Hey guys! So, this week, I finally got the chance to sink my teeth into the remake of a formerly PS Vita-exclusive JRPG, The Caligula Effect: Overdose. While this game was far from perfect on Vita, it had a lot of charm and heart, even if it was a little misguided in some places. Now then, as you’ve undoubtedly read the title of this week’s blog, you’re probably wondering: why am I mentioning The Caligula Effect if this week’s trip down the otaku rabbit hole isn’t actually focusing on it? Well, playing through the remake of this game started me on a trip down memory lane as its unique combat style and gameplay made me ache for other JRPGs that I will always love regardless of general consensus or how they fare against the ravages of time. Without further ado, this week I’ll be recommending my Top 5 JRPGs of all time. These games are not listed in any particular order and I must stress that this is my opinion and does not mean that these JRPGs are the best ever made; they’re just the ones that hold a special place in my heart. Additionally, this list will not include any Square Enix titles, because if it did, it would be filled with games from these franchises. In case you’re interested, those would be Final Fantasy X, XII and XIII-2 (don’t come for me) and Kingdom Hearts 2 and Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep. With all of that out of the way, it’s time to buckle up and let’s get into it!
Tales of Xillia
The first game on my list is the PS3 title Tales of Xillia, a game published by Namco Bandai Entertainment that was first released in Japan back in 2011, and later localised in 2013. This game follows a pair of protagonists, Milla Maxwell and Jude Mathis, on their journey to prevent the use of and destroy the Spyrix – technological items and weapons that grant great power at the cost of destroying the spirits of nature responsible for sustaining the world. The journey is long and hard, with more than its fair share of shocking and heart-breaking moments, but along the way Jude and Milla will gain many powerful allies and learn of the truths that underpin the world they call home.
This is the first game in the ‘Tales of’ Franchise to have two separate playable protagonists with their own unique variations on the core story, and easily boasts one of the most lovable casts of characters from a ‘Tales of’ game to date. The voice cast delivers solid performances on the whole, and the soundtrack is quite frankly fantastic. If you’re in the market for an incredible OST with an OP that pretty much summarises the soundtrack as a whole, then check out “Progress” by Ayumi Hamasaki – you’ll not be disappointed.
By taking all of the aspects expected from a ‘Tales of’ experience, such as the skits and the simple-to-learn but hard-to-master battle system, and then polishing it all to a dazzling gleam, Tales of Xillia is quite possibly the finest of any of its sister titles and is most definitely something special, not only among ‘Tales of’ games, but also JRPGs as a whole.
This game was one that I immediately fell in love with as soon as I started it, thanks in no small part to its cast of lovable yet imperfect characters. The way Tales of Xillia weaves a tale of technology and magic together, with sinister organisations thrown in for good measure, makes it seem almost effortless and packs quite the emotional punch. If you have a PS3 and are a fan of JRPGs, then this game is a must play and in my opinion is the perfect jumping-in point for the ‘Tales of’ franchise.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant
The next and oldest title on my list is Shadow Hearts: Covenant, the second game from the Shadow Hearts franchise developed by Nautilus and Published by Midway Games in 2004 for the PS2. This game is a direct continuation of Shadow Hearts, but don’t let that put you off. While the story is linked, it is also self-contained, meaning you can enjoy this game to the fullest even without having played the first game. Shadow Hearts: Covenant’s story is set in the time of World War I, where Lieutenant Karin Koenig is sent to the sleepy village of Domremy to aid in the exorcism of a demon that has made this village its home. After a series of events, it is revealed that the demon is none other than Yuri, a returning character from Shadow Hearts. Having been awoken from his slumber, Yuri is robbed of his powers and flees with Karin. From here, Yuri, Karin and a team of unusual individuals they meet along the way, set out to save the world from a group of sorcerers who are plotting to rule it. A dark and gritty fantasy with monsters and scenarios that often tread the line between fantasy and horror, Shadow Hearts: Covenant is certainly not one for a younger audience, but is an experience you’ll not soon forget, and definitely deserves a lot of love.
This game has one of the most unique battle systems I’ve ever come across in a JRPG. The Judgement Ring system allows you a degree of control over the damage you deal in a turn with some certainty. Whenever you select an attack, the ring will appear, and the hand of the clock will begin to spin.
