More JRPGs should embrace the red wedding

I’ve been playing JRPGs for many years now. It is a great genre for those of us who like to explore and strategize. You get to discover new worlds, meet interesting characters, and customize a party of combatants to overcome various challenges. While I have seen a huge diversity of wonderfully creative combat systems, these types of games do tend to tell a very similar story. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy saving the world as much as the next person. It is quite satisfying growing from the weakest fighter to the strongest warrior defeating all obstacles along the way. It is also nice, however, to have a bit of variety.

More variety in general would be great, but for me personally I want to see more serious, dark, or mature stories. It feels like most JRPGs would be the equivalent of a PG-13 movie. They may have serious aspects, but they aren’t too graphic or explicit. Persona 5 and Chained Echoes are perfect recent examples of games that stop themselves from going further. While they do have heavy elements and a Mature rating, neither game seems like it would get an R rating if they were movies.

Examples in other media

I think JRPGs have a lot of overlap with anime so I’m going to give some examples that demonstrate the kinds of stories and characters I want to see. It would be amazing to play a JRPG equivalent of any of these:

  • Berserk
  • Violet Evergarden
  • Devilman Crybaby
  • Kino’s Journey
  • Perfect Blue

Not all of these are brutally violent. Some of them are instead extremely emotionally taxing or even a mix of the two. These types of stories aren’t for everyone, but I find them to be very impactful and even cathartic. If you aren’t into anime, here are some live action examples that fit the criteria:

  • Game of Thrones
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • Fight Club
  • Requiem for a Dream
  • The Pianist

What’s the difference

I want to compare Chained Echoes and Persona 5 to some of the shows and movies I listed above, but I also want to be clear that I’m not saying either one of these games should change their story or approach. I thoroughly enjoyed both games and think the pair are best-in-class JRPGs. The intent, rather, is to show how they don’t go far enough to scratch the itch I’m after. Reader be warned, there are some vague, high-level bits of information about both games in this section.

In Persona 5 there are a few times in the game where characters in the story are seriously hurt or killed. In these instances, the game takes a “fade to black” approach at the last moment. They show everything leading up to that instant but then pan the camera away. I want the camera to show the whole thing. Not because I actually want to see someone hurt or killed, but because the emotional impact is significantly stronger. Compare that to the scene at the start of Saving Private Ryan where soldiers are storming a beach. You directly see soldiers being killed and maimed in awful ways. It forces the viewer to see the merciless brutality of war in a way they are far less likely to forget.

Persona 5 also embraces the standard of the main cast being heroes in a couple of ways. The story would have a much more consistent theme if it stuck to dealing with the serious issues of high schoolers instead of escalating beyond that. Imagine how much more concerned you might be for that group of teenagers if you thought something irreparably bad could happen to one of the main party members like in Game of Thrones where you never know if this episode might be a character’s last.

There is a part in Chained Echoes where one of the characters is dealing with emotional trauma. They believe they’re responsible for some tragedies which occurred in the game, and it has gotten to them. We see about a five-minute section where the game makes it clear the impact this has had on their mental health. It’s interesting, but not explored very much. Compare this to the movie Perfect Blue in which the main character is dealing with the emotional trauma of her life choices. For over an hour we experience the very personal and disturbing decline of someone’s mental health due to internal and external forces. Chained Echoes take is sad and interesting, but Perfect Blue is unforgettable.

As I mentioned above, Chained Echoes has some legitimately sad moments and situations, but I never felt like I was close to tears. Compare this to a show like Violet Evergarden which had me straight up crying. It’s not that the repercussions were any worse in Violet Evergarden, but the show took the time to establish an emotional bond. I cared deeply for and understood the various characters’ personality before the sad events occurred. In Chained Echoes, they felt more like plot devices to drive the real story forward instead of an actual focus for the story itself. I want a game whose primary goal is making me reach for a box of tissues.

Modern game examples

There are a few modern JRPGs which explore these types of stories such as NieR: Automata, OMORI, and LISA: The Painful. Sadly, as much as I really wanted to like and play all these games, only Nier was able to hold my interest. This isn’t a knock against Omori or Lisa, rather it shows why we need more options like this. It’s possible for a game to have a story I’m interested in, but an implementation or gameplay I don’t prefer.

I’d love to see the day where I can rotate between JRPGs with fun, adventurous stories and dark, soul crushing ones much the same way I do when I’m choosing what show to watch next. How about you? Would you be interested to play a JRPG where the hero doesn’t always win, or things don’t turn out for the best?

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