As we saw recently, there are those among us who believe that the Japanese role-playing game has been in consistent decline since Final Fantasy VII, and that only now are we starting to see a “comeback”.
We’ve already talked about how this is a load of old nonsense, and that in fact the role-playing game genre has been healthy for a good few years — just a little different to its mainstream status back in its PlayStation heyday, instead preferring to cater to a niche audience of passionate fans rather than attempting to be everything to everyone; the latter option is now the domain of the triple-A sector.
So with that in mind, what better time to contemplate a selection of great role-playing games from the last few generations of console hardware, all of which have been released since the Squaresoft classic first wowed everyone back in 1997?
Note: As with any list, this isn’t intended to be an exhaustive or authoritative selection. These are my personal picks for games that I’ve found noteworthy and particularly enjoyable from the PS1 era and beyond; I’d love to hear some of your favourites in the comments, too.
As a European, the PS1 era was an unfortunately dry spell with regard to localisations of Japanese games, especially those from Square. Fortunately, it wasn’t all that difficult to modify a stock PlayStation to accept imported titles, and indeed if you didn’t feel confident enough to solder things inside your expensive piece of consumer electronics, you could even do the notorious “disc swap trick”, holding the CD drive door open with a pen lid and swapping discs after the PlayStation had read the copy protection and region code off a legitimate game from your own region.
I mention all this because I first discovered that I liked role-playing games in the PS1 era, and was dismayed to discover that an awful lot of them were already localised into English, but never made it across the pond to PAL territories. Xenogears was one such title, and after hearing numerous positive rumblings about it shortly after its North American release, I decided to track down a copy the next time I found myself in the States.
Xenogears was an interesting and ambitious game that fell slightly short of its potential… but that didn’t stop it from being a lot of fun.
I wasn’t disappointed. Providing a very different sort of experience to Final Fantasy VII, Xenogears was an interesting and ambitious game that unfortunately fell slightly short of its potential due to the now-notoriously rushed second disc and the somewhat questionable dub in the otherwise impressive anime cutscenes.
That didn’t stop what was there from being a lot of fun, however. Xenogears combined a thrilling and thought-provoking tale with an excellent combat system that drew influences from fighting game combo mechanics. It also featured giant robots smacking the shit out of each other, which is always fun to see.
The highlight of the game was quite how audacious the narrative was, however. Taking in everything from the philosophies of Nietzsche, Freud and Jung to the theological bases of several different world religions, Xenogears was one of the earliest examples of a game that genuinely wanted to Say Something. Whether or not it was entirely successful was a matter of some debate — and still is — but it’s impossible not to recognise and applaud the game for at least attempting to tackle some seriously weighty subject matter.
Star Ocean: The Second Story (1998)
One of a few RPGs that actually made it to Europe in the PS1 era, Star Ocean: The Second Story was an enjoyable adventure with some interesting mechanics and game systems — and the somewhat bold option to play the game as one of two different protagonists who meet up with one another fairly early on in the overall narrative, but who each provide a somewhat different perspective on the unfolding events.
Star Ocean’s combat differs from more “conventional” (for want of a better word) role-playing game battle systems in that it’s real time, and plays more like an action game or brawler than a more strategic affair. Positioning is important, as is being aware of what your AI-controlled allies are up to: their basic strategies can be selected, but you can only ever directly control one character at once.
The variety of side activities in Star Ocean: The Second Story gives it a much stronger “role-playing” feel than many of its peers and contemporaries.
Perhaps the more interesting thing about Star Ocean: The Second Story in particular, though, is all the side content it has that runs parallel to the main plot. The “Private Action” system, for example, allows you to develop the relationship between your chosen protagonist and the various party members available throughout the game through small events that occur as you visit various locations around the world. Meanwhile, unlike many other console RPGs, the skill system doesn’t just affect combat; trade skills such as writing and composing allow characters to earn money for the party, while other skills allow for various means of healing, increasing the rate of character growth or even acquiring items through illicit means — the latter option running the risk of adversely affecting the relationships you’ve been cultivating through Private Actions.
