It’s often wondered what, exactly, sets JRPGs apart from their western cousins. Some say it’s simply a matter of being Japanese, but that doesn’t really account for games like Child of Light or Dark Souls. There are certain conventions that define the genre – the game design factors that put the “J” in JRPGs. There are exceptions to nearly every one of these rules, but in conjunction they give the subgenre its distinct “feel.”
Predefined Character Progression
When you level up in JRPGs, your characters’ stats advance automatically, usually in accordance with their personality. Generally speaking, you can only modify these stats through use of equipment or, in some cases, through use of abstract systems like FFVII’s Materia or Trails in the Sky’s Orbment. In JRPGs, strategy outside of battle tends to revolve around party composition rather than skill trees. Final Fantasy/Bravely Default’s job system is a weird pseudo-exception, because while it does allow you to customize your party’s stats and abilities, the jobs themselves level up on fixed paths. It’s almost like the jobs are the actual “characters” whereas your party members are just slots. A true exception to the rule would be Xenoblade Chronicles, which lets you determine the strength of your characters’ skills and create a party using different “builds.” Most of the Mario RPGs let you pick your stats as you level up, too.
Simple, Purely Combat-Focused Stats
As has been noted many times (and will be noted in this list as well), JRPGs tend to have linear narratives. Because dialogue can only go one way, there’s no need for any sort of social stat system, so things like charisma and intelligence are typically ignored, or otherwise used purely for magic. It’s also rare to see stats for something like sneaking, or lock-picking, or anything, really, that’s not directly-related to combat. You almost never see a JRPG where stats like strength or speed determine what you can do in the overworld, either. The only exceptions to this rule are Dating Sim Hybrids like Persona.
When people define JRPGs, it’s typically in terms of “turn-based-combat and random battles,” but both of those definitions are kind of archaic. A big chunk of JRPGs use real-time, action combat (the entire Tales of Series, for instance, or just about everything from Tri-Ace), or otherwise base their battle systems around cooldowns and cast time (Grandia 2 springs to mind). Random battles are also, more or less, a thing of the past. The thing that is consistent across almost all JRPGs is the way combat is presented: when your characters start fighting, they’re transported to a separate “arena” that’s not part of the overworld. Be they turn or action-based, almost every game that we’d define as a “JRPG” makes use of this trope. The obvious exceptions are Chrono Trigger (where battles on the overworld are the main hook), Kingdom Hearts, and, again, Xenoblade Chronicles.
This is a somewhat obvious inclusion, but it bears repeating: almost every game we think of as a JRPG leans heavily on the visual elements that typify anime. This artistic style is so ingrained in Japanese culture that we rarely see any exceptions. Even when you look at more “realistic” JRPGs like Lost Odyssey or recent Final Fantasy games, you see very “anime” character designs. For exceptions to the rule, you actually have to look at earlier Final Fantasies, where the visual direction was determined by Yoshitaka Amano. You also see exceptions in western-developed “JRPGs” like Child of Light and Anachronox.
Directed Core Narrative
The other obvious defining element of JRPGs is their linear storytelling. Whereas Western RPGs ask players to make key choices that determine the outcome of the plot, in JRPGs the player is largely an observer. If there is a branching point in the narrative, it’s typically a single key decision that changes it, rather than the sum total of the player’s choices. Characters in JRPGs tend to have defined personalities to go along with their defined stats, so letting the player make choices for them would be a little odd. It’s also worth noting that, while JRPGs can feature side quests, the emphasis is always on the core storyline, whereas in games like Fallout the “main” plot is kind of ancillary. It’s really rare to see a JRPG like Metal Saga, where your decisions can end the game within a minute of booting up.
But as has been said before, the real thing that defines these two genres is what you, as the player, get out of them. As I see it, JRPGs are about going on a journey with a bunch of different characters, and seeing how they grow over the course of the story. Western RPGs are about becoming a character within a world. You can see this clearly in how the games tend to be written: JRPGs tend to build their worlds through individual character interactions, whereas western games tend to define their worlds in terms of factions and groups. All of the elements that I’ve listed above help to reinforce that core engagement (except the anime part. That’s just the way Japanese people draw), which is why you can take one or two of them out and still make a game that feels like a JRPG (or conversely, have a game that features many of those elements and still feels western).
It’s definitely not a matter of geography.