Reading Simulators And Grindstones

I’ve been trying to broaden my horizons recently. On the game side of life, that has involved playing JRPGs and visual novels. These are things that I have very little experience with and I have not been having a very good time. Is this a case of not having acquired the taste yet or do I have entirely the wrong palate?

I’m using the phrase ‘Reading Simulators’ for a very specific reason: whenever I see criticism of walking simulators that goes along the lines, NOT A PROPER GAME, I immediately think of my visual novel experience. They’re games in which I click through dialogue sequences and very occasionally make a choice. The backgrounds are usually static, as are character portraits, and the writing is generally delivered as a series of short phrases.

Even the most non-linear walking simulators, if they are well-designed in terms of their environments and plot, give me a sense of exploring a new place. I love that. Visiting places that don’t exist, or that I’d otherwise never have a chance to walk through, is one of the great joys of gaming for me. The gap between a driving simulator, like American Truck Simulator, and a walking simulator isn’t all that great as far as I’m concerned. It’s about being a tourist in an imaginary space, or a recreation of a real space.

I enjoy playing with Google Streetview but I’d rather play a good walking simulator, but I’d rather read a novel than play a visual novel. Which is odd, because I do like a lot of interactive fiction, whether it’s at the fringes of the genre (Fallen London, 80 Days) or in the more traditional Infocom style. Puzzles, weird worlds, weirder logic.

Over the last few months, I’ve been exploring another genre of game I’m unfamiliar with: JRPGs. I’ve tried some Final Fantasies, I’ve dipped my toe into Legend of Heroes and I’ve taken a look at Tales of Symphonia. Nothing caught my attention and there was little to convince me that the entire genre shouldn’t be safely filed in the same corner of my brain that I reserve for young adult novels and their adaptations – broad characterisation, a hero’s journey, storytelling that seems fated to populate Tvtropes pages with new hyperlinks rather than to convey anything interesting.

Damn, these things have put me in a bad mood. I tried Corpse Party last night because people had told me it was this genuinely creepy cult horror thing, and it looks like something that has been rescued from an obscure corner of the internet and dropped onto Steam (there as a PSP version, which ruins that framing somewhat).

I’ve been clicking through a lot of dialogue that seems half teen drama and half Scooby Doo. Occasionally there are references to pee and itchy butts. I don’t hate Corpse Party yet but I suspect I will before the end. It’s an interesting middle ground between a visual novel and a JRPG and it contains many of the things I dislike about both, though no grindy combat so far.

Help me, readers. I don’t want to dismiss entire genres. Where are the good visual novels? Where are the good JRPGs?

This post was originally published to the RPS Supporter Program.

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95 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Risingson says:

    Visual novels have sense in portable devices: I cannot think of any other way even a more interactive example like the Phoenix Wright games would be bearable. We use computers, we need a bit more action.

    As for JRPGs, don’t force yourself. If you have a portable over there that has a good port of Chrono Trigger, try that one. The Dragon Quest DS remakes are also really fine. But you see, for the DS, PSP, Vita, 3DS. iPad. Android.

    As a side note, I always use Visual Novels to fall asleep.

    And no, the narrative will still be pure exposition there, but it has more sense when you are commuting and have to do a whole west london-east london travel in the overground.

    Just my advice.

  2. Aerothorn says:

    Which JRPGs?

    It’s a more conservative genre than most, but even in, say, the land of Final Fantasy, there’s a big difference between FF4-6 and, say, FF8. And in the broader world of JRPGs there are some that are a lot more ambitious, though unfortunately you usually have to choose between ‘ambitious storytelling and generic gameplay’ or ‘ambitiout gameplay and boring and/or non-cogent storytelling. Chrono Cross and Final Fantasy Tactics are two that in my book actually succeed on both fronts, though the former is not for everyone by a long shot.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Andy_Panthro says:

    I’d probably recommend Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 7, Phantasy Star IV and if you’re not averse to heading all the way back to the Gameboy, Final Fantasy Legend and Final Fantasy Adventure (These two I think got the FF name for brand recognition reasons, rather than any real affiliation with the FF series).

    Of course if you ask for Final Fantasy recommendations, people will recommend virtually any between 4 and 12, for various different reasons. I never owned a NES or SNES, so other than dabbling with emulators the first FF game I could actually own was FF7, so I enjoyed it a lot.

    Phantasy Star IV has a crazy story that seemed all the stranger to someone (like myself) who had never played the previous entries in the series. Lots of grindy combat, but I think it’s better than most FF games.

    FFLegend and FFadventure were games I had for the Gameboy, the first being a party-based JRPG in a fairly classic sense, and the latter being more of a Zelda-ish action-RPG. They were both different and interesting to me when I was younger, since I didn’t have that much to compare them to. For a very similar experience to FFA, you can try the Secret of Mana series, and I’m sure someone else will mention the similar, better games that are related in some respect.

    Chrono Trigger is the one that most people will likely recommend, and with good cause. It should definitely be on your list.

    • Dare_Wreck says:

      Final Fantasy Adventure *is* the first game in the Mana series.

      • Premium User Badge

        Andy_Panthro says:

        That would explain it! I don’t think I’ve played any of the others, just seen bits. Didn’t realise the Gameboy one was first.

    • tattertech says:

      I love to see the mention of Phantasy Star IV. Easily my favorite JRPG, even without having played the earlier ones in the series prior to it.

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        Andy_Panthro says:

        PS4 was the first of the series that I played, and only played a little bit (the first hour or two) of the others much later on. PS4 definitely seems like the best, and I don’t think you lose too much by not having played the previous ones. In a way, it was nice to uncover the mysteries of the world without any foreknowledge, as there are some brilliant moments that would have been more obvious otherwise.

        • ansionnach says:

          Another shout-out for PS4 – great game. Its speed and lack of self-importance overcome its flaws. I’m not sure that I’d call the combat grindy, although there is a lot of it.

          Chrono Trigger is also well worth a look. Seiken Densetsu 3 (sequel to Secret of Mana) is good fun, too, with some great boss battles and a good variety of characters to choose from. The translation was completed in 2000, so the game has been playable in English longer than it wasn’t.

