Editor Note: Flame Shield Activated! is an opinion series where we aim to make a definitive call on some of the more disagreeable topics in gaming. We do this with the knowledge that the internet will likely disagree with our conclusions.
Japanese Role-playing Games (JRPGs) – It’s a genre that you either love or hate. Apparently, there’s little room for a middle ground within the online gaming community these days. Personally, as someone who actively seeks narrative in games, this was the genre which taught me gaming could be about so much more than the mis-adventures of blue hedgehogs and Italian plumbers. I still remember a time when JRPGs were considered the pinnacle of game design, conveying characters and stories like no other genre could even begin to realise. Of course, things change over time, and by the time we hit the last generation the genre was arguably growing a little stale. I think it’s fair to say, for the time being, that the prime for the genre has long passed; however, that’s not to say there haven’t been some incredible games in the last decade. Basically, this article is my opinion on which JRPGs I think stood out as the best.
The greatest thing about the Final Fantasy series, prior to all the direct sequels, was that you could expect an entirely new world and cast of characters, as well as reinvented game mechanics with each new iteration. Naturally, this divided the core fanbase with each new game, but it’s also what has kept the series alive for more than 25 years now.
Final Fantasy XII was subject to its share of fan criticism at the time, but in retrospective, after the linear, encyclopedic headache that was Final Fantasy XIII, it’s really helped to highlight many of this game’s achievements. It is true the writers couldn’t decide on a lead protagonist, departing from the usual character driven narrative in favour of a more politically fueled plot, but it was still populated with a likable cast that was arguably one of the least melodramatic.
One thing I remember about it is how alive the world of Ivalice felt. It was a world that I enjoyed being apart of and that’s not something I can say for the more recent games in the series. Importantly, there was also a lot of freedom, with heaps of customisation options for hardcore players, an interesting new battle system that introduced real-time combat for the first time in the series, as well as a lot of rewarding sidequests to pursue. It might have scraped into this list, but it’s still the best Final Fantasy game of the last decade. Hate me for it, but I’d like to see a HD remaster!
NieR is the classic example of a game being overlooked because of surface deep impressions. Don’t get me wrong, the game isn’t very attractive and it often tries to be way more than it needed to be. However, beneath its ugly outer shell is one of the most incredible JRPGs I’ve ever played; even if many of the traditional JRPG mechanics are wasted.
The irony in the paragraph above is that I only just played NieR last month, having ignored it for the same reasons and only picking it up several years later because of a list such as this. Another misconception with the game was that Square changed the protagonist to appeal to Western audiences, but the fun fact is that he was the original; with the other added in to appeal to Japanese players. At its core, this is a story about a man whose trying to save his dying daughter as he travels the world fighting against “shadows” and forming alliances with an unlikely cast of characters.
Mechanically, it’s decently average; if not for all the well-designed boss battles which help to make the gameplay a lot more memorable. However, What’s so great about NieR is the unconventional nature of the narrative and how it tries to tackle some sensitive real-world issues; even turning into a text-based adventure game at one point. The pure genius of NieR, however, is how the new game plus mode actually gives you an entirely new perspective on the events of the game, significantly altering your entire perception of what just happened. It’s mind blowing, so playing it twice is absolutely necessary to get the most out of it; though, you get to start at the halfway point so it’s not a long process. It also has one of the best game soundtracks, ever. If you’ve not played it yet, please consider giving it a try.
Kingdom Hearts was a game I randomly picked up from Cash Converters one day. I didn’t really have any expectations for it, but I had been encouraged to give it a shot. As is often the case with no hype or expectations, the game blew my mind; combining both Final Fantasy and Disney in a way that felt natural, and not like a gimmick at all.
Still riding the excitement of my new found discovery, I didn’t have much of a wait until Kingdom Hearts II hit store shelves. I still remember the day I picked it up, and it’s a feeling I’ve long since missed throughout my adult years. It was during a time in my life where I wasn’t doing so great, and this game is something that helped to keep me feeling positive, as odd as that sounds. I don’t know if it was the darker tone, or the comfort of being surrounded by so many of the characters I related to as a child, but it was definitely one of my favourite gaming experiences as a teenager.
Admittedly, the introduction was painfully drawn out, and not owning a Gameboy Advance meant I had no idea who Roxas was, either. However, it was worth trudging through the first couple of hours as what followed was arguably one of the best action JRPGs to grace the PS2. Mechanically, many aspects had been improved over the original, and the story had taken a much darker route, which I personally resonated with. It was also gorgeous to look at, with some of the best music and voice-acting of that time too. Youtube, “Dearly Beloved.” – It says more than words could.
Valkyria Chronicles is one of the first titles to come to mind when talking about great games people might not have played. It released during what I would call an awkward era for JRPGs – a genre that struggled to feel relevant within the changing HD landscape. Notably, there were some exceptions such as Lost Odyssey, which proudly embraced the roots of the genres history. However, that was just as much a part of the problem as nobody seemed willing to try something radically different, and that’s why we ended up with so many “cookie-cutter” games in those first few years.
