So you want to try a JRPG?

Published September 30, 2013

If you would like to start on a JRPG, I have put together a list of JRPG’s I have played and enjoyed, with some information on why they are interesting. The first two are the founding pillars of JRPG’s, so I also provide some brief history on both of them.

DRAGON QUEST series: Inspired by the WIZARDRY and ULTIMA series, this was the game which gave birth to the JRPG genre. Originally, the first game featured one-on-one turn-based fights to the death between you and whichever enemy you came across. The series has remained faithful to its very traditional, turn-based, medieval fantasy roots. To this day, the games still carry a feeling of being fairy tales. Very charming.

FINAL FANTASY series: Inspired by DRAGON QUEST, the first game of this series featured similar turn-based battles within a top-down world. However, this game featured a party of four characters, with six “job” options based off DUNGEONS & DRAGONS classes. Originally named FINAL FANTASY because it was the company’s last try at making a video game. With FINAL FANTASY VII, Square made a massive international advertisement campaign which completely changed JRPG’s in the west, and consequently the video game industry worldwide, and also led to the bursting success of the series. In recent installments it has turned from medieval fantasy settings to an unusual sort of sci-fi. My favorites: IX, XII, IV and VII, in some particular order.

SECRET OF MANA: The game which started it all for me. A wonderful, colorful, classic tale about a boy who finds a magical sword and travels the world to stop a world-conquering empire – I suspect that this is the game which actually made that story a “standard” for JRPG’s. An action JRPG with an interesting mechanic for making it less attack-spamming and more turn-based, while keeping a great freedom of movement.

CHRONO: The first game, CHRONO TRIGGER, revolves around time travel, and has a very colorful cast of characters from across time. A perfect game. The sequel CHRONO CROSS is about parallel dimensions and is also a wonderful visual, aural and gameplay experience.

ILLUSION OF GAIA: I already mentioned it previously, but reiterate that its story is great – a world journey set on our planet, but where its growth has been stunted by a malefic comet. You adventure through real-world inspired locations such as the Nazca Plains, the Pyramids, Angkor Wat and others. You only realize that it is truly Earth at the end, when the lands change to our modern shape.

TERRANIGMA: A transformative game with a scope beyond any other I have played: you are tasked, gradually of course, with the resurrection of the Earth – the land itself, then plants, animals, humans, and eventually you witness and guide humanity on its journey, all from the perspective of one character. Phenomenal game, emotionally draining.

BREATH OF FIRE series: I was a late comer to this series, starting from the third onwards. The installments of the series have traditionally been set in a mix of medieval fantasy and anthropomorphic “clans”, leading to unusual worlds. BREATH OF FIRE V: DRAGON QUARTER took a post-apocalyptic sci-fi turn, where the player is desperately trying to get to the surface so that a protagonist can hopefully live. Also read about BREATH OF FIRE III, one of my early JRPG experiences, here.

FINAL FANTASY TACTICS: This is my favorite game of all time, and I believe that it is the best game ever made. Stellar in my four criteria for evaluating games: a riveting story of class conflict, power struggle, family, deception, manipulation, and religion; strategic gameplay where you develop your party members in a variety of jobs and tactical gameplay where you direct your squad in moving and fighting against an enemy squad, visuals consisting of detailed and well animated sprites in 3d grid-based environments, and a wonderful orchestral score with strong thematic unity. I might write more one day about how beyond awesome this game is.

PERSONA 4: An interesting mix of social simulator and monster-collecting turn-based JRPG. Set in the real world, with a supernatural killer which only you can find and stop by entering a world through TV screens. Also has great menu and interface design.

KINGDOM HEARTS series: A collaboration of Square and Disney, this series features action JRPG mechanics, and several worlds each containing characters from Disney movies. The Disney stories are fairly separate from each other, but the unifying thread is an increasingly (and unnecessarily) complicated plot involving various evil organizations. The story tends to be about friendship, the heart as some sort of soul concept, darkness… It tries hard.

.HACK series: You actually play as a person who plays a MMORPG, where some people playing that MMO have slipped into comas and you are trying to find out why. I stopped playing it because the first installment was very short, both in game length (10 hours) and in how far the story progressed. I was not interested in buying another 3 expensive games just to follow this one story through, not when other JRPG’s can go all the way in one game. But I did like the idea of a simulated MMO inside the game.

WILD ARMS series: I’ve only played the third one, but I find this series interesting because it is set in a Western world, as in desert, cowboys and guns.

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