You’re in the mood for the best JRPGs on the market? I can absolutely understand that! Because Japan is simply something different. Despite globalisation, the land of the rising sun has built up very distinct pop culture. This can also be seen in video games. JRPGs, Japanese role-playing games, have even been a genre of their own for ages. They are characterised by an animation-heavy style and, for a long time, by turn-based battles.
In the West, on the other hand, Japanese role-playing games have always had a rather niche existence. Final Fantasy was the only series that had a strong presence in the West. Now the niche is opening up. The games themselves are daring to break new ground, but more and more players are also finding access to game series that has existed for a long time. That’s why we show you the best JRPGs. We focus on the newer games, both the big productions and the smaller gems of the genre.
Across the board, it is noticeable that the current titles hinder the flow of the game much less with grind orgies and that random battles have also been largely banned from the old franchises. This makes the best JRPGs much more accessible and more suitable than ever for falling in love with the cult genre from the Far East. This list certainly doesn’t cover all the top JRPGs. The genre is large, diverse and characterised by many titles that have never been released in the West or are on the genre border. Nevertheless, we hope to have made a selection that will please both newcomers and old hands.
1# Persona 5 Royal
When it comes to the best JRPGs, one of our editorial favourites, to which we have already dedicated a separate article. You take on the role of the protagonist, who was expelled from school for protecting a woman from a drunken man who reported him to the police. He is now attending a new school in Tokyo with a family friend. Already branded a “criminal”, he gets into trouble on his first day when a mysterious app lands on his smartphone. With it, he can enter another dimension. In it, the dark sides of evil people manifest themselves as palaces. However, by stealing the treasures from the palaces with his new friends, he can force a change of heart.
It may sound a bit muddled at first, but it’s clearly one of the best JRPGs you’ll find. The story is very adult and also addresses many serious issues through the palaces, from abuse in schools to fighting your own demons. Besides this parallel world, we also cope with everyday life. The protagonist goes to school, makes friends and is also allowed to travel around an ingeniously staged Tokyo.
Persona 5 succeeds on many levels. The acid jazz soundtrack fits wonderfully with the art design, which extends to all elements of the user interface. There is simply a more stylish JRPG on the market today. In addition, the 192 Personas also satisfy our collecting mania. The extended version Persona 5 Royal also improves all dungeons, introduces a new character and expands the game in many other areas – including a German localisation. You can expect to spend a good 100 hours on the first playthrough – every single one of which is worthwhile.
2# Dragon Quest XI: S
You might already recognise it from the name of the game: there are already several Dragon Quest games and it has been one of the best JRPGs in Japan for ages. The series has remained largely true to itself. Since the first game in 1986, for example, Dragon Ball artist Akira Toriyama has been responsible for the design of the characters, among other things. This gives the series an unmistakable style.
With Dragon Quest XI, the series has finally taken off in Europe. Among other things, this is due to the large and lovingly staged world, which already convinced us in the test and is also a pleasure for photo mode lovers. But it is also one of the most accessible games in the series, which never forces you to fight monsters for too long before you are strong enough to continue with the exciting story. The combat itself is rather JRPG standard fare, but at least without the formerly often annoying random battles.
During a playing time of 60 hours and more, the characters of the hero group really grow on us and we experience some of the most beautiful JRPG stories, which also have surprising twists. Dragon Quest XI was recently released in an expanded version of Dragon Quest XI S. This version offers, among other things, new stories, an improved soundtrack and a 2D retro mode. The extended version is also part of the Xbox Game Pass, a gaming subscription from Microsoft.
3# Trails of Cold Steel
Things are getting a little niche. The Trails of Cold Steel series is part of the sub-series of “The Legend of Heroes” franchise by Japanese developer Nihon Falcom. In the first part from 2013, we experience the story of the protagonist Rean Schwartzer, who begins his school years at Thor’s Military Academy. He ends up in the new “Class VII”, a class that for the first time in history mixes students from all social classes, which otherwise have strictly separate houses. This is the breeding ground for an interesting cast of characters, some of whom still show clear reservations towards other classes.
In addition to the daily school routine, the old secrets of an old school building have to be discovered and field missions have to be mastered. During these, the pupils are sent to different places to put their fighting skills into practice. In the process, they witness a major political conflict in which they increasingly intervene themselves. In this game, we actually have to recommend the first part, because the story is told further in the following parts. Recently, the fourth and last part of the great JRPG series was released.
The game was not a visual highlight at release and is very limited in its freedom of action, but the great cast and the great political story with a coming-of-age touch make it one of the best JRPGs. In addition, the very customisable skill system makes for interesting character development, where we can try out a lot of things. While Persona 5 also got German texts with its extended version, you have to cope with the English language and text output in Trails of Cold Steel, though.
