Darksiders Collection

Darksiders Genesis vs Warcraft III story comparison (Video)

Note: the following text is the script of the video.

The lore and characters of the Darksiders franchise are pretty epic, but I don’t feel the same way about the plots of the individual games. A lot of story time in Darksiders is spent doing errands for other characters before they will help you, which seems beneath the, uh, horsemen of the apocalypse

It’s worst in the most recent game, Darksiders Genesis, which keeps the characters on a hamster wheel almost from beginning to end, without the those characters or the situation they are in developing in any impactful way.

The structure of this game may be a limited factor. Darksiders Genesis is a linear sequence of missions, where most of the story has to occur before or after the gameplay sections. But there’s another game with almost exactly this structure, also set in an epic fantasy world, and it has one of my favourite stories in gaming, and that is Warcraft 3.

What makes Warcraft III work is that things change: characters have goals and make progress towards those goals, they make decisions that cause the story to proceed in one direction or another, and the circumstances and the world change as a result of what happens in the playable sections.

Some examples. At the start of Warcraft 3:

  • Thrall needs to lead his people to Kalimdor. He is given the instruction by the profit, but the path to accomplishing this goal is determined by his own decision. He chooses to team up with the trolls, then he chooses steal the humans ships so the orcs can sail away to the new continent. Thrall is setting in motion the changes to the state of the narrative.
  • The next playable hero is Arthus, who decides to purge Stratholme instead of listening to his friends, leading him down the path of vengeance along which he is ultimately cursed.
  • As a result, the human kingdom of Lordaron falls to the undead… permanently. I think in World of Warcraft, the undead still have control of Lordaron, and that’s 20 real-world years of storytelling later! Those are some pretty big consequences for Arthus’s decisions, and those occurred early in the game. 

To compare, the first missions of Darksiders Genesis:

  • The horsemen, War and Strife are send to the void by Samael.
  • Then are told by Samuel’s associate Vulgrim to find a magical crystal.
  • Then Vulgrim tells them to find the eye of scrying,
  • Then Vulgrim tells them to collect a map,
  • Then Vulgrim tells to kill the demon Mammon.

This is not a narrative, this is a checklist. 

War and Strife do what they are told because they don’t seem to have any better plan, even though some of these missions benefit Vulgrim or Samuel more than they benefit the horsemen. 

In Warcraft 3, at the halfway point of the story, characters, the world, everything, is in a very different state to how it started. 

In Darskiders Genesis, at the halfway point of the story, we’re still in the void getting ordered around by Vulgrim and Samael. Nothing of substance has changed, and we don’t seem to be appreciably closer to the overarching goal of finding Lucifer.

This story around this sequence of missions has something in common with a sit-com: everything have to return to the status quo at the end of each episode.

The decision to find the magical artifacts could have been made by one of the horsemen, instead of Vulgrim. You might expect War, going his name, to be good at strategy, so have him make a plans about their next course of action, instead of him just being told what to do.

After we find the character Dis, she could have an ongoing role in the story, instead of just becoming a store keeper. Dis is Vulgrim’s slave, but the horsemen never free her. So maybe she escapes, sides with Lucifer, becomes a new thorn in our side, have her change and develop.

When the horsemen defeat Mammon, they find a vault of gold, and the game takes pains to explain that they cannot use use any of it. Well, why not? Have the horsemen take control of the wealth and use it to their advantage, or just use his lair as a new base to launch their next mission from.

Besides, what are the consequence of killing Mammon? Is there a next in line to his throne? Do his leaderless forces join Lucifer?

Now the horsemen are taking some active steps towards their goals… but shouldn’t Lucifer be taking some active steps against the horsemen? Like, actually sending some of his agents to kill them instead of being an absent antagonist, in the background for the entire game?

And probably most importantly, this game sets up a reluctant alliance between the horsemen and Samael, a partnership of convenience. It’s probably the topic that gets the most lines of dialogue devoted to it in the whole game. Shouldn’t there be some conclusion to that, some payoff? The horsemen should probably at some point say, actually, this deal doesn’t work for us any more, and leave, making an enemy out of Samael. Or Samael should do the same. It should come to a boiling point. They refer to this tense alliance constantly, and do nothing with it.

It’s a shame when a game has cool lore and cool world building, but doesn’t put the thought or effort into the narrative of the events of the game.