          What else? Phantasy Star on the Master System is a great game, that more fully realised what it was to be an RPG than other early (and later) JRPGs. You can get by without doing it, but I graphed its 3d first-person dungeons on squared paper. Great game. Phantasy Star 2 is often held up as the best one. It can be fun, but is horribly grindy. No saving on the world map is a major problem. I think you could save almost anywhere in the first game so this was a real backward step. Phantasy Star III is often ridiculed but I found it fun once I was patient with its beginnings. The fast-forward battle system is a godsend. Too bad it didn’t make it into more of these games. The plot of PS3 does eventually make sense within the wider universe of Phantasy Star, and the multi-generational story is quite a sad one.

          The World Ends with You on the DS is worth a look, too. Didn’t get to finish it (and no longer have a DS), but it was certainly very different from the same old Ultima III-lite degenerated cross with animé that a lot of JRPGs can be.

          Skies of Arcadia on the Dreamcast and Grandia II are also worth a look. Grandia for the fun battle system; Skies for just being a great game.

          Tales of Symphonia is dire. Many of the Final Fantasy games aren’t that great, either. III on the NES is fun, as is… maybe V on the SNES (although I haven’t gotten too far in that, yet). I’d skip these completely, especially IV, which is terrible.

          Haven’t played too many Shining Force games but they seem fun enough. Some of the Fire Emblems are good as well.

          • Ragnar says:

            I know the original western release of Final Fantasy IV suffered from being dumbed down to make it much easier and from a censored and revised translation. With those two issues addressed I found it rather good. I thought the beginning was particularly strong, and party members being killed off or lost for good was refreshing.

          • ansionnach says:

            Played the Japanese SNES version. It’s pretty awful. When I did force myself to complete it I ran from all the battles, never bought anything and was still able to kill all the bosses but the very last one without grinding. At that speed, party members were joining, leaving and dying at a fair rate of knots. Trite, melodramatic twaddle. Many places where bosses are followed up by surprise extra bosses so you go straight into them without having healed up. It’s plain bad game design – to brutally kill off the player so they’ve got to go back and do the same thing over and over again.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Nauallis says:

    I’m going to echo the commenters above me with more of the same: if you are able to either get a good port or are willing to utilize an old console (in this case a playstation 1 or 2), then I must recommend ChronoTrigger, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Xenogears.

    I argue these because they focus so much on blending gameplay with story. Aside from the random world-map encounters that are so nauseatingly common in JRPGs, the storyline progression and character development is generally matched by the additional abilities that your characters gain.

    ChronoTrigger has a neat battle system that only forces combat when your character physically runs into an enemy, or reaches a scripted encounter. Your 3-person teams are able to perform combo abilities & magic, which are fun throughout the game.

    Final Fantasy Tactics has a tactical battle map featuring region-specific terrain and elevations. Many of the story battles involve battling over structures. This was an incredibly refreshing change to the Final Fantasy style battle system which was so flat and undynamic (three heroes in a row rushing up to attack an enemy and returning to a line. One ability per turn, no saving attacks for combos). Also, you can literally play your character, including essential story characters, however you like, including mixing and matching abilities from different classes. Don’t play the crappy iOS port.

    Xenogears has overall the best and most mature story of the three that I have listed. The story, unlike most other JRPGs, doesn’t solely focus on the angsty problems of the primary man-child hero. The battle system also diverges from the standard Final Fantasy trope that I described above, primarily in that your characters have a pool of “attack points” that they can utilize each turn, and you can opt to not use the whole pool each turn, banking them until you decide to unleash a chain of deathblow combos. Very cool. You also get to decide what sort of attack your character makes, based upon the order in which you enter each of the three attack types. And then there’s the gears themselves, the game’s mecha. The gears also have their own battle system, with combos and attacks based on a limited fuel supply, which adds another layer of strategy (and stress) to some fights and especially boss battles.

    The most frustrating part of all three of these titles are the loading times, especially in comparison to modern titles, Bethesda games notwithstanding.

    • tattertech says:

      Definitely agree with the Final Fantasy Tactics suggestion. The political plots are fantastic and so out of sorts with just about anything else in the genre.

      I’d also second Xenogears, but my one complaint with the game is that the random encounters were far too excessive. It’s one I love to try to go replay, but I can’t stand a number of areas in the game that feel like you get an encounter every 5 steps.

  5. Premium User Badge

    X_kot says:

    For VNs, if you have a Vita (or if it ever gets ported), I would recommend Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, which is an “escape the room” puzzle game with a metaphysical bent. As a plus: not set in a school.

    For JRPGs, my favorite publisher is Atlus, and the series with the easiest point of entry is probably Persona. The third and fourth entries are the “modern” ones that really took off outside of Japan. They deal with themes like identity, alienation, responsibility, and love in a high school setting. Plus, they incorporate mythological beings from around the world as entities that help you in battle. There was a really neat article by Leigh Alexander and Iron Quinns where they talk about the significance of Persona 4; it was published by Polygon, but it’s a good read.

    • GameCat says:

      Persona 3 (PSP version) is one of the best games I’ve ever played.
      And it have (along with P4) the best soundtrack ever created.

      • PFlute says:

        I’m crazy about the Persona games, personally, but my word of warning to Adam is that it IS still teenagers and anime stylings. It has fun relationships and writing, I think, and doesn’t fall into the blackhole of soulless adherence to genre convention like most modern J-games (and anime, I suppose) do. But if you’re looking to avoid those aforementioned anime teens, probably not the place to look.

    • Ksempac says:

      Virtue’s Last Reward is awesome, and it’s also available on the 3DS (that’s where i played it). I highly recommend it.

      Note, Virtue’s Last Reward is the 2nd game in a trilogy. Last game is supposed to come out this year, and the first one is on the DS. I liked the first one well enough, but it has a lot of flaws. You can play Virtue’s Last Reward without playing that first game, though the stories are linked. So it’s up to you whether you want to spend 10-15h on a flawed game before diving into the awesome 2nd game.

    • KingFunk says:

      Seconding Virtue’s Last Reward as an excellent visual novel with decent puzzles and a truly subversive approach to narrative in games and some cool twists. Characterisation is reasonably superficial but likeable. Also definitely play with the Japanese VO (I recall there is a choice).

