The 14 Stages Of Playing A New J-RPG.

“Final Fantasy VIII” was the game that back in 1999 made 13-year-old-me realize that J-RPGs were da fucking bomb. The story was insanely cool, the graphics and music beautiful, the gameplay something I had never seen before. It was then when I truly became a videogaming monster and began seeking out more and more games of its ilk. Yeah, I’m still missing some/many/most classics (I never finished “Chrono Trigger”—fuck me right?) that are either harder to get or, in my eyes, just too boring to bother with.

However, as I played more games of the PlayStation era and then newer, I realized that there was a pretty consistent pattern in my play-throughs, not to mention the patterns the games themselves have because it’s a genre that consists mostly of clichés. Talking to some other nerds I realized that I was not alone, so I made the decision to describe to you folks what happens every goddamn time I play a new J-RPG. Naturally I’ll use some games as examples, but the spoilers will be blacked out for your convenience.


Stage 1. Opening Cinematic: Be Awed By Graphics.
J-RPGs are often sold by graphics alone. Yes, a big series title can very often make the sale before even the first details of gameplay are revealed (new Final Fantasy? Dragon Quest? Star Ocean?), but when new screenshots, trailers and cinematics begin to appear online is when people begin selling the naturally occurring semen—effect of the pre-game excitement—to ensure that they play it on day one. 

And when day one comes in and you behold the opening cinematic, which is designed specifically to blow your fucking brains out, the level of excitement skyrockets.

Whether the game ever lives up to those first moments again depends, but (at least with Squaresoft games), they like to kick off with some razzle dazzle shock and awe.

Possibility of dropping the game at this stage: Very Low.
Games I’ve dropped at this stage: None that I can remember.

Stage 2. First Boss: Finally “Getting” Game Dynamics.
So you play around a bit, many times in a mellow setting with mellow music, getting to know the lead character and his hometown of Quaint Townsville which will probably be destroyed soon. There are tutorials here incorporated into the plot in often contrived ways (skill games in a fair, a combat challenge, training). You’re too confident to listen to all of it and just kinda skim through. You’re probably gonna regret that in the future though.

Possibility of dropping the game at this stage: Moderately low.
Games I’ve dropped at this stage: “Enchanted Arms”, “Shadow Hearts” (shut up).

Stage 3. Plot Begins: Yawn.
After some super mellow moment, many times at night, many times with Possible Love Interest for Lead Character, the first big plot point—more often than not the destruction of Quaint Townsville—happens. Lead Character will most likely learn a new plot-related ability that bleeds into the gameplay, you get to hear the battle music a lot. The first fights will also be pretty slow because the automated tutorials are probably still kicking in. This might be the single most typical moment in J-RPGs; very few ever circumvent it.

After the big twist that kickstarts the plot happens, the game will slow down. And I mean really fucking slow down. At this point, unless the battle system is the breasts, it’s hard to be into the game, because there’s nothing happening in the story that isn’t part of the game’s initial premise so the only thing keeping you playing is that, hopefully, the gameplay is rad (as it did for me in “Jade Coccoon”). If it’s not, you’re probably going to go play “Final Fantasy VI” again instead.

You got a long way to go.

Possibility of dropping the game at this stage: Very high
Games I’ve dropped at this stage: “Rogue Galaxy”, “White Knight Chronicles”.

Stage 4. Endless World Hopping #1: Partying Up.
The plot will take you from one point of the world map to another in seemingly arbitrary turns. Depending on the quality of the writing and design, this will either be lots of fun, or a total drag. Some games will take you into colorful and exciting locations (“Final Fantasy X”, “Tales of Symphonia”, “Grandia III”), while others will have you tread one boring scenario after another (“Ephemeral Fantasia”, “Infinite Undiscovery”).

This is the segment when the party begins to form and cement and it’s the moment when you meet that one character you wish was the lead—the one you’re gonna name your favorite and always favor in terms of weapons/armor/abilities.

Yeah this first “world hopping” segment might be either awesome or terribly boring—if the latter it’s going to be because the main plot is still barely referenced and hidden under the tapestry of aimless threads you’re following (remember Penelo’s kidnapping in “Final Fantasy XII” or those bullshit initial field trips in “Lost Odyssey”?). Other games will keep you playing because there is actually a story going on on top of the gameplay (“Xenogears”, or fuck you, for me it's a good example: “Final Fantasy XIII”). If you stick around to play it, the game is hopefully fun in its battle system and generally still easy enough to make you not skip any battles. That leads right into the next stage.

Possibility of dropping the game at this stage: Medium.
Games I’ve dropped at this stage: “Threads of Fate”, “Ephemeral Phantasia”, “Koudelka”.

Stage 5. Feeling Absolutely Invincible.
So much unintentional grinding has power leveled you to the point that you feel way to confident in your party and unless you really enjoy the battle system, you might start skipping fights so you can move the story along. This is a huge mistake you will pay for later.

