Damn, JRPGs are looking great these days, but what is the cost of this cosmetic overhaul? Tri-Ace, developer of the Star Ocean franchise, gave us a glimpse of their newest engine tech the other day (video here), and it got me thinking about why JRPGs of this era aren't as memorable as the ones I played growing up. I came to the conclusion that while developers such as Square Enix and Tri-Ave are pushing the envelope on visuals, they aren't giving you a world to explore as they once did. Cruising through the clouds in an airship, or trudging through a forest to find a loot and boss filled cave are practically missing on consoles now.
Japan has birthed many of my favorite franchises over the years. Most of these games being of the RPG ilk. I'd spend days or even weeks exploring the expansive worlds, finding what maniacal villains or magical beings lay in my path. Nowadays to find an RPG that allows for such adventuring you have to turn to the bug-riddled open-world games of the West. Elder Scrolls, and Fallout are fantastic games in their own right, but they don't scratch my RPG itch like a group of adventures setting out on a fantastical journey to save the world (or in some cases the universe) from an unstoppable evil. Instead of quirky quests to save the world from an alien invasion in EarthBound, I have to settle for the largely interesting but sometimes bland irradiated wastelands of the Fallout series. I'm mostly fine with this change, but it's sad to leave behind the games that just aren't making adventures grand anymore.
With that said, there seems to be a direct correlation between the rapid upgrade to visuals and the shrinking size of environments in RPGs. With the newly condensed worlds also comes longer development time, another reason for the lack of JRPGs in this generation. As visuals fidelity is pushed to their limits, the time to develop a game like Final Fantasy XIII–a game that took around 5 years to make–goes through the roof . At this point, developers have to realize that a pretty face is a luxury to have, but what really matters is the depth of what the game can offer. Give me expanded story arcs and character development if it means sacrificing texture quality here and there. If the extra time is going to go into the game then make the plot or play mechanics better.
Little of the above is the case for portable games that have taken on the old-school look and feel of the genre due to graphical limitations. The genre hasn't suffered as much when taken on the go, and are my current way to indulge my Japanophile ways, but there's something to be said for sitting on your couch for a weekend and enjoying a nice marathon of a good JRPG on the big screen. Following the current trend of console releases for beloved franchises, I won't be doing that for a while.