The way we define JRPGs in comparison to their Western counterparts is not so much through their Japanese origin as through a number of mechanical and narrative considerations. JRPGs tend to star highly defined characters as opposed to the editable characters of WRPGs, they also have an interest in maintaining the linearity of gameplay and, of course, turn-based combat. The fact that a significant number of Western developers have been influenced by these games is what has broken the geographical barrier with which we defined the genre.
But the truth is that JRPGs have usually been accused of being conservative. This definition of their mechanics was opposed to a Western idea of the modern game type, that is, “real-time” combat and open worlds that have been populating AAA games especially in recent years. Although there is a demand for, shall we say, “classic” JRPGs — Yakuza: Like A Dragon (2020) has been celebrated precisely for taking the saga in a seemingly counter-intuitive direction — it tends to be perceived as nostalgia, as something anchored in the past.
This association between technological advancement and artistic progress is misguided. We assume that games have to follow the trend imposed by certain mechanical achievements even when these seem to lead to a sort of uniformity, where all genres end up converging into a single type of game and changes are merely aesthetic. The truth is that the history of JRPGs is rich and varied since their beginnings, and the intentions to reformulate turn-based combat have led to very interesting and flexible experiments. The question is not whether JRPGs should evolve (they have done so constantly) but what steps they could take while maintaining their identity as a genre.
The Nintendo DS is a console that I am passionate about because of the possibilities it introduced. The portable format in its previous interaction seemed limited and full of projects too dependent on the graphic evolution, remaining as poor imitators of the claim of 3D from pre-rendered images that gave it a certain aspect of sloppy collage. NDS went a little further and said loud and clear that technological power is useless if there are no tools that favor the creativity of developers and players. Thus, with its dual screen, one of them touchscreen, with its microphone that you can blow into to interact on rare occasions or with the possibility of leaving the console paused by closing the lid, a new type of framework was created on which to create and the catalog that came out of it is spectacular and I hope to talk about more of those games in the future.
The World Ends With You (2007) starts in a conservative way. Gone was how Final Fantasy VII (1997) had invaded the Western imagination by reshaping some of the archetypes of the genre and, now, it had become the very archetype to follow. Neku, the protagonist, is a surly teenager with amnesia not unlike Cloud. Other characters in the game share traits with the game on which Tetsuya Nomura, Takayuki Ohdachi or Tatsuya Kando had already coincided. Shiki has traits of Cloud and Tifa, Beat is not much different from Barrett, the villain maintains a strange link with Neku and physical traits of Sepiroth. What was new before is now repetition.
However, the differences weigh somewhat more. The realistic, modern and current urban environment in which the story is set is an incentive. Trapped in a supernatural game not unlike those in the Gantz (2000), Shibuya Fifteen (2005) or Mirai Nikki (2006) series, they must survive in the main streets of downtown Tokyo by completing objectives while being disturbed by Noises, creatures from this parallel world superimposed on the real world.
This is where some of the console-enabled elements come in. Let’s start because the story takes place on a weekly basis, with each interaction divided into 7 episodes, days or “levels”. This idea allows you to play a mission every day and let the game rest (something that the short battery life of the NDS thanks) but also the more days you leave the console off, the more experience your “pins”, the combat skills, accumulate. These fights take place on the touch screen, using the Stylus to move, shoot or slash enemies depending on the movement we make, a surprisingly fun mechanic that streamlines the similar idea behind Arx Fatalis (2002), Ōkami (2006) or The Void (2008).
The way we define JRPGs in comparison to their Western counterparts is not just a matter of the way we define JRPGs. Another idea is the expressive use of trends: equipping items that improve our stats here has a relationship to certain themes in the game. It’s not just how they initially affect those equipment, but the difference in brands and the places where one type of clothing or another is more fashionable, or the “value” needed to wear certain outfits. As we wear more certain brands, corresponding also to our “pins”, the NPCs around us will begin to imitate us and make that particular brand fashionable in the area.
That is what Neku’s journey is largely about. From a boy isolated from the rest of society to one who opens up and cares about others, there is a struggle in this game that pits individualism and self-expression against collectivism. Alone, neither Neku nor any other player in Shibuya can fight the Noises and yet the plan of one of the villains happens to homogenize people to the point where they lose their own individuality, repeating the same phrase like zombies. We can achieve nothing in solitude but we can also lose our identity in the crowd. Trends allow us to express ourselves, but also underlying our problem of blending in is the problem of losing what makes us unique. The World Ends With You is a unique JRPG, or at least it is until the new sequel comes out this summer.
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