Well, it’s hard to believe but #JRPGMonth has almost come to a close. It’s been a great month, and I hope the JRPG love will continue throughout the year, but all good things must come to an end. But, as befits the end of such an incredible time, I’d like to share with you my final Shadow’s Six list of #JRPGMonth… and this is the big one.
This list was easily the most difficult to craft. It started with a list of nearly 15 JRPGs… and through a rigorous process I have managed to narrow it down, eliminating all but the most deserving. So are you ready? Because I know I am…. here are the greatest JRPGs of all time!
6) Atelier Escha & Logy
I’ve recently fallen in love with the Atelier series. They are the only games I’ve ever seen do crafting correctly, offering an in-depth experience unlike anything you’ll see elsewhere. This is the only series I’ve ever played where I can quite literally spend an hour doing nothing but crafting and enjoy every minute of it. And that is an accomplishment itself, but they do that without really sacrificing anything else.
But that’s enough talking about the series as a whole… let’s talk about Escha & Logy as it is, in my eyes, the series’ best entry. The characters were the strongest, the story was the most interesting, it had the best item and ability design, and it had the most satisfying combat. I enjoyed the previous Atelier games, but Escha & Logy was the one that got me addicted. It was, quite simply, everything the series excels at refined to perfection. The game still has weaknesses, which is why it places only in sixth.
5) Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
Trails in the Sky is probably the most underrated game I’ve ever seen. It has become a bit more well-known recently, but when it came out in the West it barely sold at all. It was so underappreciated that the localization of the sequel was delayed dramatically – in fact, serious work was put off for a few years and the sequel has yet to come out despite the first entry coming out in 2011. And this is a real pity, because this game is incredible.
The game originally came out in Japan back in 2004, and uses the type of turn based combat you’d expect for that era, albeit with a few twists. But that isn’t what stands out about Legend of Heroes. What is so impressive about this game is the love and care that the game’s original writers and that the localization team showed with it. The characters – even the NPCs – feel closer to people than any others I’ve seen. If you pay attention to the NPC dialogue, you may notice that major events involving the game’s NPCs have occurred while you’ve been off gallivanting around the world… events that were completely unrelated to the game’s story but were discussed in almost as much detail.
And the little touches they added just make the game feel so special. My favourite example is the fact that every single treasure chest will say something to you if you try to loot it a second time – snarky comments about the lack of treasure, or commentary on the treasure chest’s lonely life now that it is empty.
4) Tales of Xillia 2
Tales of Xillia 2 really surprised me. I expected to like it, but there are some weird parts about it that could have turned out really poorly. Fortunately they managed to execute it well, making a few decisions that I felt really paid off for them. The most important was not trying to make Elle into a playable character. She’s there, always with you, and she is the true protagonist of the game… and she’s such an amazingly well designed character that she just sets up this game to succeed.
The way she interacts with the rest of the cast, along with the fantastic way she makes her presence felt despite being not a playable character, were the reason that she won the ‘Best Character’ in my previous #JPRGMonth Shadow’s Six. The cast itself was strong, which made it easier for her to have such an impact, and the story revolved so well around her – subtly building up her character and her history until the big final reveal which I am not ashamed to admit left me in tears.
But cast and story alone aren’t enough to place one on this list. Xillia 2 also featured a great soundtrack and exciting combat that built upon the weaknesses of the first game, correcting its flaws and building into an experience that keeps you engaged throughout its entirety.
3) Final Fantasy Tactics
Final Fantasy Tactics is in my eyes the Gold Standard for the Strategy RPG subgenre. They, quite simply, did nearly everything right. They have an art style that scaled down so well, which is important given the scale you tend to view SRPGs at most of the time. They created a soundtrack that worked well on repeat, since you are often listening the same track for long periods of time. And they designed a story that worked better the more time you spent thinking about it.
Their story was one of religious corruption, political intrigue, and the power of propaganda. It is not an exciting tale, but for a game where the story segments are separated by such long swaths of gameplay, this slow pace works perfectly. You have just enough time to really mull over the realities of the situation, to try to figure out where they’re actually going… and then they throw you a twist. The concepts explored are so deep and the layers stretch so far that you’ll find events that happened early on having strange double and triple meanings down the line and having their ramifications felt in the strangest places.
2) Persona 4 The Golden
P4G was clearly designed to appeal to a specific audience. Broad appeal is not the name of the game here, but rather aiming to be perfect for those who would appreciate it. And it succeeds. This game feels a lot like an anime in structure as opposed to a game. The pacing is relatively similar, with a fairly long build up to the first action. The storytelling is very clearly anime inspired, and it works. I loved this game. It was my introduction to the series, and it made one hell of a first impression.
In a lot of turn based RPGs, combat can become ‘that thing that stands between you and the next cutscene’. Persona 4 The Golden alleviates that by adding a few key elements to make combat fun. You have a cheerleader (a character who is there only to cheer you on, buff you up, and provide you key information) with you during most of the game’s combat scenes. It sounds like a silly thing, but it really keeps the pace of this potentially slow, pensive combat system going. Just as importantly, the music is fast paced, exciting, and matches the character’s movements. It all just comes together to create something spectacular.
The music, to be honest, was ridiculously good throughout the entire game. It is one of the few games where most of the soundtrack is worth listening to just on its own merits.
And here we arrive at #1. Xenogears is, in my eyes, the greatest RPG ever made. There is no aspect of this game that is not spectacular.
The cinematics are unquestionably the best the PS1 has to offer, so good that they even stand up to this day. I will never forget the first time I saw critical moments such as the reveal of Id’s Gear’s true origin or the game’s finale. The graphics themselves are great for their time and have aged remarkably well – I have watched streams of this recently and, while the graphics aren’t amazing anymore, they don’t have that awkward look that some older games have. The soundtrack is quite good as well, although it is probably the game’s weakest point.
Xenogears is, quite possibly, the only game with a better story than Final Fantasy Tactics. It delves into religious corruption and the concept of a world ruled by a secret society. The overall world story is the most intricate and mature I’ve ever seen, with everything tying together in fascinating ways. Learning the origin of the people of this world, the true stories of Shevat and Solaris, and the horrifying truth behind the events of this world is one of the greatest joys gaming has given me. But throughout it all, one of the best love stories gaming has had keeps it all grounded. Fei and Elly somehow manage to make this grand epic feel personal.
I could go on and discuss each aspect of the game in as loving detail, but this isn’t a review and I want you to go experience the glory for yourselves so I’ll simply leave it here by saying that each and every element of the game is incredible. So go play it.
So what are your favourite JRPGs? Feel free to drop a comment below if you have your own list – I’d love to read them! Hope you’ve enjoyed #JRPGMonth!