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Top 10 Underrated JRPGs [Best Recommendations]

Thanks largely to Final Fantasy VII, JRPGs managed to gain international mainstream attention and pave way for more JRPGs to come to the US. Even before the release of FF7, JRPGs were always a niche genre and is still relatively one outside of Japan.

Unfortunately, there are still numerous exciting titles beyond the Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts franchises that have flown under the radar in the US and in some cases, Japan. Heck, some titles also include other Square Enix releases! So what are some RPGs to check out that you have (probably) never played? Read our Top 10 Underrated JRPGs to find out!


10. Brave Fencer Musashi

  • System: PlayStation
  • Publisher: SquareSoft
  • Developer: SquareSoft
  • Release Dates: Jul 16, 1998 (Japan), Oct 31, 1998 (US)

Long before Samurai Jack was fighting between space and time, there was Square’s lesser-known title, Brave Fencer Musashi, who is summoned to a different world by a princess to save it from an evil empire. While RPGs have evolved in their own way beyond how they were presented in the nineties, Brave Fencer Musashi is a quality representation of the beginning of that transition but with its own distinctions that still hold up to this day. While the combat of Japanese RPGs today are not as stationary as they were twenty years ago, Brave Fencer Musashi was one of the first to allow more freedom of movement with it.

Musashi can also adapt his enemy’s moves and as he levels up, and he develops new techniques to use with his sword. Though some non-RPG games use this element, Brave Fencer Musashi uses a fatigue meter to a point where players will have to use inns to have him rest up, or he can’t fight effectively.

In some ways, fans saw this game as Square’s answer to The Legend of Zelda, which shares a common ground in comparison to Square’s mainstream titles. The game has so many qualities that were ahead of its time by mixing in various genres, which is common in many open world games of today. Some mini-games include memory games, saving dogs, helping people, etc. Beyond its gameplay, the game also feels like an anime with not only its art style but with its cheesy dub. So if you can enjoy games where characters are super deformed due to technological limitations, then Brave Fencer Musashi has so much to offer even twenty years after its release.


9. Lost Odyssey

  • System: Xbox 360
  • Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
  • Developer: Mistwalker
  • Release Dates: Dec 6, 2007 (Japan), Feb 12, 2008 (US)

If you could bring the gameplay of an old-school RPG to modern graphical presentations, Lost Odyssey is a perfect example of that. In fact, many Final Fantasy staff members, most notably Hironobu Sakaguchi, played a part in making it. In this game, you start as Kaim, an amnesiac immortal who goes on a quest who meets other amnesiac immortals to save the world from Gongora. While some critics were turned off by the old-school elements of the combat system, dedicated fans felt it was one of its charms, that it was a great homage to it, but still offering something new.

If there is one thing in the story that Lost Odyssey does a great job of sharing, it’s that being immortal may not be that great considering the emotional toll it takes on the individual such as losing friends who don’t have that same longevity. Considering that the Xbox 360 was a failure in Japan and that the console’s main appeal wasn’t in JRPGs, it is to conclude why this game is considered underrated by it's fans.


8. Skies of Arcadia (Eternal Arcadia)

  • System: Dreamcast, GameCube
  • Publisher: Sega
  • Developer: Overworks
  • Release Dates: Oct 5, 2000 (Japan), Nov 12, 2000 (US)

While the Dreamcast wasn’t known as a JRPG powerhouse, it doesn’t mean it didn’t have its own outstanding contributions to the genre. In this game, you play the role of Vyse, a young sky pirate who must stop the Valuan Empire from taking over the world. While this game does play like your typical JRPG, its cast of likable characters, vast sky world, immersing soundtrack, and diverse battle styles do make it distinct. In addition to your traditional RPG battles, there will also be battles when you use Vyse’s airship and in certain turns, you can use its superweapon. The attacks and spells have their own cutscenes to add dramatic flair. Unfortunately, if you don’t want to have frequent random battles, this may not be the game for you but it’s also a good opportunity to level up.

While most RPGs give you a reference map of the world once you can explore it, Skies of Arcadies is about creating the map as you explore, which brings a fresh set of challenges. While the game was met with high praise, it didn’t make a profit and any potential future installments are no longer possible. So if you love old school JRPGs and raiding the skies, then we recommend this game if you want a game that feels like a Ghibli anime with a bit of Leiji Matsumoto.


