Despite being on the original Wii, Xenoblade Chronicles is still one of the most ambitious JRPGs ever made. Fast forward years later and the game led to the Xenoblade series, Shulk in Smash Bros, Nintendo acquiring the rights to the series, and a full-blown remake on the Switch.
Xenoblade Chronicles takes place in a fascinating world where two civilizations live on the backs of massive frozen titans; the human-like Homs on Bionis, and the Mechanical Mechon on Mechonis.
Xenoblade is a massive game with a hugely ambitious story that really goes places, with a cast of fascinating characters to boot.
There are countless quests and side activities to undertake, and the game shares more with open world titles like The Elder Scrolls than most JRPGs.
Combat was also quite different, requiring you to input commands in real-time while your character auto-attacked, keeping you in the action instead of just turn-based menus.
Xenoblade Chronicles has left a massive legacy on the genre, and inspired other games outside of its own sequels.
Just like Xenoblade, Persona 5 has left a lasting impact on the genre, and coincidentally also has a fighter in Smash Bros.
Perhaps one of the most stylish games ever made, Persona 5 embraces the series’ unique style to an even greater degree. Just like Persona 3 and 4, the game has a fascinating mix of dungeon-diving, school life, and social systems.
In Persona 5 you play as The Phantom Thieves of Hearts, a group with the unique power to jump into the “Palaces” within people’s hearts and change them.
A fantastic cast of main characters drives the story forward, even across its 100-hour runtime. Persona 5 also does an even better job with its social system than previous games, tying the system directly to gameplay on top of story.
It should be noted that many of the improvements present in Persona 5 actually stem from Persona 4: Golden, the re-released version on PS Vita. A fantastic game in its own right that easily equals Persona 5, but Persona 4: Golden just didn’t have the same impact as the former.
A great turn-based combat system and absurdly catchy soundtrack are a just a couple of the other reasons Persona 5 sits atop the genre as one of the best JRPGs out there.
Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age
Dragon Quest is the granddaddy of JRPGs, and the genre owes a lot to the series in general. It only seems fitting then that Dragon Quest XI is one of the greatest JRPGs of the last decade, if not all time.
Dragon Quest XI is certainly a “traditional” JRPG, but it still takes steps to modernize the franchise. Combat uses the tried-and-true turn-based system, but you can have the AI control all other party members.
Speaking of party members, they make up the true heart of Dragon Quest XI. From the wily thief Erik, the hilarious and flamboyant Sylvando, the game’s party is one of the most fleshed-out and likable casts you can find.
Each character gets their time in the spotlight, and while the story follows a traditional path, it does some interesting things to play with your expectations.
On top of all that, each town is simply a joy to explore and does a great job of world-building.
Dragon Quest XI is a love letter to everything that makes JRPGs what they are, and it’s one of the quintessential titles of the genre.
Fire Emblem Awakening
Fire Emblem Awakening is literally the game that saved the franchise, and we have it to thank for everything that has come after. Of course, it also changed the franchise’s design in big ways.
Awakening was a hugely ambitious game that basically threw everything it possibly could into the experience. Battles still use the traditional weapon triangle, but a revolutionary new pairing system lets units support each other in battle, completely changing your strategic options.
It also brought back a wealth of ideas from past games like a world map you travel around, a customizable main character, a dynamic pairing and marriage system, and more.
One of Awakening’s best aspects, however, is its strong characterization. Support conversations were heavily fleshed out from past titles, making characters far more unique and memorable.
Awakening also took great steps toward making the franchise more accessible, with a Casual and Classic mode as well as different difficulty options.
Everything that made the Fire Emblem series great was present in Awakening, and it helped completely revitalize one of the most prolific strategy-RPG franchises out there.
Trails of Cold Steel
Trails of Cold Steel is a slow-burn experience in every sense, but the payoff is more than worth it. Like past Legend of Heroes games, Cold Steel goes to great lengths to build up its world and characters, and it does a fantastic job at it.
You play as Class VII at Thors Military Academy in the Erebonian Empire; an experimental class meant to break the barrier between commoners and nobles.
We’ve written about the Trails series’ incredibly ambitious story before, and Cold Steel carries that legacy on by tying itself to aspects of the Trails in the Sky and Crossbell games.
As the first game in the series in full 3D, Cold Steel makes some massive improvements, and its world feels that much more engrossing.
Combat also receives its fair share of updates with a new link system that binds characters together for various effects, as well as a follow-up attack mechanic.
Trails of Cold Steel is an underappreciated gem of the genre, one with a fantastic story and characters that deserve more recognition.
Radiant Historia: Perfect Chronology
The Nintendo DS was a hotbed for quality JRPGs, but none stand out quite as much as Radiant Historia, a game that was nigh impossible to find until its remake on 3DS, Perfect Chronology.
Radiant Historia emulates some of the best JRPGs out there, specifically Chrono Trigger. Time travel is an essential part of both the story and gameplay, and you’ll need to bounce back and forth between timelines in order to piece the story together or complete something that lets you progress in the other timeline.
It’s a system that works surprisingly well, and it’s all backed up by some quality turn-based combat and exploration.
The story is also quite good, taking place in a Steampunk-inspired world filled with memorable characters, and great voice performances in Perfect Chronology.
The original is great on its own, but Perfect Chronology just makes this classic RPG even better.
The original NieR was a cult classic RPG, but Automata propelled itself to new heights as one of the most unique JRPGs out there.
