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

Rowan Kaiser
Rowan Kaiser|@rowankaiser|February 16, 2012 7:30 PM
This is a weekly column focusing on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.
"Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet," - Rudyard Kipling

Conventional wisdom holds that role-playing games are easily divided into two categories: Japanese and Western, or, before the technical lines got blurred a decade ago, console and computer games. We can name the stereotypes easily. JRPGs are story-based, WRPGs are system-based. JRPGs are action-based, fast, and simple, whereas WRPGs are strategic, slow, and complex. JRPGs have bright, cartoonish graphics and catchy music, WRPGs have realistic graphics and darker music. JRPGs linear, WRPGs open. In JRPGs, your characters are given to you, in WRPGS you create your characters. And so on.

It's not true, though. What's more, it never was.

Oh, there are differences, primarily aesthetic ones. The graphics of Japanese RPGs tend to be more anime-based, and the storytelling form for JRPGs tends to be slower-paced and gives the player fewer options, but those are only trends, not rules.

This division was at its height in the 1990s. There were always accessibility differences, with some people sticking with their computers, others with consoles. The technical improvements of the early part of the decade made the aesthetic differences between the two sides more apparent. What's more, RPGs of either origin were at the pinnacle of game design, especially in terms of narrative, with series like Ultima and Final Fantasy leading the way on two different fronts.

Two 1993 PC classics, Betrayal At Krondor and Lands Of Lore, demonstrate just how wrong the stereotypes were. Both games generally use pre-built characters, who rotated in and out of the party according to the story's needs more than the player's. Both tend to be simple, with customization existing primarily via equipment, and some skill improvement according to use, as in Skyrim. While they each contain traits commonly ascribed to Western RPGs, in many ways they're closer to a Final Fantasy or Phantasy Star than they are to the complex class systems of Wizardry or pure open world of Ultima.

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.

Betrayal At Krondor is, in some ways, a mirror image of Lands Of Lore. Krondor's graphics are more realistic, gritty, and unfortunately for us today, pretty ugly. Likewise, its music, which used specific late-medieval songs like "Greensleeves", definitely fits the Western mold. So does its turn-based, semi-tactical combat, as well as its conventional Tolkienesque fantasy setting.

What makes Betrayal At Krondor comparable to Japanese role-playing games as much or more than the Western branch is its commitment to storytelling. The idea that JRPGs are story-based, but WRPGs are system-based, is utterly demolished by Krondor. The point of the game is to tell the story it wants to tell, using text, conversations, gameplay, and cutscenes.

Given the game's source material, this makes sense. Betrayal At Krondor takes place in the world of fantasy author Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar Saga. Although Feist was not directly involved in the creation of the game, he did give it his blessing, and even wrote a novelization a few years later. It's a game that wants to be a book, but it exceeds the expectations of its source material by being a fine game on which to hook the story.

The story is built around around six playable characters, three of which can be in the player's party at a time. Each of them has their own personality, and they regularly engage in conversations with one another. The game world is also unveiled through the story similarly to a JRPG – early chapters start with very little of the world accessible to the characters, but around two-thirds of the way through, every part of the map can be reached.

Many of these things have become commonplace in RPGs, which makes Krondor somewhat difficult to contextualize. Prior to this, it was extremely rare for Western RPGs use to pre-created characters, let alone shuffle them in and out of the party outside of player control. Having them grow, change, and even die over the course of the story was unprecedented in WRPGs, and still fairly rare in in JRPGs. Nowadays, it's almost mandatory.

There are, of course, real distinctions to be made between Western and Japanese role-playing games. As long as categorizing the styles is useful, we have to have some terms for it. But as games like Betrayal At Krondor and Lands Of Lore proved back in the 1990s, and games like Dragon Age demonstrate today, the supposed inherent structural differences between Eastern and Western role-playing games are dramatically overstated, and always have been.

Both Betrayal At Krondor and Lands Of Lore are available at Good Old Games, and should work well on most PCs. Both also have fairly small learning curves, although getting used to the keyboard movement may take some time.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.