7. Radiant Historia

  • System: Nintendo DS, 3DS
  • Publisher: Atlus
  • Developer: Atlus
  • Release Dates: Nov 3, 2010 (Japan), Feb 25, 2011 (US)

While Radiant Historia is much newer compared to a majority on this list, we can’t deny this awesome game. As mentioned, Lost Odyssey is old school with its gameplay and modern with its graphics, but Radiant Historia for the DS allows it to be the best of both old and new in both graphics and gameplay. Though it is undeniable that Chrono Trigger is the granddaddy of time traveling RPGs, Radiant Historia offers a fresh take. In this game, you start with Stocke, a soldier for the kingdom of Alistel. He is given a magical book called the White Chronicle, which allows him to travel through numerous timelines in order to change the destiny of his kingdom.

Depending on how you conduct yourself in the game, it can ultimately affect the ending in multiple ways like Chrono Trigger, but Radiant Historia was a more novel flexibility to its time travel gimmick. If in the event you make a decision that has dire consequences, the good news is that you can go back in time and correct it. The bad news is, who is to say if you correct a certain event, another bad one won’t take its place? The battle system itself is pretty much in tune with old school RPGs by being turned based, and selecting your attack(s) from a menu. However, it uses a unique grid system where you can put the enemies into one grid and be able to take care of two birds with one stone with chain attacks or super magic spells. Due to the nature of this game, it does have a bit of a learning curve for even RPG veterans but once you learn the ins and outs, you’re in for one heck of an adventure.


6. Arc the Lad

  • System: PlayStation
  • Publisher: Sony
  • Developer: G-Craft
  • Release Dates: Jun 30, 1995 (Japan), Apr 18, 2002 (US)

Some of you may be familiar with the anime but did you know that it was originally a game? If not, the game was released in the US in 2002, 7 years after its Japanese release (but released with its two sequels as one collection)! While Final Fantasy Tactics brought mainstream attention to tactical style RPGs, Arc the Lad was one of the first released for the original PlayStation. Since it was released in the first year of the original PlayStation, it has an old-school charm that older gamers or retro lovers can appreciate. Due to that, the character graphics look like they are high 16-bit as opposed to 32-bit, but this is made up for with its beautifully detailed environments.

Compared to other RPGs, it is relatively much simpler by being linear and shorter. While a good majority of RPGs rely on using customization of weapons and armor, which is another charm of RPGs, Arc the Lad does not use this feature. So if you’re looking for an RPG that takes much less time to beat and is straighter to the point, this can be worth exploring.



5. Grandia

  • System: Saturn, PlayStation
  • Publisher: Game Arts
  • Developer: ESP Software (Japan), Sony (US)
  • Release Dates: Dec 18, 1997 (Japan), Sept 30, 1999 (US)

Other great classics fans should really check out is Grandia. The game in all of its presentation is the ultimate classic 32-bit JRPG. Like Arc the Lad, it is graphically similar as a more advanced 16-bit RPG but it is a game that truly defines substance over style. In this game, you play as Justin, an ordinary teenager who is the son of an explorer who wants to be like him despite his mother’s objections. However, destiny proves that not only does he have to discover the mysterious origins of the world he lives in, but also save it from doom. Just like the RPGs listed here, it utilizes anime influenced designs of its time, and its English release has a pretty laughable dub but shouldn’t negate the game as a whole.

While the surface of the story is pretty generic for RPGs, it explores rich interactions and develops not only the characters individually but their relationships and dwells into other themes such as whether or not the ends justify the means. The game uses a more active battle system that allows more flexibility with the movements and attacks. While a good number of RPGs use a customization system, Grandia is more of a game that requires players to learn the characters individual abilities. The battle system may take getting used to but getting the hang of it is a pretty rewarding experience. Last, the music of Grandia knows how to evoke the emotion of the scenes and environments and sucks you into it.


4. Ys

  • System: Multi-platform
  • Publisher: Nihon Falcom, Victor Interactive Software
  • Developer: Nihon Falcom, Advance Communication Company
  • Release Dates: 1998

While many of you Western readers may not have heard of this game, it still managed to become a long-running franchise in Japan for the past 30 years! While each installment of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest are independent of each other and with Zelda running on its own bizarre timeline, Ys has always followed the adventures of Adol Christin, who always seems to have to save the world after waking up from a shipwreck.

As opposed to some mainstream JRPGs that are turn-based, Ys has never really been like that as its presentation has been more in-tune with the likes of Zelda where you can just freely strike at enemies. In fact, its third installment even takes a page from the second Zelda game by becoming a side-scrolling action adventure title. While it does use some elements typical of the JRPG genre, it has its other features that paved way for games outside of it as well. While automatic healing is normal for most games these days, Ys was one of the first games to utilize it and keep it for present releases.

