Why 2013 was the year of the JRPG
In recent years, it's felt as though JRPGs were in dire straights. There were some gems, like Xenoblade, but releases like that were few and far between. Most new games in the genre appealed to a decidedly niche audience, or wound up hidden away on handhelds. JRPG fans could find stuff to play if they looked hard enough, but that was a far cry from the halcyon days of the PS2.
Now, everything's changed. In this year, we've seen old franchises make spectacular comebacks and had a chance to enjoy brand new IPs. Games that had been completely written off evolved into something amazing. We've been able to go on amazing adventures on our console, and the 3DS has given us plenty of reasons to play JRPGs on the go. Best of all, we've been given lots to look forward to with announcements like Bravely Default, Kingdom Hearts 3, and Persona 5. This is the best year JRPGs have had in a long time, and here are a few of the reasons why.
The year got off to a great start with the release of Ni no Kuni in January. The gorgeous PS3 title, which was developed by both Level-5 and Studio Ghibli, delivered the kind of old-school console experience JRPG fans had been craving for years. The story was heart-warming and the gameplay was excellent, with elements of both Dragon Quest and Pokémon. It was easy to think that it would be the highlight of the year, but the JRPG wasn't done yet.
Less than two weeks later, Fire Emblem: Awakening became a surprise hit. Thanks to its addictive gameplay and fun cast of characters, a franchise on its last legs became a system seller. Part strategy RPG, part dating sim, Awakening somehow managed to make its most niche elements incredibly accessible. It was a title that could be enjoyed by both longtime fans and people who were completely new to the series.
Over the next few months, a slew of solid niche titles were released for both handhelds and consoles. Games like Etrian Odyssey IV, Atelier Ayesha, and Project X Zone weren't for everyone, but they offered some gamers a very good time. Tales of Xillia should have on this list, but it wasn't. Instead, Xillia had the kind of mainstream success that the Tales series hadn't seen since Symphonia was released on the GameCube. Maybe it was the free-form leveling system, or the surprisingly strong story. Whatever the case, Xillia proved Tales games could still make an impact in the west, which was a huge victory.
Of course, Tales wasn't the only big franchise mounting a comeback. Final Fantasy XIV showed that an MMORPG could recover from major missteps with A Realm Reborn. While original flavor XIV was unplayably bad, A Realm Reborn was endlessly playable, and managed to win the most stubborn of naysayers over. It delivered a perfect Final Fantasy experience, and reminded me of why I've loved the series for so long. Hopefully, Square-Enix will use what they learned here in future games.
The excellent Pokémon X and Y dominated the month of October, but it wasn't the only great JRPG released that month. Nippon Ichi went back to the classics with Disgaea D2, a direct sequel to the original Disgaea game. It had all the wackiness you'd expect from a Disgaea title, but it also had a surprising amount of depth. The new personality system made character creation more entertaining than ever, and the new mechanics went a long way towards freshening up the franchise. The title may have gotten lost in the shuffle, but it's sure to be remembered fondly.
The last few months of the year have been somewhat quiet, but that's only to give gamers time to prepare. In the first few months of 2014, we'll be swimming in JRPGs. By February, we'll have Bravely Default and Symphonia Chronicles, and in March, we'll be getting Final Fantasy X/X-2 Remaster. After a long JRPG drought, there's so much to look forward to that it's almost overwhelming.
2013 helped me remember why I love JRPGs. I enjoy all kinds of games, but there's nothing that can compare to setting off on an adventure in a JRPG universe. The games released this year demonstrated that there's still plenty of life in the genre, and I'm excited about what's next. Here's hoping that JRPGs return to their former glory in the years to come.