Is Dark Souls A JRPG? Probably.

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While trying to maintain a media blackout on Dark Souls III in the midst of double-digit minutes of footage being leaked some time ago, I started thinking about how far the franchise has come since the slow trickle of word-of-mouth that surrounded Demon’s Souls during the PS3’s early years. I’ve come to the realization (perhaps late) that the Souls franchise might be the most relevant Japanese RPG franchise on the market today, or at least one of the only really relevant ones to the mass market.

The problem is, many people seem to doubt whether it’s an JRPG at all, saying it looks and feels too similar to Elder Scrolls and too different from Final Fantasy. Once you go from there into the discussion of what defines a JRPG, you have to dig into the origins of the JRPGs and the Souls series itself which brings out its interesting relationship with both past RPGs and today’s popular western RPGs.

To start off, I’m going to state that I prefer to use the term “JRPG” as a regional descriptor instead of a genre description. I believe them to simply be role-playing games made in Japan. They often share a lot of genre conventions in contrast with RPGs from other regions, but so do lots of genres of media. If an American studio decides to make a horror film heavily inspired by themes and tropes of Japanese horror, or in fact do a straight remake of a Japanese horror film, the result is not considered Japanese horror. It may be recognized for what it pulls from or even called a “Japanese-style horror” film, but most people wouldn’t give it the entire description. It’s also inevitable that some of its elements would still come from an American perspective. You also have to consider elements of the Japanese film that may have been originally inspired by American or other non-Japanese works. Trails of inspiration for tropes or themes crisscross way too much to be easily tied down. This is certainly the case for RPGs.

I also think picking through games and saying “this is a JRPG” and “this isn’t,” puts the whole term into a somewhat limited box and makes the assumption that all JRPGs are the same, when any JRPG fan will tell you they aren’t. You of course have market pillars like Final Fantasy and Pokémon with their traditional party-based and turn-based aspects, but you’ve also got dungeon-crawlers like Etrian Odyssey, strategy RPGs like Disgaea, and online RPGs. Why would you suddenly cut Dark Souls out from that diversity? If it’s because of the game’s real-time, action-based combat, that pretty much ignores the entire action RPG genre which includes games like Kingdom Hearts or the Tales series.

Another comparison would be anime and manga. I also like to simply refer to anime as “animation made in Japan.” Sure there are a lot of style conventions anime have become known for, but it’s not like every anime in existence holds to them like some kind of scripture. The anime industry is an incredibly diverse collection of styles and themes encompassing pretty much every imaginable genre of fiction. This is even more the case with manga. Comic books are a medium, not a genre, and within that medium you’ve got manga, American comics, Franco-Belgian comics, Spanish Historietas, and so-on. People outside Japan can definitely make comics and TV shows heavily inspired by manga and anime respectively, but I don’t think they can call themselves this just because they evoke a few well-known tropes and style conventions. To do so would be to pin anime in general to those tropes and conventions. Likewise, I don’t really like calling a western game a JRPG just because it has brightly-colored characters with big eyes and turn-based combat.

Then you have to think about where those ideas of turn-based combat, potions, and other themes came from. If you trace back the lineage of almost all JRPGs you’ll end up at Ultima and Wizardry back in the 1980’s. The creators of Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy fully admit this. Many JRPGs certainly took their own path in the eras afterwards, but looking back at that original inspiration and even further inspiration that has come since makes the whole idea of defining JRPGs strictly by genre conventions pointless. Just look at Dragon Age. It’s one of today’s biggest western RPG franchises, but the games actually borrow quite a bit from Japan. Going all the way back to Dragon Age: Origins, the party AI system looks a lot like Final Fantasy XII’s gambit system. The console combat interfaces of the first two Dragon Age games look a lot like Phantasy Star Online (so does most of the game Destiny) if you ask me.

Coming back around to Dark Souls and how it relates to some western games, the franchise has a lineage that’s actually quite similar to other JRPGs when you consider how it evolved through the years. Other games slowly evolved from Wizardry or the mainline Ultima games. The main reason Dark Souls looks so similar to Elder Scrolls is likely because both franchises were inspired by the same game — Ultima Underworld. It’s pretty easy to see how Underworld influenced the first Elder Scrolls game along with King’s Field, which eventually led to Shadow Tower and then Demon’s Souls. It’s kind of similar to how the format of early manga was inspired by American comics and cartoons.

Now if you want to talk about whether Dark Souls even counts as an RPG regardless of its relation to JRPGs, I still think that drags in the whole conversation about action RPGs. You still cant deny the inspiration it draws from previous RPGs. You might be able to ask what then is the line between an action RPG and an action game with RPG elements (like the difference between Deus Ex and Deus Ex Human Revolution). I prefer to believe that the Souls series simply balances those two sides better than almost any other game.

BULLETS:

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One thought on “Is Dark Souls A JRPG? Probably.

  1. I’m with you. I tend to use the term JRPG as a regional thing more than a descriptive genre of anime-inspired role-playing games or whatever else people decide falls under the umbrella. I remember reading reviews for Watermelon Games’ Pier Solar and the Great Architects and seeing it referred to as a JRPG simple because it’s pixellated and features turn-based combat with anime inspired characters. Nevermind the team is located in Iowa.

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