It’s especially a shame when it’s a game that is as otherwise good as Darksiders Genesis. It has gorgeous animation, addictive exploration, a clever system for strengthening the characters, and fun combat. The one thing that lets it down is the plot.

Souls Collection

Why Everything is Dark Souls

Every film wants to be a cinematic universe, and every game wants to be Dark Souls — according to some. 

The cynic inside us already has an answer to why: the games of From Software have a large, paying fanbase, and other studios want a slice of that pie. 

A manager who sits at least three floors away from the creative team (if not in a different office entirely) measures the correlation between different Steam tags and estimated sales, and concludes that if they can slap the “soulslike” label on the company’s next game, potential earnings increase by 74%.

A PowerPoint presentation may have been used to convey the message.

If the omnipresence of romantic teenage vampires was the telltale sign that the book market was riding on the popularity of Twilight, there are a few tropes in which we can see a dedication to the From Software formula in the videogame industry:

  • An intimate, close-up, over-the-shoulder third-person perspective
  • Weighty combat actions with a long wind-up, long recovery
  • Bonfires that save progress but reset enemies
  • A stamina bar that is drained by all actions, including dodges and basic attacks

It’s hard to deny: these things are common in action games where they were not before.

In God of War

God of War III vs God of War (2018)

In Darksiders

Darksiders II vs Darksiders III

In games by Team Ninja

Ninja Gaiden vs Nioh

Some studios seem to have built their entire business model on the trend

Lords of the Fallen by Deck13, also the developer of The Surge, another Soulslike.

Lords of the Fallen screenshot

New action games love to use Hidetaka Miyazaki’s masterpieces as a blueprint

Upcoming Black Myth: Wukong and Lies of P.

However, to me, this does not represent creative laziness, but creative passion. The altar that Miyazaki built is revered by creators as much as consumers. Developers have played Dark Souls, been inspired by naturalistic level design, eye-catching art direction, high level of tension and rewarding combat encounters.

If you’re not a fan of Souls, this might not sound so great. There are many elements of Souls that are like marmite: you either love them or hate them:

  • Backtracking
  • Unexplained mechanics
  • Save points that work like bonfires
  • Runbacks before boss encounters
  • No difficulty settings
  • Stamina management

But it’s not like every third-person action game is moving in this direction

Astral Chain screenshot
Astral Chain

My view is that the third-person melee action genre, a genre that I love, has been reinvigorated in recent years, and Dark Souls had a part to play in that.

Yes, there are more games out there that look like Dark Souls, but also more games in this genre in general. There might even be more diversity in the genre than ever before.

As a closing word, remember that trends come and go. I fully expect more studios to drift away from the Souls style within a few years.

…though, as these cycles go I, expect it will come back again. Love it or hate it, Dark Souls has cast a spell on the industry, and to get rid of it entirely is a challenge that goes far beyond Ornstein or Smough. 

JRPG Collection

Evolution of Healers in JRPGs

Magical healers have had a role in mythology, religion and fantasy literature since forever. You’ve heard of Jesus of Nazareth? Total healer. 

We will come back to him later. In role playing games, healers were there even before computers. The first edition Dungeons and Dragons (1974) gave rules for three types of characters: fighting men, magic-users, and clerics. It is the latter that concerns us. 

The roster of curing classes expanded in the expansions. In Dungeons & Dragons Supplement I: Greyhawk, the paladin made his RPG debut. In Supplement III: Eldrich Wizardry, we meet the druid for the first time. Rangers and bards also had restorative spells or abilities, to a lesser extent. 

These classes were the foundations for in early CRPGs. Thus in the Ultima series we find Dupre the paladin and Jaana the druidess, some of the earliest named healers in videogames. 

We can draw a line from these healing trailblazers to the world of JRPGs — starting, as many things do, with Dragon Quest

Moonbrooke: The start of an archetype? (1987)

Princess of Moonbrooke from Dragon Quest II

This female princess cleric establishes norms many other would abide by, yet most people don’t even know her name. 

At least, not a consistent one. She is known as the Princess of Moonbrooke, and in later appearances has the name Purin (after “pudding”), or Princessa in the west — usually. 

In the game she hails from, Dragon Quest II, her name is randomly generated, a holdover from pen and paper RPGs where parties were rolled, not pre-written.