      Also seconding Persona 4 Golden. This is one of my favourite games of all time. They may be school teens and it may feel a bit dating simulator at times, but I honestly feel the characters are the best written in any game I’ve played. I think I might be in love with Chie Satonaka! I liked P4G so much I bought and completed P3P and downloaded the P4 soundtrack. Then Persona 4: Dancing All Night came out and despite never having played rhythm games before, I bought it and loved it and got the soundtrack too!

      Another Atlus game very much worth checking out is Catharine. It’s half adult dating simulator and half mental block puzzler and the production values are classic Atlus. You won’t have played anything quite like it before…

    • LegitChamp says:

      If someone mentions Atlus then I must mention Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen.

      That is all.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Oakreef says:

    I liked Long Live the Queen thought it’s basically my sum total of experience with visual novels.

    • Mags says:

      Long Live the Queen does have more choice and variation than most VNs, though. For comparison, I recently “played” through ‘fault – milestone one’, and I had a grand total of 1 choice to make. I did enjoy it though – the central mystery and characters surrounding it rather sucked me in (even if it did slightly relegate both nominal protagonists and antagonists to bit parts in the process).

  7. Premium User Badge

    Qazinsky says:

    Maybe you need to ease yourself into the genre a bit more, maybe by playing something like Secret of Mana/Evermore, they’re almost like the bastard children of Legend of Zelda and the JRPG genre.

  8. Premium User Badge

    bsplines says:

    Well, the majority of JRPGs, even the best ones, are essentially the equivalent of young adult novels and almost none of them escape the tropes you mentioned. Definitely none of the older and most major series (Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Falcom stuff in general). Though if you want to try again, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI and VII are the games most others try to emulate.

    Your best bet are spinoffs or one-off titles and out of these your best bets are Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together (ignoring its stupid subtitle). both focus on kingdoms at war where your protagonist is only one of the factors at play and the consequences of said war. That allows them to have significantly more mature themes than most other titles in the genre.
    Earthbound is also a unique take on the JRPG, though it is about the hero’s journey.

    Other titles which may be more interesting:

    Persona 3 and 4: X_kot has said it quite well already and I ‘ll second his/hers recommendation although with the caveat that they don’t avoid all the formulaic JRPG stuff. They steer clear of the worst of it though.

    Valkyrie Profile: The first game and the third (Covenant of the Plume)also avoid most of the usual JRPG stuff and focus instead on death and its meaning. Never played the second game though.

    Xenogears and Chrono Cross: I am lumping them together because even though they have more convoluted stories and complex themes, I think a lot of the appeal comes from the subversion of the JRPG tropes and would be less interesting for someone who is not already familiar with JRPGs. Both of them are also rushed products with lots of cut content (Xenogears) or an extremely convoluted plot (Chrono Cross).

    Regarding visual novels, the Zero Escape series (999: 9 Persons 9 Hours 9 Doors and Zero Escape: virtue Last Reward) marry the visual novel with adventure game sequences (well, escape the room really) and would be a good place to start.
    Regarding actual VNs, Ever17: Out of Infinity is one that I found interesting, although, as with most VNs it could use an editor.
    Song of Saya also seems to break the VN mold, but this is second-hand knowledge, as I have not tried it.

    Funny thing is, apart from the two VNs at the very end, none of them is on PC (legally).

    • Premium User Badge

      bsplines says:

      And, as if that wall of text was not enough, just wanted to mention that The World Ends with You also breaks the JRPG tropes (though mostly for its world, aesthetic and battle system rather than its plot)

    • Shazbut says:

      Song of Saya is really good but also kind of hideous.

      • GHudston says:

        Song of Saya is the best game that I would never recommend to anyone.

  9. Premium User Badge

    Risingson says:

    *opens double doors*

    Hello general audience! Please comment!

  10. llamadave says:

    I am largely in agreement with you but I wouldn’t dismiss Christine Love’s visual novels. Analogue: A Hate Story uses a sci-fi setting to examine the patriarchy in feudal Korea and is one of the most evocative and thoughtful games I’ve played.

    • Kala says:

      ‘Don’t take it personally babe, it’s just not your story’ is also good!

      • phlebas says:

        Yes – that’s the most VN-like of her games, too. The others seem (to me) more like adventures that happen to use an engine designed for VNs – there’s a lot more freedom for the player, or at least it feels as though there is.

  11. NegativeZero says:

    Corpse Party PC is a weird little thing because it’s an indie remake of an even older PC-98 game. The PSP/3DS versions are a professionally-made remake of that PC version done by 5pb with professional actors, improved art and a lot of changes to various parts of the story etc. I’m still baffled why XSeed bothered to do the PC version.

    The lineup of JRPGs on Steam is pretty dire still. Trails in the Sky are basically the only good ones in there aside from some ports of ‘retro’ games (Older Final Fantasies, Grandia II, Tales of Symphonia) unless you expand the definition to encompass action RPGs like Ys or Dark Souls or strategy RPGs like Valkyria Chronicles or Disgaea. There is, however, a massive raft of niche and mediocre JRPGs. You’re going to end up having to go back 5-10 years anyway, since hardly any JRPGs being made now are particularly good.

    The same kind of goes for Visual Novels. There’s been a flood of them recently but very few (eg Danganronpa, Higurashi, Planetarian) are really worth your time.

  12. GameCat says:

    Corpse Party is poor game for me. I can’t say much about PC version, but PSP one starts with ~30 minutes long intro… Urgh.
    After that there’s some horror cliches and annoying gameovers.

  13. daphne says:

    Let’s call a spade a spade. You will never enjoy JRPGs if you constantly find yourself constantly evaluating how much of a generic hero’s journey they all are. That’s the point. So long as you don’t willingly submit to the inherently optimistic imaginations that have driven their creation — and this is something very obvious in, say, a Final Fantasy game — you’ll not see what makes them enjoyable.

    To be less prolix, you are far too old to get into JRPGs, and you’re not driven by anything but idle boredom. It’s too late for you and especially one so analytical as you.

    Do you subject something like, say, LOTR or The Wheel of Time to the same kind of scrutiny?

    • Premium User Badge

      magogjack says:

      Yeah it sounds like he just will not enjoy them. They are def no for everyone.

      • Fnord73 says:

        Mmmm, I first got into JRPGs when I got a console at the age of 35, since that was when I got unemployed. That was through Final Fantasy 12 and Dragon Quest 8 wich involved actual movement with the controller. Hunting beasts over your level in FF12 was brill, hiding from the mobs.

