I’ve mentioned before how much I loved Final Fantasy as a kid. I still love it as a concept but something I’m having to come to terms with as an adult is the insane amount of responsibility I now have to things that aren’t video games and how that can and does effect my relationship with complicated games like Final Fantasy and JRPGs in general.
To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t even aware that “Western RPG” was even a term, but when I saw which games fell under that category, The Stick of Truth included, things started to click and I began to think of my RPG experiences in terms of “from here” and “from there”. What I’m learning is that the more games I play “from here,” the more satisfying my experiences are; the more I try to get into JRPGs, though, the easier it is for my frustration to force me to stop playing.
My life as a 26-year-old is way more difficult than I thought it would be when I was fourteen. Combine working a day job, making all my various payments, taking care of my pets and, of course, spending time with my partner and you’ve got quite a bit of the day already planned.
When I was kid, there were no pressures stopping me from sitting cross-legged on the carpet and blasting through five hours of turn-based goodness in one go. Now, I have to actually schedule time to play video games or I’d run out of material to review and, ultimately, just fall completely out of the loop. I’m not kidding: I literally have blocks on my daily schedule that read “Play new Wolfenstein. Do it. You’d better do it, dammit.”
So what does all this have to do with the difference between Western and JRPGs? Well, the reality of JRPGs is that they seem to be designed for what would seem to be the more “hardcore” audience. In this case, I’m referring to people who actually have the time to invest in grinding and farming gold and learning a million and one battle classes just to have that little smidge of an advantage in the next fight.
Compare that to, for example, The Stick of Truth, a decidedly non-JRPG. The game is easy to get into, doesn’t have an overwhelming amount of ins-and-outs and doesn’t really require you to fight very many random encounters in order to get ahead. I beat the game without ever actively looking for baddies to beat solely for the purpose of leveling up. I never even fought a boss that I couldn’t beat on the first try!
Now, a lot of people would just tell me that the reason I enjoyed the game so much is because it’s a “baby” game, that it’s too easy to be fun, but I strongly disagree. The game IS challenging, it IS hard, just not designed to be too hard to beat on the first try. Is that so wrong? Is it wrong to let me feel like I’m making progress every time I sit down to play for that precious hour before bed instead of making me grind for an hour just to get to the next part of the story?
It’s not like a) I haven’t been trying or b) I’m an idiot: I do engage with JRPGs fairly often, I just don’t finish them. Lately I’ve been trying to get into Monster Hunter Freedom Unite lately but I haven’t even made it past the tutorial without feeling completely overwhelmed by all the systems. I just don’t have the time to invest in something of this magnitude, especially knowing that so many others have become absolute shamans at the game already.
One of the other things that make The Stick of Truth good, and this isn’t totally fair, is the dialogue. I realize that JRPGs suffer from a lot of translation issues (lip-sync, dialogue that sounds unnatural to Western audiences, etc), but I just can’t handle the way stories in JRPGs are told. The amount of times characters have to recap plotlines or blatantly state their feelings is incredibly nerve-grinding. I can almost hear the gears of exposition grinding together in the background.
Compare that to the South Park RPG and it’s night and day. The dialogue is engaging, witty, and most importantly, surprising. I realize that the South Park IP is known for being funny, but that’s not all there is to it: the game respects the player in that it doesn’t assume that we need things to be explained in detail, nor does it even presume to care about the details that aren’t important to the story.
A perfect example of these unnecessary details in a story: I played the Vita port of Final Fantasy Tactics religiously for one summer and, even after investing so much time into that one game, I still found myself looking to the wiki page every so often just to keep the characters and plotlines straight. Oftentimes I would lose track of what my motivations were and that just ruins a story in my opinion.
I don’t want to make it seem like there are NO good JRPGs that deliver story in a digestible way. Persona 4 was a good storytelling experience for me, despite suffering from the same translation issues as most JRPGs. I genuinely felt surprised at what happened in the story and found myself constantly forming theories of who the killer was and what everyone’s identities and motives were.
But still, The Stick of Truth was an overall excellent experience, even more so than Persona 4 (fanboys, prepare your lynch-tools). At the end of it, I didn’t feel like I had missed out on much, nor did I feel like I had wasted my time grinding or leveling (maybe it was the only-so-many-days-to-win-this-game of Persona 4 that curbed its monotony?). I’m not saying games like The Stick of Truth are the best games available, but maybe, to a busy dude in his mid-twenties with two jobs, it’s pretty damn satisfying.