What the game does tell us about her is that she is a princess of Moonbrooke castle, she is beautiful, and before she joins the party she is stolen away by the game’s main villain. And if that all sounds about right for a JRPG healer, well, we’re off to a flying start. 

The JRPG healer stereotype

In Moonbrooke we see a number of traits that make up the stereotypical main healer of a JRPG party. Such characters, which pop up all across the genre, have most or all of the following traits:

  • a young adult women with striking looks
  • with a kind and timid personality
  • with low physical attacking ability but high magical power
  • has royal lineage or some other destiny by birthright
  • is often the love interest for the male main character

How did this stereotype come to be? We’ll explore that, but first let’s look at some other examples that show that not all early JRPG healers fit into this box.

Minwu: The first white mage (1988)

Minwu from Final Fantasy II

The primary healing class in Final Fantasy is the white mage. The white mage has had a place in the series since the very first game, in which they could be promoted into a white wizard, who, though nameless, had a vaguely masculine look to them.

The first named white mange in the series debuted in the sequel, Final Fantasy II. Winwu is a very different looking first healer than Moonbrooke in Dragon Quest II — and why wouldn’t they be? In the context of the the non-prescriptive nature of Dungeons & Dragons character creation, which these games were inspired by, the ranks of clerics would be filled by all types of people with all backgrounds.

Winwu is experienced in battle by the time the party meet him. He is a mentor to the party and willing to lay down his life for the rebel cause. This committed and hardened character feels uncommon for somebody in his role. 

A battle medic needs to get their hands dirty; Minwu is one of the few healers in the series that makes us believe that he would.

Expanding casts (1990-91)

As the size of the casts of JRPG expanded — from a measly one in Dragon Quest (1986), to eight in Dragon Quest IV (1990) — games found room for multiple healers. In Dragon Quest IV, we see two very different, but equally traditional, archetypes: that of a paladin and a cleric. 

Kiryl from Dragon Quest IV

Kiryl: A paladin appears

Games and stories often feature a connection between healing and religion: the skill is the domain of priests. This connection is intuitive, as such professions centre on supporting members of their community. It is somewhat mystifying that fantasy communities do not have dedicated doctors, but only religious men moonlighting — but I digress. Let us introduce our first priest.

Kiryl is steadfast in his devotion to his god, which contributes to the main joke of his character: the tension between his physical attraction to Aylena and his commitment to purity. In battle, he is a paladin through and through, with access to the full suite of healing spells as well as buffs to defence and a firm sword arm. 

Kiryl is not the best practical choice of healer, though, because due to a quirk of the game’s AI  he prefers to cast instant-death spells. The better healer in the game is one of the twins. 

Meena/Porom: Yin and yang

Porom from Final Fantasy IV

The duality of white magic and black magic sometimes arises in the form of characters, too. In Dragon Quest IV we have Maya and Meena. One, a rambunctious, dancing mage, the other a reserved, fortune-telling healer. 

Funnily enough, a very similar dynamic appears in Final Fantasy IV with the twins Porom and Palom. In both games, one twin casts offensive magic and the other heals the party. 

Porom and her brother are just five years old, not typically a ideal age to undertake dangerous adventures. Magic is what excuses this questionable choice in companions. We can accept that magical aptitude can outpace physical development in this fantasy world. 

And though small in stature, Porom and Palom are both large in heart. Once again, the black mage of the duo is the unruly one, the white mage more calculating, but neither is reserved: Polom is quite willing, eager even, to clip her brother around the ear when he deserves it, and make decisions for the group, who trust her judgement. 

Porom is a reassuring early sign that healers can be proactive, full of energy, and take key roles in the story.

Rosa: The purest

Rosa from Final Fantasy IV

The other main healer in Final Fantasy IV is Rosa, the first female white mage to be introduced in the Final Fantasy franchise. 

Rosa’s character is simple and pure, denying ornamentation or complexity. She is the centre point on a love triangle involving the main character, Cecil, and his rival, Kain. She is not a princess, though is familiar with court life in her hometown of Baron. Her primary character traits are kindness and devotion to her friends (to Cecil especially). She rarely causes waves in the story except when she is immobilised by desert fever, or kidnapped by the villain — she is generally a passive character. 

