A helpful guide to Western and Eastern RPGs
As you have probably been able to ascertain from the fact that I have an entire series of columns on this very site dubbed “The Final Fantasy Project,” I have a bit of a thing for RPGs. They’re fun! And I’ve played a lot of them over the years, some of them from the Land of the Rising Sun, others from the Land of the Rapidly Diminishing Water Supply (better known as “California”). Or the Land of the Snows and Hockey (Vancouver?). The point is, there are two different distinct design systems at work when it comes to computer RPGs, that’s what I’m getting at.
Pop culture being what it is, of course these two philosophies have to be at war with one another, and you are expected to have passionate points of view on the matter about which one is better. But some of you might not have time to carefully play through earlier installments of beloved franchises to pick out which one is better, and quite frankly no one should ever be forced to play through several portions of the Ultima series or the Fire Emblem series without the promise of a paycheck. Thus, I’ve assembled a quick guide to both sides, helpfully explaining what these things are with an eye toward pissing everyone off equally.
An Eastern RPG will helpfully identify the protagonist by giving him a sword. He will, under every set of circumstances, be a teenage boy. Spiky hair is likely but not certain. You can expect other characters to regard him with an amount of competence that is inversely proportional to the number of voiced lines he has; no matter what, no one will believe you are particularly special at the start of the game.
A Western RPG will helpfully identify the protagonist because you created the character, thus ensuring that you probably have a seven-foot-tall hunchbacked fanged thing with neon purple hair. You can expect pretty much everyone on creation to regard your character as the savior of the universe, even if he’s done nothing more in the beginning than take two steps forward and be captured.
In an Eastern RPG, your goal at the beginning of the game is not to save the world, but you will inevitably wind up with that as your motivation by the halfway mark. In a Western RPG, your goal at the beginning of the game is to save the world or at least the immediate kingdom. You will accomplish this through several stupid, tedious sidequests.
The ultimate expression of an Eastern RPG is a hallway which you walk down and have several meaningful conversations along the way, interspersed with beautiful landscapes. The ultimate expression of a Western RPG is a huge room with a dragon hidden somewhere, and when you find the dragon, you win.
Western RPGs will fuss around a lot with the inventory system, forcing you to constantly decide whether or not you want to pick up a sword at the risk of further encumbering your character. Eastern RPGs will fuss around with this a lot as well, chiefly by offering a whole lot of stuff that requires you to kick at the corners of every dungeon wall for hours if you ever want to get the coolest sword in the game.
In an Eastern RPG, the final boss will take on a vaguely angelic form and the party will destroy him through means that somehow call on the power of love and friendship and other similarly positive emotions. Western RPGs are similar, except the final boss looks more demonic, and rather than the power of love you tend to kill bosses with the power of jamming two dozen swords directly into the boss monster’s colon. (You do that in Eastern RPGs too, but love is still stated as the delivery vehicle for all those swords.)
A Western RPG will generally offer side activities from the main quest, usually some combination of building a house, farming for crops, fishing, and the like. An Eastern RPG will also offer side activities, which will involve racing, gambling, and playing some other bizarre minigames that have only the most tenuous connection to the main quest. Not that you’ll care, because you’ll be too busy playing the racing minigame.
Most Eastern RPGs will be praised by fans for having engrossing storylines, excellent graphics, and fun combat. Most Western RPGs will be praised by fans for freedom and the wide assortment of third-party mods that somehow should be factored into the evaluation of a game which apparently not good enough to play without at least twenty of them installed.
Western RPGs frequently offer characters multiple paths around obstacles, meaning that instead of killing the boss you can talk him out of attacking, bribe him, or even avoid him altogether. Eastern RPGs tend to prefer giving players a choice between killing the boss or dying to the boss and reloading from a save file.
Western RPGs, especially less ambitious ones, often resemble Middle-Earth with the numbers filed off. Eastern RPGs, especially less ambitious ones, frequently resemble downtown Tokyo with the numbers filed off and a few more trees.
Eastern RPGs generally focus on having their lore locked behind dialogue, requiring you to speak with people to get a picture of the world beyond the storyline while explaining the most relevant details as you go. Western RPGs will feature lore in buckets all over the place that require the equivalent of reading a full encyclopedia to learn all of it – often because it is stored in a literal encyclopedia as a result of the developers assuring you that their world is deep, really, look at all these fake books we wrote for it, aren’t you convinced yet?
Most fans of Eastern RPGs will sneer derisively at fans of Western RPGs, which only feature such terrible innovations as “freedom” and “exploration” and “player choice.” Conversely, Western RPG fans will sneer at Eastern RPGs and their “plots” and “characters” and “actually working perfectly fine from the start rather than requiring two dozen mods from shady websites.”
Western RPGs often incorporate romance plots, allowing your character to choose someone to care for and cherish. These romances often are more progressive than what you might expect to find, allowing for relationships that are gay, bisexual, and diverse. Eastern RPGs often incorporate romance plots as well in which the main character gets his mack on with either the female lead (who is a healer) or the cute monster girl (who is often a healer).
But no matter which side of the divide a game falls on, there is a universal truth to them. Sure, they’re very different experiences, but at the end of the day both either become more obtuse and unapproachable and bloated, or they trim things down and provoke fan cries of being worthless sellouts. And in the end, isn’t that the true test of games, that we can all hate them equally when any changes exist?
Until the sequel comes out, then the last one was great and this one is crap.