

I saw a superb tweet from columnist Rab Florence last week that read “This generation, the JRPG came back in style. Final Fantasy forgot to come with it.” As much as I adore the classic Final Fantasy games, the man is absolutely correct. It’s become a series that belies its roots in an attempt to speed up combat and Westernise its DNA with a string of concept misfires that truly began with dual pistols and a pair of hot pants.

I’d argue that Square-Enix doesn’t need to pander any more, given the visible resurgence of JRPGs today, and if anything, Ni No Kuni seems on-track to give gamers a perfect gateway drug to the many treasures of the genre. This interest could make the scene really explode. Perhaps this notoriety comes from the Studio Ghibli tie-in, or the fact that it’s a PS3 exclusive, but the game – quite simply – deserves to be played by everyone.

Level-5 has wisely included an easy mode for newcomers, while the ‘Normal’ setting delivers enough difficulty spikes to satisfy veterans. Plus, while the game’s combat mechanic – which sees boy-wizard Oliver and his chums battling monsters with a range of Familiars – is turn-based, players can still move around the field at will. It’s a hybrid that blurs the line between action-JRPGs and veteran franchises while retaining its purity.

It’s incredibly smart design on Level-5′s part, and it treats you like an adult which, after the abysmal string of pre-Xmas games that intrusively held your hand last year, is highly refreshing. Oh hello Assassin’s Creed 3, I almost didn’t see you there.

I’m a big fan of the JRPG genre – with Mistwalker’s impeccable Lost Odyssey standing as one of my favourite games of the generation – but even I have to admit that my interest has waned in recent years. Games like Dragon Quest XI and Bravely Default would have got me properly excited just a few years ago, but now I’m either too busy to commit to the length of your typical JRPG, or they simply aren’t grabbing my attention due to the glut of Western console crap clogging up my brain.

But now – thanks to Ni No Kuni – I’m interested again, eager to go back and re-play Lost Odyssey, keen to man-up and face Ornstein and Smough and to stop pretending they don’t exist. Maybe I’ll finally crack open that borrowed copy of Valkyria Chronicles I’ve had for almost two years? If the person who loaned it to me is reading this, I’m sorry, it’s truly shameful I know.

But if you’ve ever felt jaded with Western games or the few JRPGs you’ve tried to play but just couldn’t get in to, you should check out Ni No Kuni. It has the charm, plot and pacing to hold your interest. It’s a welcome splash of colour in a Western industry that gets greyer by the year.

Disclosure: To assist in writing this article, Namco Bandai sent Dave a copy of Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. No merchandise or advertising was offered or accepted.

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