The Top 10 JRPG Stories
Let's dispense with a well-worn stereotype right away: Yes, many Japanese RPGs feature cliche plots and story tropes. There are others though, that feature memorable characters, play with our assumptions, and ultimately tell darn good stories. Below are 10 JRPGs with stories well worth experiencing.
This nod specifically goes to the Vita port, which adds in two very interesting social links and a terrific epilogue. The story follows a handful of high school students in Japan as they chase a mysterious killer, confronting their worst fears along the way. Persona 4 is typically lauded for its memorable characters; and it features a well-constructed mystery with a surprising conclusion. The secret to its success though is the day-to-day -- the part-time jobs, tests, and dates that slowly weave together a story of their own. When the year is finished and it's time to put Persona 4 Golden down, they're what you'll miss most.
Your mileage will vary on whether Earthbound or Mother 3 has the better story. Both are pretty great though, so it's not even really a point worth arguing. Much like Dragon Quest V, Earthbound shows that it's possible to tell a great story within the standard RPG adventure construct; in other words, "It's the execution, stupid." What striking about it is that, while it can be trippy at times -- Earthbound's enemies include coffee cups and UFOs -- it's also surprisingly melancholy. Earthbound's writing is suffused with a longing for home, as well as other themes like growing up. If you haven't played it, you can find it on Wii U now. You'll be surprised how far ahead of its time it was when it originally hit the SNES in 1995.
"But the future refused to change."
Chrono Trigger's setup is compelling even now: A group of time travelers must not only head off a future disaster, but find out why it happened in the first place. When Chrono Trigger came out in 1995, it broke new ground with its non-linear story and multiple endings (more than a dozen in all), and those innovations have allowed it to hold up better than most RPGs of its era. Along with Final Fantasy VI, most people considerChrono Trigger the apex of the SNES RPG era. They're right.
At first, TWEWY seems like a somewhat typical coming-of-age story of a mopey Japanese teenager, but with a unique framing device. Neku wakes up in Shibuya to find himself trapped in a game in which he must complete a series of missions -- the penalty being erasure. Unfortunately for Neku, he's bound to the high-spirited teenage girl Shiki, and they must work together to survive. But the story is actually much more than it seems.
The World Ends With You does a great job of building out from the original concept, and even succeeds in making Neku likable (eventually). Ultimately, The World Ends With You is every bit as convoluted as Kingdom Hearts; but it's the former that ends up being infinitely more interesting than the latter thanks to a strong mystery and good character development. Make sure you go find the hidden reports after finishing the game. They explain a lot.
One of the few 16-bit RPGs that will genuinely make you go: "Whoa, that's messed up." You'll know the moment when you see it. Dragon Quest V is unique in that it is set across more than 20 years, during which time the protagonist grows up, marries, and has a family -- all while capturing monsters and crawling through dungeons. It might not seem like much at first glance, but it's a surprisingly emotional journey for a game that is primarily rendered in tiny sprites -- a reminder, perhaps, that simplicity isn't always a bad thing.
The RPG that practically defined "scope" among JRPGs. With 108 characters to recruit (called "Stars of Destiny"), it practically writes its own story; but like many of the best JRPGs, it also has a strong emotional core. Tragedy isn't done terribly well in JRPGs, frequently defaulting to cliche death scenes and sappy music to try and convey emotion.Suikoden II is the exception though, depicting two best friends who end up divergent paths, with hearthbreaking results. It's a shame that it's practically impossible to find now, but it's worth going out of your way to play if possible. Definitely a highlight of the PlayStation era.
Arguably the most ambitious of the Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy VI tells an expansive story with a sprawling cast. It makes use of some well-worn JRPG tropes -- an amnesiac protagonist, an evil empire -- but at the time of Final Fantasy VI's release, such tropes had yet to be run into the ground. That it holds up so well today is a function of likable protagonists like Celes and Locke; memorable antagonists like Ultros ("Don't tease the octopus, kids!") and Kefka, and an all-time great soundtrack. It also happens to hold together better than pretty much every Final Fantasy since, bringing the story to a satisfying and graceful conclusion at the player's leisure.
Nothing too complicated about Valkyria Chronicles' story -- it's just fun retelling of World War II with a dash of sci-fi and magic powers. Normally, it wouldn't be anything but special, but the close knit chemistry between Welkin's Squad 7 helps to elevate it. Several of the characters have picked up significant fanbases over the years, even without any significant screentime to speak of -- humorous combat dialogue and memorable character designs manage to tell a story of their own. The rest of the story moves at a brisk pace, rarely getting caught up in the sort of angst that drags down other anime-inspired games. It's refreshing, fun, and well-written -- a breath of fresh air for the genre.
A great example of a point-of-view story done right. While the game drops a few hints, the true nature of Lenneth Valkyrie's identity is mostly a mystery. Instead, the player is encouraged to act like a Valkyrie -- an automaton that only carries out orders. Straying from that path is difficult, but it's also the only way to get the game's true ending; not exactly intuitive, but that's hardly the point. It should be mentioned that Valkyrie Profilealso benefits from a number of memorable vignettes -- each one intended to bring a character to an untimely end so they can join your party. Even now, there's very little else like it.
Final Fantasy Tactics is great, but it's hard-pressed to match the epic storytelling of its predecessor -- the criminally under-appreciated Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. A tale of war and political intrigue, Tactics Ogre is mostly known for its non-linear branching plotline, which affects everything from the main character's motivations to the ultimate outcome of the story. The system also benefits greatly from the PSP remake, which takes it one step further by making it possible to revisit any decision point after the game is complete, allowing players to see how the whole story plays out without having to start from scratch. That remake is available now in the PlayStation Store, which means you should go and download it. Trust us, it's worth it.
Any JRPG stories that have an extra-special place in your heart? FF VII, FF Tactics and Ni No Kuni are certainly fan favorites, for example. Leave a comment below to share your love!
Kat Bailey is a freelance Pokemon Master. You can follow her on Twitter at @The_Katbot.
What are your favourite stories in JRPGs?