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The JRPG Genre, Ten Years After Vagrant Story

A popular, but stale genre was served an shining example ten years ago. Alas it was ignored and instead moved in a most bafflingly opposite direction.

Roughly ten years ago the JRPG genre was enjoying phenomenal success in its country of origin. Its popularity was akin to a cultural phenomenon, not unlike what the FPS genre is enjoying right now in the west. In the west there were also much to be excited about as the JRPG had, after years of being mostly a niche, finally won mass appeal by way of Final Fantasy VII, a multi million seller and for many their introduction to the genre.

Alas, even amid all of this excitement one could not have been oblivious to this long toothed genre’s tendency towards the decidedly stale. It was therefore much to celebrate when amid anxious ruminations on what the future might hold a little known game called Vagrant Story came along and with its magical staff parted a clear path across the seas of lethargy.

To better understand why there was a need for change, and why Vagrant Story tread such a golden path for others to follow I invite you to read another piece of mine detailing it. But to briefly sum up the disruptive design of Vagrant Story I will demonstrate what it did different and why doing so was so desperately needed.

Vagrant Story was a 30 hour game, which while still being an demanding investment was yet very generous when compared to all other member of a genre that has made decadent spendthrift of peoples time its specialty. The rich concentrated experience Vagrant Story managed to deliver players in its short 30 hours surpassed what several JRPG’s could deliver in their combined hundreds of hours of playtime.

Vagrant Story employed a disruptive game design that did away with the importance of ones character level, effectively doing away with that exercise in tedium, the grind, which is where most of a player’s time is wasted in any JRPG. Instead Vagrant Story favoured skillful utilization of obtainable skills and customizable weapon creation as the main dynamic for progression.

Instead of padding on meaningless exposition by throwing in character interaction sections, like towns full of NPC’s to talk to, or still-portrait monologues, all of Vagrant Story’s plot was relayed through very brief and sparsely strewn cinematics that in the most prompt, economical and subdued manner introduced key plot reveals and went away before outstaying their welcome. Somehow Vagrant Story managed to present a very complex plot that in the end, like all other JRPG’s, boiled down to having to defeat some dark god to save the world, but all this it did using a fraction of the text or exposition employed by any standard fare JRPG. This helped the game maintain a balanced pacing thereby setting an example for many to learn from.

Vagrant Story had no padding or throwaway moments where the game came to a halt for no good reason, meaning no pointless town visits, or breaks in gameplay for sake of furthering plot in that clumsy manner that most JRPGs usually do. Instead all of the game took place in a seamlessly interwoven area in the shape of a giant abandoned mediaeval city. Exploration of said city environment was made exciting by emphasizing a lonely haunting atmosphere, a prevalent feeling of oppressive isolation, all this combined with non linear progression, yet again an example to learn from.

Other examples to learn from was an extension of the prevalent theme of doing away with excess to apply especially to combat. The combat system was unique, and to this day stands as best of class for the genre, it was at the same time demanding, strategic and constantly engaging. Due to the policy of leanness the game was virtually devoid of filler combat and each encounter was special and challenging, always requiring your full attention, like most JRPG’s only manage during a boss fight. There were no random encounters to make combat mundane, and once running into an opponent no transition took place to a separate fight screen, everything was seamlessly woven into exploration.

In short Vagrant Story was not so much a game as it was a revolution, a force of nature ready to usurp the stale rule of the decadent kings of old. As such it was easy for some to conclude that at least some portions of its genius might serve as an early peek into the future of the genre.

Alas, ten years later and the truth turned out very different from what it was imagined to be. It turned out that Vagrant Story went as completely ignored by the creators as it was by the consumers. Not one of its many innovations caught on, instead JRPG’s moved in a very different direction, using a very backwards approach to addressing their many aggravating flaws.

The biggest flaw of the JRPG genre was and has always been the tedium of the constant repetition that its design necessitates. Thousands of encounters are thrown into the face of the player, and all but a handful serve as nothing but tedious padding, wasting players time as they are required to continually punch the fight command for each member of the party in a round robin manner until yet another battle is over, same shit different bat.

Instead of doing away with this practice which adds nothing of interest for anyone the genre creators instead decided to employ an evolved version of a soothing patch that had been developed as early as the 90’s to address this tedium. Certain forward looking RPG’s from the 90’s, take Earthbound for the SNES for an example, came up with the solution of giving players an auto-fight option to allow them to breeze their way through filler encounters without having to do much of anything basically.

This was the solution embraced full force by future designers of the genre and the results were as fantastical as they were varied. The auto-fight approach spans a spectrum going from allowing you to meticulously program the actions of each character via customizable macros, as in Final Fantasy XII, all the way to letting you choose one from a set of fully automated template fighting styles as in Final Fantasy XIII.

This universal embracement of this most backwards approach is truly baffling, especially since there are still as many JRPG’s that don’t even give you that much. This demonstrates in developers of the genre the presence of an inexplicable affinity for maintaining the standard 80-100 hour RPG length by aid of padding and automation, a general dragging of foot that adds nothing while pilfering the free time of players. The move towards automation also further disconnects the player from the action, reducing them to the role of an disembodied advisor instead of someone who has an active role to play.

Ten years of backwards approaches to problems that needs addressing has put its strain on this once flourishing genre, the golden age of late 90’s is long over. The importance of JRPG’s, and gaming in general has suffered a majour setback in Japan, and in the west players have grown fatigued of a style of games that decadently pilfer their time without a proportionate return of said investment.

It is a sad state of affairs to see the Japanese development community trying to appeal to western sentiments by doing sophomoric imitations of sophomoric western games to disastrous effect when they fail to at least divert some of that effort towards bettering their once most popular output, the JRPG. Ten years later and Vagrant Story is grown distant in the collective memory of gamers and creators alike. No sequel, spiritual or factual, of the game is in sight, and its creator genius, Yasumi Matsuno is nowhere to be seen.

It seems that the writing that Matsuno put on the wall ten years ago has become faded due to neglect, and what shame, for now is when it is needed the most.

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