Back during the 1980s and 90s, Japanese RPGs did what few other games could: they told a good story. With such limited graphical resources at the time, their narratives stood out. Turn-based combat turned into a staple of the genre thanks to franchises such as Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, and Shin Megami Tensei. Above all, JRPGs became known for their gripping stories. The linear nature of these tales was acceptable—even an expectation.
This JRPG formula ruled the market until the early 2000s. By then, Western RPGs had already begun innovating with different types of combat systems. Sprawling, open-world PC RPGs — such as The Elder Scrolls — grew in popularity over time precisely because they offered a different experience compared to JRPGs. Putting the player in the middle of a vast world, encouraging them to explore, and allowing them to take their own path became the hallmarks of Western RPGs.
An emphasis on the individual’s journey over the player watching a pre-written story unfold separates many Western RPGs from JRPGs. With the advent of better technology, game developers found better tools to bring their imaginations to life. While Japanese developers used the previous limitations to their advantage, creating a storybook experience, Western developers instead broke off into new territory.
When the time came to hold up graphical fidelity alongside story, the Final Fantasy franchise succeeded during the PlayStation 1 era. Their games were an unprecedented harmony of amazing graphics, storytelling, settings, and characters that still hold up to this day.
Once the PlayStation 2 and Xbox era warmed up, Square realized that they weren’t the only ones who could offer players the amazing unity of features they were known for. Other competing titles such as Star Wars: the Old Republic and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind took prominence in the industry. The Old Republic’s experiments with player agency became a staple of BioWare games moving forward. Morrowind’s customization options with character creation spawned in many different forms across other titles.
During the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 era, Square-Enix ran into development issues. They had a difficult time transitioning into the era of HD games. While Western RPGs continued to innovate and experiment over time, many JRPGs, Final Fantasy included, stuck to what they knew. As a result, Final Fantasy XIII was a limited, linear game that felt like one long, winding corridor from start to finish.
Meanwhile, the Mass Effect series grew in the best of ways from the first entry to the second one, offering better gameplay, a superb cast of characters, and an epic story that will always be remembered. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings offered another take on the action RPG genre, while its successor, The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, went on to be hailed as one of the best RPGs of the current generation.
BioWare, Bethesda, and CD Projekt Red, to name a few, took over where Square-Enix failed. These Western studios proved that the gaming world wanted broader experiences. These developers went the extra mile, providing expansive open worlds with different types of combat. Bethesda games are known for their sandboxes, where the player can continue with the story at their own pace in between exploration. BioWare and CD Projekt Red games offer a more balanced approach, where the story is the driving force, but the player is free to wander around the game as they please.
In response to the changing market, Square-Enix is hard at work with Final Fantasy XV, a semi-open world RPG with plenty of exploration and quests. From what the developers have revealed so far, they hope to provide players with an open world that still focuses on the story at the heart of the game. With such a big budget, it’s expected that Final Fantasy XV will look great. But how it feels and how it plays are the main unknowns at this point.
Such a long development cycle is aggravating to long-time fans of the series. Before Final Fantasy XIV director and producer Naoki Yoshida took over the studio’s failed MMORPG, Square-Enix was notorious for not communicating with their fans. Final Fantasy XV director and producer Hajime Tabata successfully carried on Yoshida’s model of communication in the form of video Q&A sessions. Fans of the game know just enough about the story and upcoming features to look forward to the full package.
Everyone else expects the game to fail—or they just don’t care, since it’s been such a long time. The market is naturally more hopeful for Western titles with a better track record of innovation. It’s interesting to see Square-Enix following instead of leading with Final Fantasy XV’s known gameplay mechanics so far. All we can do now is wait until November 29 to see what will happen.