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The year of the JRPG: Why 2021 was a landmark year for the genre

Despite mass delays, 2021 was a year that delivered on all fronts in the world of gaming. From high-profile hits like Halo Infinite to unexpected hits like Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, gamers are leaving the year with no shortage of games on their backlogs.

That sentiment goes double for fans of the Japanese role-playing game genre, which had a banner year. Several games pushed the genre forward this year, building on the groundwork that franchises like Final Fantasy have been laying for years. Call 2021 “the year of the JRPG.”

A step forward

Right from the start of 2021, players were hit with one groundbreaking juggernaut after the next. Looking back, it feels like half of my time this year went to putting countless hours into numerous grand adventures. It’s as if developers worldwide convened and decided we had too many hours in the day and needed some long games to fill the gaps. Whatever the reason for the flood of games was, fans of the genre were kept busy for 12 months.

One of the best parts about this year being so JRPG heavy is that there were releases for every type of player. I’ve journeyed through relaxing forests while looking for materials to mix in Atelier Ryza 2: Lost Legends & the Secret Fairy, fought a brainpunk apocalypse with a hack-and-slash combat style in Scarlet Nexus, and raised a pet kaiju in Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin. I love how varied not only the worlds of all these titles are, but the gameplay as well.

Kasane preparing an attack in Scarlet Nexus.

While I couldn’t possibly list and describe every single release of the year, I do want to talk about one of the most important takeaways from the “year of the JRPG.” We saw the evolution of a genre in real time. Last year, Square Enix changed the world with Final Fantasy VII once again when it released Final Fantasy VII: Remake. The game’s cinematic storytelling, detailed environments, and reimagined gameplay blew apart expectations and removed barriers to players beyond the usual turn-based fans. It completely changed the genre, just as the original did back in 1997.

FF7R is a game that was years in the making, with its eventual combat formula getting tested in games like Final Fantasy 13 and 15Remake finally found the right formula, becoming the perfect fusion of classic turn-based strategy and more active combat, making it appealing not only to JRPG fans but players from other spheres as well.

Final Fantasy 7 Remake Intergrade - Gigantipede Boss Fight

One of my picks for JRPG of the year, Tales of Arise, and Scarlet Nexus continue where that game left off. Both these games involve the hack-and-slash-esque gameplay similar to that in FF7R and find the perfect balance between it and typical strategy — all while keeping that classic JRPG feel. Both games, along with Remake‘s mini continuation, Final Fantasy 7 Remake: Intergrade, have me very excited to see who takes that next step in further building upon the groundwork that Square Enix set. Maybe the next great JRPG will go more the Scarlet Nexus route and bring some fresh ideas to the mix.

Remembering the classics

While the year saw drastic evolution for the genre, it also featured plenty of titles that iterated on the traditional, turn-based JRPG style. Fans of the classics weren’t left behind. FantasianShin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne HD Remaster, the Final Fantasy Pixel Remasters, and Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl offer classic experiences with clean quality of life updates to keep them relevant in a new age of gaming.

My personal highlight of bunch is Shin Megami Tensei 5, a game that perfectly captures the nostalgic feeling of being a kid and exploring these vast virtual lands. The game just feels so lifelike thanks to a host of personality-filled demonic creatures that populate the explorable overworld. It features one of the best customization systems I’ve ever had the pleasure of using in a JRPG, giving players control over damn near every aspect of their demon team. And who can forget that sweet difficulty that challenges players’ mastery of the game’s systems?

Black Frost talking in Shin Megami Tensei 5.

Those are only a few examples. There are so many 2021 JRPG experiences to sink one’s teeth into that I can’t even talk about them all here (we’d be here all day). I’m not sure why so many excellent, genre-defining games all landed in the same 12-month span, but I won’t question it. What I do know is that if you’re a JRPG fan or if you’re looking to get into the genre anytime soon, treat 2021’s release calendar as your own personal backlog. And do it fast, because 2022 might end up being just as stacked.

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