Nothing inspires emotion quite like the Japanese role-playing game. (I am speaking in terms of videogames here.) If you read about JRPGs online, you’ll find an almost pornographic relish over their runtimes, their new games+, their unlockables and their optional final bosses. People cite the summers they spent learning the games’ cosmologies; they chuckle at newcomers that haven’t yet mapped out a given game’s foibles and quirks like the lines on a lover’s face. But when I’ve talked to people about them IRL—as I have at bars and parties and smoke-filled apartments and in detention and on the first day of a job once and at professional conferences and so on—the reactions are much more varied. You’ll hear embarrassment, distant fondness, even regret. I know people who look at JRPGs as something to relapse into. Their mouths sweat at the unconscionably translated titles, shrinkwrapped and sitting on the shelf, the way an alcoholic’s might while eyeing a fifth of Early Times on the convenience store shelf. You know how that afternoon goes.
This was how I felt when Xenoblade Chronicles originally came out, to much fanfare, in 2012. I had sworn off the genre as something for which I lacked the procrastinatory fortitude; I picked at short games, I told myself, generally with friends around; the time-swallowing wormhole of a JRPG seemed like a distant affliction. But I missed the genre’s unmistakable flavor—its sense of melancholy, its inscrutability. And so, caught up in the breathless excitement of the game’s North American release, I preordered a copy and called off work, and when my dusty Wii didn’t work that day I biked back to the store and bought a new one, goddammit. On the ride home I could almost taste it. I’ve always enjoyed Japanese games, but none satisfy quite like the JRPG, which are extraordinarily, flamboyantly Japanese, abrasively Japanese, working from a palette of emotions and cultural touchstones that, to an American, transcends mere language differences. They are bewildering. On a sliding scale of weirdness they go from childlike whimsy to dadaist freakout, yoking in the pomp and nomenclature of Catholicism, Norse gods, the German military, and whatever else filters in. For pure bang-for-your-buck eccentricity, there are few analogs in contemporary culture.
And so I found myself weirdly connected to and expectant of Xenoblade, which is now sliding back into relevance thanks to a New Nintendo 3DS re-release. In it, you play as Shulk, a boy of indeterminate age (I’d ballpark it anywhere between 13 and 40), who dresses almost exclusively in vests and can see into the future thanks to a magical sword. This is pretty much all that needs to be said of the game’s plot, which features a few elements of alluring oddity (the game takes place on the bodies of two decomposing giants, for example) sticking out of a sea of pretty straightforward JRPG tropes. There are prophecies; there are princesses; there are robots (these robots can talk). Xenoblade distinguishes itself, among other ways, through the clarity of its narrative, streamlined to tick all of these boxes in the most efficient manner imaginable.
This is a brave move for a JRPG, a genre which has become synonymous with long stretches of impenetrable exposition, and a brave move particularly for creator Tetsuya Takahashi, whose 1998 semi-classic Xenogears is the poster-child for this tendency. That game’s reviled second half (apparently the result of pulled funding from the publisher) featured about 20 hours of a barely animated image of the main character sitting in a chair while pages of text advanced the story. (The game is regarded with religious reverence all the same.) After that, Takahashi went on to iterate this story-first, fuck-the-player approach in a series of decreasingly popular Xenosaga titles—maundering fare, intended to stretch across six games but shelved after three. Takahashi then made a DS game that Westerners didn’t even know not to care about. He announced in 2010 that this game-making ethos had been a “dead end.” I assume he was very depressed.
The result of this about-face was Xenoblade Chronicles, which, against all JRPG odds, merely sets up a world and then tasks the player with moving through it. There is an arrow, and you follow it to the next place; once you get there the plot is neatly advanced and a new arrow appears to direct you further. You, the player, obey, because the rewards are many, and because they are—dazzlingly enough—aesthetic. The player first traverses fields of rich greens but then a vast nocturnal mine, a swamp of celestial purple, a network of islands levitating high above a sea. At night the swamp transforms, and glows. The mechanical cities and astral expanses are drawn with loving nuance, their topographies dictated with an impassive but authored hand. Takahashi, who gained renown for fusing psychoanalysis, comparative religion, and a millennia-spanning space opera, here impresses his high-minded vision upon you the hard way: he lets it wash over you.
Still, this is no tonal meditation: you, player, will fucking work. Because beneath this pristine surface a clockwork of combat systems grinds. Discerning these systems’ interplay—particularly each teammate’s affinity for one another, which is a sort of skeleton key to the game—is a quiet but sublime task, like envisioning the shape of a cathedral from a spreadsheet of its dimensions. The systems are presented clearly at the game’s outset, their eventual mastery not enforced but strongly recommended. It is obtuse, but kind: when the player dies, she is gently placed back on the map at a nearby landmark with all stats intact. You play the game on its terms not because it insists that you do but because, after time, you want to. A zen-like calm occasionally settles over the American player while grappling with these stats and menus. One almost feels on solid ground. One almost feels comfortable. One almost yearns, perhaps, for some more J in this RPG.
But even if the game’s long opening stretch of colors and numbers creates a strange detachment from the player, its monk-like austerity pays off. When the carefully drawn plot lines rupture 20 hours in, all sorts of shit spills out: palace intrigue, a disturbingly sentient squeak-toy, a second soothsayer who wears a pretty-non-subtle key around his neck. The cutscenes remain economical but are newly filled with talk of hidden bloodlines and dead gods. The game’s final act is even more chaotic: after 50 or so hours of carefully sequenced navigation and cutscenes, the game blasts the player with double-boss battles, backtracking, hours-long cutscenes. Old bit players return, newly wreathed in blue neon light and speaking grandiloquently about fate.
The team you’ve so carefully corralled (each affinity maximized, each skill scrupulously tweaked) reacts to all of this epic endgame mayhem the way they have to everything else in the game thus far: by blinking infrequently and talking about friendship. Because yes, you are reassured, this has been a JRPG: for all the genre’s richly imagined polyglot cosmologies, the characters in these games interact as if written by socially maladapted preteens, and Xenoblade’s crew seems uniquely predisposed to discussing the value of friendship. The visual design, so sumptuous at the level of a landscape, doesn’t help: each actor is a listless marionette, registering comically mismeasured expressions of alternate shock and delight, then shock, then delight. After a climactic battle scene in which a character is murdered and the protagonists are shoved off a cliff, they land and begin talking about who has a crush on whom. To a certain type of person, this is soul food.
Takahashi has called Xenoblade Chronicles his “children’s game,” and his most ardent fans have branded its thematic simplicity as heretical. He has spoken of it as a test run before the more “mature” Xenoblade Chronicles X, to be released later this year. But like the genre itself the original Xenoblade is a conundrum: it is both all of these complaints and also a revelation, both everything we look for in a JRPG and nothing like one at all. It is a model of both restraint and maximalism, not just in its moments of narrative explosion but in its pastoral landscapes; its bulbous network of stats; its aggressive, almost Capcom-esque canned dialogue. It’s in the the faint outline of a giant in the distance and the certainty that, maybe five hours later, you’ll be standing atop that giant, looking back at this field. Your reward for having done so will have been doing so. It’s in the amount the game asks from you—I spent some four months picking my way through it—and the paltry new game+ it gives you in return. But then we JRPG fans don’t turn to the genre for replay value. All its value is there before us at the outset, asking that we indulge ourselves, and giving us back nothing but the willingness to have absorbed that time and transformed it, alchemically, into something new.
Portions of this article originally appeared on The Damper.