It always seems that when a good JRPG gets it right in so many areas, there’s still that one factor that slips things up: battles get boring, the story gets stale, the characters becoming too stereotypical. There’s always something. Even though a lot of the complaints about a game are totally inconsequential to its actual quality, such as linearity, there is always something that stood out, even among the best of the best, as factors that shouldn’t have been overlooked in order to make others better.
I’m way ahead of you if you’re wondering what I’d do better since I’m being so critical; this has actually been something I’ve been formulating over the years because I borrow factors from many role-playing games and some factors that I’m looking for simply didn’t exist yet when I started this idea many years ago. I’ll likely make edits, revisits, and additions over time but the ideas will stay, mostly, the same, I believe.
The Battle Systems
To me, a perfect console-based role-playing game consists of not one battle system but a few; much like the first two Suikoden games, there were tactical battles that were planned much like they were in the Kessen series, there were your traditional small-group battles, and then there were your duels. This is what I would use for my initial framework.
For the tactical battles, I would use a system that would be like a marriage of Suikoden I & II‘s tactical battles and Final Fantasy Tactics A2‘s character/party depth. What I’m aiming for is something that is simple enough to go fairly quickly but to offer a kind of depth and player friendliness: you would have a certain amount of troops at the beginning of a set battle and, depending on the event, you would have a certain amount of soldier classes and generals at your disposal. You would arrange your squads by picking a general to lead them, two aides, and then determine how many soldiers are in the squad and how many soldiers are in certain battalions; these battalions would classify a group of soldiers into classes, like pikemen, swordsmen, archers, mages, and so forth. A lot of times there would be grunts and fodder to be allotted as I would prefer to see a couple of “David vs. Goliath” scenarios as well. Your characters through the story, if available for the event, would serve as the aides and would serve as stat boosts, also allowing squads to use certain variations of their already existing abilities. Generals would serve as larger stat boosts and provide military boosts.
Duels were an awesome part of moving the drama of Suikoden II along. That duel between the hero and Luca was, perhaps, one of the more poignant plot points of any RPG to date. In its primary form, duels would be nothing more than a variation on rock-paper-scissors to avoid it from turning into some kind of fighting game knock-off. Basic commands would be offered like so: Attack, Defend, All-Out, Magic, and an option based on the character’s abilities. How a character would react to certain commands would depend on their stats and their own choices. A character weak physically, even if defending, would take a normal attack poorly but would have the speed to avoid an all-out attack and counter, should he choose to defend that, as well. Again, fairly simple; there would be enough to keep things interesting but not enough instances that it would quickly become boring.
Where the main meat of the battling gets done would be in the traditional battle style. I would like the main battle system to be offered much like it was in Grandia III, the culmination of many years perfecting the best JRPG battle system to date, in my opinion, with a few changes. I loved that battle system in terms of flow, structure, and presentation: everybody moved around the battlefield and this had to be considered when using the system’s main features: cancelling and juggling. All commands took time to execute and each character usually had to travel to a certain spot in order to execute the command. This kept every battle lively, spontaneous, and chaotic yet very strategic and well thought-out. I would like to see the environment play a lot more into how the battles would go down, too – if it’s raining or snowing badly, fire abilities won’t be very effective or might not cast at all if not powerful enough, for example. In extremely windy or hot conditions, characters that aren’t accustomed don’t move as quickly and don’t have as much attack power.
Leveling Your Characters
This is where things get kind of hairy because there are so many foundations for JRPGs that I love, out there, but I think that this is where a lot of games fall short when they have so much potential. The basis for this element of my perfect RPG would be customization and classes, which western RPGs have had in spades for many years now and JRPGs have been kind of missing out on, as the classes are usually set and there’s only small variations.
What I set out for this one is a ridiculously simple setup that offers a great amount of depth and customization. When you win a battle you earn three different types of points: experience points, ability points, and class points. Experience points would go towards a traditional leveling system that would give small stat boosts per level and unlock access to other things that you can redeem the other points for. Ability points would unlock all of your character’s inherent and class-based abilities, used as a currency and can be stockpiled if necessary. Class points would unlock class levels and different classes when certain conditions are met.