Rosa does not challenge our stereotypes but sits comfortably within them. Not all love interests are active characters. Rosa plays her part adequately, and can be seen as the foundation for many similar characters for decades to come. She is an important character in the franchise history. though not the most exciting one. 

But now let’s try and answer a question: why “white mage” is a commonly chosen class for the female love interest?

Women and healing

Traditional ideas of femininity dovetail into the female healer archetype easily. The female physique doesn’t seem to fit a class that relies on big muscles, but there is no reason to disregard a magical class. On the same line of thinking, stereotypical female nature lends itself to a supportive role.

Princess Peach from Super Mario RPG

In 1996, we see these stereotypes in action. Princess Peach had been playable in an RPG before Super Mario RPG (1996). She could have become anything. A mage? A tank? But of course, Princess Peach is the healer. Resembling Moonbrooke and Rosa, she is a shoo-in for the role, ticking all the boxes of the stereotype.  

Thankfully, from the start we see examples like Minwu, or Myau from Phantasy Star (1987) — in which game the only female character had a more physical role in battle. The stereotypes were not widespread or rigidly adhered to, but they did appear to have some staying power. 

Cecil and Rosa: The cure couple

We’ve already seen how Final Fantasy IV contributed to JRPG healer lore, but there something important we haven’t even touched on yet: the main character is also a paladin, making a very rare example of both the main character and the love interest of the game being part of a healing clas. 

It’s not too uncommon for a main character to have some healing potential. It’s a good way to balance the early portions of the game, when you might not have access to all characters. Alice from Phantasy Star was another capable healer. But usually the balanced main character can delegate to a dedicated (and more capable) healer later on, allowing the game’s poster character to show off more of their offensive abilities (and take more of the glory). 

However, it’s unusual that the main character to be the party’s main healer. This trait is part of what gives Ness of Earthbound a unique flavour. 

Aggressive healers (1994-2001)

With Cecil and Ness, we saw healers taking more mixed, offensive roles. 

In Marle in Chrono Trigger (1995), we have a typical ranger, sporting a bow, a suite of healing spells, and complete with a feistier personality than any healer before her.

But why bring a crossbow when you can bring a gun? One of my favourite healers, Billy from Xenogears (1998), perfectly demonstrates how a character can be a “healer with a nasty bite”.

Make no mistake, he is kind, he is rational, and he is even a man of the cloth — a cleric in the most literal sense. On the other hand, he wields a pair of pistols like a cowboy, has a rather impressive damage output, and is certainly not afraid to take charge of a situation.

These are examples of healers becoming more active and less one-dimensional. The final examples in this article follow the same trend but take it in a different direction, resulting in one of the most popular healer subtypes.

A new archetype: the summoner

Garnet/Dagger from Final Fantasy IX

Once upon a time in the series, Final Fantasy summoners were an alternative black mage. Your summons were elemental bombs in a monster-themed wrapper. In Final Fantasy IV your strongest black mage, Rydia, was also your summoner, because why not: it’s roughly the same role. 

However, Rydia’s descendants in spirit, Garnet and Eiko of Final Fantasy IX (2000), took a totally different approach. They were a healer/summoner hybrid, allowing them to do massive damage as well as massive healing. That made them a bit of a safe, more alike with Tellah than Rydia.

This new archetype proved popular, and was repeated in the very next game, for Yuna in Final Fantasy X (2001). 

Up to this point, we have expected healers to have limited damage output, so giving them access to the most destructive abilities in the game is a pretty radical twist in itself.

But it goes a bit further than that: it gives the archetypical main female character something more to do in the story. Both Garnet and Yuna are similar in this respect, summoners in games where eidolons/aeons have more significance than in any game before. A very welcome change. 

Yuna from Final Fantasy X

Yuna: The healer-saviour

You don’t have to look hard to see that Yuna could be an analogue to Jesus. She heals wounds, she is a preacher of sorts, and she is instructed to die for our sins — literally, sacrifice herself to defeat a monster called “Sin”. Yuna also walks on water and guides people’s souls to the afterlife.

She entirely fits the healer conventions, too. She is a princess (the daughter of high summoner Braska), she is quiet, kind, devoted and beautiful. She is Rosa in all these respects.

What makes her interesting is what she adds on top of those conventions. She does fight against a potentially tragic destiny, and she does wield unimaginable destructive power. It’s the combination that makes Yuna such a compelling character, and one of our favourite healers of all time.


