JRPGs are a genre known for typically not being terribly graphic intensive. With a few exceptions, such as SquareEnix’s Final Fantasy games, most JRPGs tend to be on the lower end of the graphics scale. Despite this, they still often look absolutely amazing… and that can be accredited directly to the amazing art direction many of these games have.
Today I’d like to acknowledge 6 of my favourite games for their amazing art styles. In the event a series has a tendency towards the same style, I may lump the games under the series… but in the event two games from the same series were drastically different I may separate them if they both warrant a spot.
Final Fantasy 9
Most of the Final Fantasy series is renowned for having amazing graphics… but not really widely known for their art style being particularly unique. Final Fantasy 9 is the exception to that rule, in my eyes. Taking a step back on the realistic graphics, they adopted a more cartoony approach that simply worked so well for FF9. I still remember being awestruck at the beauty of some of the game’s subtle cinematics – even those as simple as a few birds flying through the sky.
But it isn’t just about the cinematics, the character models had such a unique flair. They mixed completely unique ideas with designs that draw inspiration from the series past installations such as the ubiquitous Black Mage and even going back as far as the four elemental bosses from the original Final Fantasy. This game’s art design created breathtaking visuals that were somehow both new and nostalgic.
Guided Fate Paradox
Guided Fate Paradox is one of those games that fits under the umbrella of ‘low end of the graphics scale’ using pretty standard strategy rpg fare for the basics. But they weren’t content to simply leave it at that, in stead building off of those basics with some of the most wacky and unimaginable special weapons, armor, and abilities you can imagine. And it is in these touches (since all of your weapons and armor are completely visible the entire time you’re in one of the series’ dungeons) that the designers expressed their creativity. And, even beyond the armour… the enemies in this game show that same level of weirdness.
You can take almost any screenshot of this game and immediately recognize the source thanks to the absurdity and variety expressed within. That was their big success artistically speaking… they took fairly low-end graphics and managed to, through use of ridiculous design ideas and a great sense of humour, create something truly and utterly memorable. If you’ve ever wanted to take on the weirdest looking zombies, somehow-adorable ogres, and evil mermaids as a half-mech half-medusa carrying two giant axes… this is the game for you.
When I played Chrono Cross, I’d never seen the ocean before, outside of scattered pictures or scenes in movies… but Chrono Cross’s breathtaking visuals and amazing design made me want to. I couldn’t help but believe that it was as beautiful as the seascapes within this fantastic game.
Water certainly isn’t the only pretty sight in this game, but animating amazing sea/river scenes was certainly their specialty here. The characters models showed some real style as well, with an amazing colour palette and some incredibly interesting character concepts.
Persona 4 Golden
Not having played the Persona games until I got my hands on P4G, I can’t speak to whether or not this art style is a series-long endeavor… but Persona 4 The Golden is another great example of limited resources turning into a great payoff. This JRPG was made for the PS2 and touched up for the Vita, adding some extra cinematics and touches to make it just that much prettier. What is most noteworthy about this is the cohesive theme.
Every aspect of this game plays together with a cohesive image style, a great colour palette, and even similar character designs. When you watch the cinematics and combat moments like the ‘All Out Attacks’ you get to see a hint of just how clear their vision of this game was.
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
I did not like Ni No Kuni. As a game, I felt it was an almost complete failure. But there is one thing you can always count on: Studio Ghibli does good work. Responsible for the visuals in this game, they were the biggest bright spot in this. I’ll be blunt, there is no moment during this game where it is not beautiful to look at. Whether you’re talking combat, environments, character models… it’s all spectacular. And it’s all so unique, so very Ghibli.
If I had to say one thing as a standout, it is the familiar design. These familiars were so adorable and so very distinct, that it was hard to not pay attention to them. In fact, the starting familiar, who was a sort of monster version of the protagonist, was probably my favourite – I dubbed him Stabby. And it is always nice to see a game use lush, vibrant colours like those found in this game.
Speaking of colour, the Atelier series has a very unified art direction involving an almost pastel palette. It is simply breathtaking, and that is why it takes my #1 place on this list. Every single Atelier game looks just a little bit better than the previous while still maintaining that unique style. Many parts of the game actually resemble paintings, it is simply amazing. And the character models have this sort of girly charm to them, with this being one of the few Japanese games that doesn’t set its characters up as fanservice.
But my favourite part, aside from the amazing colour palette, is the unique designs to the offensive items that the characters can craft. From simple barrels or giant rocks to teleporting explosives and a giant statue to hit your foes… the visual effects in combat are varied, elaborate, and exciting. For a game with such basic graphics, they sure manage to make everything look so pretty… it’s rare to see a game that is so uplifting visually… but to see an entire series that does it consistently, game over game, without ever looking tired or overdone? That is simply remarkable.