If you’ve been reading my blog posts, you would assume, and correctly so, that I am a fan of Squaresoft’s, and later Square-Enix’s, games. But it is not as if my entire JRPG experience has been based around Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts.
While many of my fondest memories in the genre have been courtesy of the behemoth developer, there have been plenty of games from other studios that have made a indelible impact as well. That is what this post will focus on, those games in the JRPG genre that rank among my all-time favorites.
First, a couple ground rules. 1. I’m only including games that I have completed, or got pretty close to completing. So while I recognize the greatness of a game like Persona 4, I have only played a few hours of it, so I haven’t been exposed to it enough to form a concrete opinion. 2. This is my list, so it’s clearly based around my opinion and my opinion alone. If there’s a game you expect to see on here but don’t, it does not mean I think the game is garbage. Instead, use the comments below to direct me to some of your favorites.
With that all in mind, let’s begin:
5. Arc the Lad II – 1996 (Sony Computer Entertainment/Arc Entertainment – Playstation)
Arc the Lad II might have been released in 1996, but North American gamers didn’t get a chance to experience it at the soonest until 2002, with the release of the Arc the Lad Collection, which bundled the first three games of the tactical RPG series.
While Arc the Lad was a decent installment, Arc the Lad II improved upon it in every possible way. With more characters, more items, more locales, more quests and more diversions, Arc the Lad II took the 15-20-hour adventure of its predecessor and expanded it to 60-70 hours plus. Also, importing your save data from Arc the Lad gives you access to the powered-up fighters of the previous game. (They’ve been mounting a worldwide resistance against an evil empire. Of course they would be a little more seasoned than your new rag-tag group of heroes.)
Arguably, it’s been downhill for the Arc series ever since this installment, and that’s a shame given how impressive it is. Still, Arc the Lad II is a fun, engaging strategy RPG in its own right.
4. Disgaea: Hour of Darkness – 2003 (Nippon Ichi Software – Playstation 2)
For a game centered around demons vying for control of the Netherworld, it’s pretty lighthearted.
That’s part of the charm of Disgaea, with the quirky characters (from the ditzy angel assassin Flonne to the boisterous Captain Gordon) and the humorous script. The story ranges from hilariously offbeat to genuinely touching, highlighted by superb voice acting, headlined by Barbara Goodson as the demon prince anti-hero Laharl.
But that’s to say nothing of the gameplay. The game throws enough wrinkles into the tried-and-true strategy RPG formula to keep things fresh, such as the use of battlefield-altering geo panels and the ability to issue orders to multiple allies and have them carry them out all at once. And with features like the random dungeon generating Item World, plenty of bonus bosses, and the capability of leveling up your heroes to level 9999, you will sink hundreds of hours into this gem if you’re a completionist.
Disgaea has also been ported to the Playstation Portable and the Nintendo DS. If you haven’t spent any time with Laharl and his motley crew, you have plenty of opportunities to do so.
3. Tales of Symphonia – 2003 (Namco Tales Studio – Gamecube)
As much of a fan I am of Namco’s Tales series, there’s only been two of the games I have actually completed. This is one of them.
Tales of Symphonia, which is actually a prequel to Namco’s first game in the series, Tales of Phantasia, is the first Tales game to be brought into the third dimension. And what a freshman outing it was in that regard. The series’ staple Linear Motion Battle System was replaced with the Multi-Line Linear Motion Battle System. What it allowed for was more varied movement of both enemies and allies in battle, as well as faster paced combat which enabled combos from regular attacks to different tiers of special attacks to the punishing Unison Attack.
Symphonia also takes a different direction with its art style, going with a cel-shaded look that ends up working quite well (that might have something to do with the voice talent they got for the game. Main character Lloyd Irving is voiced by Scott Menville, the voice of Teen Titans‘ Robin.) All in all, you get a 60-hour quest with plenty of narrative twists and turns to keep you engaged outside of the fast-paced battles.
Tales of Symphonia did get a direct sequel with Dawn of the New World. Both titles got a re-release on the Playstation 3 with Tales of Symphonia Chronicles, which is as good a reason as any to revisit this gem.
2. Shadow Hearts: Covenant – 2004 (Nautilus – Playstation 2)
A JRPG which has, among its cast of characters, a man who can transform into multiple demons, a German soldier sent to investigate him, a French puppeteer, a pro-wrestling vampire, and the youngest daughter of Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II.
Yeah, Shadow Hearts: Covenant is a game that is equally dark and foreboding and lighthearted and humorous. Continuing the story from the original Shadow Hearts, players take control of the harmonixer Yuri Hyuga, a man who can fuse with the souls of demons, on a journey through Europe and Asia in the throes of World War I. Yuri and his compatriots must stop the plans of a secret society to use the chaos and unrest of the conflict to call forth fearsome demons to the mortal realm.
As great as the story and the interactions between the characters are, the main selling point of Covenant is the battle system, featuring the series’ trademark Judgement Ring. Any action, from attacking enemies to casting magic to using items, requires skillful use of the Judgement Ring for success. But unlike the previous installment, the Judgement Ring can customized to each player’s liking, and expert players can even make the Ring more difficult for greater effects in combat.
Plus, Covenant continues what I think is one of the better love stories in gaming, that of Yuri and English exorcist Alice Elliot. The game is worth playing just to play out their tragic and touching tale.
1. Lunar 2: Eternal Blue Complete – 1999 (Game Arts – Playstation)
A remake of a game originally released on the Sega CD, Lunar 2 has a charm all its own. Set 1,000 years after the events of Lunar: The Silver Star, Lunar 2 follows the aspiring adventurer Hiro as he follows the lovely Lucia on her mission from God, or Goddess in this case, to save Lunar from a dark threat.
The gameplay in Lunar 2 is standard JRPG fare, though the addition of the Crest system does open up different combat abilities for your memorable cast of characters. What makes Lunar 2 stand out is the setting and story. Players will travel all throughout the vast, vibrant world, meeting all kinds of colorful characters, both friend and foe. The story is filled with shout-outs to the original game, while crafting a tale that’s original in its own right. And it’s only helped along by a translation by publisher Working Designs that includes plenty of humor, including from the NPCs, and top-notch voice work (especially by Ghaleon’s voice actor, John Truitt. That dude is legit.)
But perhaps my favorite thing about Lunar 2 is the game’s playable epilogue. After fighting through the 30-40 hour main quest, you are given the opportunity to earn your happy ending through a 10-15 hour post-game, replete with extra items and bonus dungeons. As well as a story resolution that makes you feel really good when the end credits roll.
It’s criminal that this game has not gotten so much as a modern port. Come on, Game Arts! Make it happen!
The Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts series may be two of my favorite out there. But these games are, in my opinion, also worthy additions to the JRPG genre, and should be checked out by any self-respecting JRPG fan.
- Fire Emblem: Awakening – Nintendo 3DS
- Grandia II – Dreamcast
- Pokemon Sapphire – Game Boy Advance
- Skies of Arcadia Legends – Gamecube
- Xenoblade Chronicles – Wii