Since I started social distancing on March 8, I have played roughly 300 hours of Japanese role-playing games. This seemingly horrifying life decision has in fact been the best I’ve made during this pandemic, and it’s one I recommend for everyone looking to escape the bummers of quarantine life.
For those unfamiliar, JRPGs—my favorite genre of video game, easily—have a handful of defining characteristics. The most obvious is that, well, they are made in Japan. They are usually influenced by the twin pillars of the genre, the Final Fantasy series and the Dragon Quest series.
They are often story-driven games, usually about anime-ass teens, who must come together as a ragtag group of adventurers to save the world from some form of evil god or megalomaniac. The stories usually start with a small goal or quest before going haywire with scale; my favorite game of all-time, Final Fantasy IX, starts with a plot to kidnap a princess before (d)evolving into a universe-spanning defense against an androgynous clone nihilist who wants to use the power of summoned gods of mythology to kill everything with a heartbeat.
Gameplay-wise, they are often turn-based in combat and require lots and lots of repetitive grinding, meaning that you will kill so many monsters to gain new levels and abilities that your eyes will bleed. They all involve both physical attacks with cool names, like Vorpal Blade and magic of the base elements; every JRPG will have a Thunder spell of some sort, it’s a rule.
When quarantine started, I had just begun my second playthrough of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, a strategy JRPG that puts you in the role of a teenager at a Harry Potter-but-not boarding school filled with teenagers who a) are adorable and charming and b) also soulless murderers. I had beaten the game on Normal mode when it released in July 2019, so it was time to go up to Hard for a playthrough with the outcast house of the Golden Deer. The first playthrough took me 50-something hours, but Hard slows things down considerably, and by the time the final credits rolled around, I was about 70 hours in. Pretty solid start, but I had to go deeper.
The good thing about Fire Emblem: Three Houses is that each of the game’s four storyline routes—Black Eagles, Golden Deer, Blue Lions, and the church—play vastly differently, particularly in the second half of the game. (My former colleague Gabe Fernandez has seemingly only played Three Houses since I made the mistake of introducing him to the game; about this, he says, “I’ve put over 400 hours into this game and, to be perfectly honest, I have no clue when I’ll stop going back to it—probably the worst news for you to hear since I’m constantly bugging you with updates about my current run.”)
This variety in plot meant that going for a Blue Lions playthrough immediately after the Golden Deer, only on the highest difficult (Maddening), wasn’t an act of obsession, and more of completionism. Little did I know how Maddening this difficulty would truly be. It took me about 120 hours to reach the final mission of the game, where I remain, because it’s unfair and stupid and I will beat it someday, dammit.
The appeal of this specific game isn’t so much the length, or even the variety of stories; it’s in the day-to-day application of the game’s mechanics. Three Houses is split into two separate modes; the first is the combat, which happens usually twice a month in the game’s calendar. The thought-provoking strategy, reminiscent of Final Fantasy Tactics—I did warn you that this genre is heavily inspired by Final Fantasy, though Fire Emblem came into being about seven years before Tactics—has you control your army of blood-thirsty students to defeat bandits, opposing factions, monsters, and dragon gods.
The second part, though, is where the bulk of the game is: think of it as a life simulator, where you talk with all your students, give them gifts so they like you more, and eventually fall in love with one. Don’t worry, the game acknowledges how problematic it is that a teacher falls in love with a student, though you don’t pop into that territory until a five-year time skip halfway through the game.
With that in mind, it wasn’t a particularly big leap to move on to Persona 5 Royal once Fire Emblem’s final boss drove me nuts one too many times. The Persona series takes the same concept as Three Houses, but injects it with anime steroids. Persona 5, released back in April 2017, puts you in the shoes of a falsely-accused delinquent teenager who is shipped off to a Tokyo high school. Very quickly, he finds out that he has the power to control Personas, mythological alter egos that have a variety of powers. Together with a handful of other students, as well as adult collaborators like a fortune teller and your teacher who also moonlights as a maid, you must “steal people’s hearts” by entering their mind “Palaces” and killing their “cognitive selves.”
