There are plenty of genres that the Japanese gaming industry has made its specialty. For years, players worldwide have been breaking their fingers trying to input complicated combos in fighting games like Tekken or Street Fighter.
They rode the fastest cars in Gran Turismo and Ridge Racer series and faced their fears in the classic Japanese survival-horror games. There is, however, one genre quite unique to the country of cherry blossoms.
Short for Japanese role-playing games, the jRPG genre features include worlds inhabited by fantastical creatures, complex gameplay mechanics that will draw you in for hours, and exciting tales from the best writers in the genre.
Valkyria Chronicles 4
|Sega, Media Vision
The first title on our list is Valkyria Chronicles 4 – the newest installment of a long-running tactical-RPG series. The player controls the protagonist, Claude Wallace, who joins the army after an enemy Empire invades his hometown.
During the training, his best friend Kai mysteriously disappears. Kai’s sister, Leena, replaces her brother, assuming his identity. Together with a third member, Raz, Claude and Leena form Squad E and are sent into battle in the Second European War to avenge Claude’s hometown and hopefully find out what happened to the real Kai.
VC 4’s mechanics follow the pattern of the previous installments of the series. The player controls Squad E, engaging in turn-based combat with enemy units. Each squad member represents a different class, and learning to use them correctly is one of the main challenges for the player in VC 4. A new addition is the Brave mechanic, which allows several actions to be performed when the player’s unit is nearly defeated. The player will want to use this feature because Valkyria Chronicles 4 includes a permadeath system.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 was met with a mostly positive critical reception. Reviewers praised the engaging story of the game as well as inventive gameplay mechanics.
|1995-08-11 (original release), 18-02-27 (PC)
This jRPG was originally released in 1995, but only recently did it premiere on PCs. The cult-classic from Square features art designed by Akira Toriyama, the creator of the iconic Dragon Ball series. In Chrono Trigger, the player is put in the shoes of a young warrior named Crono.
After witnessing his friend disappear into a time portal, he constructs a time-traveling device of his own and travels back in time to rescue her. Together with Lucca, a fellow time traveler, he will explore the past, present, and future of the Kingdom of Guardia, making new friends as well as enemies throughout history.
Chrono Trigger draws inspiration from Square’s previous titles, such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. The player explores the two-dimensional world of the game, exploring different areas – forests, castles, and other environments – solving puzzles and collecting items along the way. The battles are carried in a turn-base system, using the Active Time Battle mechanics of the Final Fantasy series. The player can use various physical and magical attacks against different types of enemies. A key mechanic of the game is time travel and how it affects the gameplay – some events that take place in the past may have a significant effect on the present and future.
At the time of release, Chrono Trigger was met with a universally positive critical reception, quickly becoming a cult-classic among the jRPG genre fans.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III
The third installment of the Trails of Cold Steel series and part of The Legend of Heroes franchise. ToCS III takes the player back to the magical world where people can study and practice magic at schools, and mages become powerful military assets.
Rean Schwarzer, the protagonist o previous games in the series, returns to Thors Branch Campus to train a new batch of adepts. While learning about various spells, Rean’s class is tasked with investigating unrest around the country as part of their training. What seems like normal field practice will soon unveil a dark conspiracy rooted in the heart of Erebonia.
The gameplay mechanics of ToCS III follow the same pattern as in the previous games in the series. The player controls Rean and a party made out of various other characters, engaging in turn-based combat and exploring areas searching for useful items. Compared to the previous installments, the gameplay of ToCS III is much more dynamic, and the mechanics allow the player to map the battle commands to their liking. A new system – Brave Order – allows the player to increase the party members’ stats without sacrificing the turn. Break Gauge is another new mechanic, which reduces enemy movement chance when spent.
The Legend of Heroes: Trail of Cold Steel III was met with a solid critical reception.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Remastered
Level 5, the studio behind some of the best jRPGs in history, joined forces with Studio Ghibli, which gave us such classic films as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, to create Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch.
The game takes the player to a fantastical world, where a young boy named Oliver searches for his mother, brought here after she died in their real-world hometown of Motorville. Aided by Drippy, a reanimated doll, and various friends he meets in this “other world,” Oliver will have to use his newfound magical abilities to overcome powerful enemies and rescue his mother.
Ni no Kuni draws inspiration from various other games developed by Level 5. The player explores the world, searching for items and carrying out story missions and sidequests. The game’s turn-based combat mechanics make use of the magical skills of his party members. The game features familiars who the player can also control in combat. Winning battles gives the player experience points, which level up the character increasing their stats.
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was met with a positive critical reception. The reviewers praised the gameplay mechanics as well as the visuals of the title.
|Nippon Ichi Software
Disgaea 5 is the sixth installment of the Disgaea series. Like its predecessors, the game is set in the Netherworld – a realm inhabited by all sorts of monsters and creatures. The protagonist of D5 is Killia, a former demon lord adopted into the family of a master martial artist, Goldion. Killia seeks a way to bring his beloved Lieze, Goldion’s daughter, back to life and take revenge on her brother, Void, who became jealous of Killia’s bond with his family.