In other words, while the basic structure of Star Ocean: The Second Story is very similar to many other console RPGs in that it’s a fairly linear “storybook with battles” sort of scenario, the variety of options for activities to undertake on the side give the game a much stronger “role-playing” feel than many of its peers and contemporaries — and indeed many console RPGs since. The fact that a number of the choices you make over the course of these side activities actually impact the ending of the game only adds to this feel, too, making Star Ocean: The Second Story a noteworthy example of the genre being willing to take a few risks and experiment, even in its supposed “golden age”.
Shadow Hearts: Covenant (2004)
The Shadow Hearts series as a whole is well worth exploring if only for its peculiar setting — a somewhat Gothic reinterpretation of World War I-era Europe, including rather colourful takes on real-life historical figures such as Rasputin and Princess Anastasia Romanov, the latter of whom is a playable character in second game Covenant.
To completely dismiss Shadow Hearts on “oh, you crazy Japanese” grounds is to miss out on a well-written, highly playable series.
It would be easy for Shadow Hearts to run away with its own craziness, and indeed third game To the New World was criticised by fans for this very reason; Covenant, meanwhile, manages to strike a good balance between an overall narrative that is played reasonably straight and individual happenings that, it’s fair to say, fall squarely into the “batshit insane” category. One of the characters is a 400-year old vampire who hits people with mailboxes and concrete pillars, for heaven’s sake; his personal sidequest involves climbing a tower of wrestling rings stacked on top of each other, each of which is guarded by a man with a plate of curry on his head, because of course it is.
To completely dismiss Shadow Hearts on “oh, you crazy Japanese” grounds, however, is to miss out on a well-written, highly playable series with an unusual but satisfying rhythm-based combat system, some extremely memorable characters — who are, without exception, all more than just gimmicks — and a highly creative narrative. Covenant is without a doubt the strongest installment in the series, but since it’s a direct sequel to the technically inferior but still enjoyable first game, that’s also worth playing, too; opinions vary on whether third game To the New World is bothering with, conversely, but it’s not a bad game, per se — simply not quite up to the high standards of the original two games.
If you can only play one, make it Covenant.
Final Fantasy XII (2006)
Final Fantasy X tends to be the most commonly cited example of great role-playing games in the PlayStation 2 era, but Final Fantasy XII is particularly noteworthy even within a series renowned for regularly reinventing itself, simply because it reinvents itself so radically compared to anything that had come previously — with the possible exception of massively multiplayer installment Final Fantasy XI, that is.
Final Fantasy XII switched from the usual console RPG formula of sharply delineating field exploration and combat to what is often regarded as a more “Western” style: exploration and combat are mostly seamless, with both unfolding in the same 3D environments in real-time, with characters able to move freely around while fighting. Although a strong contrast to the more traditional turn-based formula of earlier Final Fantasy installments, variations on this real-time, free-movement style of combat — dubbed “Active Dimension Battle” in Final Fantasy XII, because the FF team loves giving grandiose names to things that don’t need names — has now been used with a great deal of success in three different mainline titles in the series: Final Fantasy XI, Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy XIV.
Final Fantasy XII is a truly fantastic game, and ripe for an FFXHD-style makeover. How about it, Square Enix?
That’s not the only big shift that Final Fantasy XII made, though. Whereas earlier Final Fantasy installments were extremely linear for the vast majority of their main scenario — with this being particularly apparent in Final Fantasy X, which didn’t even have an “open world”-style map to wander around and explore between towns, dungeons and other field areas — Final Fantasy XII took a much more freeform approach. The main storyline was still very linear and didn’t offer you any choice in how it all ended, but between main story beats you were pretty much free to wander the entirety of the game world — assuming you could handle the monsters you’d run into — and do as you pleased. And there was plenty to do, too; a game-spanning sidequest known as The Hunt provided the main incentive to explore, offering challenging encounters and substantial rewards for those willing to track down unique monsters scattered around the game world.
