Is the JRPG in danger of leaning too far into its niche?

The best games give players something they didn’t know they needed. But there’s always a market for those that provide precisely what their target audience wants. Currently, it’s the ones that try to be all things to all people that are struggling. Development on BioWare’s Anthem – a game with several good ideas in dire need of a hook – has been discontinued. And the servers for Gearbox’s hero shooter Battleborn (lest we forget, an “FPS; hobby-grade co-op campaign; genre-blended, multi-mode competitive e-sports; meta-growth, choice + epic Battleborn Heroes!”) were switched off in January.

It pays to specialise, in other words, and that partly explains why the JRPG increasingly seems to be leaning into its niche, and is enjoying plenty of success in the process.

Bravely Default 2

(Image credit: Square Enix)

It’s not the only reason it makes sense. The kinds of progression systems that were once the foundation stones of the genre have been cropping up in more and more mainstream games: these days, it’s hard to find a popular online FPS that doesn’t have some sort of RPG mechanics. So it makes sense that JRPGs might want to go back to their roots in an effort to distinguish themselves, rather than risk alienating existing fans by trying to actively appeal to a broader global audience.

Indeed, some series are enjoying their healthiest sales by celebrating their Japaneseness. Think how Yakuza originally stumbled at the first hurdle, its expensively assembled English-language voice cast mostly failing to convince (we still have a soft spot for Mark Hamill’s take on Goro Majima) as members of the Tokyo underworld. Now it’s bigger than it’s ever been, largely by sticking to its guns – not to mention benefitting from vastly improved localisation efforts. In the past, publishers might have balked at games such as Nier: Automata and Persona 5, but their rougher, weirder edges were left intact, their uncompromised identities actively welcomed by western and Japanese players alike.

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