We at Bountie love our Final Fantasy games from Square Enix. We even love our Kingdom Hearts and other Square Enix titles. In truth, Square Enix is synonymous with JRPGs.
But we do know that Square Enix isn’t the only company that makes JRPGs; they’re just more well-known and well-associated with the genre. There are many other games and companies that you should know about too that handles them well back in the day and even in recent memory.
When we talk about JRPGs, we mean the role-playing games that have the ethos, design mindset, and aesthetics that can only come out from the minds of Japanese developers. To challenge our memories and our diverse taste in games, we amassed a quick list of 10 phenomenal JRPGs and JRPG experiences not from Square Enix. That means no Final Fantasy, no Kingdom Hearts, no Chrono Cross, no Dragon Quest, no Mana games, and anything else from the stellar publishing and development house. That also includes the underrated The World Ends With You.
As per our rule on Bountie, one game per franchise. Let’s begin.
Game Arts was a treasure back in the day. They’re the folks behind some of the better RPGs in the late 90s, like the very first Grandia game. Made for the Sega Saturn and (eventually) PlayStation, Grandia is about a kid named Justin who wants to be an adventurer and explore ancient runes, which turns out to be the catalyst of a world-ending phenomenon within the 30+ hour story. The game features lovely 2D sprites intermeshing with 3D backdrops and landscapes and awe-inspiring JRPG music from Noriyuki Iwadare.
The story itself chronicles Justin’s growth from teenager to responsible juvenile, and his relationships with his childhood friend Sue, his mentor-turned-future-lover Feena, and a few other cast members like a paladin, a butt-kicking mother figure, and a merchant rabbit humanoid person. And let’s not forget the epic battle system that combines real-time combat, turn-based functions, and positioning. This is one RPG where you look forward to normal fights and boss battles because not only do you have to manage turns, speed, and initiatives, but your characters can learn moves mid-fight if they use certain types of weapons long enough.
If you want a classic 2D JRPG with a long-spanning fish-out-of-water story set in a rich and pop culture joke-filled land -thanks to creative English localization- look no further than Game Arts’ other big masterpiece, the Lunar series -Lunar: Silver Star Story and Lunar: Eternal Blue. While its combat system and dungeon layout are traditional as they can be, the main focus is its endearing cast of characters and its anime cutscenes & story tropes. For better or worst, this game will make an anime fan out of you.
The remastered Complete versions of the Lunar games improved everything archaic from the Sega CD versions from graphics to game design. If we had to pick between the two remasters on the PlayStation, we’ll go with Lunar 2: Eternal Blue Complete because of its building narrative and improved gameplay. It’s still tough to beat in a 90s sort of way, so tread lightly and save often.
Don’t be afraid of the number “II” on the title; you can play this title fresh and on its own. Suikoden II is a huge epic military drama focused on two heroes on diverging paths and how they help recruit the fated 108 “Stars of Destiny” -warriors, support, shopkeepers, backline workers, you name it- to stop the evil empire led by a bloodthirsty General Luca Blight.
The game’s combat is turn-based and has shades of a tactical strategy game, and even features duels between generals if the situation calls for it. They’re dramatic, add a lot of tension in the fights you’re in, and a lot of fun and full of rewards. Later RPGs and even titles like the Pokemon series owes a lot to the Suikoden series.
Cowboys, steampunk, and aliens oh my. Before Final Fantasy VII came in, Wild Arms ruled the JRPG roost a year earlier on PlayStation. You play as three characters who are Dream Chasers: vagabonds who search for excitement and adventure. Each of them has their own skills and arsenal to deal with enemies and the standard dungeon puzzles. Young boy Rudy can use ancient guns and cannons called ARMS, while Cecilia can cast magic. Jack is a treasure hunter who can leap over giant pits and crevasses with his grappling hook.
The three of them can use Force Techniques that can amplify their abilities, like making Jack act first regardless of enemy speed and Cecilia using stronger magic. There is also a golem you get to pilot halfway through the game, so even if the conventional story of three heroes banding together to fight a common evil isn’t your cup of tea, the game’s simple nature and decent combat will make you long for the days of a late 90s JRPG that isn’t marked by Square Enix.
If there were any games that could rival a Final Fantasy game in the mid-90s through its size and scope, every Sega fan will point you towards Phantasy Star IV. While it features the staple of exploration, NPC interaction, and turn-based combat, it’s what Sega does with it that makes it stand out from the rest of the 90s JRPG pack.
Your party members can use special attacks called Techniques, which can also be combined for one big effect ala Chrono Trigger’s combination attacks. The combat also introduces the concept of macros: you can program specific battle commands with a push of a button so that random battles with weaker enemies go by faster.