Final Fantasy XII may be an installment in arguably the most well-known console RPG series in the world, but it’s one that people don’t seem to talk about nearly as much as, say, X. Which is a great shame, really, as it’s a truly fantastic game, and ripe for an FFXHD-style makeover. How about it, Square Enix?
Ar Tonelico 2: Melody of Metafalica (2007)
The Ar Tonelico series in general is worth checking out for its detailed characterisation and exploration of psychological issues, but for many fans it’s the second game, Melody of Metafalica, which marks the series’ high point — even with the notoriously poor quality translation to English for Western players.
A strength of the Ar Tonelico series as a whole is the extraordinarily detailed lore that defines the world the three games unfold in. While the games aren’t directly connected to one another in their main plot and each unfolds as a standalone, independent story, playing them all gives you a much fuller understanding of the strange and wonderful world that is Ar Ciel. Indeed, without spoiling things, the revelation of how a particular character in Melody of Metafalica connects to the previous game is, for those who are playing the series in order, a plot twist right up there with classics such as Darth Revan’s unmasking in BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic, and this is far from an isolated incident.
A strength of the Ar Tonelico series as a whole is the extraordinarily detailed lore that defines the world the three games unfold in.
While the games’ stories are sprawling epics that deal with the fate of the world as a whole, there’s also a strong focus on the individual characters involved — particularly the female characters. In the case of Melody of Metafalica, protagonist Croix is fairly ill-defined in terms of personality compared to his companions, presumably in order to allow the player to see him as a self-insert in the story. This becomes particularly relevant during the “Dive” sequences, during which Croix enters the mind of his Reyvateil companions in order to deepen his partnership with them and subsequently unlock more powerful magic.
It’s these Dive sequences where Ar Tonelico — and Melody of Metafalica in particular — is at its most interesting. Beginning with relatively straightforward fantasies and personifications of worries and personality traits, as Croix delves deeper into the girls’ minds he starts to uncover all manner of unresolved, repressed anxieties and neuroses — including a number of issues that the girls have kept very well hidden even from their closest friends for as long as they have known one another.
What’s noteworthy about these sequences is that Croix is never presented as a “magic bullet” to solve these issues; rather, his presence — assuming you make the right choices — tends to encourage the girls to work through the issues at their own pace and, in turn, discover things about themselves and the way they see other people.
This isn’t even getting into the amazing music of the series, or the entire, fully functional language called Hymmnos that is featured prominently throughout, or the unusual but highly enjoyable battle system… I could, as you can probably tell, go on all day, but since I’ve already done that I’ll simply say that if you’re going to play just one installment in this peculiar, wonderful series, be sure to check out Melody of Metafalica.
Ah, Nier. Perhaps one of the most unusual role-playing games ever created, and without a doubt one of the most memorable.
Nier was originally released in Japan in two different incarnations which were largely identical aside from the main characters: Nier Replicant featured a younger protagonist, while Nier Gestalt, which is the version that got localised and brought to Western markets, features a middle-aged protagonist that reflects developer Cavia’s desire to appeal to both older players and the market outside of Japan.
The decision to go with the older protagonist turned out to be a solid one, as it turned Nier’s tale from a relatively conventional anime-style story — albeit one with some unusual supporting characters, who we’ll come on to in a moment — into a poignant, melancholy and, at times, downright depressing reflection on a father struggling to survive in a dangerous, ruined world while still trying to do right by his dying daughter.
Initially appearing to be a fairly straightforward action RPG, as Nier unfolds it becomes more and more experimental, with one whole narrative sequence unfolding entirely through text, another adopting Resident Evil-style fixed camera angles rather than the third-person camera used for most of the rest of the game, and another still shifting to a zoomed-out, Diablo-style isometric viewpoint as you hack and slash your way through enemies.