Disgaea 5’s gameplay features the exploration of different Netherworld regions, bringing together a powerful alliance to take down Void. The player can send the allies they make into turn-based combat, using their various skills. The new mechanics introduced in D5 include the affiliation stats and revenge system, which indicate the highlighted character’s allyship and mark them as a target of retribution if they take down a member of the player’s party. New skills, called Maougis, are also introduced in the game. They allow the player to unleash powerful special attacks. Moreover, certain characters can be paired up to perform combo attacks.
Disgaea 5 was met with a positive critical reception.
Dragon Quest Builders 2
|Square Enix, Omega Force
A spin-off of a popular RPG series, Dragon Quest Builders 2 invites the players to a world filled with exciting adventures and thrilling activities. The game’s story follows the Children of Hargon – a group of evildoers seeking revenge for the defeat of their masters, Hargon and Malroth, who appeared in the original Dragon Quest 2.
The player controls a builder Hero, kidnapped by the Children of Hargon, and imprisoned on a ship. After escaping, they wound up on the Isle of Awakening, where Malroth – with no recollection of his evil deeds – asks them to improve his building skills.
As you’ve probably managed to gather from the plot description, DQB2 doesn’t stick too closely to the roots planted by its predecessors. For starters, the game is a sandbox action-RPG, in which the player explores the Isle of Awakening, encountering various enemies to be defeated using hack and slash combat mechanics. The other novelty is the building mechanics implemented in the game – the player can collect materials to erect various structures, from small cottages to monumental castles. The multiplayer mode allows the players to share their experience and visit each others’ world, adding a social aspect to the game.
Dragon Quest Builders 2 was met with a positive reception. The critics praised the game’s sandbox nature, gameplay improvements over the previous Builders game, and hours of fun the game managed to provide.
Japanese RPGs often reach deep into the country’s rich lore to bring the player closer to the nation’s cultural heritage. Team Ninja’s Nioh is one of such games. The plot follows William, a British mercenary, sent by the Queen of England to retrieve Amrita, a magical stone made of gold that can be found only in Japan.
As William makes his way there, he finds the country in turmoil, with clans clashing against each other and demonic spirits roaming the land. To complete his task, William decides to seek the feudal lords’ favor by dealing with the yokai troubling their people.
The gameplay of Nioh follows a similar pattern as that in previous games of the studio, mostly the Ninja Gaiden series, with the addition of RPG mechanics. The player controls William through a series of skirmishes, with brief moments of exploration in between. The intuitive hack-and-slash combat mechanics allow the player to use various weapons, fighting techniques, and magical attacks to overwhelm the enemy. Winning battles grants the protagonist loot and experience points, which can be spent on upgrading the character’s skill trees.
Nioh was met with critical acclaim. The reviews praised the game’s challenging, action-packed gameplay, the use of Japanese lore, and the visual side of the title.
|BANDAI NAMCO Studio
Code Vein is an interesting title, one of many that tried to copy the mechanics of From Software’s Souls series, and one of the few who managed to do it well. The game developed by Bandai Namco also draws inspiration from God Eater series of hack-and-slash games, making for a fascinating combination.
The story of the game features the nameless player character, who awakens in a post-apocalyptic city of Vein, in a world overtaken by monstrous life forms known as the Lost. The player character is one of the Revenants, vampire-like reanimated corpses tasked with fighting the Lost.
The gameplay of CV follows the beats similar to Darks Souls games. The player character is equipped with skills to help them against the Lost, including special attacks, which drain a meter replenished by going full Dracula on unsuspecting enemies. A unique feature of the game is the A.I. companion that follows the player into battle and helps distract the enemy. In the game’s multiplayer mode, the A.I. is replaced by a live player summoned to the host player’s world. Trust us when we say that you will want all the help you can get during some encounters. There are enemies out there, especially the powerful bosses, that can smash you to pieces within seconds. Code Vein is set in an open-world environment that the player can explore in search of items and collectibles.
Code Vein received solid reviews from the critics, who praised the game’s mechanics and visual style.
Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom
Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is the sequel to The Wrath of White Witch, but aside from the title and setting, these two games have very little in common.
The story of Revenant Kingdom is set in the “other world” from the first game. Young King Evan, the ruler of Ding Dong Dell, is usurped by his late father’s advisor, Lord Mausinger. Aided by Roland, a mysterious man who appears out of nowhere in his bedroom, Evan manages to evade capture. He vows to build a new kingdom where everyone can live in peace and harmony. To accomplish that, he embarks on a quest to unite kingdoms scattered around the world.