4# Atelier Ryza
The next traditional series is rather unknown in the West. Since the first Atelier game in 1997, 22 games of the series have been released, the last of which, the sequel to Atelier Ryza, has only recently been published here.
For the best JRPGs, Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout doesn’t necessarily qualify with an epic story. On the contrary, the game starts off pretty down-to-earth. The protagonist Ryza and her two friends Lent and Tao lives on an island that almost none of the inhabitants have ever left. Ryza, however, has no desire to simply take over her father’s farm and plans adventures with her friends. However, their excursion does not go completely unnoticed. They meet a trader and his daughter Klaudia, who rescue them. A short time later, they themselves are rescued by two strangers.
One of them turns out to be an alchemist who can create completely new things from ordinary objects in his cauldron. Out of enthusiasm, Ryza wants to learn alchemy himself and quickly turns out to be a natural. And that brings us to the core of the game. More than fighting, the focus is more on alchemy, with which we mix ingredients to create new items. The crafting system is very extensive and lets us experiment a lot to create new recipes or to perfect them.
Atelier Ryza is suitable for those who prefer a more leisurely pace and don’t mind spending a lot of time collecting ingredients and crafting. Nevertheless, the new real-time combat system is also a lot of fun. Even if the game owes its success mainly to the physical attributes of the protagonist, in terms of content the game does not have to hide behind other JRPGs.
5# Final Fantasy
Somehow Final Fantasy seems to be the James Bond of JRPGs. What you find best often depends on what you started with. My first own Final Fantasy is Final Fantasy 9, and for me, it is still the best of the series – even if stylistically, with its Victorian-inspired steampunk setting and rather cuddly graphics, it is not the most typical Final Fantasy. Parts 7, 8 and 10 also have at least as many fans, and there is currently a full remake of part 7 that is being released in several episodes and revives the best-known classic.
And even though I wasn’t as enthusiastic about the newer parts, they clearly have their charm. Final Fantasy 14, for example, is clearly more open in terms of the world and conveys more of a feeling between boy band and road trip. Final Fantasy 12, on the other hand, is an MMORPG, albeit still slightly influenced by its JRPG roots.
In addition to Final Fantasy 9, I would also like to highlight Final Fantasy 10, which was also an important milestone. The success was so great that for the first time a sequel was made in the form of Final Fantasy 10-2. In addition to the exciting and spiritually influenced story about the Blitzball player Tidus and the young medium Yuna, you can also expect a phenomenal soundtrack and the sport of “Blitzball”, which is in a way its own game within the game.
6# Xenoblade Chronicles 2
The Switch exclusive title lets you dive deep into its world in the truest sense of the word. Because in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 you take on the role of the young salvage diver Rex, who recovers treasures from the depths of the Sea of Clouds. Sea of Clouds? Yes, the world of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is in the sky. The landmasses in this fantasy world are on the backs of giant creatures called Titans. It is quite impressive to catch a glimpse of the heads of these titans from some places on these flying islands.
When Rex becomes part of a lucrative assignment, he has no idea that his target is a woman who turns out to be a special blade. Blades are life forms that can summon individuals with special abilities from their crystals in battle. Rex is one of these people and Pyra is a legendary blade who uses her own life force to save Rex from death. In return, Rex promises to take her to a fabled paradise called Elysium. But Pyra’s appearance has brought certain powers onto the scene.
In terms of gameplay, the blades provide variety and Pokémon charm, as you can collect generic blades as well as several more specialised ones. Some of them are obtained in the course of the story, others are found in crystals. For crafting, you can also dive for materials in the sky. You don’t only use your blades in battle, but also send them on missions, from which they bring experience and treasures as well as gold.
Xenoblade Chronicles was developed by Monolith Soft, a studio that has also worked on other big Nintendo titles such as Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Pikmin 3, Splatoon and Animal Crossing: New Horizons. It shows in the high-quality production, which is rightly part of the best JRPGs for us.
7# Ni No Kuni 2: Fate of a Kingdom
Ni No Kuni is an even younger franchise among the JRPGs and already stands out through its art style. It is a collaboration with the legendary Studio Ghibli. Ghibli is known for internationally renowned and award-winning anime films such as Princess Mononoke, Chihiro’s Journey to Wonderland and My Neighbour Totoro. But a good art style alone does not bring you the best JRPGs. Still, this style, which lacks sexualised representation, is a welcome change in the genre.
