When you talk about RPGs, they fall more or less into two sections. Japanese RPGs and Western RPGs. But where a game is made does not define its genre. JRPGs can be made in the West and vice versa, in the same way that Italian food can still be ordered outside of Italy.
So if location doesn’t define these two genres, then what? Taking a closer look at JRPGs and WRPGs, it becomes clear that they are extremely different. JRPGs and WRPGs are different genres. But how exactly are they different?
What is an RPG?
To define the distinctions between JRPG and WRPG, we must first ask ourselves, what are role-playing games in general? There’s a lot to an RPG, but the short version is that an RPG is an RPG. A game where you play as a character.
They usually involve leveling up your character by gaining experience points (XP), completing main quests and/or side quests, and many more RPG terms that every gamer should know. So if both JRPGs and WRPGs incorporate many of the same aspects into their games, why aren’t they just called RPGs?
JRPG and WRPG tell their stories differently
The most obvious difference between JRPG and WRPG is in their narrative. JRPGs tend to tell the story of a particular character. The story of the protagonist is already predetermined. You are only playing it as you progress through the game.
In WRPGs, on the other hand, you usually have more freedom to create your own story. They often have a lot more customization options in terms of your character’s name, appearance, class, and even dialogue options.
In the narrative sense, JRPGs invite you to play a story, while WRPGs invite you to write your own.
JRPGs often have parties
Since JRPGs typically have a much deeper narrative, they often contain more characters. The characters are introduced and the relationships between them are fully explored, almost like a novel. In a video game format, this results in characters joining your party.
Having a party in a video game means that one or more NPC characters will join your party throughout your adventure. They usually help you in battle and are an intrinsic part of the story.
Since most of the time you are creating your own adventure in a WRPG, you are more likely to remain alone in combat for the majority of your game. This is because there is often no guarantee as to how the player’s adventure will actually unfold.
Think of Skyrim, for example. There are hundreds of NPCs in the world of Skyrim. Each player decides where he wants to go and when. They may not even interact with all the NPCs. Creating a story that intertwines with your own in combat for each NPC is impractical in a WRPG.
Combat is often structured differently in JRPG and WRPG
JRPGs and WRPGs can differ not only in the way they tell their stories, but also in the way you play them. Combat is usually a good way to tell them apart. JRPGs are usually more whimsical and fantasy oriented when it comes to their narrative. This is reflected in combat.
JRPGs typically use a turn-based battle system. You are given a set of spells or moves to choose from, and you have an indefinite amount of time to decide what you want to do on your turn. Think of Pokémon battles, for example. You decide what move you want to make on your turn, wait for your opponent to make his move in response, and so on. This can take a lot of stress out of battle and allow you to make well thought out, tactical moves.
WRPGs often use a real-time combat system. This adds to the sense of realism in your adventure as the combat unfolds before your eyes. You have much less time to decide how you want the battle to play out. In this type of combat, you’re forced to make split-second decisions, and the outcome usually depends more on your fighting instincts than tactical problem solving.
JRPGs and WRPGs often have different art styles.
The distinction between fantasy and realism is also present in the artistic styles of the two genres. JRPGs usually have an anime art style. Manga and anime are important parts of Japanese culture, and games inspired by those created there are often expressed in similar ways.
WRPGs tend to be grittier and more realistic in terms of their art style. They have a tendency to be darker and more realistic. You are the character of a WRPG. Realism helps you dive deeper into the experience and become one with your alter-ego.
JRPGs and WRPGs are defined by more than just a region
JRPGs and WRPGs originally got their names because they were independently invented in the region of their namesake. They had similarities, but they were clearly different, meaning they couldn’t fall into the same category. So instead they distinguished themselves by region.
However, this is no longer the case, and games with the structure of a JRPG can, and do, occur in the West and vice versa. Region is no longer a distinctive feature of JRPGs and WRPGs. They really deserve to be recognized for what they are, two distinctly different genres.