So we haven’t come very far in 2000 years, but we came quite far in 20. The role of healer in 1991 was one-dimensional, but over time hybrid classes were allowed to flourish and the characters become more complex and had a greater role in the story. 

Healers are as popular today as ever. One of the most popular characters in Final Fantasy XIV is Y’Shtola. One of the most popular characters in Overwatch is Mercy.

As long as there are games with combat, there will be a need for specialists to patch up our heroes. And sometimes, they are the heroes themselves.

List of Healers

These are the healers that appeared in this article. All are candidates for the best healers in JRPGs:

  • Princess of Moonbrooke/Purin/Princessa (Dragon Quest II, 1987)
  • Myau (Phantasy Star, 1987)
  • Minwu (Final Fantasy II, 1988)
  • Kiryl (Dragon Quest IV, 1990)
  • Meena Mahabala (Dragon Quest IV, 1990)
  • Porom (Final Fantasy IV, 1991)
  • Rosa Joanna Farrell (Final Fantasy IV, 1991)
  • Princess Peach (Super Mario RPG, 1996)
  • Ness (Earthbound/Mother 2, 1994)
  • Garnet Til Alexandros XVII (Final Fantasy IX, 2000)
  • Eiko Carol (Final Fantasy IX, 2000)
  • Yuna (Final Fantasy X, 2001)

What Avatar: The Way of Water did to me

Avatar 2 recaptures the magic of the first film without feeling like a retread — mostly. 

With the world of Pandora and the way of the Navi explained in the first movie, the sequel seems like the time to build on those foundations and tell a new, more complex story. 

I wanted Avatar: The Way of Water to do Star Wars: expand in a far flung, arms sweeping sort of way. Flamboyantly. Big space politics, new sentient species, strange ideas that are more than a step away from what we’ve already seen.

Instead, Cameron meanders pleasantly to a nearby island cluster, where the locals still have blue skin, but a slightly different shade of blue. 

If this sounds like criticism, wait until you see it in motion. The world of the water tribe is worth a film to itself. It is not with dramatic, superficial variety that Cameron is expanding his world, but in the aggregate of many meaningful details.

The lands of the Metkayina clan are sometimes less fantastical than locations from the first film, but as these suspended wicker abodes show, they are still exotic and beautiful. Image from Pandorapedia.

In a way, it is the opposite of Star Wars, where you can cross a billion miles in a second to meet a thousand interchangeable aliens. On Pandora, you leave your forest and the other blue people laugh at you for having a different shaped tail. Honestly, much more realistic.

Deeper fidelity, deeper sentimentality: those seem to be the goals of Avatar 2. Sully’s new children (some biological, some adopted, each with a personality of their own) make up the emotional core of the film. 

The multiple times I got choked up, the children were to blame. 

When the film took a few seconds to slow down and lovingly explore the details of the new environment, it was Kiri’s unique connection with this nature that elevated these affecting moments above similar scenes in other movies. 

When the danger ratcheted up, it was the heightened adrenaline of the children and the parents that totally encompassed me in the action. 

I’m a sucker for a family dynamic in films, and The Way of Water does it well. 

Kiri, one of the new generation of Navi. The fidelity of the hair, the subtlty of the expressions and body language — truely the most lifelike computer generated characters in a film yet. Image from Pandorapedia.

In some regards, Cameron doesn’t move far enough away from the first Avatar. In particular, the villain, Colonel Quaritch, who is no more interesting that he was in the first film. 

He learns the way of the Na’vi, which seems like a great excuse for a redemption arc. This would have left a vacancy for a new antagonist at the end of the film… but alas. This film, as did the previous one, resolves itself with a showdown between Sully and Colonel Quaritch. A good fight scene, but a tedious narrative repetition. 

Another disappointment is the scale of the conflict. The sequel starts well in this regard, jumping immediately into a new planetary war. But at the height of the third act, the stakes are no greater than Sully’s family, a few tens of water tribe warriors, and a school of large fish. 

I’m happy for a sequel getting more personal, but when the conflict is already similar to the first movie it is hard not to make comparisons. In Avatar, the fate of the whole forest was palpable. In this film, does the fate of the ocean hang in the balance? It doesn’t seem so. 

