5 Underappreciated JRPGs
The role-playing genre can arguably be called the most popular in the gaming industry. Heavy hitters like Skyrim and Mass Effect are universally known and recognized by hardcore and casual gamers alike, even by those that haven’t played either. Japanese role-playing games (or JRPGs) are a subset of the role-playing genre. And although one of the most iconic video game franchise around, Final Fantasy, does fall under this category, they are typically not as well known here in the Western Hemisphere.
The most primitive way to distinguish a JRPG from a western RPG are by their aesthetics and gameplay; JRPGs tend to feature anime art styles and turn-based combat, while western RPGs are more action-focused and favor realism in their character and world designs. Of course, these are more guidelines than rules. Take Bloodborne for example; its combat is fast-paced and is set in a dark and gritty Gothic city. However, it is still considered a JRPG simply because it was developed in Japan. So, in short, the only real distinction between a game being a JRPG versus a RPG is its place of development.
I love roleplaying games in general, but the games I end up regarding as my favorites generally seem to originate from Japan. And over the years I’ve become a sort of a JRPG connoisseur, seeking out more obscure roleplaying games that don’t get as much publicity as their western brethren. Now, don’t worry, the games on this list are not quite as unrecognizable as others I have played, but this list is more of a reflection of games that might have had somewhat publicized releases yet still didn’t get quite the amount of attention I believe they deserved.
5. Natural Doctrine
This might be the most underrated RPG of all-time – relatively speaking, of course. Natural Doctrine garnered near universal disdain when it released, but I absolutely loved it. While it might be one of the worst looking games on the PlayStation 4 with graphics that many wouldn’t be mistaken to believe originated from the early PlayStation 2 era, I believe it to be one of the best JRPGs to release early in the PS4’s lifespan. A turn-based tactical strategy game that’s combat would be best termed a cross between Valkryrie Chronicles and Fire Emblem, Natural Doctrine is just as addicting as those previously mention games but vastly more difficult. Heck, the game had a pre-release trailer that told you were going to die over and over again. Natural Doctrine is brutally, unforgiving where a single character’s death will force you to restart the entire battle or send you back to a checkpoint, which are few and far between. You’ll ram you head against a difficult battle multiple times trying to break the enemies’ tactical links without making much progress, but then you’ll notice something you hadn’t before and everything will just click. These kinds of moments of immense satisfaction is what made me love this game so much.
Natural Doctrine’s story is interesting, set in a world where humanity is on the brink of collapse, though it could have benefited from a bit more exposition and depth. The characters are generic but likeable, though the way Natural Doctrine works permadeath into its final act feels more organic than it ever has in any other series; every time a character falls you get to hear a eulogy from the survivors, plus the game features multiple different endings for each of the characters depending on who survives.
4. Tales of the Abyss
October 10, 2006 (PS2, 3DS)
Protagonist Luke fon Fabre is, in my opinion, one of the best developed characters in gaming; a member of royalty who has been sheltered his entire life, Luke is immature, spoiled, self-centered, and ignorant. Though there is a glimmer of kindness underneath it all, Luke’s attempts at being useful usually do more harm than good. After one such attempt ends in disaster and results in the deaths of many, Luke vows to turn his life around and atone for his mistakes. But, instead of magically transforming into a selfless good-doer, Luke’s progress is slow and full of pitfalls. And once he finally matures into the hero you expect, he still retains his blunt and snarky personality traits that make him who he is. Luke isn’t alone in his journey, and his fellow companions are given just as much development, with even the stereotypical little girl party member, Anise, getting some interesting character progression. When everything was said and done, Tales of the Abyss’s cast claimed a spot as one of my favorites of all time.
What makes Tales of the Abyss even better is how it manages to strike so many parallels between its characters without it feeling forced or redundant, such as the one between Luke and the game’s animal mascot Mieu (who surprisingly becomes one of the least annoying animal mascots in gaming, though the scenes of Luke physically abusing him are still funny and make me wish Luke would show up in other JRPG’s to dish out some vigilante justice on the more annoying mascots, like…. how about Morgana in Persona 5?) whom are both trying to redeem themselves for mistakes they made in good faith that had unforeseen consequences. Or the one between the game’s villains, The God-Generals, and the heroes, whom because of their connections to each other could be seen as mirror images of what each other could have become if they had made different choices.
Tales of the Abyss’ gameplay might not stand out, but it gets the job done without ever feeling tedious while allowing the story plenty of space to breath.