  14. lupinewolf says:

    Dude, play “To the moon”. You’ll never forget that one.

  15. ramirezfm says:

    Visual novels are boring as f. You can try Steins;Gate, but probably to no avail. Supposedly the Dangaronpa series is amazing, but it definitely put me to sleep more than once.

    As for jRPGs I would say your best bet is to try Chrono Trigger and/or Cross, some of the FFs (most of them put me to sleep too, but some are good), Persona 3/4.

  16. Eight Rooks says:

    Oh dear God it’s my worst fears about the internet confirmed. Seriously, just… someone says they’re not getting on with JRPGs, and you recommend them Xenogears? The poster child for hilariously clumsy Asian interpretations of the Judeo-Christian mythos liberally sprinkled with anime bullshit, even more so than Evangelion? And no, no Final Fantasy bar XII, Tactics and TA2 rises above generic YA novel (not to knock YA novels; good YA novels can be truly excellent. FF generally isn’t). Even those three are far from perfect (though their storytelling is, on the whole, far above the majority of the genre).

    Other sacred cows: I just finished Persona 3 quite recently, actually! …and I pronounce it mediocre at best: generic dungeon-crawling that never changes in any significant way from start to finish wrapped up in generic soap-opera melodrama with flavourless writing to match. Tales of Symphonia is straight down the line mediocrity, Adam, you’re not missing anything. The combat is decent comfort food and the story has the odd bit of flair here and there but for the most part it’s cliches through and through. The sequel isn’t great – it’s a shockingly lazy game taken as a sequel, to be honest – but the new characters it introduces are far, far better than anything in the original, despite all the fans’ whining back when it was released.

    Mind you, for all I don’t like the majority of JRPGs I do still think the template – even the old-school turn-based line-dancing template – can still produce excellent results. If you dismiss positivity and the Hero’s Journey out of hand, then, well, that’s your problem, I guess? I don’t agree there’s nothing worthwhile to be had from that particular well. Something like Suikoden: Tierkreis is about as traditional as it gets in many respects, but it’s beautiful, sharply written, manages to make something surprisingly compelling out of fairly cliched material and throws in a number of little touches to let you speed through any grind that’s required of you. I wouldn’t rate it as a masterpiece or anything, but it’s still a genuinely great game in my book (again, far better than II, despite how people hold that tedious slog up as unimpeachable) and one I very much enjoyed playing to completion.

    That said, Vagrant Story, or the Tactics Ogre remake, and FFXII to some extent are all much more ambitious. Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter is darker and more unsettling, IMO, for all its cel-shaded whimsy. There are some real gems out there, hidden behind the over-rated “classics” half the internet will try and foist on you. It’s just they’re not on PC – I mean, I could easily argue that there are no good JRPGs currently released for PC, or at the very least none that you could tempt someone with when they find the genre doesn’t agree with them (and I say that as someone who really likes Falcom games, though I’m yet to play Legend of Heroes).

    • Premium User Badge

      hemmer says:

      This mostly, do not play Xenogears, Xenogears is not something you recommend to people trying to get into the genre. o_O
      It’s a curiosity you maybe experiment with when you’re already into the genre but that’s about it.
      But I would equally never recommend BoF:DQ to anyone…although people might take to it more in these times of Dark Souls and roguelikes.

      For some more off the cuff but easier to get into recommendations see my post below.

      On the quality of the writing I have to disagree somewhat, FF12 was more mature, that much is certain, at least the characters behaved more believably, but the story itself was incredibly mediocre.

      As for the Persona games…no idea I just started P4 a while ago and it’s quite alright so far, very paranomral mystery anime. Haven’t gotten far enough to judge it properly but I like what I’ve seen.

      • Crabtipus says:

        Dragon Quarter is my favorite game in the series. It had a really nifty NG+ system and you had to play through a couple of times to really get the whole story. I get that people wish it wasn’t called a Breath of Fire game, but honestly depending on how generous you are, at least half the games in the series are the definition of generic JRPG.

      • Ashabel says:

        Considering that Adam’s big problem with JRPGs is that none of the more popular representatives of the genre caught his attention, Dragon Quarter is very recommendable by the value of being nothing like other JRPGs. It’s a dungeon crawl with combat that is a harder and more tactical Fallout, and story that is Snowpiercer but smarter and better.

        About the only thing to work against it is that it’s hard as nails. Fanboys like to cry about how it’s a bad game because it’s nothing like the other BoF games, but really it’s because they couldn’t make it past the mech at the entrance to the very first dungeon.

      • Premium User Badge

        hemmer says:

        I didn’t mean to badmouth Dragon Quarter (and I hope I didn’t) but it’s just balls-hard and can be very frustrating unless you REALLY want to get into it, which doesn’t make it the best candidate for starting a journey into JRPGs in my book.

        But nowadays lots of people are obviously into more punishing gameplay, so who knows.

    • Ashabel says:

      Rather than complain about its story, it’s worth bringing up that Xenogears is literally unfinished. Its development budget was chopped down to zero about halfway through development in order to feed the that gargantuan serpent of hubris called Final Fantasy: Spirits Within, leading the developers to hastily throw together the very core scenes of the plot and release it that way. Pretty much the entire second disc involves walking from cutscene to cutscene because none of its other contents were finished.

      It’s a great game to recommend for educational purposes to someone who is already heavily into JRPGs and wants to know more about the genre’s history, but otherwise? It’s like recommending The Magic Circle to someone who asked for a good open world RPG, with the caveat that at least The Magic Circle did being hilariously unfinished intentionally.

      • LegitChamp says:

        If he makes it to the 2nd disc then there is a good chance he will have actually enjoyed the game up to that point. Even if the 2nd disc is disappointing, it will have at least been a successful attempt at the genre.

      • Premium User Badge

        timzania says:

        This is something which, although true, is less bad than it sounds, because the first disk is already too long.

    • Kala says:

      I suspect my fondness for the genre is tinged heavily with nostalgia (I loved them as soon as I found them as a child) and quite context bound – E.g the first time you encounter something new it’s exciting; encountering the same thing in 2016, probably not so much.

      While I can think of a plethora of JRPGs I’ve loved over the years, I can’t think of quite so many I’d happily replay *now* (other than for nostalgia reasons).