When this hand is over a coloured Hit Area, you can press the X button to execute an attack. The more Hit Areas you successfully land, the more attacks a character will execute. Each node also has a smaller red section called the Strike Area that, should you hit it, will increase your damage for that attack. However, aiming for the strike area is risky as you have a higher chance of missing the hit area all together. Should this happen, you’ll either not attack at all or deal significantly less damage, which could turn the tide of battle against you – incentivising a risk/reward gameplay loop. It’s a difficult one to master, but after only a short while, this battle system becomes addictive and will make every encounter much more engaging.
While the voice acting is nothing spectacular, it does more than enough to keep you invested, even if some lines are a little on the cheesy side. Characters are lovable and varied and they all have a unique gimmick to set them apart from one another that usually dictates how that character will learn their special attacks.
The OST is a fascinating mix of genres and styles, jumping between techno, rock, atmospheric piano/organ and choral chanting at the drop of a hat, serving as the perfect haunting accompaniment to such a dark and atmospheric game. For a masterpiece of a track, I would recommend anyone to check out “Vicious 1915 – Battle in Europe”, as its odd and intriguing sound is the perfect representative of everything that this game does right.
This is one of those games that I will always love. It’s one of the most nostalgic games from my childhood and I desperately hope that this franchise will one day get a HD remaster, because I’d love to see these games in glorious high definition and play them on current gen consoles. Shadow Hearts is a series that is severely underappreciated and certainly deserves more attention and love than it currently has.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2
At the midway point of our list is a game that I covered in more depth in an earlier review on this blog, Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Published by Nintendo for the Nintendo Switch in 2017, this game is the newest game on my list and for good reason.
As I have invested almost double the hours into Xenoblade Chronicles 2 as I had upon writing my initial review, my first impressions of the game have evolved somewhat. My positive thoughts on the soundtrack and gameplay have ingrained themselves into me even more. Even 110 hours in, I’m still finding new ways to play and combinations I didn’t think were possible. The gameplay continues to evolve chapter after chapter and is something truly phenomenal to experience. While the combat may seem a little off-putting initially due to its somewhat slow start, it quickly unravels to reveal a surprising degree of depth. Additionally, I have come to love the soundtrack even more than I already did, with the two main tracks of the Indoline Praetorium – “Our Eternal Land” and “We Are the Chosen Ones”, sending chills down my spine each and every time I hear them.
If you’re interested in knowing my full first impressions following a 50-hour investment, then please follow this link to learn more about this game.
Even now, this game keeps me coming back again and again, quickly becoming my go-to for relaxing and de-stressing from my day-to-day life. The characters are lovable, and the story plays like a giant anime, which just adds to the experience and charm that this game has. There is also a DLC story, Torna – The Golden Country, which I haven’t even begun yet, meaning that even when you finally think you’re done with this mammoth of a game, there’s still more to discover and love, and I for one can’t get enough of it!
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
So, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was developed by Level-5, and published by Namco Bandai Entertainment in Japan in 2011 for the PS3, and then later localised in 2013. This game follows Oliver after the tragic and untimely death of his mother. When his doll comes alive before his eyes as the Welsh-accented wonder fairy Mr Drippy, Oliver plunges head-first into the Other World in search of his mother’s ‘Soulmate’ – a person who has a corresponding link to his mother, but who exists in the Other World. Along the way, he must face Shadar, an evil wizard that has taken over the Other World. Oliver’s quest to bring back his mother can only be called an emotional rollercoaster from start to finish. Along the way, Oliver will gain allies and familiars that will help him on his quest to overcome the forces that oppose him. By jumping between worlds to solve problems that would be impossible otherwise, Oliver sets out to right the wrongs on both worlds and to bring his mother back. The game features the talents of Studio Ghibli in both its storytelling and art direction, and is made all the more stunning for it.
The battle systems of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a mix of Pokémon’s monster collecting and a real-time action battle system. Oliver or his familiars will be thrown into the fray against some of the most uniquely wonderful, yet adorably monstrous creatures I’ve ever seen in a video game. Upon defeating an enemy, there is a percentage chance that you can charm them into joining you, and thus you gain familiars. These can be evolved and fed to increase specific stats, and offer the ability to change battle styles on a whim. You’ll quickly discover which familiars you enjoy and, with the sheer variety that there is on offer, you’ll certainly want to try them all to get a feel for which ones work for you and whether you can build a team of cute yet powerful beasts.