Even in a genre notorious for crazy and colourful main characters, Nier’s cast stands out.
Things truly come to a head with the game’s unusual New Game Plus options, which not only restart the game from its halfway point rather than the very beginning, but which also add some significant narrative content that will doubtless make you feel very differently about what you’ve been doing in your previous playthroughs. The game is also notorious for one of its multiple endings unceremoniously deleting your save file as you watch helplessly, then salting the ground so thoroughly that you can’t even begin a new game with the same filename you used previously.
Where Nier shines is in its cast and the interactions between them. Even in a genre notorious for crazy and colourful main characters, Nier’s cast stands out, consisting as it does of a middle-aged man, a very angry intersex woman (who is nonetheless not at all shy about flaunting her femininity, primarily through her somewhat lingerie-esque outfit), a blindfolded young boy and a floating book that does a nice line in sarcasm. What’s particularly remarkable is that as outlandish as these characters may seem when described like this, none of them are played off as a joke; they’re all extraordinarily well-realised, with the intersex Kaine in particular proving to be one of the most complex, interesting characters I’ve ever seen in any game.
Discovering the truth behind these characters — not to mention the initially baffling setup to the overall narrative that raises more and more questions right up until the very end — is a real highlight of the game, and to dismiss Nier on the grounds of (clearly deliberately) tedious and depressing sidequests and arguably substandard graphics is to do a great disservice to one of the most creative, fascinating games of the outgoing hardware generation. If you haven’t yet experienced the bleak fascination of exploring Nier’s world, be sure to rectify this as soon as possible; you’re in for a dark yet compelling treat.
Xenoblade Chronicles (2010)
Xenoblade Chronicles is the perfect antidote to anyone who ever complained that Nintendo’s Wii lacked “hardcore” games. Offering a sprawling, open-world adventure that unfolded over the course of more than a hundred hours, Xenoblade Chronicles built upon the formula established by Final Fantasy XII and made it into something arguably even more wonderful.
Xenoblade took heavy cues from the structure of massively multiplayer games by treating its towns as “hub” areas filled with myriad sidequests. There was a main plot to follow, but the numerous little stories that unfolded through these sidequests helped each location through which you passed to feel truly alive and fleshed out — a fact helped by the game’s day-night system, which featured that old favourite of box-back blurb writers, NPCs who had their own schedules and damn well weren’t going to stand around all night waiting for you to talk to them. (Pleasingly, though, you didn’t have to stand around waiting for them, either, thanks to the godsend that was the “skip to time” option)
Xenoblade features a fantastic setting in all respects, and it’s a delight to explore.
That main scenario was compelling and enjoyable, too, though, taking you across Xenoblade’s highly imaginative world — actually a civilisation of human-like beings that grew to prominence atop the dormant figure of an enormous giant titan called the Bionis, and a contrasting society of mechanical beings who dominated the similarly dormant figure of the Bionis’ erstwhile opponent, the Mechonis. Throughout the course of Xenoblade’s epic adventure, you come to discover a great deal about the history of this unusual, well-realised world, both on the micro and macro scales. It’s a fascinating setting in all respects, and a delight to explore.
Also noteworthy was the game’s use of English (as opposed to American) voice actors in the game’s Western dub — though the option for the original Japanese voices was still present. Outbursts such as “Now it’s Reyn Time!”, “I’m really feeling it!” and “My rifle’s getting hotter!”, the latter of which is delivered in a particularly delicious, plummy English accent, have entered the lexicon of gaming memes ever since the game first appeared in the West, and protagonist Shulk even went on to feature in the recent Wii U version of Super Smash Bros. — a high honour indeed for a game that mostly consists of first-party Nintendo characters.
Xenoblade has its flaws — if anything, it’s a little too big and unfocused at times, and some of the sidequests that are dependent on random drops are as infuriating as anything an MMO has ever tasked players with grinding on — but overall, it’s one of the best RPGs in recent memory, and could pretty much single-handedly floor the tired “JRPGs are dead” argument were it not for, you know, all the other great ones out there too.