      (Ones I’ve tried to get into on Steam – Chantelise, Fortune Summoners, Ys series – haven’t really grabbed me either).

      With regards to being context bound; I mean, someone mentioned To The Moon, and I might mention Recettear, but it’d be helpful to appreciate just what they’re doing differently. It’s more sort of nods to the genre, than being typical examples of.

      My personal recommendation would be FF7 – given there’s a decent port available on Steam, it bridges the gap between traditional and modern fairly well (ok, it’s obviously very dated looking now) and is generally acclaimed… but… again, I think one of the reasons people were blown away by 7 was because of all the new ground it was treading. (I’d still rate it highly, but that ground is well trod now – er, well, in some respects. There probably aren’t too many games that start off from the perspective of an eco-terrorist group).

      You’ve had some context/grounding in playing an earlier FF, even if you didn’t like it ;p

      • Kala says:

        Bugger, that was meant to be a more general reply to the article ;.;

    • LegitChamp says:

      In a genre filled with the exact same teenage-boy-becomes-a-hero story line, Xenogears is one of the few to stand out as different. While most explore just how complicated it can be to have a crush on two different teenage girls at once, while saving the world, Xenogears explores somewhat deeper themes involving religion and power and whatever you would describe Fei’s issues are.

      It’s not a perfect game by any means. But for someone complaining about traditional JRPG storylines being too YA, it is not a bad idea to suggest something a bit different. I don’t think anyone is expecting a video game to be have some incredible philosophical insights.

      For what it is worth, Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together are also fantastic, although tactical rpgs and probably not great representations of the genre. FF12 he should avoid with its mediocre and unmemorable plot and its typical teenage-boy-becomes-a-hero focus.

  17. Shazbut says:

    If you really dislike the spirit and feel of them, which is very Japanese, then you’ll never really dig visual novels. But some, like Ever 17, set up stories with extraordinary resolutions that could only be done in the format of a visual novel.

    They’re like choose your own adventure books, except they know what you’ve read before (what endings you’ve got) and the best visual novels quite often capitalize on that heavily.

    You often have to like themes of heroism, romance, magical realism, and appreciation of nature and the everyday. Some people are much more drawn to Western culture’s general preference for psychological complexity, naturalism, anti-heroism, et al.

    • Shazbut says:

      And just because – the best visual novel ever (imho) is Yuno: The Girl That Chants Love At The Edge Of The World.

      I mean it is literally a masterpiece, and very much a game and not a book. There is a remake currently in the works

      • Deano2099 says:

        I felt that way for a good 20 hours and then the second half came with the incest and other fun and I realised I could never recommend it to anyone again ever.

        • Shazbut says:

          Well, yes. I think we should call this the Visual Novel Problem (VNP).

  18. Premium User Badge

    hemmer says:

    So you’ve listed some of the JRPGs you tried…and…there’s not a lot of variety in there, I’m not shocked it didn’t grip you much.

    As someone else mentioned it can be a very conservative genre (like..most genres I guess?) but there’s outliers in pretty much every direction, it’s just a question of what you’re looking for.

    Shadow Hearts 1+2 are still my favourites for example, which have a alternate history setting, demons and stuff in the time before WW1 in Asia and Europe with some horror mixed in.

    The Wild Arms series is also great, providing a Wild West feel plus fantasy with some shamanism and puzzle mechanics involving switching characters to use their different abilities. Fantastic music too.

    Some have also mentioned the Persona games, which are very much not purebred JRPGs, they have a lot of VN/mystery stuff in them, which is great if that’s what you like (personally I loved some of them, couldn’t stand others)

    Then there’s Star Ocean which has great science fictiony exploration stuff though I have only played 4 and 5 I think? Also a series of non-related or barely-related sequels like the FFs.

    Just to give you some ideas concerning some not so common suggestions to maybe look over, almost nothing that runs on PC though.

    The (first two) Grandia games are worth a mention too, they are quite standard fantasy fare in some ways, but everything about them conveys a sense of exploration and wonder and the combat system is quite nice.

    Also as someone relatively new to the Tales series myself, I feel that Tales of Symphonia is not a good starting point, it bored me to no end after Graces F (the remastered ps3 version of the normal Tales of Graces) got me very exicited about the idea of this huge franchise of potentially great JRPGS due to its awesome combat system and amusingly japanese story and humor (quote: You have to look for the butt! It’s the only way!)

  19. TheAngriestHobo says:

    JRPGs rarely work for me, and when they do, they never seem to measure up to Western competitors, due to their heavy reliance on established systems, their repetitive nature, their catering to cultural tastes I don’t share (I swear, enough with the shirtless 12-year-old boys already) and so on.

    That said, I’d echo the recommendations above for Chrono Trigger. It’s kind of the Ultima 7 of JRPGs – wildly innovative for its time, a cult classic, and refreshingly non-linear (for the genre). 15-20 years later, it still stands out from the crowd.

  20. Synesthesia says:

    Final Fantasy Tactics is the obvious reccomendation, as a more “mature” jrpg storyline (right until it falls back to clicheville), but still very worth it.

    Also, The World ends With You. Very teenagey, very, very good.

    And of course, If you can get through some pretty dated pacing, FF7. It’s an ecological story, and I love it to pieces. Even the most cringey japanese bits.

    (I tried to love persona, and quite enjoyed the dailies and story, but the dungeons just ate my soul away. Fuck grinding. Just fuck it.)

    • wraithgr says:

      Persona games on easy require pretty much zero grind. Unless you want to finish all the quests (seriously f*** that 4.5% drop rate crap), grind can be set to nil.

  21. Crabtipus says:

    I have a really hard time getting in to the kinectic subgenre of visual novels, the stuff like Higurashi and Umineko. There’s zero interaction at all, and at that point I’d rather be reading it as a manga or watching it as an anime (as long as they don’t fuck it up like the Umineko anime). On the other hand, I love visual novels like the Ace Attorney series and the Hotel Dusk games.

  22. ashjxx says:

    And I agree with an above commenter, try out Christine Love’s stuff. She’s really great. Start with Analogue. Another good VN is Hatoful Boyfriend. Funny and varied.

    And Chrono Trigger is great. Definitely seems like the best recommendation for someone who doesn’t play JRPG’s.

