Every genre of gaming has its strengths and weakness. We all know this. Yet, some tend to be more in the spotlight than others. Japanese RPGs are one of these superstars of gaming. Over the years, JRPGs have developed a bit of an infamous reputation. While I can’t change that perception, at the very least I can show you a few games that may pique your interest.
When deciding which games to recommend, there were a few key factors to consider. What aspects of a JRPG are the most frustrating for people new to the genre? I’ve narrowed it down to a few points:
- Cliche stories and tropes: Many JRPGs are guilty of having a checklist of tropes that only serve to annoy the player. Forget meaningful writing, we need more one-dimensional characters and summer hot springs DLC.
- Random encounters: Another huge problem with old JRPGs (and some modern ones) is the constant interruption of gameplay flow.
- Grinding: It’s frustrating to spend hours leveling up when you can’t defeat an enemy. These roadblocks are evidence of poor game design rather than actually testing the skill of the player.
Now that we’ve established the criteria, let’s walk through each game that you should play if JRPGs aren’t your thing. At the very least, there will be one game you can take away from this list that will make you appreciate the genre a little more.
1. Chrono Trigger (1995)
We’re starting with an entry that itself is a cliche choice, but for good reason. Chrono Trigger is still one of the greatest creative risks taken by SquareSoft. It takes RPGs in a bold new direction that focuses on breaking down tired old concepts. The characters are well-written and all of them bring a unique personality to the table. The time-travel aspects of the plot are mostly sensible and easy to follow. Chrono Trigger sheds most of the JRPG fat to provide you with a healthy, lean video game. There are no random encounters, grinding is unnecessary and the story is different in a good way.
The combat system is the best iteration of turn-based combat thanks to one game changer: dual/triple techniques. One of the greatest spectacles of Chrono Trigger is when your party members combine their attacks to create new techniques. The most iconic is X-Strike by Chrono and Frog. The two swordsmen slice their opponent at the same time for massive damage while looking badass. Large-scale team attacks were something even Final Fantasy didn't offer at the time. There isn't much left to say about this game. Chrono Trigger has stood tall throughout time and continues to be the standard for all JRPGs.
Note: The Steam version had a rough start, but new updates make it worth playing. Don’t play the PS1 version on the PS3 store as it has long loading times.
2. Final Fantasy Tactics (1997)
If you’re someone who couldn’t get into Final Fantasy no matter what, then I’ve got the solution. Final Fantasy Tactics is a strategy-RPG for the original PlayStation by game designer Yasumi Matsuno. He's known more recently for Final Fantasy XII, but his method of storytelling really comes through in Final Fantasy Tactics.
This game is unlike any other product with the Final Fantasy name attached. It tells a stirring and emotional tale of war, friendship and betrayal. Characters act like real people with selfish motivations and beliefs. The main character, Ramza, is one of the most relatable JRPG characters you'll find. Some plot elements reek of Final Fantasy, but that doesn't take away from the intense theme of war. Gameplay revolves around an in-depth job system that few RPGs can match. You have complete freedom to customize your band of warriors in any way you wish. Want to make the main character an arithmetician? Go ahead. A team full of dancers and bards to your liking? No problem.
There are random encounters which occur when travelling across the map. It’s not an excessive intrusion, but something to keep in mind. Grinding is not required to beat the story missions. Victory, instead, comes from proper planning and equipment sets. However, you may want to spend some extra time levelling up jobs to unlock some of the awesome classes, like the ninja.
There’s so much more to mention about this game. I haven’t even begun to talk about the amazing soundtrack by Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata. Whatever your opinion is on Final Fantasy, this game is a must-play for everyone.
Note: The remake (War of the Lions) has a better script but also has FPS drops during gameplay. The original runs perfectly but the translations are typical of the PS One era (not amazing). If you have a PSP, there is a way to fix the FPS drops using some external methods.
3. Suikoden II (1998)
Believe it or not, there was a time when Konami made JRPGs, namely, Suikoden. While the first game was more of a prototype, the second game is where the series comes to life. Suikoden II is a war story but has a completely different vibe from Final Fantasy Tactics. It isn’t as sombre, but Suikoden II understands how to convey emotion. The touching moments in this game are some of the well-crafted and well-written in any video game. Suikoden II respects the player's time and intelligence.
Unfortunately, this game does have random encounters. The encounter rate isn’t high, but certain areas can get infuriating (dungeons, caves, mountains). Thankfully, you don’t have to grind. Or rather, the game doesn’t let you grind. The experience a character receives is proportional to their level. For example, a low-level character will gain a huge boost in experience points, while high-level characters receive less. This makes it easy to train a new character and change your party around during the late game.
There are some tropes in this game, more so than the others on the list. However, it never feels forced or cheesy. Suikoden II is a game that everyone can appreciate and enjoy. The lighter moments don’t take away from the seriousness of the story. Instead, they enhance the experience and make you care about the characters.
Note: Playing the first Suikoden is not essential, but highly recommended. There are recurring characters and you can also carry over the save file for an awesome side quest. Suikoden I is available on PSP and PS3.
There may only be three games on this list, but each of them is a must-play. These “anti-JRPGs” stand out in a genre full of generic and homogeneous games. I had originally planned to have 10 games on this list but had to reconsider a lot of choices. It made me appreciate the above three games as they managed a feat few others have. Make a JRPG appealing for everyone.
Persona (1996): Left out since I don’t have much experience with the games. Persona is loved by fans for having great characters and turn-based combat. Don’t let the high school appearance fool you, the stories get quite dark!
Golden Sun (2001): A solid RPG that is stuck on the GBA. If you can find a copy of this game at a decent price then give it a shot.
Ni no Kuni (2011): While both games are great, I recommend the first one on PS3. It has a better story and the charm is beyond what should be legal.
Xenogears: Don’t play this.
That wraps up this short list of video games. All three are of equal value in terms of your money and time. While these titles may not change your perception of JRPGs, but at least you now have a few more awesome games to play.