As a lot of new games and the state of modern gaming or whatever has sort of stifled me, I’ve found myself rekindling a love for genres and series that I kind of left in the past. Yes, a lot of new games still do excite me but they are rarely AAA games, and I don’t know, I just kind of feel burnt out on games. Plus, I am not really “in” the industry so why should I stay current on games when I’d much rather just play and experience what I want to play and experience?
In asking myself that question, I thought about games I used to love and genres that used to sweep me off my feet, and the one that really came to mind was the JRPG. Up until college, I would play four or five JRPGs a year (not counting the ones from the 1990s that I emulated all the time) and I didn’t really think about how much time I sunk into them until I was distanced from the genre as a whole. Life caught up. I got busy. Live moved on. The last JRPG that I really remember losing nearly a hundred hours to was Tales of Xilia 2 and that was in, like, 2014. It came out in 2012 but I did not play it until a few years later—those were the peak days of me actively using GameStop as my one source to buy games (usually done through trade credit since I was in high school and didn’t always have sixty bucks on hand). My memory of the time I spent with Tales of Xilia 2 is so vivid; the late nights spent grinding and then waking up early before school just to play a bit more. It was a blast, and then I beat it. There isn’t really a focal point that I can pinpoint where my engagement with the genre more or less turned off. Like most things, it probably happened pretty slowly. I’d buy JRPGs and never get more than a few hours in and then at some point I stopped buying and playing them altogether.
And then there was college and my life following college. Graduating in 2020 with an arts degree has been a hell of a thing, but I have a stable job and free time. Add my free time with my burning out on most modern games and the fact that a global pandemic means that I am home more often than not, and that has sort of led me back into the arms of the JRPG genre. Plus, I have a Nintendo Switch Lite (grinding on the go, in bed, or wherever has surely helped me fall back in love with the genre). Playing Final Fantasy 9 for the first time was my first foray back into the genre, but that occurred quite slowly. I probably bought it like two years ago, and played it off and on until sometime last year when I finally beat it. It is a great game, but beating it did not really register with me. My full realization that I am wholeheartedly back into JRPGs to the point where I only want to play them, for now, came with the release of Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition’s release on the Nintendo Switch. I devoured it in the course of a few weeks. It was always on my mind, and I revelled in every JRPGS trope, each hour spent grinding, and I was genuinely floored by how emotionally invested I was in the game’s story. I beat the game and immediately bought some more JRPGs for my Switch: Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Trials of Mana, and Dragon Quest XI. Of those three games, I am currently playing Trials of Mana, which I am currently about 10 hours into my first playthrough. Given how expansive these games are, I have found comfort in the fact that I have no desire or need to buy any new games until I finish them. There is a peace in knowing just what games lie ahead of me, and they will be there for me to play and engage with exactly when I want to do so.
Trials of Mana has really struck a chord with me for a few reasons, and these reasons sort of elucidate why I am so eager to play JRPGs again. First, the game's music is beautiful. Every moment spent in this world is undercut with a warm, well-composed piece of music that evokes both a sense of adventure and warm memory of a time that has, is, or will come to pass. This year, as we all know, has certainly been a year so warm respites into fantastical lands are quite welcome right now. Second, the combat is an absolute blast. Learning and wrapping one’s head around a JRPG battle system is one of the core reasons I fell in love with the genre to begin with and Trials of Mana’s real-time battle system is easy to grasp, fun to engage with, and difficult to master as the game eventually throws some real challenges at the player. The combat makes the grind fun, and grinding for XP is just genuinely relaxing so it is a win, win. Third, the game’s story is incredibly generic. Yes, this is oddly a positive for me as it is so familiar that I am finding myself weirdly comforted by it. And it is all executed in an incredibly earnest manner so I am willing to engage with the story despite how rote it sometimes feels. As a return to form for my love of the genre, it feels like I am returning to my roots, and to the first video game stories I ever fell in love with. While the story is common, there are branches and different lenses of the story to be seen depending on what character you choose at the start of the game, as well as the party composition you choose. When you meet a new party member, you can replay an abridged version from their start to the point where your main character meets them, and it makes for a compelling introduction to each character and it nicely fleshes out the world of Trials of Mana. Lastly, the art style is very pretty, though the visuals can stutter and pop-in is bad in cutscenes. But there is a textured warmth and fantasy reverence to every part of the game world. I was truly taken aback the first time I entered Lakeside Town Astoria. The twilight hours of the evening were in full effect and watching the orange sky reflect off of the endless lake while the townsfolk prattled about was a moment I won’t soon forget. It is a beautiful town in almost every sense of the word, and that makes what happens to it later in the story all the more depressing. Trials of Mana is a beautiful game and playing right now has made me genuinely happy and cheered me up on rough days, and while I’d advise against treating games as a source of emotive therapy, sometimes it just clicks and a game can really make you feel a little better, and this game has pulled me out of my daily despair on more than one occasion. And while I credit the game with a lot of that, I also think that it is partly due to the nature of JRPGs in general. Good triumphing against evil in the most generic ways, seeking sources of light, and just generally being somewhat positive. It is nice.
As I continue down this road of long-ass JRPGs, I am excited to beat Trials of Mana and get back to my more favored turn-based JRPG combat roots with Dragon Quest XI, as I have heard nothing but great things about it—plus Akira Toriyama’s art and character design in those games just rules, to put it quite simply. For me, there is a comfort in knowing that I will be spending time with one game for weeks and even months, and the fact that JRPGs are often somewhat repetitive in design (I am mainly speaking to grinding, here) just means that I know what these games will be asking of me before I even start them. And that is a simple comfort I will accept, for now, and even though I prefer when art challenges or evokes something deep within me, I am more than okay with traversing world maps and grinding for XP in my gaming free time. Maybe I’ll save the world and become the chosen one or whatever, I don’t really know how Trials of Mana ends, but that seems like where it is headed. The journey is long, but I’m here for the ride. Maybe I’ll even buy more JRPGs after I finish my current lot of them, but that might be a while so ask me about it in a few months. Until then, I’ll be stabbing weird mushroom dudes and sentient pickles in Trials of Mana and Dragon Quest XI.