    It’s been a decade or so since I’ve played them, but the first two Golden Suns stand out in my memory as great. But man…I was a teenager then. No idea if they hold up. You could also play Pokemon! There are a lot of frustrations, but still well worth it, I think.

  23. malkav11 says:

    I suspect it’s quite possible you’ll just never get on with JRPGs or visual novels, but it’s also true that Steam isn’t a great source of them yet. I’d maybe recommend Nier as the only JRPG of the 360/PS3 console generation that I finished (or really, even got very far in) and enjoyed tremendously on a very emotional level. It’s not particularly representative of the genre, but then, that might be a selling point. Everything else I can recall finishing and really getting into dates back to the PS2 era or earlier. I don’t really have the time or the willpower to deep dive those things anymore.

    Visual novel-wise, until quite recently nobody bothered to translate visual novels that weren’t porn (with a few exceptions), so many of the best aren’t available in English either at all or only unofficially. Many of them still have some pornographic content, also, because I guess it was expected, which would keep them off Steam in fully intact form even if the translation companies wanted to use Steam (and they don’t all, seems like). I second the recommendations of Virtue’s Last Reward and to a lesser extent its DS predecessor 999. I also quite like Chaos;Head (not officially available, fan translation was taken down when the translation team got hired by Jast USA to do official Nitroplus translations and last I saw no sign of an official Chaos;Head release ever) and Fate//stay night (not officially available, LOOOONG). I’ve heard good things about YU-NO, Muv Luv Alternative, Higurashi, Umineko and Steins;Gate (the latter three officially available though only Higurashi has any Steam presence).

  24. Nevik says:

    Just like everybody else I’d recommend Virtues last reward and its predecessor Nine hours nine persons nine doors if you really want to get into some good vn which are even good for vn novices.

    Furthermore, if you like Virtues last reward, a ,recently to the pc ported, vn might pique your interest. Root Double has been released two weeks ago on Steam. It has the same vibe and if I read it correctly the director of Root Double worked together with the writer of VLR.
    It’s been awhile that a Vn fascinate me as much as Root Double did. Approximately 60 hours on reading if you really read everything (obviously nothing for people who don’t like reading at all)

  25. Chillicothe says:

    Give Trails a good go this time.

    The subtlety in that series continues to work both to and against it, I guess.

  26. Lyndon says:

    Mother 3 is an excellent game, and I reckon it’s basically a must play. Sweet, and funny, with a little bit of cynicism and a fun rhythm action combat system. It’s more Miyazaki than Final Fantasy in tone. You might need to embrace your inner child a little but it’s utterly charming.

    Plus the soundtrack slays.

    • bonuswavepilot says:

      Yes! Mother 2 is also quite very good. Weird concepts and enemies, great soundtrack, occasional narrative whiplash when the mostly light-hearted story suddenly throws something darker at you…

  27. MikoSquiz says:

    I’m not much of a JRPG fan (more of a hater), but I love the Final Fantasy Tacticses (which play more like XCOM than Final Fantasy) and The World Ends With You (which plays like nothing else on earth). Neither are on PC, though.

  28. Hawke says:

    Tales of Zestiria for JRPG (technically, it’s an action party-RPG with young adult focused story) and Long Live The Queen for VN. It’s the best VN on Steam I’ve played so far (going to try Analogue: A Hate Story later).

  29. a very affectionate parrot says:

    Playing multiple games in these genres at the same time is an awful decision, especially considering that 90% of JRPGs tend to pick up in the second act and visual novels tend to be extremely long and complicated and require your attention and memory.
    Also most of the JRPGs ported to PC recently have been fairly overrated and generic, there’s a whole wild world on the PSX and PS2 if you’re willing to fiddle with emulators.
    Drakengard is the definition of ‘not for everyone’ (or maybe ‘literally for no one’) but it’s a fantastic game. It’s the Pathologic of JRPGs.

    • Ashabel says:

      Drakengard is not a JRPG.

      • malkav11 says:

        Or a good game, mechanically speaking.

        • Ralphomon says:

          If you want to expose yourself to Drakengard, it’s probably worth reading The Dark Id’s Let’s PLays of it (and its two sequels and pseudo-sequel, Nier, although that one is actually worth playing) on the LP Archive. He 100% completes all of them without you having to suffer through the terrible gameplay.

  30. Haplo says:

    Adam, did you want suggestions purely for VNs/JRPGs available on PC, or are suggestions for games on console okay?

  31. Sly-Lupin says:

    I’m really sick to death of people who take an antagonistic approach to a genre, and then ask for recommendations.

    It’s pretty asinine.

    It’s also pretty damn unprofessional from someone in the games media. If you want to get introduced to a genre, there’s a whole Internet out there for you.

  32. PFlute says:

    Hoy! Looked up my old account just to leave this comment.

    I cut my teeth coming up as a gamer on JRPGs, but sort of got away from them with time, so I feel you just a little on the outsider angle.

    I’d also recommend a go at Final Fantasy Tactics: The story is, for a good while, more about politics and relationships than saving the world. If you can stand excessive use of Ye Olde English, I’d highly recommend sticking to the newest translation as you can actually tell what’s going on. I can’t vouch for how readable the original one might be anymore.
    (Newer versions of the game feature this improved translation, but the mobile ports are pretty rubbish. There is a fan patch to bring the new translation back to the original version, or so I hear.)

    Alternatively, Earthbound is highly…different. It’s a sadly sweet roadtrip games that eschews traditional RPG settings for zany modern day hijinks, but there’s something far more sincere and heartfelt than most games under that veneer of comedy. It’s light on exposition and the combat creaks here and there, but I don’t think there’s an RPG, or a JRPG at least, that I’d call more experiential than Earthbound. It’s about the journey and all the little things along the way, with concerts and coffee breaks and regular calls home to mom.

    The sequel, Mother 3, has a more traditional narrative and snappier combat, but it’s still got that roadtrip heart and soul, too.

    • frobishlumpkin says:

      Yes, I forgot Earthbound on my list, that might be *the* game to sell skeptics.

  33. Kilometrik says:

    Good jRPGs are, tu put it bluntly, simply not available on PC. Give up, the ones on PC suck. That’s it.

  34. fuggles says:

    If you have no problems getting hands on a wii, or are happy to use the Dolphin Emulator (I understand anyway) then you should play Xenoblade Chronicles.