The game’s story is told through manga panel illustrations and even make huge allusions and references to the past Phantasy Star games, giving it a big overarching feel that pays off at the very end. It’s worth reiterating that Phantasy Star IV is worth the nostalgia trip since this is a game that showcases Sega in its prime.
The father of Final Fantasy Hironobu Sakaguchi left Square Enix and formed his own studio called Mistwalker. His first big gaming opus? A well-meaning but flawed mess called Blue Dragon. His next game though? A game that is kind of similar to Final Fantasy in spirit but is actually its own unique flavour.
In a world filled with Immortals -people who can’t die and can live for centuries- you control one called Kaime who has to find out his place in the steampunk fantasy world he’s in while also working alongside mortals. Think a JRPG friendly version of the PC game classic Planescape: Torment.
The turn-based combat system uses a timing-based Aim Ring system where your attacks and spells have double the effect or give you a boost if you time your button presses right when you see the Aim Rings intersect on-screen. As the game deals with Immortals and mortals; Immortals cannot learn skills and must link up with a mortal to get them, but they can get back up if they’re KO’ed after a few turns. All this culminates in a 40-hour epic that seems familiar but is altogether fresh in its execution and delivery.
The Shin Megami Tensei series are a slew of JRPGs that is part Pokemon with its demon-collecting & fusing, part combat and exploration, and all tough. So naturally Atlus had to create a consumer-friendly version of the series; enter the Persona series. They evolved from first-person to third-person dungeon crawlers set in contemporary backdrops.
You play a transfer student who has to study in Tokyo and deal with another meta-universe alongside other rebels and trouble students, playing the role of Phantom Thieves as you steal the hearts of evildoers in the city. You have to balance between being a student and socializing with combat that involves you summoning Personas (or demons) to cast spells and buffs to defeat foes.
With this fun & unique calendar countdown gameplay coupled with lovely aesthetics and a rocking soundtrack, Persona 5 is a breath of JRPG fresh air and a wake-up call for an RPG resurgence for 2017 and the years beyond.
There are too few JRPGs set during alternate historical and contemporary times during the early 2000s that are localized in English. Thankfully Shadow Hearts: Covenant satiates our thirst for such settings -along with its own set of stories and weirdness- and it comes with a great combat mechanic to boot.
The game features the Judgement Ring system, where you have to hit the spinning ticker prompt onto a section of the ring when you want to land critical hits or even cast spells. Sometimes there will be more than one section especially for powerful spells, and sometimes the ticker spins backwards or even slows down/speeds up with each successful prompt. This means that not only do you have to be good at gauging turns and what’s coming next, but you also have to be good with your reactions if you want the best possible outcome for your spells and super moves.
Coupled with its unique sidequests like a wrestling gauntlet and erotica-searching minigame, along with a unique storyline and cast of eclectic characters (including Princess Anastasia who photographs enemies to copy their skills) and you’ve got quite an experience of a JRPG for your PS2.
This JRPG is a cult classic for Super Nintendo fans just because of its surrealism. It sets aside traditional JRPG settings in favour of a more modern environment, right down to the fact where you need to draw money via ATMs. What sets this JRPG apart is its sense of humour as this game does not take itself seriously.
From its enemies to its fourth wall-breaking at times to even its zany quest from the modern world to a god-knows-what-jungle with dinosaurs, there are a lot of crazy and off-kilter moments in Earthbound. When’s the last time you played a JRPG where you call your mom from a payphone to stave off homesickness and deal with baby orb-shaped aliens who add “Boing” at the end of their sentences?
It’s things like these that make us glad that the game is available legally on the Super Nintendo Mini. Earthbound is a treasure of a game that needs to be played by JRPG fans.
If you want a true 100 hour plus JRPG experience in this modern era, this ginormous game from ex-Square Enix staff Tetsuya Takahashi will deliver. Exclusively on the Switch console, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 puts you in the shoes of a salvager named Rex who suddenly befriends a humanoid Blade named Pyra. She happens to be an ultra-weapon called the Aegis, and every nation in Alrest wants it for themselves. Luckily, Rex has a merry band of Blades and pals to help him out like the sarcastic Welsh catgirl Nia and Noppon inventor Tora alongside his half-Blade half-robot creation named Poppi who is the most adorable and endearing heroine amidst the other eclectic cast members.
Did we forget to mention that each nation in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is on the back of a giant titan who aimlessly drift in the cloud sea of the world? Talk about a fantastical setting. Beyond its lovely aesthetics and ever-expanding story, the game also features an awesome real-time combat system that involves Rex & company using their Blades for powered-up elemental attacks and using special Driver combos and chains to dish out more damage to kill baddies in one fell swoop.
We admit that this game has quite a learning curve and a pretty slow start, as well as being overridden by so many anime clichés. But once you get past the 20-hour threshold, the other 80+ hours or so is JRPG bliss. You’ll miss the game’s world, characters, and music when you’re done.
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