Arguably one of Sega’s greatest games of all time, Valkyria Chronicles boldly stepped out of a sea of mediocrity to bring new life to the genre. It was like nothing else I had ever played, portraying itself through an interactive book and presented with an art style somewhere between cell-shading and a water-colour painting. The core game was split into chapters, which players would then have to work their way through to unlock cutscenes and missions. What was so unique about it was how different the gameplay was, mixing real-time strategy, turn-based combat and third-person shooting into one genius idea. It was a game that wasn’t afraid to be complicated and challenge the player, but it was done in a way that never ended in frustration. It was such a unique and remarkable experience, and it’s a real shame the sequels ended up only on PSP; with the third never reaching western shores. I know it’s arguably questionable whether this is technically a “JRPG”, but I included it as it’s undeniably Japanese inspired throughout.
If I had instead been writing about the ’90s, I have no doubt that there would have been a Final Fantasy title toward the top of the list. Sadly, this is not the case – or is it? Bravely Default is the newest JRPG franchise from Square Enix, which turned out to be a surprise smash hit for the 3DS. Although the title actually refers to the unique features of the battle system, it also describes the game perfectly. Bravely Default confidently embraces the roots of the JRPG genre, and for all intents and purposes, is a purest Final Fantasy experience without the title. It’s also damned good, as well!
An addictive turn-based battle system, a compelling take on the jobs system, awesome special abilities, meta-game mechanics and pseudo-multiplayer integration, an over-world in which you can actually fly an airship around, charismatic characters you grow to care about… Okay, you probably get the picture. It has just about everything you would want from a great JRPG, but with a few unique twists added in too. The special feature of the battle system was that you could both “Brave” and “Default”, allowing the player to save up turns to use at once, or take turns in advance. However, what’s most exciting about the Western release is that the developers actually collected player feedback and apparently implemented more than 80% of what they received. What we received included genre rocking ideas such as controlling the battle rate encounter and being able to speed up battle with the touch of the D-Pad – it made so much sense! Bravely Default also has a surprisingly deep narrative too. I can’t it recommend enough!
Does anyone else remember “Operation Rainfall”? For those unfamiliar, basically, fans in the west rallied online for Nintendo to localise three JRPGs for the Nintendo Wii: Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story, and Pandora’s Tower. The response to the call was overwhelming, and it went down in history as one of the most successful petitions, ever.
I was already anticipating The Last Story, being a fan of Lost Odyssey, and on that note, it only just missed out on being a part of this list. However, on the other hand, Xenoblade Chronicles was a game which I had absolutely no knowledge about or expectations going in. All I knew was that it had a cult following online. From the moment I turned it on, it reminded me of Kindom Hearts II with a title screen and main theme that immediately convinced me that I was about to experience something very special. Fortunately, I was not wrong, either – not to mention it’s seriously epic!
Remember how I mentioned JRPGs were struggling to take it to the next level? Well, that is exactly what Xenoblade Chronicles did. It is the open-world game that JRPG fans had been dreaming of, taking a step into the realms of something like Skyrim, but without ever compromising its genre to be more “Western.” It is distinctively Japanese designed, with a world that feels somewhere between Final Fantasy XII and Monster Hunter. The game could easily take more than 60 hours to complete, with lots of side-quests and a main plot that is as intricate as it is brilliant. The battle system is fantastic, and there is just so much to see. It blows away what I ever thought was possible on the Wii!
Persona 4 is a really unusual game to describe to newcomers. It’s one part social-sim, another part dungeon crawler, and then has elements of Pokemon thrown into the mix. If you’ve not played it before, you’re probably thinking that is either the weirdest thing you’ve ever heard or maybe even the greatest. The answer is definitely the greatest, just to clarify. Persona 4 is a game absolutely spewing with personality, and I’d go as far as to say it’s the best JRPG, ever.
Mechanically speaking, it has a fantastic battle system with lots of customisation options, as well as creatures called Persona which you can collect and fight with, as well as fuse together to create new Persona. It’s an addictive system that keeps the dungeon crawling interesting. However, what makes the game so great is a gripping supernatural murder mystery that’s supported by what I think is the most relatable cast of characters I’ve ever encountered. The thing that’s so different to other games is that one of the ways you get stronger is by developing bonds with other characters by helping them with relatable real-world problems. At times, it tackles some controversial issues, and at others it’s just a positive reminder about how important friendship can be. It’s not afraid to be dark, but it’s also filled with so much positivity, as seen with it’s bright colours, sense of humour and a J-POP soundtrack that’s unforgettable.
If you enjoy JRPGs, murder mysteries, sim games, dungeon crawlers, Pokemon, Japanese culture, or are just looking for a unique experience that you can learn something from and come out the other side feeling positive, this is a game worth playing. Persona 4: Golden recently re-released on the PS Vita, which is by far the definitive version of the game. However, if you can’t get your hands on a PS2 or Vita, I would even recommend watching the anime series which is the most faithful recreation of any game on-screen. Persona 4 is a game that I would recommend to anyone.