    It’s a JRPG and I immediately concede that fundamentally its about a group of kids on a heroes journey (which RPG isn’t a heroes journey though) but the story is nuts and the gameplay systems make it easily one of the best designed games I’ve ever played.

    For exmaple, the combat is auto-attack mixed with cooldowns, but you can link attacks depending on how much the team like each other. You have up to 3 active party members and you build affinity by reviving each other or buying them gifts, which then in turn leads you to be able to access affinity conversations at different parts of the map. These build up back story and also make you better at chaining attacks.

    Also very cool is the central plot device is a sword that can see into the future (why not) which comes up in combat as a quick cutscene showing a future move which is likely to kill or badly hurt one of your party – it’s then up to you to disrupt the future by stunning or something to stop it happening.

    The whole gamespace is set on the back of two giant robots which fell dormant mid-combat and the voice actors are largely cockney, which is surreal and brilliant. The story goes in very unexpected places and was very surprising. The areas are open and quite large and full of monsters, some passive, some angry and the game has awesome music when you are being hunted by something you cannot kill (there is some mean level gating going on, you just plain can’t hit higher level enemies unless you equip gear to compensate).

    I spent about 100 hours on it, pretty much 100% the game, which you completely don’t need to do. There’s an encylopedia for collecting wildlife in each area and some of the drop rates for the bugs I think was <1% and it took forever and was pointless.
    You don't really need to grind that much, I finished massively over levelled, so play it through for fun and it would be a relatively shorter game. There's crafting, customisable weapons, changeable appearance, day/night – all sorts. I could chat about Xenoblade forever, it's just a really fun game.

    Short of that, Grandia 2 on Steam was heaps of fun, but very traditional in very linear dungeons, etc.

  35. frobishlumpkin says:

    Don’t feel bad about the JRPG reaction. I’d agree that the vast majority are comparable to young adult fiction. Not sure what your consoles are but, a few that I’d say genuinely bucked that trend for me are:

    Persona 4 (the modern day, not-world-savey, highly psychological plot go a long way against tropes), PS2 and Vita

    Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics–I prefer the former, I think more people have played the latter. Same director, very similar games, basically plots center on political intrigue instead of world-savey shit. Both are on the PSN store. On that note if you have a Wii or Wii U HOLY SHIT PLAY OGRE BATTLE 64.

    I’d highly recommend most of the Paper Mario or Mario and Luigi RPGs. Paper Mario 64 and thr Thousand Year Door are both excellent. The plot is Mario. Charming and whatnot.

    Chrono Trigger, definitely about world saving teens but it’s the Harry Potter or whatever of that genre, available on everything

    This is kind of a wild card but maybe you’d dig Baten Kaitos if you have a gamecube lying around? Honestly that game has a fairly cerebral plot twist that will totally fuck with you

    …also undertale is a JRPG

    • TheLetterM says:

      Oh man, thanks for shouting out BK so I don’t have to. It has some of the most atrocious character designs this side of Kingdom Hearts, but it has one of the most unique and clever battle systems I’ve seen.

      While the plots mostly standard Hero’s Journey, as frobishlumpkin says it does make one major divergence about 2/3rds of the way in. When I got to that point, I put the controller down and spent a minute just appreciating the cleverness of it instead of charging ahead.

  36. CdrJameson says:

    I enjoyed Front Mission 3 (Turn-based Mecha-fighting, with chats between). It’s not a typical JPRG though, nor even a typical Front Mission game.

    I’ve also just found out is has two very separate stories, so I might be playing it again.

    Oh, it’s Playstation 2.

  37. apocraphyn says:

    Adam – you raved about Undertale. That’s a JRPG through and through in terms of design, even if its creator wasn’t Japanese. If you want more of the same, there’s its major inspiration, Earthbound (keep at it!) and the LISA games as the most obvious things that come to mind.

    I’ve been a fan of JRPGs ever since I was a wee child and I can be quite forgiving of the tropes that are prevalent within the genre, even if the millionth child protagonist in a JRPG does get a bit tiresome, but considering your tastes for CRPGs mirror my own, I can confidently tell you that Yasumi Matsuno’s “Ivalice” titles – Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy Tactics and (to a lesser extent) Final Fantasy XII – would be up your alley. Further echoing the voices from above (and comments I’ve made on other articles), Tactics Ogre – also made by Matsuno – is brilliant. Complex plots featuring plenty of political intrigue, tactical combat (turn-based grid combat for TO/FFT, Fallout-style limb targeting ‘rhythmical’ combat in VS, MMO hotbar combat in FFXII), some brilliant characters – with most of the characters in their casts being older than 20 – and many more reasons besides.

    The only real problem is that the Ivalice titles aren’t on PC outside of emulation, as far as I’m aware. Most were available on PSP and should also be available on the Vita as a result, but there have been heavily substantiated rumours of an FFXII remaster doing the rounds – if that follows the standard of late, that’ll likely end up on PC, at least.

    • ROMhack2 says:

      I’d say Undertale feels about as Japanese as Metal Gear Solid does American. They’re both a cultural mismatch created by people who experienced a lot of products of a completely different culture than their own growing up and they totally feel that way.

      Although, maybe that’s as good an argument as any why the term JRPG can be a tad superfluous.

      • frobishlumpkin says:

      • frobishlumpkin says:

        I totally agree with that assessment of Undertale and Metal Gear, both are fairly close to their source material mechanically but totally off-the-mark tonally (which is probably by design). I found this video really helpful for trying to get at what makes an RPG a JRPG, though for people familiar with the genres it might be simplistic.

  38. MLu says:

    Try The Bottom of the Well to experience a whole bunch of ways to die in a nuclear war. It’s on steam.

  39. LegitChamp says:

    I created an account just to suggest Xenogears if you want to get a feel for the JRPG genre. Others have suggested it as well. The story is interesting and touches on some mature (and not just sexy mature) subjects. The combat system is fairly interesting for a JRPG. It may not be the best of the genre (which is always hotly debated) but it certainly is one of the best. I think if you can’t get interested in Xenogears then the entire genre likely isn’t for you.

    Chrono Trigger is also quite good, but somewhat dated now. FF4 I would put in the same category of good, but dated.

    And anyone who likes tactical RPGs (combat similar to XCOM) and hasn’t played Final Fantasy Tactics is missing out horribly. However, I don’t consider this a JRPG. Or, at least, not a good representation of the genre.