3. Dark Souls III
April 12, 2016 (PS4, XB1, PC)
I feel strange labeling Dark Souls III underrated, since mostly everyone seems to agree that it was a very good if not great game. But Dark Souls III was not only snubbed from multiple Top 100 RPG’s lists but also on numerous 2016 game-of-the-year rankings, which gives me the impression that it is severally underappreciated. The game didn’t do much to set itself apart from past Souls games, including reusing assets from previous games, which is probably the reason it’s been given the cold shoulder. However, at least to me, it was clear that From Software created Dark Souls III as a culmination of everything they’ve learned over the course of all their work on previous games, and as a representation of them bringing it all together into one gruelingly brutal yet flawless experience. So, while Dark Souls III might feel a little familiar, it’s well-crafted enough that I don’t really care.
2. Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel I/II
December 22, 2015/ September 6, 2016 (PS3, Vita)
Trails of Cold Steel I & II are separate games that are so closely formatted and linked that if combined you wouldn’t doubt they were the same game – well, you might question it due to how lengthy such a game would be, as each title alone is over 80 hours . That’s not to say Trails of Cold Steel II is a blatant copy-and-paste job of the original by developer Falcom. No, I say that because the games are two parts of one story.
The Trails of Cold Steel series is actually one of many sub-series in the overarching Legend of Heroes franchise, all of which exist in the same universe as each other. The connections between the different series are notable and several characters intertwine, but the games do such a good of delivering exposition and lore naturally to the player that each series can be enjoyed as a standalone story with no other knowledge of the other sub-series necessary. Much in the same way you can enjoy the Captain America saga in the Marvel Cinematic Universe without necessarily watching the Iron Man movies. This is also good, because not all the games in the Legend of Heroes franchise have been translated from Japanese.
For its part, Trails of Cold Steel focuses on a group of high school students at a prodigious military academy that become members of “Class VII”, the only class of its kind to mix nobility with commoners. The first game has you follow these students through the school year as they work together to overcome the countless trials and tribulations that come with being forced together with people from different upbringings, and watch as they become a tight-knit group along the way. While the characters may first appear to be the most cliché cast of stereotypes ever assembled, as they embark on field trips to the hometowns of each member, you not only learn more about said character’s backstory and motivations, they also become fleshed out in ways you don’t expect. But these field trips aren’t all fun and games, wherever they go Class VI somehow find themselves stumbling upon the nefarious schemes of terrorist organizations and politicians alike. Once the game draws to a close, though, the way all these random and seemingly unconnected series of events get tied together is surprising and very well done. The second game picks up where the first leaves off, and sees the class forced out of school and on the run as a civil war begins to erupt across the country. The story does become a bit heavy-handed and get a little too predictable, but finishes off with a shocking revelation that reenergizes the story and makes you look forward to the sequels yet to come.
The story isn’t the only great part of Trails of Cold Steel, its evolving battle system is a star of its own and elevates the standard turn-based combat formula you’ve come to know. Starting off relatively vanilla, it continues to develop throughout the entirety of the first game and into its sequel. The way it is handled is genius; introducing a new battle mechanics one at a time, you are given time to adjust and work it into your approach to battle before the game throws yet another new mechanic at you to add to your repertoire. It really is a gift that keeps on giving.
1. Dark Cloud
May 29, 2001 (PS2)
Dark Cloud is the epitome of nostalgia for me. My brother and I spent hours upon hours as kids playing this PlayStation 2 era JRPG. As a result, everything, from the dungeons, the towns, the characters, the music, and enemies, have been permanently etched into my brain. The constant dungeon crawling is fine on its own with its unique weapon leveling system replacing the typical character-driven one, but the added bonus of the game’s city-building mechanics is what brings everything together. Making your way through the dungeons, rescuing citizens, and collecting pieces of destroyed cities, which you can then use to rebuild and explore said city to your hearts content, is an addicting gameplay loop that few games can touch. And while combat itself is simple, the boss fights are challenging affairs that can have you facing off against a colossal beast or a vengeful spirit.
Its story is a harrowing tale, and while the characters are without voices (and seeing how terrible Dark Cloud II’s choice in actors was, this truly is a blessing) the game’s underrated soundtrack does the speaking in their stead; including a wide range of tracks that consist of somber melodies and uplifting symphonies.
Dark Cloud’s not the first RPG, I played but it was the one that truly introduced me to the genre and set me on the path that would ultimately define my gaming preferences and taste in games.