Experience points would be character independent, leveling up a character just to keep the stereotypical conventions in place but to also ensure that certain characters aren’t able to do everything. It ensures that a player is able to have the freedom to do what they like with their characters but keeps them from becoming overpowered and out of the story’s contexts. If a character is a large hulk of a man that wields a large double-bladed axe, he’s going to have a high strength stat but a low speed stat, which will be consistent with whatever level he’s at. This keeps him from being able to used items and equipment geared towards agile characters. While it’s fun to customize your characters any way you like it certainly takes away from the immersion when something like a character of small stature comes along with a heavy sword three times the size of his body and ten times his weight.
Ability points would be earned by the party and dispersed among any character of your choosing that’s currently in the party. These points would go towards a system something like Final Fantasy X‘s Sphere Grid or Tales of Xillia‘s Lilium Orb; you would use these points like a currency towards abilities and stat boosts. It wouldn’t be as generic and expansive as Final Fantasy X‘s Sphere Grid as the grid was the same for every character, their starting points were the only things that were different, meaning every character could have the same list of powers and basic abilities if one was dedicated enough to do so. Each grid would be specific to the characters and the classes offered to them; again, in an effort to keep things in context, you’re not going to see too many hulking brutes that can whoop ass physically but wield all-powerful magic at the same time.
Class points would be used similar to experience points: leveling up a class that’s currently equipped by a character means that access to certain abilities on the ability grid can be unlocked, permanently, no matter what class the character currently has equipped. Class points would also be used towards weapon and armor proficiency, allowing certain types of weapons to do more damage and certain types of armor to defend against certain attacks more efficiently.
Each character would be offered three classes from a larger bank of classes. Secondary party characters would have two classes to choose from that are from this bank and one character-specific class. Primary party characters would have two character specific classes to choose from and one generic class. Only specific characters would have the ability to unlock a mastery class specific to them, building on a current class, a combination of classes, or something totally unique based on class points gained or plot points passed.
Story and Character Elements
This is a tough one to tackle without having a specific plot or character set in mind. I do have a specific plot in mind but I will try to keep this as generic as possible as to avoid putting this out there and having my work scooped by some snake. Stories in JRPGs are plagued, I find, by several anime stereotypes. I find these mostly in place to create a sense of familiarity in fans of JRPGs but do nothing to challenge them. There’s always a damsel, a love interest, the young guy, the old guy, the American stereotype, the cryptic older guy, the list goes on: it’s pretty tired and I would like to avoid the stereotypes altogether.
That being said, I would like to borrow a setting similar to that of Star Ocean: the game would start out in a familiar setting, becoming strange and peculiar at a point, slowly building until the lid is ripped right off the plot and the scale is increased exponentially as the plot moves forward. This allows anyone to get into the game initially, long enough to hook them and intrigue them. By the time the hook is in, the plot gets big and the settings begin changing once the game feels the player is ready. If this were my game I would prefer the initial setting to be a broken-down urban setting, with just enough fantasy elements thrown in to keep things familiar; things like swords, magic, creatures, much like how Final Fantasy VI was presented, without the “nature vs. technology” pretense. This would then explode into outer space briefly but never giving the player full freedom to explore the great beyond; most interstellar travel would take place between portals that would tie into the plot directly.
The story’s characters would be a harder thing to arrange for; character stereotypes and Mary Sues exist because they’re familiar and reliable. We hate them because they’re predictable but we also love them for their reliability. They’re not challenging and often this is required when a plot gets deep and philosophical. Look at Metal Gear Solid 4: making the plot deep and the characters deep as well can sometimes get to be too much. The characters would not be grand stereotypes but rather something like some characters found in Fire Emblem where they more resemble actual people, given certain circumstances. I would prefer to make the characters easy to relate to as opposed to making them complicated or stereotypical; I would create my own archetypes that would allow players to easily understand their intentions and motivations. Not all characters would have a dark, deep past; not all characters would be wise and cryptic; not all characters would be endlessly optimistic and grating to listen to.
The keys here would be to create a sense of relation in the story/characters portion of the game enough to make the player want to carry on; not just because the game itself is great but because the story is awesome, too.
