Role-Playing Games, as a genre, have been a tricky sort to really pin down for a long while, with last generation bringing more and more games to the fray that have RPG-like elements that, by virtue, draw them into the fold. I remember being a wee lad (okay, not -that- young, but still) playing Deus Ex, thinking of it as purely a First-Person Shooter, even though I had the ability to augment my character, and I still recall my reaction when it was presented to me as a Shooter/RPG hybrid. "What? No that....no." It was a strain on my little mind to consider that having something of that nature, simply that control over a character-build, would boost it to 'RPG hybrid', but over time we've seen more and more of that, so it's hard to argue against it any longer. Sub-genres started branching out, if you will, to cover some of the more unique spins taken with the traditional 'RPG' keys, but last generation at least, it seemed that the classic, oft-referred to now as "JRPGs" always had a place.
Now however, it's much, much harder to find games of that same style that we grew up with because RPGs, as a measure to preserve themselves, seemed to take on more and more elements from other games. It's hard to take any single 'mainstream' RPG from this generation and say "Yes, this is a pure RPG" because the bulk of them are at least Action hybrids. Some argue that the above Final Fantasy XIII was one of these (though these are also more or less the same people who balk at considering FF XIII an FF game at all, or a 'good' game to top) and with its sequel following its roots, there's not a whole lot to argue with beyond the base-line. Much less so when the third in the series, Lightning Returns, is definitely going to be more of an Action-oriented game, focusing more on free-form movement than conforming to the ideal of anything resembling turn-based combat which many cling to as a definite 'tell' of an RPG. As a main-stay of the genre, it's straying from the 'roots' is definitely telling of the state, though some would argue that Final Fantasy XI's and XIV's Online ventures are much on the same level.
Other efforts from this generation have been met with similarly luke-warm receptions and it always seemed to be because there was too much clinging to the old or too little for the 'fans' to grab hold of. White Knight Chronicles would be my first example here as it was somewhat panned, I think, for its attempt at a traditional/modern blend combat style that was very reminiscent of Final Fantasy XII's system. Which, at the time was reviled, but has apparently become good at some point in the years it was released, though WKC gets no such revisionist mercy. Regardless, it offered a look into RPG theory as well since it was not only a non-traditional game for the combat system, but it also brought Multiplayer into the genre in a way that hadn't really been handled before. Not only was the character you used -your- character (who was not even the protagonist of the game) but the questing approach it took with that character and the general world-building aspect of it really elevated it into something all its own, which I applaud.
The place to look towards for 'classic' RPGs, however, seems to be not the people who we've relied on to give them to us, but the people who were tired of waiting on those people. The RPG concept is odd in that, for a big studio, it's almost suicidal to delve in since you have to spend a lot of time on art, on the plot and story, on the characters, and on fleshing out a system, not to mention voice-acting which apparently is a requirement anymore. For a little studio, however, if you can do all the character-stuff and writing with two dudes (minus the voice acting) then we don't really need -super- graphics, but will instead settle or even go for something a little more reminiscent of the classic style. That's where Zeboyd Games, makers of Breath of Death VII, Cthulhu Saves the World (Pictured) and the recently released Penny Arcade Adventures 3 (I forget if they dropped the OTRSPOD or not), comes into play with their retro style for RPGs that have appeared to scratch that itch many of folks have felt. I haven't played one myself yet because I lack a 360 and a PC that I have any desire to game on, but the praise is out there and it's not little bits of recognition certainly - they're a known group now and they've carved out their own little place to stay.
Similarly, the RPG Maker scene, which is something of a still-unheard group as far as I can tell, has been toiling away, putting out RPGs that most of us could likely go forever without hearing about unless your attention was drawn to it. A little game called Exit Fate is one of those, in that were it not on the LP Archive, I could have likely never known it existed. That would've been a real shame, too because it's a rather wonderful little game, I've learned. The art isn't the best and it's literally made in RPG Maker (and with no real original music, most of it nicked from other games) but the story, where most RPGs bread is buttered, is actually not bad, though mid-way through I do worry for where it might go. At best, it'll do something I'm quite surprised with, but at worst it will basically carbon copy another popular RPG (that it has nicked music from, even) and I'll be less than impressed. Regardless it's Suikoden-style of play (down to recruiting a lot of people and having actual war battles) is endearing and its story, as I've said, has been good so far and even if it ends with a plot hook taken right from another game, the way there would have been worthy enough at least.