The Last Story (2011)
The work of Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi’s studio Mistwalker, The Last Story is often thrown into discussion alongside Xenoblade Chronicles and Ganbarion’s Pandora’s Tower due to the “Operation Rainfall” campaign that helped encourage Nintendo’s Western arms to bring these games to English speakers. But it’s a strong game worth considering on its own merits, particularly for all the unusual, creative things it does with the genre.
Like many other more recent RPGs, The Last Story completely dispenses with random encounters in favour of battles that occur in the field. Unlike games such as Xenoblade Chronicles and Final Fantasy XII, however, The Last Story’s battles are true encounters in the sense that word is used in tabletop roleplaying games: rather than simply encouraging you to line up in front of the enemies and hit each other until one side of the conflict has all fallen over, The Last Story encourages tactical thinking and carefully working your way through combat rather than mindless hack-and-slash. It’s no strategy game, by any means, but the addition of solid level design, contextual actions and a large party of AI companions that actually know how to fight without getting killed makes for an experience quite unlike any other role-playing game.
If you’re the sort of person who hesitates to spend over a hundred hours playing a single game, The Last Story is for you.
It’s short, too: if you’re the sort of person who hesitates to spend over a hundred hours playing a single game, The Last Story is for you. The complete narrative — including sidequests — can be romped through in about 20 hours or so, and manages not to feel rushed in doing so. Instead, the game is kept pacy and interesting, with something always going on, and downtime being kept to a minimum. Even levelling takes place at a breakneck pace, with a single encounter often yielding multiple experience levels at a time, and “encounter circles” allowing you to summon additional enemies for extra experience should you feel the need to grind at all.
Combine the compelling, exciting story with the extremely well-realised city setting that you can freely wander around, explore and complete sidequests in during the game’s relatively few instances of downtime, and you have a role-playing game that, while arguably held back a little by the technical constraints of its host system — the poor old Wii struggles a bit, bless it — nevertheless provides a truly memorable experience that hasn’t quite been replicated since.
Pandora’s Tower (2011)
The third of those three Wii RPGs that tend to always be mentioned in the same breath, Pandora’s Tower is, even more so than Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story, a sharp contrast to what many people think of as the “typical JRPG”. More of a Zelda-style action adventure than anything else, Pandora’s Tower tells an intimate, minimalistic tale that is by turns heartwarming and horrifying.
The lovely Elena is turning into a monster, and it’s up to you to save her. Unfortunately, it seems the only way to do this is to feed her the flesh of hideous monsters that live in a series of increasingly perilous towers, and as a vegetarian, Elena isn’t too thrilled about this. Still, better that than turning into a tentacled horror — and oh, yes, transformed Elena is not pretty Elena — so it’s up to you, in the role of the rather quiet Aeron, to solve this whole horrible situation once and for all, and perhaps figure out how it came about in the first place.
Of the three great Wii RPGs, Pandora’s Tower is the only one which really needed to be on the Wii, thanks to its sensible, non-gimmicky use of the Wii Remote and Nunchuk combo. Essentially, the Wii Remote acts as Aeron’s chain, allowing him to do everything from grappling and swinging his way around the dungeons to tying monsters to other things and then laughing as they slowly strangle themselves to death. This mechanic doesn’t change much over the course of the game, but its applications become increasingly complex and challenging. By the end of the game, you’ll find yourself moving through the dungeons fluidly and easily using the chain — and its applications in combat remain enormously satisfying, particularly in the Shadow of the Colossus-style boss fights, which tend to see you ripping the bosses apart piece by piece.
Pandora’s Tower is one of the great unsung heroes of the last hardware generation.
