VR vs. JRPGs

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One of VRFocus’ Twitter followers recently suggested that they would like to see the impact that virtual reality (VR) could have on Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs). We can’t help but agree. This is a sacred genre in the videogame industry which, in its golden age, spawned countless classics such as Chrono Trigger, Earthbound and of course the Final Fantasy series. But it’s hard to deny that the genre has grown somewhat stale in the decades that have followed. There have been a handful of hits in recent years such as Xenoblade Chronicles and Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch but the genre certainly doesn’t enjoy the prominence it once did. Could VR remedy that?

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The technology has the potential to greatly enhance JRPGs but not without first addressing a lot list of issues that make VR conversion more complicated than it is in other genres. The most obvious of these is the user interface (UI). JRPGs are, traditionally speaking, statistic-heavy videogames. If the player isn’t experimenting with different armour and weapon sets to get defence and attack numbers up, then they’re locked in combat, managing magic points as they shave numbers off of the enemy’s hit points.

Needless to say that the huge amount of information given to the player in JRPGs would be difficult to process in VR. UIs in less stat-intensive genres have already had to rework their menus for player comfort, but how could a JRPG adapt? Perhaps those numbers that we see flying off of monsters would have to be rendered as physical objects in the game world, no longer stuck to the player’s head’s up display (HUD).

As for the various menus that we love to get lost in, maybe players now dig through their own back packs to sort through items, with stats appearing next to the object they hold. Levelling party members might be done by simply looking at them, and selecting their weapon to level up attack or armour to increase defence. The core mechanics are open for experimentation in this area, and player management could transform into a much more immersive experience with some innovative ideas.

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This also calls perspective into question. A first-person view has been the traditional option for VR videogames thus far, though there are few existing JRPGs that adopt such a view. It could be hard to identify with Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud, for example, if the player couldn’t see him for themselves. Of course, upcoming titles such as Lucky’s Tale are sound proof that the technology also works with third-person cameras, and could actually provide a compelling new layer of interactivity for players as they travelled a title’s landscape.

One of Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4 VR demos has players using the Oculus Rift second development kit’s (DK2) positional tracking to lean down into environments and study its inhabitants and the scenery. Imagine applying this to a JRPG, with the player following their character’s progress as they peek over the mountains that loom above them, or leaning in to get a closer look at the enemies roaming the land in front. It could provide these adventures with a huge sense of scale and wonder.

When it comes to combat, we could see a mix of these previous ideas. Perhaps players could use the headset’s head-tracking technology to look at the party member they want to select and the do the same to target the enemy or ally they want to interact with. Huge bosses could appear with a much greater presence than they have before, perhaps with players even targeting specific body parts using the tracking.

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All that said, this is a genre that’s known for lengthy experiences, and VR technology currently isn’t at a point where users will want to spend tens of hours using the Oculus Rift or Project Morpheus. This will improve within time of course, but perhaps earlier JRPGs could offer a unique mix of using both VR and standard displays. Perhaps they only equip the headset in combat, or when exploring in the wild as opposed to resting at a town.

VR presents a number of challenges for JRPGs then, but it doesn’t take much digging to see how these could actually be turned into advantages. Cumbersome UIs could be transformed into immersive new systems while exploring the often fantastical settings could become more player inclusive. It’s easy to see how the likes of Final Fantasy could benefit from the technology’s inclusion. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait long before a brave developer tackles this topic.

‘VR vs’ is VRFocus’ weekly feature that takes an issue currently challenging the VR industry and discusses how to fix it. Looking at everything from the videogames in development to the strength of the technology, we highlight the problems and try to come up with the best solutions. 

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