Complex worlds, characters with rich personalities, and the whole saving the world shebang are all some of the common ingredients of a memorable JRPG. Japanese RPGs, or JRPGs for short, have long held the reins of their own niche within the greater RPG genre because they bring a different type of immersiveness that don’t normally come with traditional role-playing games. If you’re even the slightest bit familiar with the notoriously common JRPG trope: ‘village youth discovers his true destiny to defeat evil overlord and save the world’, you probably already have an inkling of what we’re talking about.
All that said, what makes a JRPG stand out on top of that, aside from the combat, the minigame features, and any other dating mechanics (yes, it’s a thing) it has, is its ability to weave its plot and cast together into an intricate tale, in which you are the protagonist, the observer, and sometimes, the narrator. The true greats will have you going through Wiki pages for hours on end, dredging up every tiny little snippet of information just for a sense of completion. And while we’re not exactly proud to be announcing our obsession, we do sleep better having put such curiosity to rest (or it could just be fatigued from spending the whole day reading lore).
Without further ado, here are some of our top picks for JRPGs with the best storylines:
Final Fantasy VII
Release Date: 1997
Platforms: Playstation, Microsoft Windows, iOS, Playstation 4, Android, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One
You’ve probably heard it all before - giant conglomerate hellbent on taking over the planet and hoarding all of Earth’s resources for itself with little concern for the rest of humanity. Who else could keep such an organization at bay but a ragtag team of heroes composed of a freedom fighter, an ex-soldier turned mercenary, a ninja, a wolf-dog hybrid lifeform, a bartender and a flower girl? Yeah, it sounded weird as we were listing it out too.
Play as Cloud Strife, former military man, now arms-for-hire, as you set out on a journey to combat the giant evil organization known as Shinra, who is trying to drain the planet of its resources via Mako Reactors, then processing it and selling it for profit.
Final Fantasy VII introduces you to a wide array of characters who will aid you on your journey, each with their own distinct personalities and motivations for fighting. As you progress through the game and enlist the help of more allies, you eventually unravel the conspiracies surrounding Shinra and its intentions, as well as discover the truth behind your friends and foes alike, and find out what drove them into battle in the first place. And of course, no one can forget Cloud’s most powerful arch-nemesis Sephiroth, who as it turns out, wasn’t always a bad guy.
Being available on multiple platforms, Final Fantasy VII is a must-have experience for anyone new to JRPGs, or looking for a great story to really sink their teeth into. Not to mention, for an even more in-depth perspective into some of the characters, you can always pick up Dirge of Cerberus and Crisis Core, which tells you the heart-rending stories of Vincent Valentine and Zack Fair respectively. Extra binge content. Yay! Needless to say, Final Fantasy VII is undoubtedly one of the classics of the genre, and for the console players, specifically the Playstation 4 and Playstation 5 owners, a remake edition was released last year that is available for you right now, with a continuation already in the works.
Release Date: 2017
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Playstation 4, Xbox One
Set in a dystopian world where humanity was forced out of their home and has no choice but to seek refuge on the Moon by a race of hostile aliens, Nier: Automata tells the story of androids 2B, 9S and A2 as they battle their way against hordes of machine lifeforms created by the aliens in a bid to reclaim Earth for mankind. Having established themselves on the Moon, humanity built a space station known as the Bunker, which houses their elite android military force YoRHa. And as an agent of YoRHa, you begin your adventure in the thigh-high boots of everyone’s favourite no-nonsense android 2B, who is tasked with the elimination of a giant robot located in an abandoned factory in the middle of the ocean. Eventually, you’ll play through the eyes (figuratively speaking, because they’re almost always wearing blindfolds) of 9S, a kind and gentle scanner-type android with an overwhelming curiosity, as well as A2, a prototype combat android that went rogue for reasons unknown.
As you complete more missions, you will come to see the different perspectives presented by the machines who have taken Earth as their home for the past few centuries as well as those of the androids residing in the Resistance Camp. And as you learn more about the nuances of the long-standing war between machines and androids, you may begin to question the dogma that is so widely touted by the Council of Humanity and YoRHa. Nevertheless, the choices you make will inevitably shape the fates of your characters, and with 27 different endings to obtain, we understand if the lines can get a little blurry sometimes.
In terms of gameplay, Nier: Automata is mostly hack-and-slash meets shoot-em-up, with an occasional splash of platforming and side-scrolling. Add a killer soundtrack on top of that and you can see why it’s such a highly-revered title. But all that is just icing on the cake when it comes to the story that’s delivered so marvellously it constantly fuels your insomnia until you finish the whole game. For those of you concerned about not having played any of the previous titles, don’t worry. You won’t be missing out much in terms of storyline, even though it’s set in the same universe, just thousands of years in the future. Still, it’s great knowledge to have, but not a necessity by any means.
Release Date: 2006
Platforms: Playstation 2, Playstation Portable
Substance abuse, depression, loneliness - the world is a cold place, at times surrounded by even frostier folk. Enter the world of Persona 3, arguably the most critically acclaimed title from Persona titles past and present, where you play the role of a quiet, high school student who had just returned to the city of Tatsumi Port Island after your parents died in an accident 10 years prior to the series. There, you find yourself moving into the Iwatodai Dormitory, a co-ed student dorm that hosts its fair share of mysterious residents. And while it all seems normal at first, things start to take a grim turn when the clock strikes 12. Now, how will you choose?