Eventually, sequels would introduce other elements such as transforming into monsters to scare people and to combat enemies. While animated cutscenes gained popularity through Chrono Trigger’s PlayStation re-release, Ys’ re-release for the PC Engine became one of the first to feature them. So if you want a try one of the true original Japanese RPGs, Ys is your game and unlike Kingdom Hearts, you can play any installment and not be lost with its story!


3. Wild Arms

  • System: PlayStation
  • Publisher: Sony
  • Developer: Media Vision
  • Release Dates: Dec 20, 1996 (Japan), April 30, 1997 (US)

Another great anime style RPG Honey has to recommend is the cult hit, Wild Arms. Wild Arms just somehow manages to masterfully mix the Wild West and European fantasy. In addition, its soundtrack magically captures all of its emotional qualities. In this game, you play as Rudy, Jack, and Cecilia who have their own abilities and tools that offer a fun balance to this game in both battles and solving dungeons puzzles/obstacles. Rudy has the ability to use ancient firearms known as Ancient Relic Machines, or ARMs for short in battle, while he can use bombs to take care of obstacles. Jack is a swashbuckler who can use a grappling hook to get across rivers and other large gaps.

Last, Cecilia is your magic user and carries an endless supply of water in a jar. The graphics are diverse with its use of animated cutscenes, 2D overhead exploring, and 3D battles, which is pretty distinct compared to not only RPGs but games as a whole. While it may be only a cult game, the game still managed to produce sequels independent from each other so those of you reading can pick up any installment and enjoy it.


2. Xenogears

  • System: PlayStation
  • Publisher: SquareSoft
  • Developer: SquareSoft
  • Release Dates: Feb 11, 1998 (Japan), Oct 20, 1998 (US)

Xenogears is a masterful mix of the Old and New Testaments, Wuxia, Hayao Miyazaki’s fantasy, Jules Verne’s classic Sci-Fi, and mecha. Due to its distinct nature, the game creates so much depth that still holds up to this very day. However, it came close to not getting an international release due to its religious-based themes. While CG FMVs were the rage, Xenogears expresses its story through animated cut scenes, which is more consistent with the game’s graphics and character designs. It feels as if you’re watching an anime. A good number of players are likely to have issues with the dub, but the animation quality still excellently holds up.

The game still controls like your typical RPG with a time battle system but with two different styles when using mechs and when you’re not using them. These two combat features offer more diversity to how you can play the game.


1. Sakura Wars (Sakura Taisen)

  • System: Saturn, Dreamcast, PSP
  • Publisher: Sega
  • Developer: Overworks
  • Release Dates: Sept 27, 1996

Some of you may have seen the anime but did you know that Sakura Taisen was originally an RPG for the Saturn? If not, then that’s more than enough reason why it qualifies for this list. If you have seen the anime, it faithfully follows the first game. The original game feels like it’s three genres in one with elements of old-school tactical RPGs, dating sims, and visual novels. It’s about as Japanese you can get. During downtime as Ogami, the captain, you have the chance to interact with the characters and build your relationships with them.

When talking, you are presented with choices with how you react to them and they may respond in different ways depending on their personalities. The RPG elements are more like your typical Japanese RPGs, but the battles will be expressed through mechs that are more gear and steam oriented to reflect its time period of taking place in an alternate 1920s.

In conjunction with the more anime style RPGs listed here, this game also treats players to anime cutscenes. So if you want a game with a unique setting, a great cast of characters, and a bombastic soundtrack, check out Sakura Taisen whether you’ve seen the anime or not.

Ys-gameplay Top 10 Underrated JRPGs [Best Recommendations]


Final Thoughts

Some of these listed titles may have been forgotten by many casual gamers and/or non-RPG gamers, but they still managed to capture a long-lasting cult following. Due to how many quality JRPGs that were there to choose from, they all couldn’t make it into the top 10 so we would like to give some honorable mentions to Lufia II, Shining Force, Shadow Heart 2, and Popolocrois. If anything, this could have been a top 20. Other than that, how do you feel about our list? Would you like to see a second edition? Is there any quality underrated JRPGs from both modern and old school that you feel should be mentioned? If so, please leave a comment.

Ys-gameplay Top 10 Underrated JRPGs [Best Recommendations]

Writer

Author: Justin "ParaParaJMo" Moriarty

Hello, I am originally from the states and have lived in Japan since 2009. Though I watched Robotech and Voltron as a child, I officially became an anime fan in 1994 through Dragon Ball Z during a trip to the Philippines. In addition to anime, I also love tokusatsu, video games, music, and martial arts. よろしくお願いします

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