You would think it would be hard to care as much about the character on the right as the character on the left. You may be surpised. Image from Pandorapedia.

At the end, we are left with open conflicts for the next film to deal with. The sacred words of the water tribe state that “the way of water has no beginning and no end”. As a middle film in this franchise, that is unfortunately what this feels like. 

In the one-day complete Avatar five-film epic cycle, if The Way of Water hadn’t introduced new characters then it would have risked being skipped in marathons. That’s how little has changed in the broader conflict by the end.

But’s it’s not the franchise building that matters. It isn’t the climax that makes this film a worthy sequel and blockbuster. It isn’t the wit of the writing or even the plot, which frankly requires Sully to make some very questionable decisions. It is the slower second act, which once again transports us to a fantasy world that no other film has the ambition to attempt. Love it or hate it, Avatar did it, and The Way of Water did it again. 

JRPG Collection

Western-Style JRPGs: A Brief Overview

Where do we start when it comes to Western-style JRPGs? Perhaps we should get clear about what we are looking for. After all, the wording is ambiguous.

Does a game with JRPG mechanics that was made by a Western company meet the definition? If you believe that a JRPG must, categorically, come from Japan (as the name “Japanese Role Playing Game” indicates), then perhaps not. In that case, a “western-style JRPG” could simply mean one with a Western attitude to gameplay systems, though it was made in the East.

Alternatively, it could mean a Japanese game without traditional Japanese aesthetics (eg. not inspired by manga). Dark Souls (2011) might fit into this category… but that brings up the debate of whether Dark Souls is an RPG in the first place. 

We haven’t even started, but we can already see that this is a sticky subject. 

Perhaps we should start with the history. Cultural cross-contamination has been at play in the JRPG genre from the very start. Wizardry (1981), the dungeon crawler invented by students of Cornell University in New York, became a tremendous influence on Yuji Horii, the creative force behind Dragon Quest (1986).

And he isn’t the only one. Wizardry reached such heights of popularity in Japan in the 1980s that it might not be an exaggeration to say that all of the early pioneers of RPGs in Japan could trace their influences, game-to-game, to Wizardry in only a step or two.  

Today, the Wizardry series is owned by a Japanese corporation, who continue to make entries in the series, though with a slightly more manga-inspired character design. One of the first games to come out of the Japanese “Wizardry Renaissance” was Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls (2009)

This meeting of east and west is a good starting point for the discussion – Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls

A Japanese company gaining control of an American RPG franchise is a little unusual. Just as rare is an American company getting the opportunity to work on a Japanese RPG franchise. But did you know it almost happened with the biggest JRPG franchise of all, Final Fantasy? The cancelled game Fortress, which started production in 2008, was due to be a spin-off of Final Fantasy XII developed by the Swedish studio behind Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, Grin. Sadly (I think), it never saw the light of day. 

However, it is not so rare for western and Japanese designers to collaborate, as was the case with Secret of Evermore (1995). It is almost an entry into the Mana series, taking its inspiration from Secret of Mana and developed by Square, but it was developed entirely by Square’s North American division. In fact, it was never even released in Japan. This makes it something of a poster child of the western-style JRPG. 

Nintendo Life: Was there a lot of emphasis placed on making sure Secret of Evermore had a very “American” feel to it?

Brian Fehdrau: Yes, very much so. That was practically our Prime Directive, so to speak, coming straight down from Starfleet Command over at Square Co. Ltd. in Japan, our mother company. We were, simply put, to make an American-flavored Secret-of-Mana-like game.

Interview with Brain Fehdrau, lead programmer on Secret of Evermore
Another contender for poster child of the Western JRPG – Secret of Evermore

Despite leaning on American cultural references, Evermore was set in a fantasy universe. To contrast, let’s next look at JRPGs with western-inspired settings. Sometimes described as Japanese Americana,  and released in the same year as Evermore, Earthbound (1995) is the most well-known example. You might not find the towns of Onett and Fourson on a USA map, but they do a charming imitation of a mid-western suburb and of the Empire State, respectively. Yet Earthbound was created entirely in Japan, in the offices of Nintendo itself.

In the same category (well, for the purposes of this section of the article only), Shadow Hearts (2001), developed by Tokyo-based Sacnoth Inc. by former employees of Square, foregos most of the typical Japanese fantasy tropes. Instead, it gives us a tale of an alternate history largely set in foggy 1913 Britain. 