You’re still being hand-led by the plot at this point, but your level is high enough that you breeze through the dungeon crawling and field exploration. You’re not likely to stop playing at this point because this is also when the story begins to move towards its actual goal. Some minor twists happen. This is like leaving Midgar in “Final Fantasy VII”, or everything after Lavitz’s death in “The Legend of Dragoon”.

Possibility of dropping the game at this stage: Low.
 Games I’ve dropped at this stage: “Xenoblade Chronicles”, “Final Fantasy V”.

Stage 6. Endless World Hopping #2
And here comes another moment in which the plot will take the reins and you’ll just fight through it discovering new details about the characters’ lives—quite possibly through flashbacks—visiting some new edges of the world previously unseen. This is the second most dangerous moment for a gamer because unless the plot is actually compelling, and at this point it likely isn’t, you’re still far enough from finishing the game to be tempted to just stop playing and move on to a better game.

Remember the road to Archades in “Final Fantasy XII” or the first time in Sylvarant in "Tales of Symphonia"? This could very well be a nightmare.

Something big needs to happen soon. At least, if it doesn’t, there’s going to be a breather.

Possibility of dropping the game at this stage: High.
Games I’ve dropped at this stage: “Final Fantasy XIII-2”, “Chrono Trigger” (shut up).

Stage 7. Big Twist: Suddenly Into The Story.
Holy fucking shit. Something huge just happened in the story and suddenly you really want to know what’s gonna happen next. Even the shittiest J-RPGs have that one moment that makes you actually want to keep playing (Leonid’s death in “Infinite Undiscovery”).

This is very often the moment you will forever remember as a—quite literal—game changer. Id’s identity in “Xenogears”, the apocalypse of “Final Fantasy VI”, Aeris’ death in “Final Fantasy VII”, the alternate world of “Grandia III”, KOS-MOS’ first Black Box in “Xenosaga Episode I”. All moments you’re not likely to forget, and might even drive you to save a separate file just to watch and play again.

So yeah, you want to keep playing. That is, unless, except the big twist did nothing for you and your friend said “Well if you didn’t enjoy that I don’t see you enjoying the rest of the game.”

Possibility of dropping the game at this stage: Very low.
Games I’ve dropped at this stage: None.

Stage 8. First Chance to Side Quest.
This is very likely the halfway mark of the game, many times the beginning of a new disc, and the first real breather you get after Big Twist shakes—literally—the entire game world. This is a moment that can be skipped entirely but is not very much suggested because there’s inevitably one dungeon or one boss coming up that will wipe its ass with your party if you’re not properly prepared. This is one of the first times the world is quite open to your party, and you’re given some kind of airship.

So you sidequest.

You begin looking for the coolest available weapons and armor which you only get through some kind of fetch quest. You either backtrack to previous locations to play some minigames or move on to new areas to explore. Think of the first time you get to fly Balamb Garden in “Final Fantasy VIII”, or getting the airplane in “Grandia III”. This is the first chance you have to actually explore the game without the plot urging you to move on. It’s very fun and if it isn’t, it’s skippable.

Possibility of dropping the game at this stage: Very Low.
Games I’ve dropped at this stage: None.

Stage 9. Feeling Absolutely Invincible Again.
When you finally take your party to the spot in which the plot will continue, your party is completely ‘roided up with the finest weapons, armor and abilities the hours you spent side-questing granted you.

Well, either that, or you just didn’t want to waste more time and you actually skipped the chance to make the rest of the game ultra easy and you’ll suffer for it soon. The plot continues to move along as it rears towards the finale, generally through a couple more twists. Much like in stage 6, it’s become easy enough that you breeze through it and thankfully the story is much more interesting at this point.

Sadly, one of the most dangerous parts of a play-through is just around the corner.

Possibility of dropping the game at this stage: Low.
Games I’ve dropped at this stage: None.

Stage 10.1. That One Boss That’s Harder Than The Last.
J-RPGs can be cruel. Yes, there are tough games in other genres that require a shit-load of skill and coordination to beat, but very rarely are they actually cruel like J-RPGs can be.

There’s always this one asshole that puts a full-on halt to everything you were enjoying in the game, and s/he shows up precisely when the plot begins to gel and as you’re approaching the finale. Call him Evrae or Seymour Flux in “Final Fantasy X”, the Pope in “Xenosaga Episode II”, Doga & Unei in “Final Fantasy III”, that asshole in “Dragon Quest VIII”, there’s always one jackass that will give you more trouble than anyone in the game had to that point.

He’ll also be tougher than the final boss for some reason. This can be particularly frustrating if you didn’t grind and sidequest enough during stage 8, because now you’re gonna have to back-track and do exactly that.

After all, you’re way too close to the finale to stop now.

10.2. Power Leveling For That One Boss That’s Harder Than The Last.
So you go back and do everything you were too lazy to do before. Collect the most important weapons and armor, find optional party members that will prove extremely helpful, etc.