Emotions and the heart play a key role of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, where you must collect the positive emotions overflowing from others to restore people’s hearts and fill the void left there by Shadar’s evil magic. While I won’t venture into this much further for spoiler reasons, it rapidly becomes an integral part of the game and further increases your attachment to the characters by ever expanding their complexity and that of the world around them.
This is a Ghibli movie turned game and, as would be expected, has all the Ghibli-esque benefits that come with this. The soundtrack is stunning, dripping with ambience and magic and is a truly glorious feather in the cap of composer Joe Hisaishi. I’d highly recommend that you check out “Kokoro no Kakera” and “The Showdown with Shadar”, or for that matter any other track to be found in this game, because they’re all wonderful and will melt your heart!
There is a sequel for this game, and I must admit I was so beyond excited for it. However, that game was sadly one of my most bitter gaming disappointments in recent memory, as it lacked the heart and soul of what made the first game so special. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a game full to bursting with love and care, polished beyond any shadow of a doubt. Carrying on its shoulders the reputation and legacy of Studio Ghibli with pride, if you’ve ever wanted to check out this game and are a fan of Studio Ghibli, then I would highly recommend doing so – maybe you’ll come to love this little gem as much as I do. I will warn you, though, make sure to bring a box of tissues, you’ll definitely be needing them!
Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth
The final entry on my list, Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth was published by Namco Bandai Entertainment in 2015 in Japan for both PS4 and PS Vita and later localised in 2016. This game follows a player character with the ability to command Digimon. After the player’s body becomes corrupted following an altercation with a powerful enemy, and reduced to a half digital entity, the player character gets recruited by Kyoko Kuremi to be a part of her detective agency. Thanks to the player character’s newfound ability to enter the digital world, they rapidly begin to utilise this ability to resolve crimes and problems faced by both humans and Digimon alike. Alongside these tasks, they seek the truth behind what happened to them and along the way discover a conspiracy that will change everything forever.
This game is a major nostalgia trip for me. I love Digimon dearly and have been a fan ever since the first anime debuted (in case there was any doubt, my online handle is a combination of my all-time favourite Pokémon and Digimon, Lopunny and Lopmon).
Boasting a roster of over 240 Digimon to collect and battle, there’s guaranteed to be at least something to appeal to your tastes. I, for example, went out of my way to collect all the partner Digimon from the anime Digimon: Tamers, alongside my dear Lopmon. Gameplay has you exploring the human and digital worlds with the player character, and then battling enemy Tamers and wild Digimon with your team of three Digimon. These battles are turn-based in a style very reminiscent of Final Fantasy X. Attacks can alter the turn order for you and your opponent, so managing both your Digimon and your opponents by paying attention to the turn order is essential for success. When combining this battle system with a Digimon’s unique move set and abilities, the battles can become surprisingly deep, and gathering the best team you possibly can rapidly becomes a driving force bringing you back again and again.
This game is superbly voice acted and is a gem to experience. The art style and cutscenes are jaw-dropping and to see a Digimon game get so much love and care poured into it is something that warms my heart. The OST is excellent, and while the entire soundtrack is great, some tracks are a core part of my work playlist. For a truly great track, look no further than “The Ending has Lots of Coffee”. This OST takes influence from other games and just drips with JRPG charm, feeling like a love letter to JRPGs of old – just like every other part of this game.
Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth is a fantastic game with a story that will keep you hooked from start to finish. Whether you’re a Digimon fan or not, to overlook this game would be a travesty.
In 2017/18, a follow-up game was released for the franchise – Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth – Hacker’s Memory. This game takes place alongside the events of the first game and fills in gaps you never knew were there. While I’ve not personally managed to complete this game just yet, so far it’s more of the same (which is far from a bad thing), only with a bigger cast of Digimon than ever before. As such, if you love the first game, there’s another one out there waiting patiently for its time in the spotlight.
With that, I’ve walked you through my all time favourite JRPGs (that aren’t Kingdom Hearts or Final Fantasy). If any of these games have tickled your fancy, then I would highly recommend you try them out as they’re all glorious examples of games in the genre. If you have any JRPGs that you particularly love, then please let me know as I’m always on the hunt for new ones to experience for myself and fall in love with. Thanks again for joining me on this week’s trip down the otaku rabbit hole. I hope you enjoyed and, until next time, keep it weeby!