The story of Ni No Kuni 2: Fate of a Kingdom is very political. The child king Evan must flee his own kingdom of Katzbuckel after an attempted coup. He is accompanied by Roland Crane, who was president of a country (apparently the USA) in our world and has been flung into the fantasy world rejuvenated for mysterious reasons. Together the two have to come to terms with their new situation, find new companions and build a new kingdom together.
The management of this kingdom also brings a new level to the game. Here you can expect a small building game in the role-playing game. Although the buildings cannot be set completely free, there is still a lot to do. In the end, the city can grow to a pretty impressive size.
Ni No Kuni 2 also successfully irons out the weaknesses of its predecessor, which did get a little tough towards the end. Less grind, better guidance through the deep story about war and power and many sensible improvements make the game a successful sequel. By the way, you don’t need to have played the first part either. Ni No Kuni 2 is set in the same world, but with a completely different cast of characters.
8# Kingdom Hearts 3
Imagine the most famous JRPG series Final Fantasy meets the biggest western cartoon brand, Disney. Hard to imagine? But that’s exactly what it is. The Kingdom Hearts series is the most spectacular crossover in role-playing game history. The conclusion of the great saga is marked by Kingdom Hearts 3, for which fans had to wait a long time. It took over 13 years until the final part of the trilogy was released after Kingdom Hearts 2.
The bad: For full enjoyment, we recommend playing the predecessors beforehand to follow the story better. The good news: The HD remakes of the first two parts (and other spinoffs) are now available very cheaply in a collector’s box on Amazon (commission link).
Kingdom Hearts 3, however, is by far the most opulent part. Sora and his friends once again land in numerous popular Disney worlds. Whether with Hercules in Olympus or together with Woody and his toy friends in Andy’s room – Sora experiences a lot and the worlds and Sora himself are well captured in the style of the originals. Even Winnie the Poo and Pirates of the Caribbean make an appearance. Meanwhile, the world of Rapunzel is given a somewhat odd sense of humour, as the kingdom is called “Corona”.
The only pity is that this time we only move through Disney worlds and that the characters from the Square portfolio are limited to Kingdom Hearts’ own squad. That doesn’t change anything about the fantastic pull that makes it one of the best JRPGs, even though it is actually more of an action role-playing game. Read more about the game in our review.
9# Fire Emblem – Three Houses
We already had this game in review ourselves and celebrated the strong Switch debut of the time-honoured series. The houses mentioned in the title are what give the game that certain something. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is set on the continent of Fódlan, which is divided into three realms. The monastery Garreg Mach stands on neutral ground and trains the future rulers and their entourage.
Much like Harry Potter at Hogwarts, there are three houses, each representing the three kingdoms. Very early in the game, we choose which house we will teach at the military academy. So it’s more or less the reverse of Trails of Cold Steel, where we take over the student side. Each house also has its own focus.
The students of the house have to be taught. They start at very general beginning classes and can develop into powerful specialists. However, the training also goes to the endurance and must therefore be balanced. You then have to send your protégés into battle. The whole thing takes place in a turn-based tactics system, which this time turns out to be somewhat more complex than a simple rock-paper-scissors system. The students are by no means just chess pieces, but each has their own personality with preferences and goals.
Every week you also have the opportunity to design your own Sunday. In addition to combat missions and group seminars, you can also explore the academy and engage in sideline activities such as fishing. A special twist comes with a time jump when friendships are suddenly torn apart by war.
And what else – Because we can’t mention every game
There are actually so many more titles that would have deserved to end up in our list of the best JRPGs. But we have to draw a line somewhere. We even didn’t include Pokemon in this list, even though we’ve always had a lot of enthusiasm for the pocket monsters. Even if not everything in the Pokemon Sun and Moon test was pretty. But many people associate it less with role-playing than with collecting Pokémon, and the story is usually not much more imaginative than a Mario game.
The Disgaea games also, unfortunately, fell through the cracks, even if the tactical JRPG is not fun to play, but also gives your laugh muscles a good workout. Speaking of tactics: The crazy spin-off Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, which we can really recommend, is in the same vein.
Nier: Automata also has a lot of the ingredients of a JRPG, albeit with a more action-heavy focus. This makes it a great door opener for diving deeper into JRPGs, even if you actually come from a more action-oriented background. The philosophically profound story is also responsible for the fact that Nier: Automata was able to enthuse players and the trade press alike.
We were also unable to cover many traditional series such as Star Ocean or the “Tales of” series. We even left out classics like Secret of Mana or Chrono Trigger because we wanted to present more recent titles. The world of JRPGs is just so big and full of stories to experience. It doesn’t hurt to take a look around yourself to discover the best JRPGs for yourself.