In between those excursions, you cosplay as a Japanese high schooler, going to class to answer questions that buff your social stats, working out, going to the movies, eating at a diner, and working a myriad of part-time jobs. The fun from these slice of life sections comes from managing your time wisely between improving yourself and going through ten ranks of friendship with your pals. Each character has their own unique storyline, which include reconnecting a surly model gun store owner with his estranged son, to helping a famous shogi player break free from her momager.
Yes, it’s very stupid and extremely anime—if you ever wanted to live inside Mightiest Disciple Kenichi, now’s your chance—but the turn-based combat is a brilliant set of rock-paper-scissor decisions, everything is animated beautifully, and the teens are perhaps even more charming than those in Three Houses. Take Makoto, the student council president who turns into a dominatrix biker bruiser in the aforementioned Palaces, or Yusuke, the potentially-asexual artist prodigy who only cares about being broke and bringing beauty into the world. I had beaten the game when it released, clocking in about 80 hours in the first month, but the Royal edition adds just enough content that it was worth dipping back in.
At the time of writing, I’ve put in about 100 hours into the new version of the game, and I’m only now getting to the biggest chunk of unseen content. Along the way, I’ve remembered why this is maybe my second-favorite game of all time, and why it was a great choice during these times when my own life is on hold. In terms of gameplay, there’s something satisfying about spending hours in one of these Palaces, solving puzzles and strengthening my team by defeating evil Shadows. It’s repetitive and intuitive; each fight doesn’t require too much brainpower, but it’s soothing to see something like my level or my money count go up nice and slowly.
But it’s the fantasy of this particular JRPG that holds the appeal for me. Losing myself in someone else’s life is what I need right now, even if it’s a life I’ve lived before and one that, technically, doesn’t actually exist. I can’t go to the park to hang out with my friends, but I can do that in Persona 5 Royal. I can fall in love with one of the female characters—I chose Kasumi this time around, the new character added in Royal who wants to be a great gymnast to honor her dead sister’s memory—or even all of them, which has no negative consequences except one funny Valentine’s Day scene. Most of all, I can spend hours min-maxing my interactions to become as strong and likable as possible; it’s wish fulfillment for a world before quarantine, a world where human interaction was taken for granted.
These games aren’t for everyone; no game is, but there’s a particularly high barrier for entry into a genre that involves so much time, emotional and physical investment, and the ability to accept or even enjoy the anime tropes on display. As many new gamers have found out, even a game that caters to those without experience in gaming like Animal Crossing: New Horizons can quickly overwhelm with information and systems. But I sincerely recommend picking up a JRPG and losing yourself for a century of hours in someone else’s life. Playing a role, usually one more exciting than being stuck at home for the foreseeable future, has never been so intoxicating, even if I’ve spent most of my time with two games I’ve beaten before.
Playing these games has also helped me keep a sort of routine. I try to not play for longer than an hour at a time without doing something else; whether that’s hopping on a FaceTime call with a friend, or sending pitches into the freelance ether, or cooking, my life is now broken into “times I am playing Persona 5 Royal” and “times I am not playing Persona 5 Royal.”
Is that healthy? Probably not! But when I am worrying about Joker’s relationship with Sojiro, his ersatz father figure, I can’t worry about the fact that there’s no end in sight to this pandemic. Maybe it’s selfish to be so detached from the outside world, but these days I am never calmer than I am in the middle of a session. Gaming has always been an escape for me, and since first playing Final Fantasy IX some 19 years ago, that escape has been best when I am deep into a JRPG.
Right now, Alternate Tokyo feels a lot more welcoming than Real New York City. If you need me, I’ll be seat-dancing to “Last Surprise” and plotting my next journey into a Palace. Oh, and I still have Final Fantasy 7: Remake to get to. See you in a hundred more hours.