    I have no experience with Visual Novels. I tend to think anyone who say walking simulators are “not a proper game” would likely have the same opinion on visual novels. Personally, I have no interest in either, but good for whoever does with either.

  40. bill says:

    I have only ever found one JRPG that I didn’t hate, and that was Chrono Trigger.
    That might be because it was my first one, but I think it was because it was actually pretty good.
    Final Fantasy Tactics seems like the only other one that might appeal, but I haven’t tried it.

    I have a feeling that JRPGs are like Anime… the first 1 or 2 are often cool because it’s something new and seems original, but then you realise how tropey it is, and how dodgy some of those tropes are, and what was at first quirky and new becomes creepy and old hat.
    Or, you get hooked and become a massive JRPG/Anime fan.
    People seem to go two ways, but for me it was the former.

  41. ROMhack2 says:

    As somebody who’s just taken a break from reading to read this post, I completely share your concerns about RPGs tending to err on the side of dodgy writing and teenage hero tropes. I know it’s unfair to compare games to literature, but it’s inevitably going to happen, especially when a large proportion of it is text/speech based.

    Over the years, I’ve sort of just concluded people try to look past the glaring defects of them because the enjoyment of a long game is being able to get lost in a different world. It’s a bit like the experience of maximalism in literature, only, you know, not quite as cool.

    Still, I’d definitely recommend Earthbound, Mother 3, Vagrant Story and Chrono Trigger. I don’t think the writing is great but they have a timeless essence to them.

    Maybe Eternal Sonata – I enjoyed the concept of that a lot, even if the rest of it was paint by numbers stuff.

    Also, I see a lot of peeps recommending Persona 3/4 but the jury’s out on that for me. Great game for a teenager but much less so for an adult (assuming Adam is one of those).

    I can’t comment on visual novels.

    • ROMhack2 says:

      Although, I would stress that Earthbound/Mother 3 are made a lot more enjoyable when playing on an emulator where you can speed up the game to get through the inevitable grindy parts and when death has less consequence given the seemingly random nature that combat sometimes has.

      Otherwise, they can be kind of laborious.

  42. Gnome Illusionist says:

    I really enjoyed Umineko visual novels. It’s not a video game and it’s not pretending to be. Just a good book with music. (One can argue that it’s a game in the sense of puzzle where reader is supposed to figure out what is actually going on since even by the final not everything is spelled out.)

  43. santouryuu says:

    although i doubt that my recommendations are specifically for people who for some reason hate every trope,detail and setting of an entire genre(s),but i’ll just give some recs for visual novels.
    i haven’t played many VN’s,but i did play saya no uta,and i really liked it.saya no uta is how i want horror stuff to be:dark,mysterious and highly unsettling,a slow and methodical descent into madness.it’s got really great music which really fits in with the atmosphere.it’s not too long,and overall was very good imo.mind you,there are 18+ scenes which you will probably hate,but i just don’t know why people are okay with sex scenes in something like witcher but heaven forbid something similar is in a VN’s.
    anyway,the supposed fan-service scene are used to tell us more about the relationship between the characters,and also are indicative of the rapidly detoriating mental states of the characters.
    i have also heard good things about planetarian,and heard it is quite lovely.
    so tl;dr saya no uta is a pretty impressive horror VN,but avoid it if you are easily offended by people younger than geralt having sex in games,or other horrory things.
    planetarian is supposed to be a pretty good,lovely and short sci-fi VN,but i have yet to try it

  44. Ragnar says:

    JRPGs are mostly comfort food. I play them for the same reason I play ARPGs: the basic reward loop of killing monsters, getting loot and XP, leveling up, getting stronger. The combat can be really fun, like in Bravely Default or FF XIII, but I’m not expecting too much from the story outside of it hopefully being interesting.

    Chrono Trigger would probably be the standout JRPG in terms of story and gameplay.

    Though if you’re willing to branch out into SRPGs, things get a lot more interesting. Final Fantasy Tactics (particularly The War of the Lions version) has great and addictive combat, with tons of customization with the job system, and a pretty good story. Fire Emblem games all have fantastic strategy combat. I also loved Valkyria Chronicles and Disgaea.

    Visual Novels, on the other hand, usually suffer from a lack of editing. They’re often overly verbose and garrulous, having tons of text and dialog that doesn’t really serve a purpose. I think that’s why you may prefer novels, as editors pair those down to the essentials, making them far more focused and concise. A fondness for Anime or Manga also helps with liking VNs.

    Christine Love’s VNs are really good, and have been covered here before. The Zero Escape series (999, Virtue’s Last Reward, Zero Time Dilemma) is also pretty good – it still suffers from being overly verbose, but at least it’s interesting and unpredictable, and I enjoyed the room escape puzzles that went with it.

  45. Waltorious says:

    Adam, regarding JRPGs: If your main issue with them is the storytelling (an issue I understand and sympathize with), then none of the “classic” JRPGs are going to appeal much. Of those I’ve played, Chrono Trigger is the best, but it’s still not that great in the story department.

    Instead, I’d recommend looking to indies. I’ve said it before, but the freeware Master of the Wind has my favorite writing for a JRPG (note: the game is not actually Japanese). It’s great and keeps getting better as you progress (it was originally released episodically). It also does a good job of giving different adventuring locations their own feel through puzzle design inspired by the Zelda series, so it feels less grindy than other JRPGs, even if it does still feature random battles. Plus, it’s about superheroes, who don masks at night and fight crime. And one of them is a skeleton! It’s basically made for you.

    You can get it for free from developers Solest Games.

  46. devlocke says:

    No one seems to have mentioned Shadow Hearts. As far as I know it was/is a PS2 exclusive, so if you demand PC, that’s not going to work, unless there are now decent PS2 emulators available? But it’s great, has an interesting meta-system for not only combat but pretty much everything else you do in the game, and has a nicely dark plot with better-than-average-for-JRPG character development. It’s still probably everything everyone complains about in JRPGs but it’s also so well-executed and quirky that you don’t really mind.

    I think. I don’t really mind JRPGs anyways. Another one that no one has mentioned is Steambot Chronicles. I learned of it through an article on GameSetWatch, and it was everything promised. I think the article was actually written by the same Quintin that used to be here. This is the article.