Oh, you will also find one way to abuse the battle system that will completely break the game from that point on. After way too many hours of a completely halted game, you go back and completely cream that boss that gave you so much goddamn trouble. Good for you. Time for a reward.

Possibility of dropping the game at this stage: High.
Games I’ve dropped at this stage: “Vagrant Story”.

Stage 11. That One Crazy Good Cinematic.
It’s funny how developers always know which boss will give gamers a headache, and he’s generally put right before one really cool cinematic that pretty much leaves only the final dungeon before you. This functions as an incentive to just finish the game because you’re very close. One of my favorite examples of this stage is “Start Your Engines” from “Final Fantasy XIII”, of which I talked at length here.

At this point your characters are prepared for the final confrontation, the plot has almost completely gelled, and there are only a few preparations before one last dungeon crawl. It would be almost stupid to stop playing a game at this point . . .

. . . which I totally fucking did with “The Legend of Dragoon”. To be fair, I did want to go back to it and finish, yet my memory card became corrupt for some goddamn reason.

Possibility of dropping the game at this stage: Very low.
Games I’ve dropped at this stage: “The Legend of Dragoon”.

Stage 12. Preparatory Side Questing & Grinding.
This one doesn’t always happen because unless the final boss is infamously difficult, there is no more reason to not go directly against it.

Unless, of course, you’re one of those perfectionists and want to go kill the real toughest boss in the game, often hidden in some god-forsaken dungeon and is just absolutely fucking impossible to beat. I’m talking about Lucifer in “Nocturne”, or Yiazmat A.K.A. ‘Fuck That Shit’ from “Final Fantasy XII”.

But if you just want to finish the game bare-bones either because you want to play something else or you’re just more interested in the story than the size of your R-Peen-G (c), you do the most basic preparations. Stack up on items, get the most accessible weapons and abilities if you haven’t yet, and go into the last dungeon.

Possibility of dropping the game at this stage: Very low.
Games I’ve dropped at this stage: None.

Stage 13. Final Dungeon & Final Battle/s.
Memoria is my all-time favorite Final Fantasy location.
Some games tend to have absurdly long  final dungeons (Eureka in “Final Fantasy III” which I still consider the most cruel bad joke in that franchise) while others just kinda throw the last bad guy in your face after a couple of rooms (“Infinite Undiscovery”). No matter which one it is, there’s always that excitement when you’re close to finishing a game like this.

Which of course can go to hell if the final dungeon is too frustrating or the final battle ridiculously difficult. What, more hours of grinding and power levelling? No, fuck that. I'd rather just see the ending on YouTube.

You get to the last chamber (often surrounded by stars and space porn), hear the Final Boss music, and stop being conservative about your use of items. You also get to use that ability you had been saving for a rainy day. After four or five different ‘forms’ and a surprisingly easy fight, you finally get to see the asshole die and the world is saved. You can now put the controller down.

Possibility of dropping the game at this stage: Moderate.
Games I’ve dropped at this stage: None.

Stage 14. Ending Cinematic.
While most J-RPGs want to sell the game by putting a shitload of their budget and effort into the opening and one memorable middle-of-the-way cinematic, they generally also try to wow you with the ending. Often coupled with a song, you get to see the way the story wraps. Very rarely is there some big twist at this point—generally we just see our heroes getting to hear Big Bad’s final speech and then escape the crumbling premises.

There’s something very fulfilling about seeing the finale of the game. Even the lamest ones can be moving once you realize that you’re watching the culmination of ~50 hours of gameplay and that every thing that enraged you about it is done, not to mention that you finally got to see the plot wrap up (well unless you’re playing “Xenosaga”).

Yeah this is pure satisfaction, at least for me. If there was a lot left in the game for you, there is always the optional final stage:

Optional Final Stage. Side Questing for the LULZ/New Game.
Sometimes the game is so goddamn good you just don’t want to say goodbye to the characters and gameplay just because the story is done. Some games allow you to keep playing despite Big Bad having been defeated, and give you the open world to explore. A lot of gamers will use this possibility to, of course, try and finish the game at 100%—something I’ve frankly never bothered with, though I came pretty close in "Final Fantasy VIII".

In the end that’s that. Put the game back on the shelf and go to forums to read fan theories and plot analyses. You're done.

J-RPGs are all about clichés and consistency (“Shin Megami Tensei” and generally Atlus games notwithstanding), and breaking the rules often results in fans showing you their ass as they walk out on you. But I think there’s something romantic in that consistency. Despite knowing the general structure of most games, it’s always cool to play them for what new detail they’re gonna offer, or what plot twist is gonna rock this one.

The best ones are the ones that kick your ass and make you waste your entire fucking week in rage, only to make you tear up with a crazy ending, a beautiful song (sometimes both), and the promise of more.
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About The Damn Beast

Pre-op trans-minotaur, sci-fi/fantasy/horror author, metal singer, videogame journalist, pop culture blogger. I also lift heavy things and put them down again repeatedly to occupy more space.
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