Welcome back to the Beneath the Tangles Top Five! It has been a while since we have done this, but once again, we are back with more lists of our favorite (or least favorite) things!
While past lists have focused on anime and manga, this time we are looking at video games, which have been getting more and more coverage on our blog lately. Specifically, we are looking at Japanese role-playing games, or JRPGs for short. With the core gameplay concept of defeating opponents to earn experience to make characters stronger, usually by increasing a variety of stats that determine how much damage you deal or take, the Japanese have gone in all sorts of directions with RPGs. They often come with intricate or imaginative storylines that are very character-driven. Also, many such RPGs are heavily influenced by, or have heavily influenced manga and anime. With the average JRPG being a very lengthy game, though, choosing one to sink your time into can be a daunting task. So to help figure out what are the standout games of the genre, I have asked some of the writers of Beneath the Tangles to give a list of their favorite JRPGs.
In addition, I have also invited a guest, The Gaming Gamma, to give his opinion. His blog covers and reviews a lot of JRPGs, so I am definitely glad to have his take on the subject. Click the links below to read his reviews on each of his top 5 titles on his site.
The Gaming Gamma’s Picks
- Persona 4 Golden [Our Score 10/10] PS Vita
- Stella Glow [Our Score 8.5/10] 3DS
- Valkyria Chronicles Remastered [Our Score 10/10] PS4
- Shin Megami Tensei IV Apocalypse [Our Score 9.0/10] 3DS
- Superdimension Neptune vs. Sega Hard Girls [Our Score 9.25/10] PS Vita
The JRPG genre as a whole was the video game genre that made me see video games in a different light. The genre is able to mix storytelling, gameplay and atmosphere into the perfect mix to make the perfect outcome of games. So, I decided to compile a list of my top 5 JRPGs that really stood out to me.
The Hyperdimension Neptunia series is the JRPG series known for its humorous writing, fourth wall breaks and parody on the JRPG genre. The series is known for having many spin off entries that parody other video game genres and stories, this time the developers at Compile Heart teamed up with SEGA to bring this cross over which is almost a parody of its own series. The reason I rate this spin off so much higher on this list over other games is the writing alone. When reading some of the writing in this game you can tell that the developers went ham in what they could put in, and it works well.
The Shin Megami Tensei series is one of Atlus’s staple franchises, as most of their other series are spin offs of the main Shin Megami Tensei series. Shin Megami Tensei IV Apocalypse is the sequel to the 2013 3DS game Shin Megami Tensei IV. The game continues from a certain point in the previous entry. In this game, you take the role of a Hunter that was revived by the Celtic god Dagda to do his bidding and bring an end to the apocalypse between the armies of Heaven and Hell. Everything about this game will make classic JRPG fans extremely happy, from extreme difficulties that will test all your strategies, to amazing story telling in this post-apocalyptic atmosphere.
I am a massive history buff, and my favorite time period in world history to research and read about is World War II. So, when I heard there was a game that was basically the anime rendition of World War II I hopped on that in an instant. Valkyria Chronicles is a turn based strategy JRPG where you command different units on the battle field to try and take objectives or take out enemy commanders. The gameplay is very rewarding and makes you try your best to complete the objectives in as few turns as possible. The writing in this game is also top notch, and is one of the few games that made me cry at the ending.
I played this game at the suggestion of our senior editor who reviewed this game. Needless to say, I was not disappointed. Stella Glow is a JRPG with gameplay similar to that of Fire Emblem, where you control different characters on a grid like structure to fight enemies and clear the objectives. The vast variety of characters to play as makes each fight feel like a rewarding experience. You also have the chance to befriend every member of your party through various different free time events, and by the end of the game you feel less like a group of knights, but more like a family. Stella Glow’s story telling is also done very well, while it may start out as a bit cliché at first it will throw you through so many twists and turns you won’t know what hit you. I recommend this game for anyone looking for a good story and fun gameplay.