Unlike The Wrath of the White Witch, Revenant Kingdom is an action-RPG game where the player controls Evan or any member of his party. The game is set in an open-world environment, divided into regions, which the player can explore for items and quests. When the player encounters an enemy, they enter a battle arena, where they can fight using melee and ranged weapons and magical skills. Winning battles grants the player XP necessary to level up the party members. A new feature of the game are army battles, in which the player can face the enemy troops in the game’s overworld.
A unique feature o fNi no Kuni II are city building mechanics. As Evan expands his new kingdom of Evermore, inviting citizens and forging alliances, he will be able to build new facilities to make it more prosperous. New citizens are unlocked through sidequests, and welcoming them to the kingdom gives the player a chance to build a new facility or expand previously existing ones.
|Square Enix, Acquire
Square Enix is known for setting new standards with their games. Octopath Traveller is one of those games – combining the 2D character sprites with 3D-rendered environments is an intriguing concept and a feat that the developers managed to pull without a hitch.
The story follows eight characters whose paths cross on a quest to stop an evil god Galdera from destroying the world. Each character has their own reasons for joining the party and different goals they want to achieve at the end of the journey.
The gameplay of OT is a classic turn-based RPG. The player controls eight characters, each with different personalities that affect their interactions with NPCs. The player can choose between Noble and Rogue actions for each character, each path having different consequences for the player. Combat mechanics feature the end-of-the-turn Boost Points, which the player can spend on different temporary buffs.
Octopath Traveller was praised for its unique visuals, storytelling, and gameplay mechanics.
Tales of Berseria
|BANDAI NAMCO Studios Inc.
Tales of Berseria is the 16th title in the Tales series, one of Japan’s most popular action-RPG franchise. In Berseria, the player takes the role of the protagonist Velvet Crowe, who lives with her brother Laphicet in the kingdom of Midgand.
When an event called Scarlet Night – the same that took the life of Velvet’s sister – occurs again, her brother-in-law, Artorius, sacrifices Laphicet in a ritual, which turns Velvet’s arm into a Daemon. The girl vows revenge against Artorius and embarks on a quest to stop his nefarious plans.
The gameplay of ToB follows a similar pattern as the most recent installments of the series. The player explores the semi-open environment of the game for items and accept quests from NPCs. Combat mechanics involve the system called Liberation-LMBS – the player’s character can freely move around the battlefield, dishing out physical and magical attacks. The player can choose which character from their party they control in the battle, with the rest handled by the A.I. or another player in local multiplayer.
Tales of Berseria was received well by the critics, who praised the game’s story, the introduction of new combat mechanics, and the visuals.
Persona 4 Golden
Persona 4 Golden is the expanded version of the fourth installment in the Shin Megami Tensei Persona series. The player once again joins the nameless protagonist and their friends in solving the case of mysterious murders related to a TV program known as the Midnight Channel.
Persona 4 Golden’s gameplay is divided between the events occurring in the real world and the mysterious reality of the Midnight Channel. In the real world, the player interacts with NPCs, strengthening bonds with friends (some of which come with romance options), and piecing together the clues to solve the mystery. In the TV world, the player fights enemies in turn-based combat, using familiars known as Personas.
Persona 4 Golden received positive reviews and was praised for the new additions to the gameplay and story.
Final Fantasy XV
The fifteenth numbered installment of the Final Fantasy series might be the best jRPG game available on PC – that is until Final Fantasy VII Remake descends upon the users of Microsoft Windows. The game’s mechanics depart from those of the previous titles in the series, taking a far more action-oriented route.
The story of FF XV takes the player to the land of Eos, where young prince Noctis Lucis Caelum and his friends become unwitting participants in a plot to overthrow the ruling dynasty.
The game is set in an open-world environment, which the player can explore on foot or using the car or a classic FF mount, a Chocobo. The game’s real-time combat system allows the player to seamlessly transition from exploration to fighting without moving to a separate arena. During the battle, the player controls the protagonist Noctis, while the game’s A.I. controls the other party members, but the player can issue them contextual commands. FF XV features a multiplayer mode, in which the player can customize their avatar and take on various missions, with the party made of A.I. bots or other players.
Final Fantasy XV received critical acclaim and is considered one of the best installments of the series to date.
The Japanese way
Entering the world of the Japanese RPGs means diving headfirst into a world of unparalleled entertainment. The games on our list will provide the player who loves a good plot with wonderful storytelling and settings. For those who love to spend long hours squeezing all the juices out of the game, jRPGs will be a true challenge, with gameplay times going into dozens of hours, filled with hundreds of sidequests and thousands of collectibles. And if you value gameplay above all else, jRPG titles from our list will wow you with diverse mechanics. Initially, some of them might indeed be unbelievably difficult and hard to get into. But to those willing to wait, these games will open the door to a vault of phenomenal experiences. That’s the way of jRPGs and, in a way, of Japan itself.