Shadow Heart’s aesthetic, though darker than the average Final Fantasy, is still drawn from anime. For a game with character designs based on an American style of illustration, let’s jump across the ocean and look at our first “American-developed JRPG”. Battle Chasers: Nightwar (2017), might be distinct from most JRPG in terms of artstyle and country of origin, but it’s hard to deny that this turn-based battler captures the spirit of the eastern genre admirably. 

Battle Chasers: Nightwar battle screen
Battle Chasers: Nightwar

Where Dragon Quest has Akira Toriyama, Battle Chasers: Nightwar has Joe Madureira, the well known American comic-book artist setting the artistic direction. It is refreshing to see an JRPG with an uncompromising, almost stereotypical American look, straight from a comic book. 

The next example is again western developed, but stars characters from Japan. Though I said that it is rare for an American company to get their hands on a Japanese RPG franchise, this Japanese franchise is not very associated with RPGs at all! Yet this just makes the Bioware-developed, Sonic the Hedgehog-themed JRPG, Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood (2008), even more surprising!

Sonic Chronicles was released, it was a novelty, but it is not the only JRPGs crafted by reasonably sized Western studio. It is an occurance that repeats after long gaps. Several years before Sonic Chronicles, it was Anachronox (2001). Several years later, it was the Ubisoft-developer Child of Light (2014). Perhaps we are due another.

The trend can in some ways be attributed to nostalgic JRPG players of the 90s becoming game makers in their adulthood. With this in mind, it is far from surprising that the world of indie development has gifted us with its own canon of Japanese-inspired games, which typically recreate the pixel art style of the SNES JRPG golden age. 

Let’s start with the big one. Though the influences of Undertale (2015) are numerous and eclectic (who would have thought of combing JRPGs with shmups), the deep homage it pays to classic Nintendo JRPGs cannot be denied. It’s popularity even seems to have outshone it’s main inspiration, the aforementioned Earthbound. 

Spurred on by the success of Undertale and others, this trend among indie developers continues to this day. I don’t know if we’re at the pinnacle yet, but if you need evidence that we’ve not yet hit a decline, the recent success of Chained Echoes (2022), made in Germany but borrowing enthusiastically from the likes of Chrono Trigger and Xenogears, should convince you.  

Chained Echoes

Along a different line of thinking, we can look at Japanese-developed games that use mechanics more commonly found in western RPGs (they used to be called WRPGs, but that term, unlike JRPG, seems to have fallen out of fashion). Some examples are Star Ocean, that includes many character traits and stats that are only useful outside of battle, including athletics, cooking and divination. 

The height of the “Japanese developer, western-RPG inspired” category we can look at Dragon’s Dogma, which goes against the grain by offering players the chance to create their own characters and choose the members of their party, and offering more freedom than the story-driven, semi-linear approach of the Japanese genre classics. 

In this way, Dragon’s Dogma is less similar to a typical Final Fantasy game, and more familiar to somebody used to playing, say… Wizardry? Which brings us full circle. 

We have seen that a “Western-style JRPG” could mean many different things. Perhaps we have also learned that the definition of “JRPG” itself has blurred lines. If it looks, plays and smells like a JRPG, can we really exclude it from our consideration just because it was developed by Bioware? 

Eastern or Western? The lines seem to be blurred – Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen

Let’s sum things up with a few examples for each category:

Games made in the East, with a Western setting/aesthetic

  • Earthbound
  • Shadow Hearts
  • Dark Souls

Games made in the West, with an Eastern setting/aesthetic

  • Jade Empire
  • Indivisible

Games made in the East with WRPG mechanics

  • Wizardry: Labyrinth of Souls
  • The Dark Spire
  • Dragon’s Dogma

Games make in the West with JRPG mechanics

  • Anachronox
  • Child of Light
  • Cthulhu Saves the World
  • Sonic Chronicles
  • Nightchasers
  • Undertale
  • South Park: The Stick of Truth

This topic is an interesting one to me, and I well know that the conversation is ongoing and sometimes quite heated. If you have views on what counts as a JRPG, and what Western-style means anyway, be sure to jump into the comments to let us know.


[1] Interview with Brian Fehdrau regarding Secret of Evermore (Nintendo Life)