The JRPG. Japanese Role Playing Game. One of the most celebrated genres in all of gaming. And for me, it stands as my personal favorite of all time.
What is it about the JRPG that is so inherently magical? Is it their sweeping stories that feature memorable characters, imaginative worlds, and themes that are not afraid to explore the various shades of humanity? Is it their deep and complex gameplay mechanics – turn-based, real-time, or otherwise – that encourage players to customize their party and step into the shoes of the heroes (or anti-heroes) that embark on these epic quests? Or is it simply because it is required by law that all JRPGs have banging soundtracks? It’s probably the music, isn’t it?
While all of these factors – and many more– play a considerable role in my love of the genre, I believe the true magic of the JRPG to be in their immersive, almost intangible, ability to take you to another world and make you feel… something. Something rich, tangible, and incredibly powerful emerges from these wonderfully constructed elements coming together and forming a symphony of artistic beauty.
Okay, that was a bit pretentious. But it highlights how intensely passionate I feel about many of these games. Indeed, If I were to list my top 25 games of all time, I reckon about a third of them would be from the JRPG genre.
Instead of going through the individual aspects of the genre that I find so compelling and valuable, I want to focus on a small selection of JRPGs released through the years that demonstrate just some of the reasons why I hold this genre in such high esteem.
Phantasy Star IV: The Power of Emotional Storytelling
Spoiler warning for Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium.
One of the formative series of the JRPG genre, alongside Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, was SEGA’s Phantasy Star series. These games mixed fantasy and sci-fi themes to create a truly unique world full of colorful characters and dreadful monsters.
After three successful entries in the series, SEGA decided to wrap up the story with the excellent Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millennium for the Sega Genesis in 1995. I remember playing this game for the first time like it was yesterday. I didn’t play the game on its original hardware (I was born in 1998) but instead through the Sega Genesis Collection for the PlayStation Portable around 2010.
Despite being a retro game in a genre I didn’t have much experience with then, I was immediately transfixed by Phantasy Star IV. The story begins with two bounty hunters – the experienced and battle-hardened Alys and her wide-eyed apprentice Chaz – as they investigate the worrying re-emergence of monsters in their home planet Motavia. What they discover reveals a terrifying plot to potentially destroy the entire star system and all life within it.
While the game is brimming with memorable characters, Alys was always my favorite from the start. There was no denying she was the party’s leader, but she was also a quick wit and could out-smart any opponent that stood in her way. She was the rock that stood firm no matter what disturbing revelations were thrown the way of the characters, and her mentor-student relationship with Chaz formed the core emotional heart of the game.
My heart was nearly broken when Alys is killed off roughly a third of the way through Phantasy Star IV. Her death shook me to my core, as I genuinely couldn’t believe that the main characters could die early in a video game. I kept thinking that her character would get resurrected sometime later in the journey, but no. Alys was gone, and Chaz and the rest of the party had to move on without their leader.
Alys was hardly the first main character to die in a video game – and she certainly wouldn’t be the last – but at this point in my gaming journey, I had never seen anything like it. It showed me the power that video game stories could possess, particularly the profound emotional character and story beat that so many JRPGs hit time and again. Phantasy Star IV introduced me to the dynamic storytelling of JRPGs, and the genre has been shattering my heart ever since.
Trails in the Sky: A World Brimming with Life
For those who haven’t heard of it, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is a JRPG developed by Falcom that introduces gamers to the expansive world of Zemuria. While the game has an excellent cast of characters, an enjoyable battle system, and some killer music, the world of Trails in the Sky really sets it apart.
JRPGs are known for their creative worlds – a fantastical land, a steampunk dystopia, or a magical version of our own world. Zemuria’s world combines a bit of fantasy with a bit of sci-fi while taking heavy inspiration from European countries during the industrial revolution. But while all of these components are great, what really sets the world of Zemuria apart is its scale and attention to detail.
On a macro level, Zemuria is huge. The entirety of Trails in the Sky takes place in the Kingdom of Liberl, which is only a small slice of the overall continent. The massive Erebonian Empire required four full games to tell its story, and there are still more countries and regions that we haven’t even stepped foot on yet. Each country is given a distinctive culture, political system, geography, social system, and history rich in detail and dripping in fascinating lore. There is so much to discover about this world and its history that it rivals any great fantasy book in terms of world-building.
But the real magic of Trails in the Sky is how it handles micro-world-building. It is all well and good to have a giant world if it doesn’t feel lived in by real people. Amazingly, each NPC is given their own personality, their own backstory, and their own relationships with other NPCs in the game. It is a truly mind-boggling level of detail that the writers and developers have injected this world with, and it creates an experience that is fully immersive and captivating in its execution.
Trails in the Sky and its entire series stand as the prime example of how JRPGs can fill their worlds with so much imagination, detail, and love that you cannot help but get swept up along the way.
Dragon Quest XI: The Balance of Tradition and Evolution
The JRPG genre is old, dating all the way back to the mid-80s with the release of the original Dragon Quest for the Nintendo Entertainment System – then known as Dragon Warrior in the west because of licensing issues. The game seamlessly established numerous conventions of the genre – anime art-style, turn-based combat, a fantastical world, and addicting character customization options. While so much about this game is primitive compared to modern standards, the foundations it laid were so strong that the Dragon Quest series has been successfully walking in its footsteps ever since.
This brings us to the most recent game in the series – Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age, released in the west in 2018. Despite being the eleventh mainline Dragon Quest game, Echoes of an Elusive Age perfectly builds upon those core elements introduced over 30 years prior.
The anime art style is now gorgeously realized in high definition, with a crisp characters and enemy models looking gorgeous on modern televisions. The turn-based combat has been tweaked and refined to be more engaging, snappier, and more strategic than ever. The fantastical world is begging to be explored, with every corner containing some enticing discovery. And the character customization is as addicting as ever, as you can now take your party members’ abilities in nearly any direction you want.
The result is a near-perfect balance between tradition and evolution. Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age respects the past while carving out its own identity and taking the whole genre forward. It is a remarkable achievement that other contemporary JRPGs such as Persona 5 and the Xenoblade Chronicles series have mastered.
Simply put, I Love JRPGs
If it wasn’t obvious, I have a deep, passionate, and heartfelt love for JRPG games. They have been there for me during so many important moments in my life, teaching me various lessons and allowing me to escape to worlds I could only ever dream of. There are so many wonderful examples of the genre out there, so if you haven’t already, jump into a JRPG that catches your eye and get ready for the magic to overtake you.