What’s truly interesting about Pandora’s Tower, though, is the way in which it’s presented. Taking a rather more understated approach than many other role-playing games, there are only three speaking characters in the whole thing: the protagonist Aeron, who isn’t quite a silent protagonist but is pretty close; Elena, who carries most of the narrative by herself, and the delightfully horrifying Mavda, a mysterious, disfigured witch-like character with a nice line in lore.
Pandora’s Tower’s story is both epic and intimate at scope simultaneously: the entire game unfolds in the observatory that serves as Aeron and Elena’s makeshift base and the nearby towers, allowing for detailed exploration of the pair’s growing relationship, but at the same time there’s a gradual reveal of the lore as you progress, until by the end of the game, you have a pretty good understanding of the whole setting, even having only seen such a miniscule fraction of it.
It’s a bold approach to storytelling that the game manages to successfully pull off — and even without the strong gameplay, it’d be reason enough to check out this unusual game. When combined with the well-crafted dungeon exploring, however, this game becomes one of the great unsung heroes of the last hardware generation.
Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth1 (2013)
Idea Factory subsidiary Compile Heart may not make the most technically proficient, most well-balanced RPGs out there, but what they are good at is creating games that are positively dripping with charm, good nature and a general feeling that everyone involved in creating the experience had an absolute blast.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in what has gradually become the developer’s most popular series: Hyperdimension Neptunia. First appearing in 2010 on the PlayStation 3, the series is one that has consistently improved on itself with each subsequent installment — so much so that Compile Heart and partner developer Felistella saw fit to go back and revisit the first three games in order to remake, expand and enhance them with the new mechanics and technology found in the later installments. The first of these remakes to make it West was, appropriately enough, Re;Birth1: a complete remake of the original Hyperdimension Neptunia from the ground up, ditching most of the old game’s idiosyncrasies in favour of the proven, solid mechanics found in Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory, with a few twists here and there.
Individually, Neptunia’s characters are fun; together, they’re one of the best ensemble casts in recent memory.
Hyperdimension Neptunia as a series tells the story of the goddesses of Gamindustri, each of whom is the personification of one of the giants of gaming. Title character Neptune represents Sega — specifically, the never-released console of the same name — while Noire represents Sony and the PlayStation platform, Blanc represents Nintendo through the ages and Vert represents Microsoft and the Xbox. Noire, Neptune and Blanc also have younger sisters — Uni, Nepgear and the twins Rom and Ram respectively — who represent the company’s handheld platforms. (Since Microsoft doesn’t have a handheld, Vert doesn’t have a little sister — something she’s a little upset about.)
While the gameplay of the Neptunia games is mostly solid — particularly in the later installments, where it has been refined considerably, if not balanced perfectly — the real reason to play these games is the characterisation. The overall narratives tend to be fairly forgettable fluff, but the games are more about the moment-to-moment interactions between the goddesses and their friends than anything else. And the personalities of the goddesses fit their inspirations perfectly; Noire, as Sony, claims to prefer to do her own thing and concentrate on becoming the best in her field, but constantly seeks the approval of others; Blanc, as Nintendo, is bitter and ruthless, but with a childish streak; Vert plays into the “exotic foreigner” anime trope perfectly by having enormous breasts, blonde hair and an extremely refined persona; Neptune, meanwhile, is a loudmouthed idiot who nonetheless is an absolute joy to be around — a fine choice for a protagonist in such a series of madcap adventures. Individually, they’re fun; together, they’re one of the best ensemble casts in recent memory.
So there you have it, folks; ten great RPGs that have come out since Final Fantasy VII, across three different console generations.
There are, of course, many more I could have mentioned — Gust’s Atelier series, Atlus’ Persona series, soon to enjoy its fifth installment at last, Nippon Ichi’s wide selection of mechanically interesting games — but I’ll hold it there for now.
I’m always looking to discover great new games, though, so if you have any favourites that I haven’t mentioned here, do feel free to share in the comments; there’s every possibility that they’re already on my shelf and I haven’t quite got around to playing them yet!