I put on my robe and wizard hat

A case for Western RPGs

| Cadenza Reporter

“Mass Effect 2” is the latest and greatest action RPG from prolific Canadian developer BioWare. (Courtesy of Electronic Arts)

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I just finished playing a Japanese RPG (role-playing game). It’s the story of a troubled amnesiac, and a precocious girl who thinks that anything is possible—if only he’d just believe. The quasi-pseudo-real-time battle system can only be described as a seizure-inducing *numbers-gasm*, and it clocks in at over 80 hours thanks to dungeons that can only be accessed after eight fetch quests and a month’s worth of grinding to defeat. It’s brilliant, and it’s called “Final Fantasy SNII: Fantabulous Backsidal Attackillis.”

…And I’m spent. Even I think it’s become far too easy to poke fun at Japanese RPGs. Considering that the genre’s finest examples all date from before the turn of the century, it’s hard to label the genre as anything but stagnant. But while the East is seemingly frozen in time, Western developers haven’t been shy in kicking butt and taking risks with their own brand of RPGs. Here’s a few reasons why they’re worth playing.

What sets the two types of games apart is the West’s greatest export: freedom. Western RPGs stay true to their name by actually giving players the chance to develop a character and play a role in the story. When I create a new Jedi in “Knights of the Old Republic,” I know that Lance Uppercut is unmistakably my character. Just like me, he’s a lover, not a fighter, which explains why I’ve maxed out his charisma. Also like me, he’s a saint who regularly travels the galaxy, reuniting orphan families and raking in Light Side points like leaves.

But the sagacious Master Uppercut senses fear and anger in a party member who is currently aligned with the Dark Side. Being a charismatic saint has its moments, and I have access to special conversation options that allow me to convince her to see the Light. More chats reveal that she is Force-sensitive, and I eagerly begin training her in the way of the Jedi; it’s not long before I swap out her dull vibroblade for a deadly lightsaber.

As the story nears its conclusion, it’s clear that the ultimate fate of the galaxy lies in Lance Uppercut’s hands. Though the Dark Side’s power is tempting, I still choose to save the galaxy from the Sith menace. The galaxy is at peace, for now, but I know it’s only a matter of time until I return with Bruce Roundhouse and slaughter millions of puppies in the name of becoming the new Sith Lord.

Japanese RPGs, unlike their Western counterparts, set out to tell a static story about static characters. When the only thing I can choose about my characters is their magicks, I can’t help but feel that I’m only along for the ride. No amount of sphere grid customization will change Tidus from a nasal Meg Ryan knockoff with daddy issues to an actually likeable protagonist. Questionable character design aside, most Japanese RPGs don’t allow the player to influence the story or its characters in meaningful ways, and the result is something more akin to movies than games. Conversely, by giving players freedom, Western RPGs tap into gaming’s defining quality as a medium—interactivity—to make their stories relevant to the player.

“I don’t care,” you say. “I bawled at the end of ‘FFX.’” I’ve heard it all before. I used to date one of you. She played entries VII-XII of “Final Fantasy,” and she’s crazy—evidenced by the fact that she kept on playing the same game with different coats of paint.

Yes, Japanese RPGs set themselves apart from one another with different settings, characters and battle systems, but is that enough? Almost all games in the genre follow the familiar structure of town, side quest, dungeon, boss and cutscene. Five straight “Final Fantasy” games all used variations of Square’s patented Active Time Battle system, and 11 of the 13 games resorted to using random battles. It’s been quite some time since the JRPG has seen legitimate change.

Things are different in the Wild West, where developers have successfully shoehorned RPG elements into every genre imaginable. The result is a number of games that differ in far more than just setting and combat system. Take “Deus Ex” and “Fallout 3” as examples—both are FPS (first-person shooter)/RPG hybrids, but the two share almost nothing else in common. The former is a linear shooter designed to let players tackle situations in a myriad of ways, and the latter is a non-linear romp with an emphasis on exploration and nihilistic choices, like nuking a town.

The sprawl of the Western RPG includes everything from the cathartic and click-tastic “Diablo” series to the dark and dialogue-heavy cult classic “Planescape: Torment.” It’s the genre that somehow has room for the top-down tactical combat of “Dragon Age: Origins” and the third-person shootouts of “Mass Effect 2.” Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that “Dragon Age” won several Game of the Year awards in 2009, and “Mass Effect 2” is already this year’s favorite for the same award.

For the record, I’m partially playing devil’s advocate. I usually cite “Chrono Trigger” as my favorite game of all time, though it holds a special place in my heart mainly because it subverts the tired clichés and contrived mechanics of the JRPG. Even Square Enix has felt the winds of change, and countless fans were shocked when they discovered that “Final Fantasy XIII” has no towns. But the changes may be too little, too late. The constantly evolving Western RPG, with its maturing emphasis on player choice, offers a more rewarding experience across a variety of genres. Manifest destiny is calling—go play an RPG from my favorite hemisphere.

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