This is a column by Kat Bailey dedicated to the analysis of the once beloved Japanese RPG sub-genre. Tune in every Wednesday for thoughts on white-haired villains, giant robots, Infinity+1 swords, and everything else the wonderful world of JRPGs has to offer.
I'm not exactly drowning in RPGs or anything, but this is probably the happiest I've been since 2008 or so, which was the year I discovered Valkyria Chronicles. I don't want to say that there was something for everyone, because it's a lousy cliché, and not really true either. But for those who were willing to look, it was a good year.
Is this the beginning of a return to form for Japanese developers? Well, maybe not. The accelerated growth of mobile gaming, an aging population back home, and outsized budgets are all substantial obstacles for Japanese studios. But a few interesting trends are taking hold that could have a substantial impact on the industry in the near future:
As far as Japanese RPGs are concerned, this is a good thing. The PSP wasn't an abject failure by any means, but neither was it a crossover success. Mostly, it was extremely popular with a very limited subsection of gamers who happened to like RPGs like Trails in the Sky (gamers like me, in other words). The 3DS, by contrast, has Nintendo behind it, and it's shown a knack over the years for marketing its platforms worldwide.
What does this mean for JRPG fans? It means that we're going to get more games like Bravely Default Flying Fairy, Fire Emblem: Awakening, and Monster Hunter 3: Ultimate. I don't wish to discount the Vita, which is a lovely piece of hardware in its own right. But the fact of the matter is that the 3DS has more crossover appeal than the Vita, and is thus more likely to attract RPGs that see international release. For that reason, the outsized growth of the Nintendo 3DS in Japan (more than 300,000 units sold in one day last month) is a huge plus for JRPG fans.
Atlus is a Legitimate RPG Powerhouse: Does this even need to be said? As little as five years ago, Atlus was still a niche proposition at best. Now, thanks to the likes of Catherine and Persona 4 Golden, it seems to have more industry-specific mainstream appeal than ever.
A lot of it is to do with the fact that it just makes good games. When it comes to RPGs that are developed in-house by Atlus, there's a reasonable expectation of quality (Atlus-published RPGs are a different matter). But like Nintendo, it seems to have a gift for balancing depth with accessibility, and Japanese quirkiness with mainstream appeal.
It's certainly been a big year for Atlus in Japan. With the release of Persona 4 Arena and the Persona 4 anime, Atlus is not occupying the kind of rarefied air typically reserved for a juggernaut like Level-5 or Namco Bandai. Somehow though, despite leaning on a series that's become as ubiquitous as the Tales franchise, Atlus has managed to retain its unique cachet on both sides of the ocean. If it can keep its momentum, it could be on the way to doing great things.
The most recent example can be found in Persona 4 Golden, which features both a crowd-sourced hint system of sorts and an SOS system for dungeons. At first, the addition seems really minor. But as I've discussed in previous columns, it ends up having a dramatic impact on Persona 4's overall accessibility while retaining the sense of freedom that is so important to the overall experience.
Going forward, I expect online play to continue growing in importance, if only because it's something that simply can't be avoided anymore. Every system is connected to one extent or another now, including mobile platforms like the Vita. Sure, it's still possible to have a really great single-player-only experience. But it rarely hurts to sneak in a little connectivity.
Looking over the entire 2012 landscape, I see a genre that still relies heavily on well-worn narrative and gameplay tropes, but is steadily forging ahead. Xenoblade Chronicles, Persona 4 Golden, and Dragon's Dogma have all shown us what the future might hold to varying degrees. That future may not be realized in 2013; but after all the doom and gloom of the past few years, it's kind of nice to have something to look forward.
Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.