East is West: How Two Classic RPGs Prove the Stereotypes False

17 Feb 2012

I admit this is the first time I hear Betrayal at Krondor and Lands of Lore compared to JRPGs, but that's exactly what Rowan Kaiser, as part of Joystiq's ongoing WRPG-focused columns, has done in his latest editorials, claiming that the divide between eastern and western role-playing games is not as pronounced as we believe. Here's a snip:
Lands Of Lore is more stylistically interesting of the two games. Most of the traits which can be applied to Japanese-style RPGs are on display here, just with a western twist. Its story-based nature is apparent from the beginning, where a film-style intro shows a rider slowly approaching a castle. It's also narrated by Patrick Stewart at the height of his geek appeal, indicative of the game's commitment to pushing the aesthetic boundaries of gaming in a similar fashion to the biggest JRPGs, especially the cinematic Final Fantasy VI.

With bright-colored graphics and some simple, catchy earworms for background music, Lands Of Lore offers a Western mirror to the cheerful anime-styled Japanese games of the era. It's also simple to play, using a combination real-time/turn-based combat system and simple inventory. Mechanically, Lands Of Lore is descended from Dungeon Master, with a first-person perspective, phased combat, and intuitive controls. This model can still be seen today, in part, through the related Elder Scrolls series.

Even though it's almost two decades old, Lands Of Lore is still extremely accessible to modern gamers (I say this having played it for the first time last year and becoming happily engrossed). That simple interface and the charming graphics go a long ways towards keeping it playable. It is fairly linear story-wise, but its dungeons are much bigger and more complex than those modern gamers might be used to, and its puzzles are a more important component of its difficulty. The most frustrating relic of older design in the game is that it's possible to trap yourself in dungeons with puzzles that won't allow you to escape, making multiple saves a necessary consideration. It's an effective reminder that not all Western games were difficult or gritty.

While the central thesis is certainly interesting, I'm not sure if I a focus on storytelling and a bright aesthetic are grounds to make a comparison with the Final Fantasy franchise, or even just the JRPG genre in general.