The JRPG genre is vast. It had its troubles in the past when it came to localization quality and understanding the differences between what gamers deemed “fun” across regions. However, I think we’re at a good place globally with the genre, and fans today have a myriad of games to play that fit their interests. That said, we thought we’d share some games that have been often overlooked or just not talked about enough. You may have heard about them before, but that’s not the point of this list. Instead, think of it as a list of games that you were supposed to play 10 years ago, but forgot, so we’re here to remind you. So let’s now waste anymore time, here are ten hidden gem JRPGs that no one talks about:
SaGa Frontier 2 (PS1 | February 15, 2000)
The SaGa series isn’t known for being user-friendly, but its niche group of fans can go on for hours about the many adventures that it provides. That said, SaGa Frontier 2 is a bit different, even when compared to its predecessor. For the most part, players follow the lives of two characters, Will Knight and Gustave XIII. They both have extremely different backgrounds and follow their own path through the narrative, but across their stories, other characters make an appearance to increase the scope of the world. Throughout the game, time will pass, and you’ll see these characters grow and change.
Returning elements of gameplay include learning new moves during combat. However, there’s also a one-versus-one battle mode where you can create combos of attacks for added experience. Further, there’s a tactics mode during some of the large-scale war scenes where you move characters around the field and complete objectives. This is a game that is largely overlooked in the SaGa series, but it’s also one of the best and most accessible entries.
Beyond the Beyond (PS1 | August 31, 1996)
While it’s true, Beyond the Beyond wasn’t the most well-received JRPG, it’s known as the first JRPG to be released in the West on the PlayStation. The plot is as straightforward as these adventures go; you play as a young adventurer named Finn who sets out to fight an evil that’s trying to destroy the world.
During battles, players take part in turn-based encounters where they can increase the damage dealt or defend with a timed button press. Across the board, this game received negative reviews, but that didn’t stop director Shugo Takahashi from having a great career in the video game industry. Takahashi-san went on to direct the Golden Sun series and became a producer of the Mario sports line of video games.
Legend of Legaia (PS1 | March 16, 1999)
In the 90s, all JRPG protagonists needed to be was “cool.” Yes, it didn’t really matter about complex backstories or context; just give me a hero with blue hair and confidence, and I’m good. Legend of Legaia was pretty much just that, but the game’s systems added so much depth to the game that made the experience enjoyable and fun. The adventure begins when a strange mist appears that turns creatures against humans. The protagonist Vahn lives comfortably outside of the mist until a powerful creature destroys the barrier protecting them. For no real reason, Vagn is granted power from the Genesis Tree and saves the village, which sets off on a grand adventure.
The best parts of gameplay are the battles which allow players to create combos, which can lead to discovering new abilities. These systems evolve across the course of the adventure, granting access to longer chains of actions and bosses that require strategic planning to beat. Director Kazuhiro Kobayashi now works at Square Enix as a Lead Planner on Final Fantasy projects.
Jade Cocoon: Story of the Tamamayu (PS1 | July 27, 1999)
Since the release of Pokemon, so many others have tried to deliver a similar monster-catching experience. Still, I’ve always felt Jade Cocoon manages to capture those nuances while also telling a great story. Players assume the role of Levant, who has just been named the Cocoon Master, giving him the responsibility of catching and purifying Minions. The narrative becomes rather epic by the end as Levant faces off against some tough opponents.
The main system of Jade Cocoon has players fighting and capturing monsters. In combat, Levant can play a song to hopefully capture his opponent. These creatures then join your party and can even be fused to create strong Minions. The fact that the Levant is alone on this journey makes it a lonely adventure, but the objectives are always laid out to keep the player pushing forward.
Shadow Hearts (PS2 | December 12, 2001)
While much of the rest of this list takes inspiration from other titles in the genre, there are few JRPG series quite as original as Shadow Hearts. The series, created as a followup to cult classic PS1 horror title Koudelka, features a modern-ish setting that blends urban supernatural fantasy with absurdist humor. Players follow Yuri Hyuga in the first two games and Johnny Garland in the third on adventures across the globe to discover the sources of their magical abilities.