Equipment and Shared Abilities
This is where things get pretty scary and where most of the tedious work would come from in the creative process and bringing those creations to life. In a perfect JRPG, I would like to see a lot more elements from western RPGs like Skyrim and Diablo II: armor would not only be a function for your character to serve as defense but also as a fashion statement as well; in other words, you would not have the same outfit on throughout the course of the game. I’ve always likened that kind of thing to an American animated sitcom and I think it’s kind of silly to think that someone wanting to save the world would never rest, never shower, and never change. Weapons would also reflect a change of look for the character. Depending on certain presets, like in Diablo II, you can get certain stat and ability bonuses for equipping certain pieces of equipment.
This would allow for a great amount of look customization but, like in a real-life situation, focusing strictly on fashion would cause a situation when you’re staring down a gigantic dragon. There would be equipment for nearly every approach to every class in certain situations, much like Diablo II, as well. That way every player has a customized look and approach to their game that depends entirely on their style of play rather than allowing for only one combination that wins out in every situation.
Shared abilities like magic, summoning familiars and class-related moves would be performed much like they are in Final Fantasy, in terms of presentation, and Grandia, in terms of execution. Each ability and move would have a performance rating that improves each time it is used and every time it goes up a rank the move either does more damage, becomes quicker to perform, or both, depending on the ability.
My only quarrel with how some games approach this is that there is always an overpowered set of equipment, accessories, and abilities that are a bitch to find or unlock but, once you have them, the game is a cinch. I would love to include something similar but not that would overpower a character; I would like to see something that has consequences of constant use, like a Cursed and Blessed set of items; much like evolving Magikarp in Pokemon, the equipment would be ridiculously overpowered in some aspects but have an equally overpowering consequence to constant use like draining HP or incurable poison status. However, dedication would unlock the Blessed set of equipment that isn’t as ridiculously overpowered but doesn’t come with any of the consequences of use.
The same goes for magic and summoning; there’s always these overdrawn presentations and almost painful methods of attaining. I think almost all should be equal in power, initially, gaining power and efficiency through constant use, each one having a specific element or benefit in addition to basic damage, each gained depending on your class and character.
It’s one thing to have an awesome game but it’s not going to ring in a lot of new interest if it isn’t presented in a way that appeals and draws in everyone. What that means is more than just good localization but localization the way it was meant to be: in the same way Working Designs used to localize their games, without all the tongue-in-cheek pop culture references. This also means recreating the lyrical content of the music without changing the music itself, meaning the title sequence would likely need to be performed again by someone with more than a loose grasp on the English language and maybe change it up so it doesn’t sound too J-Pop-like, as that turns off a lot of people, apparently. Everything should stay as close to its source material as possible while keeping its intended audience in mind; worrying only about context and intention more than doing transliterations and leaving all the obviously Japanese content and references intact. I know a lot of people like that – I don’t. I’m not the guy who’s obsessed with Japanese culture or its inner workings. I would move there if I was that obsessed and I think people who are but stay here are just ridiculous, especially with the ridiculous amount of items they commonly buy. Keep the context there, scare the weeaboo out. This is a game, not an anime.
As far as the graphical portion of everything is concerned? Well, the game, graphically, would have to stay as close to its cutscenes as possible. If the game’s cutscenes are animated then the game should either be 2D, mostly, or be cel-shaded. If the game goes for a more realistic approach then it should be pushed as far as it can go and stay as consistent as possible.
As for in-game menu and miscellaneous presentation is concerned; less is more. The simpler and sleeker, the better, in my books. Just keep it straightforward so that even the biggest idiot on the planet can get to where he’s going without much trouble. Some people just like to enjoy the game without having to trudge too deep into the story or the system and I want to, at least initially, make it accessible even to them.
The only thing that sucks about this proposal is that it would require so much money and manpower to make it the way I would like to see it done that it would never come to life. I don’t know enough people in the industry that would share this fresh approach that I have and crowdfunding the kind of money necessary would be crazy. We’re talking millions upon millions of dollars and that’s just in hiring the staff, forget the resources needed.
I do have a plot and a setting in mind with all the framework and this is why this article will always be fluid – things will change, my opinions won’t stay the same, new games will come out that might shed light on things I haven’t thought of before… and if I’m ever approached about this by someone who can make it happen. Fingers crossed.
In any case, this has always been my brainchild and my vision for what JRPGs should be. I hope you enjoyed it and took something from it. What do you think should be added or changed that I didn’t offer up?