If you’ve ever played any of the Persona games, or any of the Shin Megami Tensei games from which they’re based on, you know that you’re going to be digging deep into the human psyche, especially on its darker facets. Persona 3 sets a dark undertone for what seems like a normal everyday life for a Japanese high school student. Every day at the stroke of midnight, a hidden thirteenth hour presents itself, a malicious time where normal humans lie unaware in their upright coffins, and those conscious either end up being devoured by the dark creatures that actively loom at this period, or fight back using Personas, a metaphysical embodiment of their mental fortitude.
In Persona 3, you will learn to balance your social responsibilities - getting good grades in school, making friends, pigging out on bargain deals in restaurants - with your nightly hero duties. And part and parcel of the Persona experience is the presence of Social Links, a metric by which the depth of your emotional connection to your peers is measured. As you grow closer to people and develop stronger bonds, so too will the strength of your Personas increase, and the more powerful Personas you can create. You will also learn more about the characters you interact with, such as what their fears and dreams are, and be able to help them to overcome their own inner struggles.
To be fair, any of the Persona games would be a good choice to delve into. The reason we picked Persona 3 was that we believe it would be a good benchmark for what the series could be. Not only does it have an awesome soundtrack, it pretty much doesn’t get any cooler than shooting yourself in the head to summon a Persona. Persona 3 FES introduces an epilogue chapter after the events in the original title, and lets you play as best android/girl Aigis. Meanwhile, Persona 3 Portable, which is exclusive on the Playstation Portable, allows you to select the gender of your protagonist, which opens up new routes and conversations in the game.
Release Date: 1995
Platforms: Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Playstation, Nintendo DS, iOS, Android, Microsoft Windows
Time-travel - easy to do, but difficult to do well. Chrono Trigger starts off like any other JRPG, with you playing the mute protagonist in your normal peaceful village. Throughout the events of the game, you eventually find yourself journeying across the multiple eras of human civilization - the prehistoric era whereby primitive humans walk the earth alongside dinosaurs; the Middle Ages with their knights and their holy swords and magic; as well as the post-apocalyptic future in which the planet is all but destroyed and humans are on the brink of extinction. As Chrono, you are tasked with travelling through time and uncovering the secrets behind the destruction of the planet in the distant future.
What we like about Chrono Trigger is essentially its continuity within the events of the game. Certain actions you do in the past will result in various consequences in the future, and the whole villain conspiracy stretches out across several millennia. While it may be slightly older than the other titles in the list, its story is timeless. Pun intended.
Dark Souls 3
Release Date: 2016
Platforms: Playstation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows
Long ago, in the Age of Ancients, a grey fog enveloped the world, and the everlasting dragons ruled from high above. However, what was once an infantile world had changed during the Advent of Fire, where the concepts of heat and cold, life and death, light and dark were introduced. Soon after, four beings chanced upon the Lord Souls - spirits of immense power. And with their newfound might, three of the four Lords took up arms and overthrew the dragons, thus bringing forth the Age of Fire. But while their victory was sweet, it was not everlasting. As the power of the First Flame fades, so too shall the Age of Fire come to its inevitable end. To sustain the First Flame, and by association the Age of Fire, a champion must sacrifice themselves to link the First Flame and become a Lord of Cinder.
You are the Ashen One, an Unkindled that was resurrected from the dead in order to link the First Flame. However, it seems that you were not the only one brought back, as past Lords of Cinder have also awoken from their deathly slumber. Fight your way through the hallowed landscape of what used to be a flourishing civilization as you discover the real reasons behind this resurrection of past Lords and the true meaning of linking the First Flame.
The final entry in the Dark Souls trilogy, Dark Souls 3 offers a splendid conclusion to all the events that had transpired across the first 2 titles. You will learn a great deal of why the world has come to be the way it is, and the rich history surrounding the bosses, NPCs and enemy creatures alike through cryptic messages found in items and dialogues. Although it’s not an absolute must to have played the first 2 games prior to Dark Souls 3, some experience will definitely be useful in understanding the subtler details of the game. The world of Dark Souls is exceptionally well-built, and you can spend an easy 2 weeks just trying to digest all the information the game has to offer. That’s not including the DLC, of course.
Kingdom Hearts Franchise
Release Date: 2002-2020
Platforms: PlayStation 2, Game Boy Advance, Mobile phone, Nintendo DS, PlayStation Portable, Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation 3, Web browser, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Android, iOS, Nintendo Switch, PC
When we're talking about JRPGs with deep lore, we cannot ignore the elephant in the room, the Kingdom Hearts franchise. We wish we could nail down this entry to just one game from the franchise, but the lore of Kingdom Hearts is so intertwined that the whole franchise made it to our list.
The premise is seemingly simple, Sora, a cheerful teenager fights against the forces of darkness alongside Disney Characters. But where it gets complicated is the fact the timeline of the games is not linear. Sora and the buddies travel through various 'worlds' to fight against the 'heartless.' Disney's lore was deeply intertwined within the already complex lore developed by Square Enix. And if that wasn't enough, Final Fantasy characters and lore were also sprinkled through the game. The result was a perfectly harmonious blend of east-meets-west lore.
A part of you must be wondering, "How did Mickey, Donald and other Disney Characters from America end up in a JRPG?" Well, there's a neat little story behind it. Square Enix and Disney's Japanese division were in the same building when Kingdom Hearts 1 was made. Square Enix wanted to make a game that would be almost as recognizable as Mario but for the west and Disney wanted to further fortify their position in the east. The result? A long-standing video game franchise spanning over two decades.