The games are also known for their unique combat system, which takes the concept of timed button presses to the extreme with the Ring of Judgement system. Every action you take in combat is accompanied by a short timing-based minigame that determines whether you succeed, critically succeed, or fail completely, with whole character builds and consumable items revolving around manipulating the Ring to make it easier or potentially harder but with a larger payout. The series currently has a spiritual successor in development by the same writer called Penny Blood.
Secret of Evermore (SNES | October 1, 1995)
An often overlooked JPRG from Square, Secret of Evermore was a traditional JRPG that borrowed from other IPs within the developer’s catalog. The narrative introduces a nameable protagonist and his dog, who has the power to shapeshift. While playing, you may compare the experience to the Mana series, but it has no connections other than resembling some of the action systems.
I’ve always liked the game’s design and various narrative layers, which you wouldn’t guess were there based on the goofy character designs. This is likely due to the development team being based in North America, which influenced some of the more Western design choices. The product is a fun adventure that is often overlooked when compared to the developer’s other releases.
Steambot Chronicles (PS2 | May 23, 2006)
It’s hard not to be impressed by the many systems within Steambot Chronicles. On a surface level, it’s a mech action RPG. However, after the first few hours of gameplay, it turns into so much more. Depending on choices made during dialogue, they can shape the narrative and the way others view the protagonist, Vanilla. There’s also a level of mech customization to fine-tune the action as you take on missions, regain Vanilla’s memories, and exist in this charming game world. The entire experience comes off as ambitious and unique.
Interestingly, a sequel was canceled after many of the developer’s assets were sold to Atlus. However, producer Kazuma Kujo stayed in the game industry and formed developer Granzella who is still around today, releasing games in the R Type and Disaster Report series.
Thousand Arms (PS1 | October 14, 1999)
Being a game that taught many young JRPG players how to not talk to women, Thousand Arms remains an experience unrivaled by any other entry in this genre. There’s a combination of exploration elements as players can navigate through large towns and interact with NPCs but also head out onto the overworld map and find dungeons. The unsuspecting main protagonist, Meis Triumph, finds himself on an adventure to save the world from chaos. However, he doesn’t mind stopping to make time to date, which directly affects his power if everything goes smoothly.
Sadly, developer Tose never delivered a sequel. However, the studio is still around today, offering its skills to co-develop some of your favorite modern games, including the recent release Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion and Scarlet Nexus.
Brave Story: New Traveler (PSP | July 31, 2007)
Brave Story: New Traveler might be the most overlooked PSP JRPG ever released. From beginning to end, this game is a classic JRPG adventure with charming characters, an explorable overworld, a fantasy narrative, and a turn-based battle system. You play as Tatsuya, who will do anything to save his sick friend, even if that means traveling to a different world where he must take on the role of the Traveler.
Developer Game Republic would shut down in 2011, but the team who worked on many of the games joined Tango Gameworks. Although it may be unrelated, the comic book design of Brave Story can also be seen in Tango’s most recent release, Hi-Fi Rush.
Astonishia Story (PSP | June 27, 2006)
The history of Astonishia Story began in 1994. However, gamers in the West would likely not hear about the game until its re-release in 2002. I know I know, this is technically a Korean-developed game, but hey, we control what goes on this list, so just roll with it. Astonishia Story was not well received, but I found so much charm in its historical presentation and unique systems.
It’s traditional in many ways, and the localization quality of the past sadly couldn’t keep up with its references and nuances. This could also be due to it being published by Ubisoft in the US. Yes, that’s right, Ubisoft used to be pretty cool and publish JRPGs, but that’s a story for another day. Astonishia Story would go on to receive a sequel from publisher Atlus called Crimson Gem Saga, which was much better in terms of localization and in-game systems.
And that’s our list. Don’t worry, we have so many more games to share with you, but hopefully, we put some titles on your list that you may want to play some day.
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