It's funny to me in that case, as Indie RPGs being a thing, and a thing that is touted even, is not a new development, yet nobody really seems to have jumped on it just yet. Two generations ago, on the Playstation 1, I could buy RPG Maker (
That's all pretty much why I am flabbergasted that this theory, this set of tools was literally only available until there was an adequate means of game delivery. This generation has been a boon for User-Generated Content no matter where you turn, and the integration of the internet for that has been vital to its success. Games like LittleBigPlanet which give you the tools to make -something- and then let everyone with a copy of the game play it embrace this and have shown us the absolutely incredible things that can be done with mere tools in the right person's hands. Imagine now if you give them the tools to create, albeit a likely dated-looking RPG with what we really have available nowadays. The PS3 at least has been open with its ability to support KBAM which would make it that much more flexible for interested parties and between the Vita and 3DS, we have touch screens for detail work and control beyond where simple buttons and sticks would take too long. (Like for typing.) While not ideal, neither was it on PS1 and it's much, much more palatable and beneficial nowadays.
Still, what's up in the air and what I think might just remain up in the air forever is just what constitutes an RPG, or even what allows a hybrid to call itself an RPG. Without pointing fingers or calling anyone out, I recently saw somebody say basically in the same breath, "Dark Souls is an RPG, Valkyria Chronicles is not". Specifically, it was in reaction to IGN being....IGN and throwing together an ill-advised Top 100 RPGs list that, in essence, probably spurned this post along by proxy. I'm not sure if they actually have the entire top 100 up, nor do I care in the least, but their 100-90 picks apparently have caused a stink already by including some titles that people would expect to be in the upper tiers. In response, other lists were made and I saw one list in particular list Dark Souls as their number 1, which raises the question again and again that I've been asking myself all day and that I've been asking this whole post.
I haven't played Dark Souls, mostly on the merit that I've barely played Demon's Souls. (Also because I haven't bought it, but for the same reason) However, I know -about- the game, and I specifically know more about it than I would have because the oft-mentioned Helloween4545 has been doing something of a Let's Play of it since it was released on PC. I have absolutely nothing against Dark Souls and in fact, I think it's a fairly interesting looking game by its own merits. But I'm just not seeing "RPG" from it simply because yes, there are stats in the game that you can increase. It is almost the definite, by-the-books definition of an Action/RPG if anything which I had, prior to today, thought exempted it from being 'an RPG' by merit of it being more Action than RPG. I can, however see calling it an RPG if you are making the term broad, but when you add in the extra qualifier that Valkyria Chronicles is -not- an RPG by whatever rules we're using then I simply have no idea. I am lost, completely and utterly by those standards and even typing this up, I can't really find any other method to convey that.
By the standards that Dark Souls is an RPG, so is Nier which means that it would rank quite high up there on my own personal list since it has, what appears to be, the qualifiers. Stats, magic, damage in numbers, monsters that are not humans that you coincidentally murder, that's all there. Party members, even. Which is what I can only assume is what excludes Valkyria Chronicles, but honestly the process is all a bit too much effort than I want to put forth. By that measure, I really don't think it's too worth it to try and pin down what an RPG 'is' anymore since it's obviously beyond our control. We can hold on to the main-stays that we remember from growing up, but similarly, I doubt we're going to get many more of them with the way things are anymore. The Handhelds we have are basically our last bastions, provided that those aren't abandoned in favor of cellphones. While it seems a foolish thing to do, it's happened already and likely won't stop, but we can hope that it won't be the -only- trend.
I think what I ended up with in my ramblings is a few points that I've probably muddled up by now, so I'll try to crisply recap them here. We'll all always have the 'glory days' of RPGs, the times we spent with similar, but wildly different systems, but it seems that most everything has 'moved on' from there. Today's 'modern' RPGs are dying out by their own design since they remain a niche, yet seem to be developed as if that fact has not been very firmly established, leaving us with a noticeable gap in releases that have more or less been filled with other types of games entirely. Indie developers and projects have shown us that they don't necessarily have to be that way, but it's hard to see if they will catch on beyond a few note-worthy studios, and even if so, we're probably beyond the days of them being 'console' titles. Relegated to the PSN/XBLA platforms at best is what we'll likely see in terms of that and, with any luck, that sort of mindset will take things fully onto our handhelds because they are much more easy to develop for, and cheaper too, especially as the new generation looms over us. I'm not concerned that the RPG genre is on its last legs in the traditional sense, but I wonder when it will rise back to prominence all the same.