The game takes place on a post-apocalyptic Earth where you play as combat Androids 9S and 2B, fighting to defeat hostile machines that have overtaken the planet.
As a collaboration between Square Enix and PlatinumGames, NieR’s combat system is fantastic. It sports all the intensity and complexity of something like Bayonetta, with boss fights mixing things up in smart ways with elements of other genres, like bullet-hell shooters.
The real brilliance of NieR: Automata, however, lies in its storytelling. There’s a fascinatingly complex story that reveals itself bit by bit, with multiple playthroughs that drastically change things.
It’s an unconventional story in every sense of the word, but explaining it too much lessens the impact, so better to play it if you haven’t yet.
NieR: Automata is a game that does nearly everything right, and it’s an entirely unique experience from start to finish.
Tales of Berseria
Tales is one of the most prominent action-JRPG series out there, running for over 20 years at this point. Yet, Tales of Berseria managed to take the franchise in an interesting new direction, with a much darker story than we’ve ever seen.
A horrific event turns the game’s main character, Velvet Crowe, into an undying Daemon, also setting her on a quest for revenge. Similarly, every one of the game’s party members features some kind of tragic past or sever character flaw, which is what makes them all so interesting.
Berseria’s story does a good job of questioning morality, at times, even making you question whether the main characters are in the right or wrong.
The game features a fast-paced combat system that keeps layering on new elements and twists across the entire experience, helping to keep things interesting.
The Tales series is filled with great games, like Symphonia and Vesperia, but Berseria can easily sit with the best of them.
If there’s one series that you could argue has had more of an impact than Dragon Quest, it’d be Final Fantasy. While Bravely Default doesn’t sport the Final Fantasy name, in spirit it definitely is one.
Taking place in a world with four elemental crystals, Bravely Default sports tons of similar story themes to Final Fantasy, a robust job system, and a brilliant spin on turn-based combat.
Combat uses a brave point system, letting you expend points to take multiple actions at once on a turn. By using Brave in combat you use a point, while using Default lets you guard and gain a point.
It’s a dynamic system that entirely changes turn-based combat, and the game even lets you speed up combat significantly with fast-forward buttons.
Other quality of life changes let you turn off random battles completely, and the job system allows you to combine skills from different jobs for a huge variety of different character builds.
Bravely Default uses a gorgeous water-color art style, and everything about the game harkens back to the best aspects of classic Final Fantasy.
The system established in Bravely Default would go on to inspire yet another fantastic JRPG, Octopath Traveler, developed by most of the same team.
Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana
Lacrimosa of Dana was a big step forward for the Ys franchise, both in terms of presentation and storytelling. Aboard a passenger ship called the Lombardia, Adol and Dogi find themselves shipwrecked on the cursed Isle of Seirin, along with the other passengers.
Ys VIII has strong storytelling that uses a dual protagonist named Dana to reveal secrets relating to Adol himself as well as the role Seirin plays in the series.
The combat is probably the strongest aspect of Ys VIII, though, with an incredibly fast-paced system that constantly keeps you on your toes.
While you can swap between characters at any time, the party member AI does a fantastic job of holding their own, letting you focus on fighting how you want.
As you save survivors they’ll open up new amenities at your base camp and allow you to explore more of the island, thus encouraging you to explore and find any option NPCs.
Unfortunately, the launch of Ys VIII was marred by both technical issues and a roughshod translation, but both of those things have since been ironed out.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth Bly Sleep
Birth By Sleep is, by many fans, considered the very best game in the franchise, and for good reason. Being on the PSP didn’t hold the game back at all, as it still felt like a full and proper Kingdom Hearts experience.
Functioning as a prequel to the entire series, Birth By Sleep introduced essential characters to the story; the young Keyblade masters Terra, Aqua, and Ventus, as well as the penultimate villain, Xehanort.
Interestingly, Birth By Sleep had three different stories to play through corresponding to the three main characters. These stories weave together to tell an engrossing and emotional narrative, one that has serious implications for the franchise as a whole.
Of course, gameplay holds up just as well. Birth By Sleeps’ worlds are decidedly smaller than the main games, but combat encounters are much faster. The game introduced Form Changes and the Shotlock system, expanding your options for taking down enemies.
Birth By Sleep has some of the best storytelling we’ve ever seen from Kingdom Hearts, and there’s a good reason fans love Terra, Aqua, and Ventus so much.
Valkyria Chronicles 4
The original Valkyria Chronicles was a brilliant spin on the tactical-RPG, with an incredibly resonant story that did a surprisingly good job of delving into topics like the horrors of war and racism.
Unfortunately, the series just hasn’t hit the same heights since, that is, until Valkyria Chronicles 4 nearly 10 years later.
Taking place alongside the first games, Valkyria Chronicles 4 tells the story of Squad E, and elite task for of the Gallian Military sent on an impossible last-ditch mission to try and end the war.
Like the first game, Valkyria Chronicles 4 has an emotionally-charged story that tries to seriously tackle how war affects both soldiers and citizens, and mostly succeeds.
As great as the story and characters are, gameplay is really where Valkyria Chronicles 4 shines. The game returns to its roots by matching the first Valkyria Chronicles, while layering on a few new elements.
Chief among these is the Grenadier class, which completely changes how battles play out, both for you and the enemy. Other changes include new battlefield orders, and a “last stand” system if your units are downed in battle.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 brought the franchise back to its former glory, even though the second and third games certainly weren’t bad. It’s a fantastic strategy-RPG with an engrossing world and story to boot.