Let’s Talk About Marvel’s Midnight Suns
Contributed by DJMMT
I actually really dislike the term JRPG, because it implies that there is a specific set of gameplay and narrative design choices that are limited to Japan, when really it just comes down to developer choice. Dark Souls is made by a Japanese company, and yet it’s definitely not a JRPG. If you didn’t know From Software was the developer, you would almost certainly label it as a Western RPG. I think these labels hurt game development, because they lead to different companies, and by extension IPs, constantly building games in certain ways when they would often be better, at least in my opinion, when done in other styles. This is exactly why I’m not really excited for Marvel’s Midnight Suns anymore.
If I had to compare Western tactical RPGs to Japanese tactical RPGs, I’d say it was the difference between playing Dungeons & Dragons and chess. Note that this is not a comparison of quality or effort. Nor is it meant to be a comparison of narrative depth. Project Triangle Strategy is a JTRPG that I’d argue has too much depth in the storytelling, after playing the demo. This is a comparison of gameplay mechanics at a foundational level. Dungeon & Dragons is not a better game than chess. It is simply a more complicated one with more RNG, more variation, and more things to have to deal with when playing a turn. Chess is elegant in its simplicity while requiring a deep understanding of strategy and the ability to predict the future at a micro level. Neither game is better or worse than the other. They’re simply different games. This is how I would compare WTRPGs and JTPRGs. Neither is better of worse. They are simply different.
I don’t hate XCOM because it’s a bad game. I hate it because it over complicates the gameplay in ways that don’t interest me. Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, though made by an Italian studio, is absolutely based on the JTRPG style of gameplay. Though it has multiple characters to choose from, a selection of weapons and builds for each character, and literally guns, it plays like an elaborate game of chess. There is RNG, but it’s very limited. Movement is grid based. Most importantly, the game all works based on easily calculated math, with a few status effect based changes for flavor. It’s not that the game is easier than XCOM. It’s that it’s more simplistic in gameplay at a foundational level. That’s what I prefer about JTRPGs. They gameplay is straightforward with a focus on strategy, rather than convoluted bullshit that can go wrong in a million different ways that are completely out of your control. This is why I’m really excited for Metal Slug Tactics.
When I heard that a Metal Slug tactical RPG was on the horizon, I was disturbed. I grew up playing Metal Slug and found the concept of making it turn based appalling. But the trailer sold me, because assuming it is the way the trailer implies it to be, it’s exactly the type of tactical RPG I love. It’s chess with a Metal Slug coat of paint. It might not be what I wanted from the Metal Slug franchise, but it’s a gameplay model that I will absolutely love playing on my Switch in handheld mode.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, when I heard there was a Marvel themed tactical RPG on the way, I was excited. That concept sounds perfect. Then I heard it was being made by Firaxis Games. The people who make XCOM. Immediately I knew what the gameplay was going to be like. Multiple complicated mechanics layered on top of a veneer of RNG and non-grid based movement. But they stated after the announcement trailer that this was not going to be Marvel XCOM, so I held out hope. Then they released an actual gameplay trailer and confirmed my fears. The latest gameplay trailer I’ve seen has only a few seconds of actual gameplay footage, and that was enough to turn me off the game. It has cards in it for goodness sake. Complicated gameplay isn’t better gameplay. It’s just more convoluted. Let me be clear in saying that while I’m absolutely going to buy Mario Rabbids Sparks of Hope, I am not happy with the non-grid based movement I’ve seen in the gameplay trailers shown thus far. Why do Western developers seem to hate chess? I want to see IPs like Marvel used to make JTRPGs. I like turn-based gameplay and clearly defined limitations and outcomes. I like seeing the grid lines on the field of battle. But I can’t have that because Western developers prefer D&D to chess.
A friend of mine summed it up really well. He says that WTRPGs are ironically more about story than the JTRPGs. He cites Shadowrun, which is basically sci-fi D&D, as the father of WTRPGs. Whereas he considers JTRPGs as being more about gameplay and specifically focused on war games as the original concept of where they derive from. This certainly makes sense when looking at older tactical RPG franchises like Fire Emblem, which is literally about fighting wars. It also agrees with my assessment that JTRPGs feel a lot like chess. Because chess is literally a game about two armies fighting each other. I think my friend’s take makes sense, but my real issue is the fact that it needs to be this way.
I don’t really see why a Western developer can’t make a game in the style of Fire Emblem. Isn’t that literally what Banner Saga is? Just like I don’t see why a Japanese developer can’t make a game like Halo. Limiting the types of games developers can make based on the country they’re from is at best reductive and at worst prejudicial to both the medium and the audiences. I definitely understand that you have to make games for your audience. But it’s inaccurate to say that audiences are strictly defined by country of origin. If that was the case Nintendo wouldn’t constantly top the charts in multiple regions. I’m an African American and I prefer JTRPGs to WTRPGs. So I find that entire line of reasoning to be an excuse more than an accurate reading of the markets.
I guess what I’m really trying to say is that I really wish they’d let a company like Koei Tecmo make a game like Marvel’s Midnight Suns. I love the concept of a Marvel themed tactical RPG. But if it’s gonna play like XCOM then I’m definitely not interested. And maybe it’s just me. Maybe there isn’t really all that much difference between Western and Japanese style tactical RPGs as far as gameplay is concerned and I’m just not connecting with the ones from the West for other reasons that I can’t fully identify. Because when I look at gameplay of XCOM it looks like something I should enjoy. But when I tried to play it I lost interest in the first hour. All I know is that I like Marvel and I like chess. Here’s hoping for a playable demo of Marvel’s Midnight Suns before release.