The Persona series is one of the more popular spin offs of the Shin Megami Tensei series. Persona 4 was originally released on the PS2 back in 2008, with a remake brought to the PS Vita in 2012. The game focuses around a group of teenagers who are investigating a supernatural phenomenon that is happening on this strange TV channel called The Midnight Channel. The Investigation team is able to go inside of their TVs to fully investigate this and gain the power of Personas to fight along side. This sixty-eighty-hour adventure will take you through many different trials you must overcome with your friends, and by doing so you become closer as a group as you try to find out the person behind this strange events on the Midnight Channel. This game has the perfect mix of storytelling and gameplay. You are encouraged to befriend the many different people in Inaba to grow your social links to fuse stronger Personas as you fight inside the TV world. I can say from expierence that Persona 4 is an adventure you need to playthrough first hand, this was the game that made me realize that video games deserve to be seen in the same vein as art. So if you are looking to get into the Persona series with Persona 5 heading to the west this Valentine’s Day, I recommend picking up a Vita or PS TV (if you don’t already have one) and try this game out.
- Chrono Trigger (My review)
- Breath of Fire III
- Lunar Silver Star Story
- Tales of Abyss
- Final Fantasy X
As one who is more into video games than anime, I had to put my top picks here! I had already written a Top 5 JRPG’s You’ve Never Played, but these are my all-time favorite ones, so it’s a little different. Chrono Trigger has and still is one of the best games of all time, utilizing a musical score that is still played on stages by orchestras around the world (presentations like Video Games Live and Play! or artists such as Taylor Davis) and a captivating story that traverses time. I’ve played it several times (but haven’t in a long time!), seen all the endings, watched the short anime OVA and am still looking to buy the figurines which are extremely rare.
The Breath of Fire series is fantastic, minus part V. Personally, it was a toss up between parts II and III, but the third entry has too many nostalgic feels for me to ignore. Not only are the characters going through realistic struggles, like figuring out their purpose, growing up, and handling difficult relationships, the story is an interesting one. The last part of the game (just like BoF2) gets pretty heavy and emotional. The music, graphics, and battles are top notch, and I still have several of the tracks in my “Instrumental” playlist.
Lunar Silver Star Story has a more fantasy and child-like atmosphere compared to my other choices. It’s a great game with deep characters and beautiful music. The colors in the environments and anime cutscenes are memorable, and the song “Wind’s Nocturne” is unforgettable. The voiceovers can be a little cheesy since this is a much older game, and the gameplay is a little slow, but the story keeps you wanting to play more.
The Tales series is one of the best and longest running JRPG series, standing the test of time. Most of their games are fantastic, receiving high ratings, but Tales of the Abyss is my favorite of all of them so far. I have still to play other entries, so I may eat my words in the future. Luke Fon Fabre is one of the heroes in video games I admire most because of his progression as a person throughout the game. Aside from great voice acting, gameplay and story, the interactions between the party are those not often seen in gaming. You can almost feel his pain and struggles as he grows into a better person. For that alone, it’s one of my top JRPGs.
Even though it’s #5, Final Fantasy X has some of the best cutscenes, story, and most difficult battles in any FF series. There has yet to be a title in the franchise that has surpassed it’s influence and impact in the JRPG genre, in my personal opinion. The romance between Yuna and Tidus is beautiful, the discussion of the afterlife has some intriguing points, and the characterization of sin and the Church is interesting, especially for Christians. For me, I’ve yet to play a FF entry that has overcome Final Fantasy X‘s excellence (I’m still waiting for FFXV so let’s see!).
- Tales of Symphonia
- Fire Emblem Fates
- Pokémon SoulSilver
- Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door
- Final Fantasy IV
I haven’t played that many JRPGs, admittedly, so my list is ultimately rather limited. In particular, I have not played many Final Fantasy titles, though I have played Final Fantasy IV and it is definitely plenty good, having an engaging battle system and a story that pushed boundaries of what video game storytelling was capable of back when it first came out, and even now remains a solid story. The Mario series has produced some unique and fun RPGs, with Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door being my personal favorite for its colorful cast, whimsical (and sometimes emotional) story, creative world design and improvements on the fun battle system from the first Paper Mario. Of course, I have to put a Pokémon game on here and while many choices stood out, I went with SoulSilver in the end for taking my most nostalgic game and improving on it in many ways. Both Fire Emblem Awakening and Fire Emblem Fates are incredible games in the strategy RPG sub-genre, with Fates getting the nod for its refined gameplay and interesting take on the same base story with multiple possible branches.
However, my favorite JRPG has to go to the first game I played that really opened my eyes to what the genre was capable of. Tales of Symphonia was already going to be a good game with its action-oriented battle system and a great cast of characters, but once the plot started rolling out twists and setting up a fascinating story spanning two game discs, I knew I had found something truly special. I’m sure there are even better JRPGs out there, even within the Tales series, but this was a landmark game in my gaming history that I will never forget for how much it impacted me, enough so that I consider it not just my favorite JRPG, but also my favorite video game of all time. (I am definitely looking forward to playing some of the games on others’ lists, though!)
Josh W’s Picks
- Digital Devil Saga
- Suikoden II
- Final Fantasy VIII
- Final Fantasy IX
- Chrono Cross
The list is in no particular order.
One thing notable is that all of these games hail from the Playstation 1 & 2, the second of which comes from the last generation of consoles where I really felt at home. I feel that, especially for JRPGs, the advent of optical media seemed to usher in an era of experimentation that still feels unique to this day.
I initially didn’t even like Digital Devil Saga duology (the second game is really just a glorified second disc). The grimdark story and the gruesome visuals felt like it was trying too hard to be edgy, but it gradually revealed itself to be a poignant and even hopeful meditation on mankind’s fallen state, as well as a clever deconstruction of JRPG logic. Gameplay-wise, MegaTen’s Press Turn system is one of the best things to happen to turn-based combat, and it makes a welcome appearance here. It also didn’t hurt that it had top-notch dungeon crawling and a rocking soundtrack by Shoji Meguro.
Suikoden II is the one game I’ve played from the era which falls into a goldilocks zone where everything is balanced to near perfection, and it has one of the most ambitious, hard-hitting stories I’ve seen in a game.
Final Fantasy was the franchise that got me interested in JRPGs, and I love it so much that just picking one or two is always a hard choice. But VIII’s willingness to throw out so many RPG conventions was a big eye-opener for me, and I adore its modern fantasy setting. IX is much more stuffy by comparison, but it does a good job of distilling everything a classic Final Fantasy should be (although V also rivals it in that regard).
Preferring Chrono Cross over Chrono Trigger is probably an unpopular choice, and I’ll happily concede that Trigger is the more coherent game. Still, Cross ranks up there as a sequel that was willing to take some pretty big risks. The result is a bit of a mess, but a glorious one nonetheless. Heck, any RPG where you don’t even have to grind for experience gets a tip of the hat from me. And the tropical El Nido archipelago remains one of the most memorable video game settings.
In the order I want to talk about them.
If you’ve been paying attention to me on the podcast, I’ve been on a Kiseki game craze for the last couple years, slowing making my way through this legendary series. Sora no Kiseki: Second Chapter (SC) starts right after the heartbreaking cliffhanger of the first chapter and it leads you on an emotional tale regarding the bonds of the characters you have grown to love. With some epic music, and an outstanding soundtrack, the way SC wraps up the story of Joshua and Estelle was something I could not help but call a masterpiece.
And then I played Ao no Kiseki. While I thought the emotional attachment to the characters was done far better in SC compared to Ao, the latter somehow manages to deliver some amazing plot twists near the end of the game, bridging all kinds of loose ends from the previous 4 games into a story that exceeds SC. Even the subplots with characters like Renne and Ries are intriguing and moving, and it seems Falcom only ever learns how to improve their music, with the songs being kicked into some serious overdrive with ridiculously tough boss fights for the final stretch of this epic journey.
It’s been far too long since I’ve played Chrono Trigger, but this is kind of like the JRPG in all of history. For its time, it was a groundbreaking masterpiece between plot, characters, and music, and yet it has aged better than almost any other game. It spurred an entire generation of nerds into the videogame, and JRPG, world, and will probably be remembered for even more decades to come.
Final Fantasy IX may be nowhere as good as the above 3, but it is a personal favorite of mine simply out of nostalgic reasons. It was the very first JRPG I ever played, and it hooked me with its compelling characters and gameplay. While the plot is certainly nothing outstanding in retrospect, it is still good enough to stand out among its peers of the genre.
Kingdom Hearts did something that I think shows what excellent directing and creativity is capable of in a world filled with such mediocre media. It took pre-established worlds and characters, added some minor twists to connect them all with an overarching story, and somehow became a dearly beloved franchise (if only 3 would get released before we all die). One could argue the material was already nostalgic and well liked, but I think anime adaptations are a great example of why having fantastic source material is hardly an indication that your spin on it will turn out well. Kingdom Hearts thus manages to deliver powerful storytelling and fun gameplay through a creative and smart use of pre-existing IP, something I would love to see more of if copyright was not such a strong blockade.